‘Whatever had brought him to Scotland, it was clearly a secret venture unsanctioned by conventional channels of diplomacy. I sensed a game being played for high stakes, and against all odds fate had placed me in a unique position to find out what it was.’
Extract taken from Castle Macnab
By Robert J Harris
Published by Polygon
THE HUNGRY RIVER
How the ex-ruler of Germany came to be wandering among the peaks and glens of Denroy was a mystery of colossal proportions.
As the perceived instigator of the Great War, Wilhelm was the most hated man in Europe, perhaps in the world. To avoid being brought to trial for the atrocities committed in his name, he had been forced into permanent exile in Holland, forbidden to venture more than twenty-five miles from his estate at Doorn. It was as much as his life was worth to leave that refuge. Yet here he was – and by his own account he had not come alone.
A covert side-glance at my companion reassured me that he had not recognised me in turn – and why should he? At the time of our encounter, I was merely one more cog in a complex military machine. The Kaiser of Germany had more weighty matters on his mind than the face of a chance acquaintance at a period when the outcome of the war still hung in the balance.
At the time he had not struck me as a madman or a barbaric despot, as he was so often depicted. On the contrary, he seemed to me a man a shade too ordinary for his exalted position, who lacked the powers of intellect or wisdom needed to steer his country on a sane course.
Instead, through his own arrogance and ambition, he had uncaged a savage beast upon the world and he feared its rampage as much as anyone. My reflection then had been that I would not swap places with him for all the blessings of Heaven.
Whatever had brought him to Scotland, it was clearly a secret venture unsanctioned by conventional channels of diplomacy. I sensed a game being played for high stakes, and against all odds fate had placed me in a unique position to find out what it was.
I would have to tread carefully to avoid putting the Kaiser on his guard. I schooled my face to an easy smile and resumed our conversation. ‘So, Herr Hesselmann, are you in Scotland on business or to do a spot of hunting and fishing?’
‘For pleasure and relaxation, of course.’ He sounded quite genuine. ‘Shooting would be a pleasure, though it is years since I held a rifle. Now, however, I am hunting for those missing colleagues of mine. You say you have seen no one?’
‘Not a soul,’ I affirmed.
I noted that his English was quite perfect and barely accented. That was only to be expected, I supposed, given that his mother was an English princess, the daughter of Queen Victoria, and the young Wilhelm had been a frequent visitor to his grandmother’s court.
I decided to risk probing further. ‘Have you been long in Denroy?’
‘We arrived yesterday evening. We dined at eight and after drinks retired to bed. I confess I overslept this morning, as did my aide. I expect your Scottish air is responsible. When we rose we found the two who had accompanied us had disappeared, taking their car with them.’
‘Your missing friends are Swiss also?’
He blinked twice before replying. ‘They are indeed countrymen of mine. I sent my aide to the east to look for them while I explored to the west. Perhaps by the time we find our way back to the cottage they will have returned.’
To our left the glen dropped steeply to where the Shean river tumbled impetuously over a string-course of boulders. On the other side a jagged scar ran down the sheer hillside as though it had been defaced by a blunt and angry dagger. Down this defile a shimmering waterfall dashed headlong from the heights, racing for the torrent below like a frenzy of crazed hares.
‘I do enjoy your Scottish countryside,’ said my companion. Then he added in the tone of a guilty confession, ‘But what I am most looking forward to are some good Scottish scones. I had a Scottish housekeeper once who used to bake them fresh for me with jam and cream.’
Suddenly there was a disturbance among the tree-clad slopes ahead. Glancing upward, I saw a flock of startled rooks explode into the air just before three men hove into view on the road from the east.
The Kaiser gave a reflexive start at the sight then commanded himself. I realised how wary he must be of being recognised, but the great majority of people only knew him from old photographs in the newspapers. In those pictures his hair was darker, his moustache stiff and twisted upward, and he was always in a uniform bedecked with medals. No one who had not met him could possibly identify this modestly attired businessman with the imperious Prussian of old.
As the newcomers drew nearer, I saw they were dressed like huntsmen and all carried rifles. The foremost wore a patch over his right eye and a bitter scowl twisted the mouth beneath his bristling black moustache. At his heels came a large, flat-faced man with grizzled brown hair and a close-cropped beard beside whom walked a lad with a tangle of brown curls. He resembled the man at his side so closely, they were undoubtedly father and son.
Something in their purposeful stride sent a tingle of alarm down my spine. I stopped and placed my hand gently on the Kaiser’s arm to restrain him. He turned on me with an affronted glare and snorted peevishly. I realised he was not accustomed to anyone’s laying hands on him and immediately released my grip.
‘Those aren’t your friends?’ I enquired.
‘Indeed not,’ he replied. ‘I have never seen these men before.’
The leader of the strangers unslung the rifle from his shoulder and levelled it at us. ‘Gentlemen, you are trespassing on private land.’
‘As far as I am aware, this is no one’s property,’ I retorted.
The one-eyed man ignored my objection. ‘I must ask you to identify yourselves.’
‘My name is Richard Hannay,’ I told him. My sense of danger was growing, but I could see no alternative to holding our ground.
‘And I am Herr Hesselmann,’ the Kaiser informed him stiffly.
The glances passing between the three men told me they recognised the name.
‘And you are together?’ One Eye pressed.
‘Mr Hannay was kind enough to alter direction,’ said Wilhelm, ‘so that he might help me find my way.’
‘That won’t be necessary now.’ The lead huntsman shooed me off with a wave of his rifle. ‘You can carry on to wherever you were going, Mr Hannay. We’ll escort Herr Hesselmann to his destination.’
The Kaiser took a step back, sensing that something was amiss. He drew himself up with dignity and addressed the newcomers haughtily. ‘I do not believe that will be necessary. Your assistance is not required.’
‘I must insist.’ One Eye signalled his associates and they advanced on us with their guns at the ready. It was clear to me now that they knew exactly who Wilhelm was and that they intended him no good.
Snatching the alpenstock from the Kaiser’s fingers, I yelled, ‘Run!’
Perhaps for the first time in his life the former emperor proved as quick to obey an order as he was to give one and bounded off up the westward road.
One Eye grabbed the young man by the shoulder and propelled him forward. ‘After him!’
Castle Macnab by Robert J Harris is published by Polygon, priced £12.99
Another Christmas recommendation: The Return of John Macnab by Andrew Greig is published by riverrun, priced £9.99
‘Vladimir’s style is linked to enjoying the game. He likes to play beautiful chess.’