Piazza San Marco, Venice.
Monday 3 September, 1923.
Venice’s centre and everywhere is calm; life relaxes. People buy fish and hand-crafted lace. The rain from the night before has created a mini-canal across the centre of the square. On the south side a brass band plays ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and a man feeds pigeons. They hobble around the porch, under the tables of Caffe Florian, established 1720. Maximillian Bauer is in tight fitting clothes; clean shaven; unflinching. He looks just as he did at their first meeting. Trebitsch’s hair is cut short, flecks of grey and a few of white. He wears a chequered tweed overcoat and silk shirt, a gift from the Zhili clan. He thanks Bauer for coming. Bauer says nothing. He watches a boy loose a black painted wooden boat on the puddle. The child steps back and imitates the long swings of a gondolier to the amusement of Chiang and Suez. Neither man has been outside China before. They see the flapper girls with eyebrows done in India ink, the men with Broadway hats and moleskin coats. Everything is a wonder to them. Trebitsch’s eyes sink into the stained chequered tiles as a cripple hobbles past him with golden-tipped cane.
Finally Bauer replies. He says Trebitsch’s letter was timed so he had to come, or let them down. He smiles gently at the Chinese. Bauer asks Chiang about his military service. Chiang recounts how the provinces tried to remove the generals from politics, how Beiyang’s Premier made an alliance with Marshal Wu, then betrayed him. Bauer says he recognises every detail. His wartime government were the same. Ebert was the same. Their decisions have led to the hyperinflation currently destroying Germany.
“Yet isn’t this a fine thing?” says Trebitsch. “Two of the finest Generals and diplomats each – proven teams – gathered to make great international changes!! Italy, China – Britain’s weak spots – plans in action, unfettered!”
Trebitsch’s chair has one uneven leg which wobbles as he talks. Bauer cold-shoulders him. Trebitsch only wants to redevelop China, make her a first rate global power. Suez says he is sure they will all get along just fine. Bauer has a few ideas to secure the loans China needs. They have a map of Chongqing showing coal deposits and projected railway lines; banks and addresses; persons of interest, points of contacts and overheads. It is only when Bauer is planning with Chiang and Suez does Trebitsch see the familiar light in his eyes.
They spend a week in negotiations: mostly fruitless. Trebitsch insists on being known as ‘Ludwig Tolnai’. They travel to Vienna and Bauer’s friend, Professor Viktor Otte, joins them. He dresses in a chequered tweed overcoat. Trebitsch takes an instant dislike to him. He says Viktor is a pigeon-breasted fake of a man. On their last night they unwind inside Schweizerhaus, corner of Prater public park, a raucous bar. Suez is quickly intoxicated. Chiang and Bauer bond over war stories and Trebitsch watches as they drift from him. Viktor comes back with two beers. There are two more at the bar. Bauer smiles; he will get the others. Trebitsch says he will get his own. The band are loud they shout to be heard.
“A lager please! Max. You must be careful using my real name. The Chinese–”
“The Chinese are the only reason we are talking,” says Bauer coolly.
“Yes, yes, I betrayed you. And I am sorry. But put yourself in my shoes. Stephani would have had me shot!”
“He swore to me –”
“You were naive to re-employ him and it put me in an impossible position. No matter, it is all done. Let us think of the present, the future, rather than what has gone before.”
Bauer stares into him a moment then lifts the beers and walks away. They are calling for him. Trebitsch pays for his drink and walks around Viktor and Bauer, his chair set apart from the others. Suez has fallen asleep against Chiang’s shoulder. Chiang is offering Bauer a job as Wu Peifu’s foreign advisor. Trebitsch misses the toast. They will celebrate until closing time, says Viktor, but Trebitsch disagrees. They have an early start. Suez ought to be wakened. Viktor says Suez will be a rich young man soon and can sleep where-ever he likes. Trebitsch is not sure whether to scowl or laugh with them.
‘Ludwig Tolnai’ will not speak with some in Vienna. Some will not speak with him. Alone by Josefstadt Prison and courthouse, people are caught up in new drama, White International revelations long forgotten. Half a mile from there, Cafe Central – six moon chandeliers, satin drapes and marble pillars; a polished wooden tile floor and grand piano – the others are talking excitedly. Suez welcomes him. Viktor has come up with a list of potential investors in Berlin.
“The Hungarian embassy refused me a passport. And with this ‘Interpol’ operation.. it seems I will not be joining you all. There are men in Berlin who would have me jailed; or worse.”
“I see no reason why this should up-end the mission,” said Bauer.
“The Colonel and I will take his place,” said Viktor.
“I will stay here and try to make other contacts. I am sorry General Chiang.”
“Actually,” says Bauer, “If you are alone here, I do not know if I can protect you. Maybe you should explore our opportunities in Zurich.”
“It is neutral territory, more or less,” says Viktor.
Zurich is infernally quiet. He can feel the temperature dropping. He wears items of Asian jewellery and his Chinese skull-cap, to meetings arranged with dead-eyed men. ‘Maybe.’ ‘Perhaps.’ ‘We’ll see what can be arranged.’ The Foehn wind crosses the Limmat River and cuts to his bones. He sits at Confiserie Sprüngli turning his spoon, a gesture rumoured to lure rich old ladies. It doesn’t and he feels old and fat. He is not used to the seat next to him being empty. St. Peter’s, with the largest clock face in Europe, looks down on him. The city is built around Lake Zurich which has less swimmers every day.
On Heimplatz, a dozen streets intersect. He regularly sits at the covered tables of Pfauen Restaurant, known locally as Peacocks, stirs his tea and talks to anyone. His grasp of Swiss-German is poor. He is oblivious to their wishes for solitude. It is at Peacocks he opens the first letter from Bauer. Ludendorff is well, though spends too much time with Hitler. Scheubner-Richter, who introduced them to Biskupski, is positive he can smooth things over with Hugo Stinnes, financier of the Kapp Putsch. Bauer laments it will not to do much good. Money is worthless and he cannot see a future for his beloved country. Trebitsch looks up to the aeroplane from Dubendorf passing the Uetliberg mountains. Then it is gone. He knows for any German deal to pass he must remain outside it all.
He kicks a stone along Heimplatz, and another. He chain smokes, alone at the tables, watches trains around Zurich Hauptbanhof. The tea is low in the mug and the spoon scrapes against the sides. Near Peacocks is the Museum of Design, the ‘combination of aesthetic and functional qualities translating the themes of visual communication’. There are prints and illustrated books going back centuries. Looking closely at a drawing of an 18th century explorer he sees his face reflected in the glass. He is kicking more stones when he remembers Kreitner, the Austrian who discovered China in the 1870s. Kreitner’s son is in Zurich and at the apartment he writes to arrange a meeting. He writes also to Margarethe in Hamburg, and to John, in England.
Gustav Kreitner is in his late thirties: handsome with a bushy head of brown tufts. He is also a former Vienna police director. They laugh when it transpires he knew Trebitsch’s arresting officer. Kronenhalle restaurant is expensive but serves a veal stripped, sautéed, with tagliatelle, paprika and lemon juice. It reminds Trebitsch of Lajos’s kitchen in New York.
“Look, Mr. Kreitner. I am Trebitsch Lincoln. I cannot be humble about that. I do not have time for any flash-in-the-pan article. Still, the truth about my life be told. What say you to helping author such a book?”
In October mornings he is at Peacocks most mornings waiting his audience. Kreitner transcribes the tales of the Canadian cleric; the British politician; the American spy; the European revolutionary. The more Trebitsch hears from himself, on himself, the more his enthusiasm is stirred. He shares Bauer’s latest report, how the Chinese have been gifted a signed photo from his good friend Ludendorff. Details of his family are kept to a minimum. Margarethe cannot get a travel permit, or find the right clothes. One delay after the next. He writes that she should come at once or he will send someone to fetch his son.
It is nearly two months since he has seen Bauer. He embraces him on Hauptbanhof’s crowded platform. There is a meeting with Stinnes’ East Asiatic Department in Berlin that Saturday, but Bauer is not returning to Germany. Viktor will accompany the Chinese. Trebitsch will join them part of the way: he has to deal with family in Hamburg. His seething contempt for Viktor has not passed. On that journey he eyes Viktor suspiciously; undercuts the man; briefs Chiang and Suez to do without him.
Back in Zurich the following week, he finds two letters: Chiang says Stinnes has turned them down: they will return soon. The other letter is from Scheubner-Richter: Hitler plans a putsch in Munich. He finds Bauer packing a case and tells him to sit.
“You have seen the letter then? It means that Germany will rise,” says Bauer.
“No. No. It’s a second ‘Kapp Putsch’, I tell you. I think we two have had a little experience of these affairs, haven’t we?”
“You think that nothing will come of it?” Bauer asked.
“I not only think, I am certain of it. They will not stand by Hitler. They will betray him before the day is out. Perhaps it is not too late to send a telegram and warn Ludendorff. First though, we must deal with this Chinese matter.”
“I have been feeling out a company called Knolls,” says Bauer. “Their base is Stuttgart but they are also in Stammheim, about forty kilometres away.”
“Yes, I know Stammheim but I am unfamiliar with this bank,” said Trebitsch.
“They are a large industrial concern. I think just what we are looking for.”
They are shocked by Scheubner-Richter’s death and the arrests of Ludendorff and Hitler. Regardless, they open negotiations with Wilhelm Knoll. Wilhelm is a handsome man, well groomed and polite. ‘Ludwig Tolnai’ takes an interest in his family, his brother Walter in Stuttgart, and his young nephew, Hans. Wilhelm finds this endearing. Bauer is all business. If Knolls are willing to supply a loan equal to twenty-five million U.S. dollars, he says, they can have concessions to exploit minerals and operate transport across China. Wilhelm expresses concern over the amount. ‘Tolnai’ says the concessions are exclusive, a virtual monopoly. Wilhelm will confer with the board of directors.
A week later Chiang, Suez and Viktor join them in Stammheim. While they wait in the conference room, Trebitsch steals Bauer’s attention. He has a new photo passport under the name ‘Hans Trautwein’. Bauer laughs. Trebitsch hides it before Viktor can see. Over several hours Wilhelm and his people go over contracts with them. Finally, an agreement is reached. Bauer slaps his chair and rises, shaking hands with everyone.
That evening they celebrate. When asked how he did it, Trebitsch advises Chiang that it all happened with Viktor out of the picture. The next day, Suez tells Viktor his services are no longer required.
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