MAXIM ELPHBERG - XXVII
‘How are you, your royal highness?’
Leo was sitting in the gallery of the château of Zenda, swinging his legs abstractedly. He gave Welf a small smile. ‘I’m fine, thank you.’
Welf sat down by him. ‘No, you’re not.’ He reached over, took the boy by his shoulder and hugged him close.
The boy was being hugged a lot. He was also sleeping with his sister or with Pip, to counter his night terrors. ‘I never really knew her, Welf.’
‘You didn’t have the chance, Leo. But as the king will tell you, people who knew her a lot longer than you would say exactly the same. However, I’m sure of this: she did love you.’
‘“… in her way.” That’s what everyone adds when they speak of my mother.’
‘Yes, I suppose they do. Is there anything that will help you?’
‘Pip is good to me. He is very wise, you know. He told me that when his father died, he never could sleep either. I’m … I’m scared I’ll see her ghost, Welf. But really, I half hope I will.’
‘Bereavement does strange things to us, Leo. You’ll come to terms with it in the end, people do.’
‘I only wish I could cry about her. You should cry for your mother. Grandfather did. He is so very sad. And Welf … he told me I would have to accept that my father had arranged for her to be killed. Isn’t it terrible for your father to hate your mother so much that he has her killed?’
‘Yes, it is a terrible thing. But kings are not like ordinary men. Sometimes they’re very much better – like King Maxim – and sometimes they are very much worse – like, I have to say, your father. Perhaps history may help you, Leo. You’ve read your Suetonius. One of the most evil empresses in history was Livia, and yet her son Germanicus was among the noblest of Romans. Virtue cannot be inherited, as Juvenal said, it’s of the soul. I know already, Leo, that your soul is noble and your heart is pure.’
Welf had his arm round the boy’s waist and, before long, became aware that Leo was crying softly.
The funeral of Antonia Underwood, countess of Rechtenberg, was held quietly at Zenda. She was laid to rest beneath the floor of the mausoleum of the Thuringian dynasty in the castle park. Her son led the mourners, holding the hand of his sister. His grandfather, looking pale and old beyond his years, had the prince’s other hand.
The army in Berlin had arrested several soldiers and charged them with the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Thus far, no one had been accused of killing Antonia.
Order had finally been restored in the German capital, which was fęting Albert of Thuringia as the man who had crushed the Spartacist revolution. Shortly thereafter he returned to Ernsthof, where he had been allowed by the state government to resume possession of his suburban palace of Saint-Hildeburg. Chancellor Ebert was putting pressure on the state premier to restore a substantial portion of the dynastic estates.
Colonel Sachert had some intelligence that Albert was involved in counter-revolutionary measures in Bavaria. It was said that his next posting would be to Munich.
The morning after Antonia’s funeral, Gus asked Welf to see the king for him. ‘It’s about Marek.’
‘Yes, what’s happened?’
‘He’s not come back, Welf. He was with Antonia in Berlin and, so far as anyone can tell, survived the coup. But he’s not returned.’
‘Where is he, then?’
‘He has many underworld contacts in Berlin – I imagine you can guess what sort of underworld I mean. He can hide, and he has friends. He also had a good deal of money when he left. I gave him as much in gold as I could get my hands on at short notice.’
‘So why do you think he has not come back?’
‘People don’t know Marek as well as I do, Welf. They see the effete and quizzical manservant, yet Marek has a core of steel. He loved Antonia very much, more perhaps than I did. Her death will have devastated him, maybe even maddened him.’
‘You think that he …’
‘… will be seeking vengeance? Yes, I believe so. He is very much a Rothenian.’
‘What do you suppose the king can do?’
‘We have agents. They might be able to find him.’
‘Uncle August, no, they can’t do that. In the chaos that is modern Germany, it would be like finding an oak leaf in a beech wood. There are too many other things that our intelligence service has to do.’
‘But he should know.’
‘I shall indeed tell the king, make no mistake.’
Welf did. Maxim sat back in his chair. ‘So Gus thinks Marek is out there looking to take vengeance on Albert of Thuringia. A rather amusing thought at one level.’
‘Gus didn’t seem that amused.’
‘There is nothing we can do. We might attempt to alert the state government of Thuringia but, quite honestly, I see no reason to do so.’
‘There is the question of embarrassment if a Rothenian citizen makes an attempt on the life of the former king of Ruritania.’
‘I don’t see Germany going to war with us over it, not after the Allies’ reaction to the intervention by the Freikorps mercenaries in Mittenheim. No, that is a story that will play itself out all alone. We have our own concerns. The referendum will be within two weeks, and then …’
‘We have to plan for all eventualities, but let’s start with the negative ones. If the country decides for the republic, we will have to negotiate a settlement with the new government. I shall go quietly, but I won’t go empty handed. The county and estate of Hentzau are the right of my nephew, James. His inheritance must be protected, and that includes the industrial complex that has been developed in Eisendorf. It must be his when he is twenty-one.’
‘What about the royal estates?’
‘There is no excuse for them to be nationalised. Our economy came out of the war healthier than it went in, and it is now booming. I will insist on the Osraeum remaining in the hands of my trustees, though they may have the old palace for their president if they wish. The royal estates are enormous, and Zenda at least must remain to the Elphbergs. It’s where we began in Rothenia.
‘I envisage a trust whose profits can be employed for the upkeep of the royal family in exile or for schemes that will benefit the people of Rothenia. The perfect person to head it will be Anton Dönitz. He has a European reputation as a statesman, and is himself a very successful businessman. His integrity is beyond question.’
‘And Leo, sir?’
‘He and Pip are Underwoods, and Gus will have his plans I don’t doubt. But so far as Leopold’s royal blood is concerned, he is my ward. I foresee the trust taking responsibility for him as well as for the Elphbergs.
‘The interesting question is about Thuringia. Leo will be the duke after his father. Even though Germany is turning its back on its imperial and royal past, there may still be a title for him to succeed to, and he may be allotted other assets by the state government. Since Ebert has made such a thing about the sanctity of property, he has no choice but to award the former aristocracy compensation for its estates and castles. Leo may yet inherit a fortune of his own.’
Welf had been making notes. ‘I’ll type up a memorandum, sir, and send it to Nikki in the Chancellery. Is there anything else?’
‘No, Welf, thank you. But there is you. If the monarchy goes, so does your job. What will you do?’
‘I discussed this with Rica, sir. We decided that I’ll try for an academic position after finishing my project with Dr Gasse. I did a lot of work on it when I was in Ernsthof, and Gasse kindly sent on the notes. It won’t take long to get together a manuscript, which the university press in Strelzen will publish. I’ve got a fair amount of money put by, and father will be generous. We’re well off at Templerstadt because of the agricultural boom in the war years. With Uncle August managing father’s money, he’s put us in a state beyond comfortable.’
Welf did not mention that he had another project on his mind, if his employment in the royal household came to an end.
Ulrica decided it was safe at last to visit Ernsthof and have the long-overdue showdown with her mother. Frau Schmidt had taken against Welf as ‘a petty Slav squire’. Welf was impressed at her consistency. The fact that he was the grandson of a prince and confidential secretary to a king made not an iota of difference to his mother-in-law, a woman of no claims to lineage at all.
Frau Schmidt had refused to come to the wedding and taken no notice of the ‘Catholic brat’ who was her only grandchild. She had resolutely refused to visit Rothenia.
Ulrica sighed, she said she had to make the effort for Osku’s sake.
‘You think she’ll be generous with birthday and Christmas presents?’
‘You know what I mean. He has a whole tribe of Tarlenheims on one side, and just his grandmother on the other. I don’t want him to feel left out.’
Welf queried whether it was safe to visit Germany even now. But she argued that she carried a Rothenian passport and enjoyed the protection of an effective government. She could afford to travel in first class and stay in the best hotels.
‘I will take Osku too.’
‘Oh Rica, is that wise?’
‘Baby Osku may be the only way I can get through to her. She must want to see him … he’s so lovely.’ Osku at that moment was dribbling regurgitated milk down her skirt as she rubbed his back.
Welf realised she had a point, even if he was not persuaded by most of it. ‘Very well, then. But if there any problems, or if things get uncomfortable, you must head straight home, and call for help too.’
‘Yes, dear.’ Rica smiled blandly in Welf’s face, which she did when she had every intention of doing exactly what she wanted. Why had he married a strong-minded woman?
The following morning he saw them off from the station of Zenda, built mostly for the royal trains that occasionally halted there, though a stopping train connected to the nearby city of Zenden and the capital. Welf sighed and took the car back to the château.
The next couple of days were hectic. He did not hear from Rica, but that was not a big surprise. Communication with Germany was fitful. Telephone and telegraph were often out of action as the power stations failed and key workers did not appear.
But early on the Friday after his wife and child left, the phone in his room at the château rang. The palace exchange operator put through a long-distance call. It was difficult to hear, but he knew it was Rica trying to tell him something through the fizzle and crackle. He caught only two words clearly – ‘Marek Rustak’ – before the line went dead.
Welf was thoroughly alarmed. He went straight to the king and explained the call.
‘There’s only one solution then, Welf. You need to go to Ernsthof.’
‘We’re only marking time now, Welf. The referendum is going to dictate my fate one way or other. You need to get to your wife. Take the train. Oh! Take your brother, too. Better still, I’ll ring the airfield at Hofbau. He can fly you to Ernsthof in one of our new air transports. I hear they have an indoors.’
‘I’ve never flown, sir.’
‘Then it’s about time you did. I have a feeling it will be the defining experience of the twentieth century. You should read Mr Wells. There may be flying cities one day, and people may fly small aeroplanes the way we now drive cars. Henry can hop down here, pick you up at the airstrip beyond the park, refuel and pilot you on to the airfield at Ernsthof in a fraction of the time the train will take to make the journey. I’ll send orders to the colonel in charge at Hofbau. Since that’s something I may not be able to do for much longer, I shall make the most of it. So few men get the chance to play with real, live armies. I have been blessed.’ Maxim gave a genuine laugh, looking years younger.
‘Is this safe?’
‘Of course it’s safe. I’m still alive, aren’t I? I’ve been flying these things for two years now.’
‘I have to say it’s more comfortable than I expected – none of those windy, open cockpits you see pictures of.’
‘The Falke 7 is one of the new generation of flying machines, a double-engined monoplane. The framework is combined aluminium and canvas sheeting: very light yet rigid. The cabin and cockpit adjoin. The engine recycles heat into the cabin. This one’s straight off the production line in Eisendorf. They’re selling them even in the United States. Uncle August and the king will make a fortune out of this model, which is two years ahead of our rivals.’
‘Well, cast off then, or whatever it is you pilots do.’
Captain Henry von Tarlenheim rolled his eyes, then grinned. He invited Welf to sit in the co-pilot’s seat next to him, another innovation, as he explained.
Henry flicked switches, signalled to the ground crew outside, and the engines sputtered into life. The drone was soon very loud in the cabin. The plane began bumping slowly along the grass until it reached the rolled and flattened strip. Henry swung it around at the end of the long green lane to face west. As the engines roared louder, the machine gathered speed. Welf’s stomach did very odd things until it finally dropped towards his boots. My God, they were airborne!
He looked down. There below him were the treetops of the endless forest of Zenda. When the plane swung northwards, the lake and island of the royal château appeared beneath, toy-like and pretty in their smallness. The engine noise was now a low drone. He glanced across at the intent face of his brother. Knowing he was in safe hands, Welf settled back to enjoy the flight.
River valleys, woods and villages unrolled beneath them. It was a fine winter’s day, the sun bright in the cabin and the cloudless sky dark blue above them. ‘How high are we, Henry?’
‘About a mile and a half. If we were to go any higher, the cabin would need to be stronger and pressurised. It was what they did with the zeppelin gondolas. That will come. The Falke 8, which is already on the drawing board, will fly comfortably at 20,000 feet.’
They passed over Ebersfeld, looking like a model city below them. Henry pointed ahead. ‘Over those hills is Germany. I’ll need you to help navigate, Welf. I have the compass direction set for NNW, which will bring us to Bayreuth. Then we must turn directly north. That’s the train line you can see.’
There indeed was the line from Ebersfeld into Germany, with a tiny train racing along it, steam flying behind like cotton wool.
‘It all seems so peaceful from up here.’
Henry gave his brother a thoughtful look through his eyelashes. ‘Now you know why it is I like this posting.’
‘How soon to Ernsthof?’
‘At our present speed, and if we find the airfield, only forty minutes.’
‘Good heavens! It took half a day by train!’
‘This is the future of transport, Welf. One day soon they will be flying the Atlantic, maybe round the world. Now that’s something I’d love to attempt.’
After a brief pause, Henry voiced a concern that was very much on both their minds. ‘What do you think we’ll find when we’re in Thuringia?’
‘Trouble, I have no doubt, though I can’t guess what sort. But the sooner I’m with Rica, the better.’
In seemingly no time the plane was circling Ernsthof. There was the Furstenschloss sprawling along its ridge, and the river looping around the Old City. Welf glimpsed the lead roofs of the Ernestinum. Henry knew the location of the airfield, so they were shortly touching down for a landing. It was perfectly executed, if bumpy.
The plane taxied towards the control building and hangars. The field was large but not busy. A couple of young men lounging around in coveralls were the only people visible.
A long line of fighters was covered in tarpaulins. By terms of the Versailles convention, the former German air force was to be disbanded.
There was a sudden silence as Henry flicked off the ignition. He stretched and hopped out the cabin door. Soon he was engaged in a technical discussion with the ground crew, all of them clearly very curious about the new Rothenian plane.
Welf took his bag over to the airfield office. He found the administrator, who had to be bribed to call for a taxi. In the forty minutes before it arrived, Henry used a letter of credit he had brought from Hofbau to arrange for refuelling the Falke from the Ernsthof dump.
As the taxi bumped across the grass to the highway, Welf reflected that, by the time they reached Neuhof, they might just as well have caught the train. Making conversation he asked, ‘What’s the excitement in town, driver?’
‘Haven’t you heard, sir? King Albert has been shot! An assassin blazed away at him and his bodyguard – hit them both, he did.’
Welf and Henry sat up in their seats. ‘When did this happen?’
‘Yesterday evening, sir. Who’d have thought it? He goes through the entire war without a scratch and then this.’
‘Is he dead?’
‘I don’t know. The papers say it happened while he was riding in Saint-Hildegard Park as the sun was going down. They say it was Spartacists out for revenge for what he did in Berlin.’
‘Has anyone been arrested?’
‘The assassin ran off into the castle woods. The bodyguard managed to return a shot at him and he stumbled, so perhaps he was hit. People were too shocked to chase him. King Albert was on the ground, with three wounds in the chest.’
Welf and Henry looked at each other. Welf asked more questions but got no more information.
The car pulled up at the Schmidt house in Neuhof. Welf paid the cab and drew back his shoulders. He had to confront his mother-in-law.
The knock brought Rica to the door. ‘Welf! Henry! How did you get here so soon? Oh, thank God!’ She was in her husband’s arms in tears.
Welf was alarmed. This was not usual behaviour for his Ulrica. ‘Is Osku alright?’
She sniffed. ‘Yes. He’s fine. It’s just …’
Welf glimpsed a dark figure behind her. Henry saw it too, and had a pistol in his hand so fast he almost seemed to be one of those Wild West gunslingers so popular now in the cinema. Welf did not even know his brother had come armed.
‘Hands up! Now!’
A trembling voice answered, ‘I’d very much like to oblige, sir, but unfortunately …’ There was a rustle and thump as Marek Rustak slumped to the floor.
They picked up Marek and placed him on the sofa of the small front lounge. ‘He’s bleeding!’ Welf cried.
Rica nodded. ‘Get Henry to take care of it. He’s the soldier.’
Henry looked at Marek’s blood-soaked jacket with distaste. ‘We’d better get that off him.’ Rica and he stripped the man of his coat and shirt. Welf bundled them up and threw them through the door into the passage. Blood was bubbling out of a hole in Marek’s shoulder just above the lung.
Welf realised what had happened. ‘He’s the assassin. He shot Albert of Thuringia last night.’
Rica nodded. ‘He came out of the park woods and banged on the door around midnight. He remembered where I lived from his days in Ernsthof with Antonia. He still had the gun in his hand. Mother fainted when she saw him.’
‘Where is she?’
‘Oh … I locked her in the coal cellar. I couldn’t be doing with her hysterics. But tell me, I only rang you early this morning. I never thought you could be here so quickly!’
‘We flew here in a plane!’
Her eyes kindled. ‘How exciting! Then we may need to fly back.’
‘Where’s the baby?’
‘Asleep upstairs. He’s been an angel since his grandmother stopped upsetting him.’
She turned to Henry. ‘How does the wound look?’
‘Pretty bad. He’s lost a lot of blood. Wouldn’t he let you dress it?’
Ulrica fluttered her hands uncertainly – again, a gesture unusual with her. ‘No he wouldn’t. He just sat in a chair staring at the wall, with the blood clotting in his jacket. Moving opened the wound again.’ She paused, then resumed in a lower voice. ‘I don’t think he wants to live.’
Henry had secured bandages from the kitchen. ‘He can’t object now, anyway. Let’s try out my field-dressing skills.’
He made a wad of cotton which he bound tightly over Marek’s shoulder. A rusty red stain was soon spreading out from it.
Welf in the meantime was holding his wife to him. His mind was calculating the chances of escape with such a badly-wounded man. Dare they stay on till he was recovered? How long would that be? Marek needed a hospital, yet they could not risk taking him to one in Ernsthof. There was only the plane. The problem was that the airfield was likely to be watched. Even in these chaotic days, Germany still had a working police force.
Henry finished his first aid before looking up at his brother and sister-in-law. He had made the same deduction as Welf. ‘We need to get him out of here, and the only way is the plane. How can we carry him to the airfield?’
Welf was asking himself also whether Marek would survive the flight.
Henry reasoned, ‘We have to wait till after sunset. The plane will have been refuelled by then. If we can reach it, I can just take off, though night flying is dangerous and there will be no moon. But the main problem is how to get Marek out to the field. We have no car. Even if we could find a taxi, using it would be too dangerous.’
Welf looked at Ulrica. ‘It seems to me that we must ask for help. Do you know anyone?’
‘Lots of people, darling, but none with cars.’
‘All I can think of is Dr Gasse. But do I dare to involve him? I have no idea what his politics are.’
Marek was stirring weakly. As Ulrica went to tend him, Welf picked up the phone.
‘Yes, who is this?’
‘This is Welf von Tarlenheim.’
‘Welf ? Good heavens. Are you in Ernsthof? What are you doing here?’
‘There’s been a problem with a friend of mine.’
‘This is not a good time to be here, young fellow. Insurrections and assassinations: those Communists wanted to rename the Ernestinum as the “People’s Palace”. Would you believe it?’
‘Unfortunately I would. Helmut, do you think you could come to the house in Neuhof where I am. We have a serious transport problem. A very sick man needs moving.’
‘Certainly. You want me to bring my car? Why can’t you use an ambulance?’
‘Please bring your car. I’ll explain the rest when I see you.’
Welf met Gasse at the front door and took him into the kitchen. ‘Helmut, you and I have never discussed politics, have we?’ The man shook his head. ‘I rather thought not. Then now’s the time for me to explain to you what I was really doing in Ernsthof last year.’
Gasse’s eyes widened as he listened. ‘So Clara was right!’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘She told me she thought you were in the city for more than scholarship’s sake. But then she doesn’t trust foreigners of any sort.’
‘The point is this, Helmut. The man we have in this house is the one who shot King Albert. He’s a Rothenian friend of the late Countess Rechtenberg, the woman he believed Albert had murdered. He was taking blood revenge in the old Rothenian way. It was nothing to do with Spartacism or politics. But he is connected to King Maxim, and it would not do to have the man arrested and his background known. So I’m here to get him out. Will you help?’
Gasse looked at Welf in a troubled way. ‘I’m a curator, Welf, not a man of action.’
‘It’s neither I need, just a man with a vehicle.’
‘King Albert died this afternoon. So this fellow you are harbouring is a murderer.’
‘I wish I could say I was sorry, but Albert’s many acts of violence and treachery discourage much in the way of sympathy. I’m only sorry for his son, who’s an orphan now.’
‘Were you the man who abducted the boy?’
‘Good heavens! Welf, I took you for just a scholar of ancient languages, but you were a spy, an adventurer, and then you went off to be a royal confidant. Do you think you’ll ever find time to finish our book?’
Despite the circumstances, Welf laughed. ‘I think my days in high politics are numbered, Helmut. I shall have a lot of time for scholarship soon enough. So, will you help?’
‘Dear fellow, of course. I had no affection for the late King Albert, for so many reasons. My people are Jewish, and he and his family were vile anti-Semites. Thuringia retained penal laws on Jews till the union with the Empire. Though I don’t approve of murder, I wouldn’t want to see you in a German prison, dear friend. But I tell you what. I shall go to the Ernestinum and pick up our delivery van. Though it won’t be a comfortable ride, nonetheless there will be more room for the man and your friends, and he will be better concealed in the back.’
‘Excellent. When you’ve taken us to the airfield, you will need to return here and release my wife’s mother from the coal cellar, where she has been put for safety.’ Welf looked meditative. ‘On the other hand, if you were to forget that part for a day or two, I wouldn’t object.’
Gasse shook hands and went to get the van. Ulrica watched the street. Occasionally a police patrol went past. When the truck appeared, it looked dark and anonymous in the night-time outside the door.
Their patient was conscious now, though unwilling to speak, probably for the first time in his life. He was too weak to walk to the van, so Henry braced himself and carried Marek the short distance in his arms. Welf was impressed. They seemed to be unobserved, and the police patrols were mercifully absent.
Marek suffered a lot from the jolting ride to the airfield. He apparently wanted to talk now, but the noise of the van made that difficult. All Welf could do was sit with him and hold his hand. Henry rode alongside them in the back, while Ulrica and the baby were in the front with Gasse.
The airfield was silent and empty, apart from a light in the control building. When a man emerged at the sound of the van, Henry strolled over to say that he had picked up the cargo he was to deliver back to Strelzen and was ready to leave. Ulrica followed him, Osku sleeping in her arms, as further camouflage for their mission. Parking the van so as to obscure their activities, Welf and Gasse manhandled Marek with difficult into the cabin and did their best to make him comfortable.
Welf embraced Gasse as Henry and Ulrica got aboard, and promised to let him know of their safe return to Rothenia. He followed his wife and child into the plane.
Ulrica’s eyes were shining. ‘I always wanted to fly, darling. And here we all are, going up into the ether as a family. If only the circumstances were not so grim.’
Welf kissed his wife, amazed as ever at her coolness. If Osku inherited her strength of mind, the boy would develop into quite a man.
They landed just before dawn, after a perilous flight. The lights of the villages and towns of North Germany and Rothenia below them and the turning stars were the only things to give them a sense of movement. Henry kept circling the plane for an hour until the grey light that preceded dawn gave him his bearings. They landed at Hofbau, because a military hospital adjoined the airfield. Marek was again unconscious, so an ambulance was on hand to take him away.
The Tarlenheim family looked at each other. ‘We need to get home to Strelzen,’ said Welf. His brother and wife nodded. Henry had to report to his base commander, though first he borrowed a car to drive the others to the station.
Welf and Ulrica dozed on the train, so long as Osku would let them. A taxi took them to their flat. Welf wished he could stay there, but he had to go to the Osraeum. Once in his office he put through a call to the king.
‘What happened, Welf?’ He explained what he knew. ‘And how is Marek?’
‘I don’t know, sir. Not good, I think. I shall ring the hospital and find out.’
‘I believe I need to see him. You know why.’
‘Yes sir. I’ll join you in Hofbau, shall I?’
‘At the hospital tomorrow. I think he’ll last that long. With King Albert gone from the world, it seems a cleaner place all of a sudden’
‘My uncle finally has his revenge. To think it was Marek who did it, of all people.’
‘There’s a certain rightness about it. Now I had best talk to Leo. He needs to know he is an orphan ...’
‘… but not abandoned.’
King Maxim made a quiet appearance in Hofbau, the second city in his kingdom. His cars skirted the perimeter and drew up in the courtyard of the hospital, a modern airy building with many long windows. Marek was in a private room, a military police guard on his door.
He was asleep when the king arrived, so Maxim took a seat in the room’s armchair. All was quiet, apart from the ticking of a clock. Marek looked white and shrunken in the bed, his hair grey and unkempt. Knowing how fastidious the man normally was, Maxim took a bedside comb and arranged his hair tidily.
Marek’s eyes fluttered open as he finished. The king smiled at him. ‘Oh sir … that wasn’t necessary.’
‘Knowing you, I would say it was, old friend. Did you hear Albert died?’
Marek’s tired face kindled. ‘I killed him … good! So his excellency and my Toni can lie in peace.’
‘My lord Oskar.’
‘You loved him, Marek?’
The man took a while to answer. ‘Always. He was so beautiful a man, sir. He lit up everywhere he went. He was the first man who ever cared for me. He was the only man I ever loved … except one, maybe.’
‘What put it into your head to do that mad thing?
‘Do you condemn me, sir?’
Maxim looked into his heart, remembering all the suffering Albert of Thuringia had caused. Eventually he answered, ‘I am, for the moment at least, king of Rothenia. No, my child, I do not condemn you. You are a true son of my land.’
‘Your blessing, sire.’
The king blessed the dying man.
As Maxim sat by the bed in silence, there was a stir in the corridor and Gus Underwood entered. ‘So it’s all true, sir?’
‘Yes. Marek escaped Berlin and found his way to Ernsthof. There he assassinated Albert. Welf, Henry and Ulrica brought him home. It’s all done.’
Gus looked at his steward. ‘Oh, little Marezkcu,’ he sighed, and leaned over to kiss the man.
Marek smiled a little. ‘Now he kisses me … the story of my life.’
Gus took his hand. Marek seemed to sleep for a while. Suddenly his eyes opened and widened. The end could not be far away. Maxim had once been told by a priest that just before they pass, the dying will often seem to see something further away, something surprising.
‘Are you there, sir?’
‘Yes, Marek, Gus and I are here.’
‘He says … sir, he says not to despair … that your throne will one day be filled by another of your house. Sir … he says … he loves …’ Marek slumped and breathed his last.
Gus and Maxim looked at each other. The king smiled gently. ‘I hope that parting bit of the message was for you, dear Gus.’
Welf finished packing the remaining file box. He stuck a label on the side: ‘University Library’. The Osraeum was looking empty. The staff had mostly departed, and soon dustsheets would cover the furniture. His final job was to sort the king’s papers and despatch them to their various destinations. A single van was outside waiting for this last consignment.
He gazed out on Gartengasse. The city looked much the same as it always had. Two policemen cycled past, nannies in perambulators were walking under the trees. But this was the day the Kingdom of Rothenia passed into history. The referendum had been held under universal suffrage, and the people’s verdict had been all too clear. Maxim had bowed to the voice of the electorate and abdicated.
It had all been very organised and peaceful, as it was bound to be with men like Maxim and Tildemann involved. That afternoon, a regency would be proclaimed which would last till the general election returned a government. Then no doubt there would be a president and a republic, and Rothenia would never be the same again.
Maxim had accepted a settlement. He retained the Osraeum and Zenda, as well as the estates of the county of Hentzau and a large fraction of the royal domain, but would live abroad. He was buying a house in Surrey. Princess Maria would be staying on, as would Maxim's other sisters Katherine and Helena, to whose families the king had offered political asylum in the aftermath of the Great War. So also was Prince Leopold, who would remain with his grandfather at Hentzau.
Although the army had been very restless at all this, the generals respected the people’s decision. Maxim had trained them well to know that politics was not for them. They were to serve the people, even if they disagreed with their mandate.
Welf straightened, put on his coat and walked out of the palace. No guards or police were now on the gates. The Osraeum had lost its public status.
Welf saw off the last van and found his car. The time had come to go to Zenda and take his farewell.
It was midday when the car turned through the great gates of the château and headed up the long drive, where sentries were still on duty. Just past the front of the château, the regiments of the foot guards, the guard fusiliers, the Life Guards and the guard dragoons were lined up, standards and guidons at their heads. Welf’s was not to be the only sad farewell that day.
Welf came to the front doors as the king emerged wearing his marshal’s uniform. He was holding the hands of Leo and Pip, in their miniature regimentals. The queen followed, leading Sissi. Princess Maria and Tomas Bernenstein were also present.
There was a crash followed by long silence, as the guards presented arms and the cavalry and officers drew swords. Welf was surprised to see Marcus Tildemann appear at the king’s side. He joined them.
‘This is goodbye, Marcus,’ murmured the king. ‘I don’t think we will meet again, and I’m sorry for that.’
‘I also, your majesty. This land will be the worse for your absence. You were a great king, as great as any of your ancestors.’
‘But the people seem not to have appreciated the fact.’
‘One day they will, sir. They will learn to regret their decision. Yours was the steady hand that guided them through the greatest storm our nation has ever weathered. More storms will come, and then the people will realise how much they miss you. Perhaps we may hope that one day they will reconsider their decision.’
Maxim looked at Tildemann steadily. ‘The Crown of Tassilo will be seen no more this century, Marcus, nor will Rothenia have a king till many worse things have happened than have lately occurred here.’
Tildemann was startled. ‘Sir?’
‘You’re a pragmatic man, Marcus, so I doubt you will admit the existence of the sources for those last observations. But the predictions have been made to me, and I only repeat them.’
Maxim walked past the chancellor, to be met by the salutes of the general staff standing awaiting him. He said a few phrases thanking them for their heroic endeavours on behalf of the motherland, and for their loyalty to the crown. He told them they must continue to serve their nation as steadfastly as they had him.
An order barked out, the standards were dipped to the ground and the guns of the last royal salute banged out from the park. A ringing snap followed as every officer on parade broke his sword over his knee, and a clatter as the fragments were thrown to the ground.
Silently, Maxim, his wife and the children went to the cars. A crackle of gravel under rubber tyres marked the king’s departure into exile.
Welf, tears in his eyes, watched the familiar green cars depart. He had his role in life, now. Before he finished, the people of Rothenia would know exactly what they had lost with Maxim Elphberg.