Ministry of Defence, Buda Royal Palace, Budapest.
Tuesday 24 August, 1920.
From the back of the room, Trebitsch surveyed the twenty men. The Bavarians: Georg Escherich, Captain Ernst Röhm and General Ludwig Maercker. Next to Escherich, the Hungarian Regent Miklos Horthy with hook nose and dossiers; his Minister for War, Gyula Gömbös, fat faced with cubist hair casting many shadows. There was the Foreign Office secretary for press, Tibor von Eckhardt: handsome, intense, even when he smiled; and Count Furstenburg, talking about how his coal mines, breweries and hotels were at the service of the White International. Georg Escherich was nodding as if he’d heard it before. Next to Trebitsch stood the butcher Pál Prónay and his guardsmen, Giczy and Faber. They watched the Bavarian soldiers carefully. Stephani, who had served as their liaison, was between them. Commander Pabst liaised with the Russian, Colonel Zjankhine, and they stood behind Biskupski. Opposite them, the dead-eyed Austrian, Krauss, Captain Ehrhardt and Colonel Bauer, who looked like a baby with a moustache in the shape of a razor. Who was not at that meeting was also of interest to Trebitsch.
“Perhaps if Bavaria had responded to this alliance at the outset, you and your representatives could grasp these facts,” said Trebitsch.
Colonel Escherich was taken aback. Half the room stroked their guns.
“Lets get back to strategy. When we occupy the industries in the Ruhr we’ll draw the working class behind us. We must not underestimate them again,” said Bauer.
“That’s all very well but Austria running out of time,” said Krauss. “Communist attacks are on the increase. New borders are suffocating us out of existence. By the end of the year the Slovenians are going to take Carinthia and they are going to snatch the Burgenland.”
Prónay put a finger at Krauss. “Burgenland is ours,” he said.
“It’s majority are Austrian,” said Krauss.
“And it’s majority want to be Hungarian. We will defend them,” said Prónay.
Gömbös put his palms up. “We will. But Herr Escherich and I decided our border issues, all of them, can be left to later.”
“Agreed,” said Bauer. “But we must rise in Austria first, and soon, to stop the Red threat. Captain Ehrhardt, can we be ready for November?”
“Our effectiveness is dependent on our Bavarian allies. So far Marinebrigade Ehrhardt have worked well with Ogresch, and Orka.”
“The Kapp Putsch may have freed Bavaria but this is not a provincial matter,” said Trebitsch.
“Trebitsch, mind your manners,” said Stephani.
Scar-cheeked Captain Röhm turned a glare on Trebitsch. “You seem to have a stick up your ass, Trebitsch Lincoln.”
There was a little laughter through the room. Trebitsch raised his voice above it.
“Very well then. Why is General Ludendorff not here? Colonel Bauer, myself and others sent countless letters to Munich. Where is he?”
Biskupski, Krauss and a few other heads nodded in agreement. Escherich turned his old face like he was turning the world itself. Scavenging eyes took in the beginning and end of Trebitsch, and Escherich breathed out one quick laugh. He tapped his right fingers and rotated to Horthy with a smile.
“Regent, I suspect Lincoln won’t accept it coming from me. If you wouldn’t mind?”
Horthy was a man ever in a hurry, pressed to see through important matters while there was time. This urgency secured his position as Regent for Life, and even now his charm impressed.
“Minister Escherich brought a letter to me from General Ludendorff. In this letter, he re-affirms his desire to support White Russians in a unified action against the Red Peril of the East. The General wishes he could join us. However, he makes clear if he were to come here he would be recognised, and thus make our work more difficult.”
“Ogresch are in complete agreement with General Ludendorff’s sentiments,” said Escherich.
“What about the Italians?” asked Prónay.
“What about the Italians?” asked Pabst.
There was another ripple of laughter around the room.
“Ay? Ay? You see de Italians?” laughed Pabst.
“General Niscembene showed us their barracks. I am optimistic they will help,” said Trebitsch.
Bauer said, “We asked for two thousand men to maintain neutrality. And to keep out the Slavs. Krauss and I think they could be positioned at the Austrian frontier: Carinthia, Villach..”
“So, it would appear we have Poland surrounded. Except for the absent Italians and only two men from the Russian delegation,” said Escherich.
“General Wrangel is unavailable… commanding in the Crimea. But his army and mine will kill every Communist in Russia,” he said.
“And my battalions shall accelerate the purges here at home,” said Prónay.
“And give the foreign press more ammunition against us? Caution, Commander,” said Horthy.
“On that matter, why are the papers already talking about our presence here?” asked Röhm.
“This is not helpful when I’m trying to bring my men into Austria and Czechoslovakia,” said Ehrhardt.
“Respectfully, Colonel Bauer, perhaps you should not be appearing in full uniform? The German Embassy lodged a complaint against your presence with the Foreign Office,” said Furstenburg.
Trebitsch sized up his friend, shook his head and bowed, determined not to take the remark personally. “That is unfortunate,” he said. “The Colonel has acted as a symbol of our military strength while we wait for Ludendorff. Tell me, when will he come act? He is the perfect choice for Supreme Commander of the whole campaign.”
“The General will not be serving in that capacity,” said Escherich.
“We are still choosing who will lead the Austrian revolt,” said Krauss.
The Regent’s eyes sparked and his hands pressed the table firmly. “Hungarian soldiers will not be under orders from any general of the old empire,” he said.
“It seems some are playing games. Ludendorff was due in some capacity three months ago! Do you want him for yourselves, is that it?” asked Trebitsch.
“That is childish nonsense,” said General Maercker.
“Yes. Shut up, Trebitsch,” said Stephani.
“General Krauss has championed Austro-German unity. I feel he would be a fine choice to lead,” said Escherich.
“We do not wish to be annexed in a new Habsburg monarchy,” Horthy said.
“Oh, but Regent, what matters an international revolt when Bavaria is feeling insecure?”
Stephani’s face boiled red. He slapped his hand hard on the table. “Enough, Trebitsch! You will apologise at once!”
Prónay slid his hand down to his pistol. Röhm fixed him with a glare, and did the same.
“I am sorry. You Bavarians seem to be going your own way,” said Trebitsch. “I heard several times today of Bavarians trying to fix up a separate agreement with the Hungarians behind our backs. And they have only just got here!”
“Oh come on! Simple miscommunication. Our problems with the Hungarian cabinet, for example, is not representative of the men in this room,” said Krauss.
“What problems?” asked the Regent.
“We will negotiate with whomever we like,” said Escherich.
“Minister. This is our central committee. Everything should go through here,” said Biskupski.
“Let’s not have this descend into regional nonsense,” said Bauer.
Under the table, Trebitsch’s feet were furiously running on the spot as he spoke. “Oh, you are right, you are right. It looks to be a fiasco, a second Kapp affair. I will be out!!”
“There is more at stake here than one man or one region,” Ehrhardt told him.
“Yes! Yes! And I am sick of his small time pettifoggery. We were promised Ludendorff would be here for the laying of the foundation stone. We were promised Ludendorff. I demand that Ludendorff show!!”
Trebitsch’s bouncing feet suddenly burst into full stomping and the noise shook the room.
The train hammered along the tracks. All thunder was coming to Vienna, as it had to Budapest. In the carriage, Trebitsch spun the corner of an envelope in his hand, elated with righteous fury; terrified and sweating. It had been tossed his way so casually.
“There’s some bills to sort through,” Ehrhardt had said.
While Ehrhardt was washing up, Trebitsch found one not yet posted. It was from Bauer to Stephani, and he saw his own name and read:
‘Trebitsch Lincoln has rendered excellent service, and it would be a despicable act, Herr Stephani, to do what you propose. Baron Prónay in particular condemns your action. Neither Prónay nor I would have any hesitation of any kind in removing from our path a disloyal and treacherous colleague. But neither of us would ever contemplate the assassination of such a loyal and meritorious colleague as Herr Lincoln.’
The train had screeched the last half mile back to Budapest. The same malfunction as en route to Vienna. Trebitsch took it as a sign. Passengers both times were flung forward and later, talked about when, or if, it would stop.
“There are two hundred thousand marks in Central Post Office in your name,” Trebitsch told Bauer at the apartment. “But without a passport I fear you are lost.”
“Put that aside for one moment. I have something to say.”
The black bags hung heavy under Bauer’s red eyes. “Herr Stephani wants you eliminated. He wrote to Prónay that you were compromising the movement. Prónay came straight to me with the letter.”
“Oh, I know! Yes. I found out. Captain Ehrhardt went white when I confronted him. ‘I was on no account to show you that letter.’”
“I give you my word as a Prussian officer that you are in no danger. Nobody shall harm a hair on your head. Stay with us.”
Trebitsch glared at him: just another sack of meat in military garb. A disappointment. Where was his friend, Bauer, the toughest man in the room? Trebitsch had never seen him so flushed.
“See this thing through to it’s successful conclusion. Don’t take a tragic view of the incident.”
“One month. And Stephani must be gone.”
“I shall dismiss him immediately,” said Bauer.
On the train to Vienna, Trebitsch glared at him some more and let the rumbling of the carriage’s bowels work their illness. Luis Engler was with them, and Ehrhardt met them in the hotel lounge.
“A military dictatorship is nearly established here,” Ehrhardt said.
“The Reds rule by controlling food supplies to the large towns so we should encircle production areas,” said Bauer.
Trebitsch doubled over in the chair, and let out a gritted scream.
“Trebitsch, what’s the matter?” said Bauer.
Engler gently pushed his head. “He’s burning up,” she said.
He ran for the bathroom. Bauer, Ehrhardt and Engler stood at the toilet door for some time. Inside, the earth erupted. A flush, a washing of hands, then another scream. Beneath the ground, meteors rained on rivers. Trebitsch was stamping his feet. Then, panting followed by another flush, a washing of hands, another scream.
“Poison,” he gasped.
“What?” said Bauer.
“Food poisoning. I cannot go tonight.”
Over the week ahead, a white light acid tore like a slow flamethrower flickering at his stomach. His belly wrestled to break free, like one of a mouse on a glue board. Everything was inflamed. He rolled on the mattress. His hands pushed against the wall. If he pushed it far enough he could find the oxygen. A hideous smell flared from electrocuted guts. From bed he saw his eldest boy John: seventeen, tall and pale with dim adventuring eyes. He could hear the boy inhaling the future. Roger Casement appeared, took tall strides around them. His bubbly clumped hair and sunset moustache were the colour of ash and as he drew nearer, he and John faded from view. Then, he heard Bauer, wishing him better health.
“We will need you to up and about, to design a comprehensive social and economic programme for when the cities are in our control.”
Trebitsch dreamed he was looking down on a hill, where the rain was heavy and the ground strewn with waste. Then he awoke in darkness, alone, and could only make out his large travel bag. It lay in the corner, bulked up with all their papers, and seemed to stare. His body felt as if it had been strapped to a train engine. In the second week the nausea was replaced by chills, like hail on the bone. It was so hard to breathe he dreamt he was wearing a collar. Reverend McCarter was at his bedside, come to bless him.
“This fever will be your salvation,” said McCarter.
“The advance against Russia can begin as soon as Biskupski has built up his contingents out of former prisoners of war,” said Bauer, before he switched out the light and left.
Then, another voice: Trebitsch Lincoln M.P., who walked out of the darkness in full military dress.
“Well this is a double whoopee,” he said.
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