MAXIM ELPHBERG - XXVI
‘Yes, your majesty. It would be easier if you were to take up residence in the country for the next month or so.’
‘I take it you have a reason for the request.’
‘I don’t want the monarchy to be too prominent an issue in the coming elections, sir. It would be better if you were out of the capital. I’d rather the anti-monarchist groups didn’t have a place where they could demonstrate against you.’
‘You don’t think they’d make it all the way to Zenda?’
‘Not in this weather, sir.’
King and chancellor smiled at each other. There was much mutual esteem and affection between the two men, as Welf clearly saw. It was so different from the Beck years. Business between the Tildemann government and the Osraeum was briskly and efficiently carried out. The king’s suggestions were listened to, and then debated. The reconstruction effort was already under way and making great progress.
Personal relations to one side, however, Rothenia remained troubled. Mittenheim was in the army’s iron grip and the country was clear of mercenaries, so much was to the good. Another positive thing was the huge surge of monarchist support that had occurred in Husbrau after the battle of the Spa Hills. The cities, however, were rife with factions and caused continuing concern.
Although Beck’s party had fragmented into unimportance, its right-wing thuggery had left a violent legacy. Following the invasion, the more extreme socialist groups had begun manoeuvring to gain control of the urban areas and push for radical reforms. Tildemann’s SDP was powerful amongst the bourgeoisie, which at least made him more electable, given the present state of the vote, but would it be enough to secure him power in the long term?
The chancellor concluded his business, bowed and was ushered out of the king’s office. When Welf returned from this errand, he found Maxim studying the report that had come over from the Ministry of War that morning.
‘Sachert has been thorough,’ the king observed.
‘As one would expect.’
‘So my would-be assassin was a German national called Wolpert, a native of Bavaria and allegedly an associate of Ebert.’
‘Not even a Rothenian assassin.’
‘How is it that so many attempts on the lives of Rothenian kings are made by Bavarians? Wasn’t it a Bavarian who pulled a pistol on Henry the Lion as he was holding his levée in … when was it, Welf?’
‘It was 1718, sir.’
‘I thought you’d know.’
‘The king ran him through with his own sword, sir.’
‘That was justice. Now I’ve got to work out what to do with this man.’
‘Shouldn’t he be hung? He was up to his eyes in the murder of Colonel Reuss in Mittenheim.’
‘Oh, he isn’t going to get away from justice. However, justice is the thing here. Interestingly, any attempt on the life of the sovereign brings the perpetrator under the authority of the Lord High Marshal of Rothenia, the prince, your cousin, Franz of Tarlenheim. Will you bring down that copy of the Almanac de Roritanie?’
Welf was intrigued. The Almanac was the bible of Ruritanian nobility and history, a list of genealogies and dignities with massive documentary appendices. He levered down the enormous quarto volume, bound in calf leather and stamped with the royal arms. It had been created by a commission of scholars under the direction of the Baron Kristof zu Strelfurt-Barchezy, Historiographer Royal at the court of that academic king, Henry II.
Maxim knew what he was looking for. ‘Here you are, Welf. The Etablissements of the court of Rudolf II. Read that out.’
Welf polished his glasses and pronounced in a barbaric form of legal French: ‘Un traitres ki faitz un tentative sor li vie de sa majesté li roi doit estre traitz dans li cour du dan comte de Terlenhem haut marescal du roiaume de Roritanie ou ses juges delegats.’
The king smiled and translated, ‘Any traitor who makes a bid to kill his majesty the king shall be tried in the court of the Lord Count of Tarlenheim, High Marshal of Ruritania, or before his judges delegate.’
Welf was all of a sudden aware that there was a dangerous edge to the king’s smile. ‘Sir, what do you have in mind?’
The smile stayed on the king’s lips. He pulled out a folded piece of parchment from his cluttered desk. ‘Here we have a commission under seal from His Serene Highness Prince Franz IV of Tarlenheim, Lord High Marshal of Rothenia, addressed to his beloved cousin, Welf Adolphus Hugo Maria von Tarlenheim zu Templerstadt, authorising his said cousin to act as his judge delegate in the matter of the man Stefan Wolpert, who on 3 December 1918 did unlawfully and treasonably make an attempt on the life of his Most Steadfast and Pious Majesty, Maxim, King of Rothenia.’
‘You’re handing this case over to me? Why?’
‘Because you’re an intelligent fellow, Welf. But more than that, you know what lies behind all this. There would need to be a lot of explaining if the job was given to someone else. Now take yourself off to the military prison on Liebgardgasse, where Colonel Sachert is waiting for you. You have complete authority on this matter. No jury or counsel is involved. You may settle this as you wish. There is no appeal from your verdict.’
‘Even if it is death?’
‘Should you think it necessary … yes, you may have him shot. Though I would need to confirm the sentence.’ The king laughed. He was doing a lot of that lately.
‘How is my sister, sir?’
Maxim gave a great burst of merriment. ‘We shall be attending the Opera tonight. Do you think people are noticing?’
Welf laughed in his turn. Maxim had driven straight over to Hentzau after the failed attempt on his life, fallen to his knees on front of Helga and asked her to marry him.
‘Helga darling, if it had not been for your brother, I would be a dead man, so I rather think I am honour bound to offer to take you off his hands.’ Still wearing his marshal’s uniform, he had said this grinning up at her from the carpet.
She had melted on the spot. There had been tears and laughter, and the court gazette had announced the engagement the next day, with the marriage to be held within a fortnight. However, because the king had evaded death on two occasions in quick succession, and Helga said she was not willing to risk a third attempt, she insisted the ceremony be performed at the chapel royal in the château of Zenda.
‘So you will be the first Tarlenheim to be queen of our land,’ Welf had said to her after the couple came into the lounge, hand in hand, to face delighted friends and family.
‘I shall try to live up to the responsibility, brother.’
‘And Pip and Sissi?’
‘They have a father again, a man who is the most decent and admirable substitute for Paul I can imagine. They know Max was their father’s best friend. Not only is Pip utterly devoted to Max, it also means he’ll see more of Leo, who’s the king’s ward.’
‘How will the king cope with an instant family?’
Helga smiled. ‘Very much as he copes with everything else, Welf dearest.’
When the soldiers brought Wolpert into the interrogation room, Welf was surprised at how well-tended the man appeared. His shirt was collarless, but white and clean, and he was shaved and groomed. He was not even cuffed. The military policemen moved to the corners of the room, while Sachert took a seat beside and slightly behind the prisoner.
Welf read out his commission, then looked over his glasses at Wolpert for a while in silence. The colonel had told him it was a good tactic.
Eventually he took his spectacles off and polished them, saying, ‘You are Stefan Wolpert, a citizen of the German Empire …’
As Welf expected, he was interrupted. ‘The Soviet Republic of Germany!’
Welf smiled mildly. ‘Not the Soviet Republic of Bavaria?’
Wolpert spat out, ‘There is only one German people, and we are just one soviet in the commonwealth of the proletariat: Bavarians, Prussians, Mittenheimers and Ruritanians.’
‘And don’t the Rothenian Slavs have some say in this?’
‘Their destiny is their own, and no concern of mine.’
‘Rather odd thing to say, Herr Wolpert, as your presence in Rothenia and your ambitions seem very relevant to the Rothenian people. Let us get on with this.’
Welf shuffled his notes and looked up. ‘You were in Mittenheim on the day Governor Reuss was murdered in his residence, along with two police guards.’
The man stared at Welf. ‘I deny it.’
‘Herr Wolpert, I was with Colonel Reuss that very day. You broke into the entrance hall of Government House and harangued him, before the assault that took his life. I saw and heard you. You seemed to be very much in charge. Please don’t deny it.’
Wolpert sat and glared.
‘Now let us review your recent past. Your name is Stefan Tristan Wolpert, born in Munich in 1888 and educated at the University of Tübingen. Your father is a customs officer and, at the outbreak of war, you were a high school teacher. You were conscripted in 1915 and fought for six months in the Eastern theatre, strangely enough in the army corps of the former king of Ruritania. You were singled out for a commission into the intelligence corps and were attached to King Albert’s staff. Why do I find all this so very suspicious?’
He looked coolly at Wolpert for a while. The man was definitely flustered. Colonel Sachert’s connections and sources were the best, and he had employed them to the full in this affair.
‘Very well, then, let us continue. Tell me when you first arrived in this country.’
‘I cannot recollect.’
‘Tell me then when you joined the Communist Party of Bavaria.’
‘Er … I believe it was last year.’
‘Odd, as the party has no record of any Stefan Wolpert.’
Wolpert stared at Welf. ‘How can you possibly …?’
‘The Rothenian intelligence bureau was founded by my uncle, and I can assure you that its reach is very wide and its sources very deep.’
Colonel Sachert grinned through his moustache at Welf over Wolpert’s shoulder.
‘Herr Wolpert, we think we know the following things about you. You are – or were – an agent of German army intelligence. We know you have close links with the former King Albert. We don’t believe for a moment that you are a genuine Communist. We are pretty sure you were sent to Mittenheim nine months ago to energise the revolutionary cadres in the province and push them towards insurrection.
‘We also believe that, when Voydek crushed the revolt and expelled the Freikorps, he defeated a far deeper plan than he knew. Albert was making his final bid to recover his kingdom. When it failed, you made a last desperate attempt to serve your master by assassinating King Maxim. With the king dead, the Thuringian prince Leopold would have come to the throne, which might have fulfilled his father’s purposes, at least in part.’
Wolpert merely stared at Welf, saying nothing.
‘This is what is going to happen, Herr Wolpert. There will be no public trial, as far as you are concerned. Your sentence will be proposed by me and confirmed by the king and council. You will disappear into the fortress of Kaleczyk, where you will live out the rest of your days. You will be given no pardon and no release. You are a young man, and will have several decades of tedium and solitary confinement to endure.’
Wolpert’s face tightened. Welf looked him over. Wolpert was a vital and decisive man, vigorous and good looking. Even in confinement he radiated the charisma of a natural leader, a man who lived – as so many of his sort did – for the danger of espionage and conspiracy. He had been ready to die for his master. Now the only prospect for him was the living death of prison, and it unnerved him. The remainder of his life would be contained within the stone walls of a cell, maybe for forty or fifty years. Welf could almost feel sorry for him.
‘That is all there is to say. You can tell us nothing that would mitigate your sentence. We know already everything we need to know about you. The sentence will be communicated to you formally tomorrow.’
Welf got up, while Sachert put his hand on Wolpert’s arm.
‘Wait!’ the man cried.
Welf raised an eyebrow as he paused in gathering his papers.
Wolpert stumbled on. ‘I’d rather be shot than kept in solitary confinement. I would go insane.’
‘There is no negotiation.’
‘But what if … what if I could give you some information that might change the terms of my imprisonment?’
Welf looked hard at the man who had tried to kill his friend and king. ‘We know all we need to know.’
Wolpert had a pleading edge to his voice. ‘But there is this. I know what King Albert is planning to do in Berlin. If I tell you, you must agree to keep me as an ordinary prisoner, with access to other people and news of the outside.’
‘It would need to be significant information for that to happen.’
‘Oh it is.’
‘No, you cannot go to Berlin.’
‘But sir! Someone has to!’
‘No they don’t. And you certainly cannot.’
Welf stood up, then sat down again.
Maxim stared at him over clasped hands. ‘Look, Welf, the German capital is in chaos. The people are starving and penniless. They are being promised the earth by the Communists, who are backed up by the guns of the naval marine division. The bourgeoisie is in terror of losing everything. The streets are full of discharged soldiers, prey to every incendiary looking to recruit an armed gang: monarchist, Spartacist, reactionary or revolutionary. What could you do?
‘Meanwhile, I need you here in the run-up to the New Year’s election. Focus on Rothenia, not on Germany. We will make contact with her, never fear. Now, go and take this discussion paper over to Parlement Platz. The minister is expecting it.’
Welf got up, bowed and left. He had to be content that the king would indeed have someone get in touch with Antonia. He knew it was not in Maxim’s nature to leave a task half done.
Welf decided to walk from the Osraeum, as he often did. He could have used a palace car, but liked strolling the streets of Strelzen far too much to keep his distance from them in that way. Besides, he could stop off in Osragasse 65 and grab a coffee with Rica and Osku.
His family was on the floor of the flat, Rica smiling down at Osku, who was on his back amongst a pile of cushions, sucking happily away on the ear of a floppy cloth dog. Welf joined them, and for a while tickled his son’s tummy, which tended to get chuckles.
Shortly Magda brought in the coffees, so the two contented parents took a seat on the sofa, watching Osku wriggle around on the floor.
‘Did you say anything to him?’
‘Yes, I volunteered to go to Berlin. He said no.’
‘Good. Darling, this is not your problem.’
‘Then whose is it?’
‘Her father’s and the king’s, I would say. But really, it is her own problem. She went swanning off to Berlin to play the revolutionary. Nobody made her do it. Though I have only met the woman once, she seemed very self-absorbed. She’s not my idea of a mother. I feel sorry for that poor boy of hers, and he’s such a sweetheart too.’
‘I long ago gave up judging Toni. But Colonel Sachert has confirmed what Wolpert said. On his return to Kassel, Albert of Thuringia was despatched to Berlin. We have to assume he’s there organising and co-ordinating those troops loyal to Ebert’s government into a Freikorps. There are tens of thousands of them in the city already.’
Following their escape from Thuringia, Welf had kept very little of what he learned about public affairs from his Ulrica. He valued her advice too highly. So he had told her what Wolpert had revealed, that King Albert was being sent to destroy the Spartacist movement in the capital and intended to make sure that Antonia Underwood shared the same fate.
Wolpert, it seemed, had spent some time spying on Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s circle. He had also been ordered by Albert to have Antonia closely watched and her habits recorded. What was most worrying was the detail which Wolpert was able to reveal about Antonia’s movements and life in Berlin, where she was currently sharing an apartment with Rosa Luxemburg.
Welf decided to change the subject, which he did with a vengeance. ‘Now, about your mother’s visit to Strelzen …’
The election campaign developed rapidly in Rothenia. It was soon apparent that the socialist parties believed they would be able to make substantial inroads into parliament, now the Christian Democrat Party had fragmented. Tildemann’s SDP was also going to do well, so much was clear. What was not clear was what the balance of parties would be.
The issues became more evident as December advanced. The extreme socialist parties intended to abolish the monarchy and proclaim a people’s republic. The SDP also wanted reform, although it was a change of constitution they sought, not a republic.
Maxim was very much an issue, as it turned out. ‘Beck’s poodle,’ and ‘Maxim the crowned absence,’ were two of the posters which appeared around Strelzen, along with declamations that he was an enemy of the people and an obstacle to reform.
As the royal motorcade left the city for Zenda, Welf reflected sadly on the forthcoming vote. But at least he had the consolation now that Maxim was building up a core of inner happiness he had lacked before. For this Welf was truly grateful.
He had been put in the same car as Leo and Pip, who always behaved themselves for him. Since Rica and the baby were also riding with them, they were even less prone to be any trouble. Like most boys, however, they were fascinated by babies. Rica was left to field some very leading questions, while Welf gazed studiously out of the window.
Rica was looking quite harassed when they pulled into the long drive leading up to the royal château of Zenda. After they disembarked, she hissed, ‘You’re going to answer all those questions for Osku, believe me.’
‘I thought you did rather well,’ he replied with a smile. ‘Especially the one about why boys have handles on them and girls don’t.’
With a sniff she turned away to carry Osku, bundled in shawls like a parcel, up the wide steps on to the great terrace.
The château was garrisoned by a company of foot guards, from which an honour escort had been selected. With standard flying, it was drawn up in front of the main entrance. A regimental band struck up the national anthem. Maxim, Helga on his arm, inspected the guard and blessed the captain, who went down on his knee to kiss the royal hand.
Welf had charge of the two boys. ‘Can we go and explore, Welf?’ they pleaded.
‘Only if I can come too.’ That seemed acceptable. He led them out through the main range of the château and on to the rear terrace.
‘I say!’ Pip hissed. Out across a placid lake, connected by a long stone causeway, was a jewel of a medieval castle, white in the sunshine of the winter afternoon. The boys whooped as they ran and danced over the bridge. Although the heavy oak door was closed, they quickly discovered an open wicket. They raced into the hall, then up the spiral staircases finally to appear high above Welf on the battlements, shouting and hallooing. It took them half an hour to be satisfied they had penetrated every dungeon and chamber.
They returned across to a house awakening as servants opened rooms and started fires in hearths. The château was still cold, however, and most of the royal household was gathered in the lounge, which the housekeeper had already aired and warmed.
Pip ran to sit between his mother and Maxim, while Leo took his usual place on his grandfather’s lap. The boys were full of what was to be their Christmas holiday, with the added attraction of the wedding to be held on the auspicious octave of St Nicholas.
‘Why is it such a good day for a wedding, sir?’ asked Pip.
The king smiled. ‘It’s traditional – or at least it was in Queen Flavia’s day – for the monarch to offer a marriage dowry on St Nicholas’s Day to one poor bride in each of the royal cities of Strelzen, Ranstadt and Glottenburg, with the condition that the king or queen become godparent of the firstborn of the marriage. I brought the custom back, and as a result there are now five Maxims out there, and four Maxenes.’
‘And as another result,’ added Pip’s mother, ‘birthdays are becoming quite a significant charge on the royal exchequer. But it’s a fine custom, and of course makes Niklaustide a lucky time for our marriage.’
Leo was wondering about something else. ‘What are we going to do in the wedding, sir?’
‘You may wear your uniform as colonel of the Guard Dragoons, and help Pip carry the queen’s train … the queen being his mother, remember.’
For some reason, that was the first time it had sunk into Pip’s consciousness that his mother would be queen of Rothenia. His mouth hung open.
Maxim gave a small laugh. ‘Oh, and you may wear your uniform too, Pip.’
Pip sat stunned. ‘My uniform?’
‘Leo is a prince and duke. The king’s stepson must also have a rank, especially if his mother is queen. You, young Pip, are about to become a prince and count, but I’m not sure of what yet. However, I’ve already arranged for you to be colonel-in-chief of the Dragoons of Neder Husbrau.’
‘A prince! A uniform! Oh my!’
‘Yes, and it’s in your room. Go and try it on.’
The boys darted off with a whoop.
‘And you, Sissy Underwood, are to be countess of Templerstadt.’
The girl smiled up at the king from her mother’s lap. ‘Good. Pip can’t boss me around then.’
‘Exactly. That’s what your mother thought. The title was your grandfather’s idea.’
Welf felt obliged to observe, ‘There are some issues of precedence to be worked out here, sir.’
‘Yes indeed. But I’m sure they will sort themselves out. I think I’ll call Pip prince of Murranberg. Gus wants to adopt him as his heir for the county of Eisendorf, too.’
Maxim, for all his focus on his impending marriage, did not neglect the political situation. He had a radiotelegraph set up in the château so he could be in constant contact with the general staff. Despatch boxes and newspapers came every day from the capital. Welf talked regularly with his opposite number in the Chancellery.
The election was having a calming effect on the nation, in the sense that a lot of internal conflicts were being left to simmer while people waited for the results and the changed circumstances they would bring.
In the meantime, the situation in Berlin was worsening. Marek Rustak had resumed his old office of intermediary with Antonia, and had succeeded in communicating the danger she was in, though it had had little impact on her, from the account Gus had received. But as the city drifted deeper into chaos, communication all but ceased.
On the eve of the wedding, the nobility of Rothenia began arriving, together with a lot of the royalty from the more adjacent parts of Europe. The ball before the wedding was a sparkling affair. Welf and Ulrica watched it all from the upper gallery of the ballroom in the company of HRH Leopold von Thuringen, duke of Ranstadt, and HSH Philip Underwood von Tarlenheim-Eisendorf, prince of Murranberg. The boys were preening themselves in their uniforms, Leo in green and gold, Pip in green and silver.
Ulrica kissed them both. ‘You look adorable, the pair of you. The photograph they took of you will be well worth putting on our mantelpiece.’
Leo was bouncing up and down for another reason than his fancy dress. ‘Look! Look! It’s her! It’s Vicky!’
Along the gallery was walking his sister, who had arrived with the crown prince of Denmark, her cousin. Leo ran at her and was scooped up and spun around. ‘My, Leo, how you’ve grown. You were never as heavy as this. And how smart you are, darling.’
Leo did the introductions, and Welf, Ulrica and Pip all bowed. ‘So, Herr von Tarlenheim, you saved my brother from Ernsthof.’
‘I and my wife, royal highness,’ Welf replied.
‘I would very much like to hear that story.’
They spent the next half hour satisfying the princess’s curiosity. As they were winding up, a dark-haired and rather handsome fellow in an Italian uniform appeared at her shoulder. She introduced him as the prince of Salerno, grandson of the last king of Naples. It did not take much to see that the two were romantically attached. Vicky quickly kissed her brother, then led her young man down to the ballroom.
Welf smiled at the colourful throng below. ‘I don’t think the world will see many such sights again,’ he mused.
‘Yes, it’s already like looking through a window into a different and lost age. But I’m glad to have been part of it all the same. Osku is going to grow up in a colder and less happy place.’
‘I sense that too, darling. But for now, let’s enjoy ourselves while we may. I think Henry’s over there, attempting to seduce several women at once. Ambitious even for him. Come along, highnesses, or I’ll pull you by your ears.’
‘Oh Uncle Welf!’
They found Henry not too far from Count Hugo and Countess Sissi. Welf and Rica left the boys with Pip’s grandparents and went to join the whirling couples in polkas, gavottes and waltzes. And so they danced away the night, the last such Rothenia would see.
The wedding was of course gorgeous, and was celebrated by the cardinal archbishop of Strelzen. It was followed by a coronation mass, during which Maxim placed the small diamond crown on the head of the high and mighty princess Helga Augusta, most pious and steadfast queen of Rothenia. She duly took the homage of her country’s nobility, headed by Leo, who placed his hands in hers and, having said the proper words, against protocol climbed up, hugged and kissed her. The prince of Murranberg did the same when he swore homage as the latest of the Rothenian princes, in his due place before the dukes and counts.
The king and queen were to honeymoon quietly at Zenda. In truth this was not the time for Maxim to leave the country, as he well knew.
With the Christmas season upon them, there were boar hunts and shooting for the men. It was five days before Christmas when a messenger caught up with King Maxim at a hunting lodge deep in the forest – the same one in which Rudolf V had been assassinated by the count of Hentzau over half a century before. Though burned down in 1862, it had been rebuilt.
Welf was with the king, as were his brother Henry and Tomas von Bernenstein. It had been a cold and unsuccessful day’s hunting, and they were relaxing over a glass of whisky. The sound of a motor-despatch rider outside caused a sudden ominous halt to quite a lively conversation. Henry had been commiserating with the three married men about their lack of freedom, in which he was still rejoicing.
‘And how is Madame Celestine?’ Welf had asked with an arch look, to be answered by a blush from his brother.
Welf went to meet the rider at the door. He took the despatch and gave it to Maxim, who sat perusing it for a while in silence.
Eventually he looked up. ‘It’s getting worse in Germany. A national assembly has defied Ebert and the army, and has nationalised key industries. Here’s the bad news: The socialists have tried to set up a people’s militia to rival the army. Albert’ll never stomach that. There’s going to be civil war.’
‘What about here, sir?’ Henry asked.
‘You mean, will it spill over into Rothenia? No, not at the moment, though a Communist government in Berlin will make things difficult eventually. It will no doubt attempt to support our own Bolsheviks the way the German high command tried to support Beck’s reactionaries. It will lead to renewed instability.’
Welf pondered. ‘Then should we help Ebert?’
Maxim shook his head. ‘We want to stay well out of it.’
The day before Christmas brought a heavy snowfall, which turned Zenda into a magical place. The moat froze solid and the surrounding forest was filigreed with frost.
The boys and young men were out shouting and snowballing each other, as also, it had to be said, were Princess Maria of Rothenia and Princess Victoria of Thuringia. Maxim looked down from his study window and smiled. Despite the weather, General Franz von Tarlenheim had made it up from the capital with a couple of aides.
The general was saying, ‘The situation now is this. Ebert was captured by the Bolshevik element of the naval division, then Albert had him rescued and hustled off to Weimar. Now there is fighting between the Spartacists and Albert’s loyal Freikorps. Dresden, Bremen, Brunswick, Ernsthof and Hamburg are also in chaos. There are gun battles on the streets of Berlin, and Antonia’s friend Liebknecht has declared the Spartacists to be the Communist Party of Germany.’
‘Right in the thick of it. There are pictures in the Communist press of her haranguing crowds in front of the Residenz. She’s called for a national convention on the equality of women. She and Luxemburg are as thick as thieves.’
‘She must know that Albert is in control of what army there is in Berlin. She should be alarmed.’ Maxim sighed. ‘But the exhilaration of being in the heart of a genuine revolution is going to sweep her on, to whatever fate she will meet.’
‘I need your authorisation to seal the German border, sir.’
‘Is that necessary, Franz?’
‘I’m afraid so, sir. There may be a surge of refugees from Saxony and Bavaria. There is no knowing.’
‘Have you talked to Tildemann?’
‘He agrees. He is having enough trouble containing our own Communists to want to have more flooding in. It’s Christmas Eve, and the election is in just over a week’s time.
‘Now then, how is my niece?’
‘Her majesty the queen is very well, thank you.’
‘You seem happy at last, Max.’
‘Yes, do you know, I think I am. And she came with a ready-made family.’
‘Pip venerates you, Max.’
‘I love the boy almost as if he were mine. He’s so much like his father.’
‘And he’s yet another Tarlenheim prince too.’
‘That had to be. But the press has turned it against me, needless to say. “The dominant clique of Tarlenheim hangers-on at court” as the Rohte Flag calls you and your relatives.’
‘The election will sort it out.’
‘One way or another.’
It was late on Briskesfest – that is, New Year’s Day – in Rothenia. Welf had been despatched to the capital, where he had already voted in the Fourth District election – for the SDP candidate, as it happened. He was now busy in his own office at the Osraeum with a team of undersecretaries, collecting and processing information about the unfolding election. He kept in constant touch with the Chancellery and Zenda.
The voting turnout was high, despite the icy slush in the streets and the threatening clouds. But as well as the election, Welf was also observing with growing anxiety the situation in Berlin. News was arriving that a Communist revolution was in full progress. The Red guards were behind barricades in the streets and Freikorps soldiers and armoured cars were firing back. A radio link was still open from the Rothenian embassy in Berlin to the Ministry of War in Strelzen. The general staff was sending bulletins across to the Osraeum for transmission on to the king.
‘We’re within two hours of the polls closing, Nikki,’ Welf said down the phone to his opposite number in the Chancellery. ‘Any indications?’
‘The Communists are celebrating victory already in Hofbau, which is far too precipitate of them. But they have undoubtedly done well there, and also in Zenden. The capital is less easy to call. Tildemann has always been popular here.’
‘And the provinces?’
‘The New CDP will likely enough mop up votes in Mittenheim and Merz, but Husbrau and Glottenburg are mysteries to the commentators.’
‘When will we know?’
‘The picture will be clear by eleven, apart from the rural areas.’
Welf rang off and returned to his calculations and briefing papers. He did not like the continuing anti-monarchist demonstrations in the main cities. While not yet large, they were significant. The Communists and left-wing socialists were uniting around the issue of the monarchy and the 1856 constitution.
The winter night fell quite quickly, the streets freezing into an ice rink. Welf skidded his way around to Osragasse for a hot bath and a change of clothes. His flat was empty, as Ulrica and Osku had stayed on at Zenda.
By ten he was back at his desk for the first results. Within an hour the capital had declared for the SDP, even the Fourth District. The only exception was Starel Heights and the Altstadt, where an independent conservative had stood.
At midnight, the industrial cities apart from Eisendorf had gone Red, as had Mittenheim, much to everyone’s surprise. Tirolen and Glottenburg were SDP, while Husbrau looked to be tending towards the CDP.
With dawn growing in the sky, the telegraph gave the concluding results. Tildemann’s party had the largest voting bloc, with 63 MPs. The Communists and anti-monarchists had 48 MPs. There were 15 independents and 16 CDP MPs.
Maxim talked it through with Welf wearily. ‘I can invite Tildemann to form a government, but there are enough hostile MPs to make sure that nothing gets done.’
‘Nikki from the Chancellery says that Tildemann is ready to form a government, but that you won’t like the conditions.’
‘I can guess. A constitutional referendum is the only thing capable of bringing independents over to Tildemann. So that is what he will announce when he forms his government.’
‘Exactly, sir. He proposes to be with you at Zenda tomorrow, weather permitting.’
‘What’s the news from Berlin?’
‘Sketchy. There’s machine-gun fire in the streets. It’s bad, there’s no doubt about it. But at least it looks as though Rothenia is going to miss out on its revolution. The election saw to that.’
Maxim and Welf were in the study at Zenda working through the proposals for the referendum.
Welf put down a newspaper. ‘The Communist leader, Slezny, has made it clear than a new constitution will mean a republic.’
‘Yes, I can see it might. But first there must be a referendum. Tildemann will propose multiple options, of which a republic will be one. He can’t get out of that, though I think he wishes he could.’
‘The army will not be happy either.’
‘Then the soldiers know which way to vote. They are citizens like everyone else.’
‘It seems unfair. The referendum is about you, when it comes down to it. But you can’t campaign or put your case.’
Maxim smiled. He did a lot of that now. ‘It’s the way of the world, Welf.’
‘Sir, I have to ask. Since the night just before the attack on Mittenheim, when you sent me with that package to Hentzau, you have been curiously resigned. May I ask why?’
‘You may, and such are the times, I will go so far as to answer you. Since I came to Rothenia, I have been dogged by a … presence.’
‘Count Oskar,’ Welf guessed quickly.
The king raised his eyebrows. ‘Yes indeed. Your late uncle seems to retain some interest in what happens in the land he loved so well.’
‘I’ve felt it too.’ Welf described his and Rica’s experiences, and especially the duel with Albert of Thuringia. ‘It was as if another voice was speaking with my mouth. When I thought of it afterwards, I realised I said some strange things. I never remember being told the grass was wet when Oskar was killed in Bila Palacz, so why did I mention it? I can use a sword well, like any Tarlenheim, but I don’t ever recall disarming anyone with the style I used for taking the sword out of Albert’s hand.’
Maxim recounted his own experiences. ‘He’s been at my side though barely perceived on several occasions, yet that night he came to me in a true vision. It was dim in my bedroom, with a candle burning, but not dark. I was dozing and woke to find a celestially handsome young man sitting in one of the easy chairs, feet up on a side table, smiling just like in his portrait. He was in a green dragoon uniform.’
‘He was buried in that uniform.’
‘Really? They say he was quite an alarming man in his lifetime, but he seemed very kind to me.’
‘My father told me the kindness was always there, under the drama, which is why he loved Oskar so much. What happened?’
‘He got up and sat next to me on the bed. It was all so real. I felt the bed lurch towards him. He took me round the shoulder and kissed my hair, and I felt so … safe and cared for. Odd, because you know how chaotic things were that day. I just relaxed into his shoulder, and there was that smell again …’
‘The attar they make at Medeln. It was the fragrance he used; the nuns prepared it specially for him. He was a favourite in their cloister. The abbess when he died, Mother Maria Osra, asked that he be buried in their church, though the political circumstances made it wiser to put him in the family mausoleum. What happened next?’
‘He said that my duty was done, that I had been a worthy son of a great house, and that the … package you carried must return to Hentzau for a future day and a dark hour when it will be needed. He said I must believe that I will not be the last Elphberg to rule this land, but the time was coming when the king must go among strangers once more. “The people have forgotten what the Crown of Tassilo means,” he told me. “They will learn again.”
‘I asked him when I will recognise the end of my time in Rothenia. He said Marek Rustak would tell me.’
‘Marek Rustak! Uncle August’s steward?’
‘I can’t think of another. Then he kissed my hair again, the candle flickered and went out, and I was alone. I don’t imagine I will see him again in this world.’
Welf frowned. ‘Marek’s in Berlin with Antonia.’
And with that name, the phone rang. Welf picked it up and found he was talking to the undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry. He passed the receiver to the king.
Maxim listened intently before handing the receiver back. He had gone pale. ‘Luxemburg and Liebknecht have been arrested and murdered. The insurrection is over in Berlin and Ebert’s government is back in control.’
‘Found dead floating in a canal, her head beaten in.’ Maxim sighed. ‘Fetch the queen and Leo. He must be told. Have the dean of the chapel say masses for her soul, and alert the Berlin embassy that her body must be returned to Strelzen.
‘Then get a call through to her father at Hentzau. When I’ve told Leo, I’ll tell him too. He’d better come here. He’ll want to be with the boy.’