The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
Martin found the prospect of Christmas holidays distinctly unexciting, and felt disloyal when he did. But he had few friends in the Berkshire village where his mother had settled after his father’s death. He knew they were there only because a relative had provided a cottage on very favourable terms. His mother’s principal source of livelihood was an annuity which kept them in food and clothes and very little else.
Mrs Tofts eked out her income with some writing she did for women’s magazines, and Martin had learned to look forward to the post that brought cheques from the publishers. It tended to lead to treats like railway trips to Bournemouth, or to Reading for the toy shops.
Martin was a little embarrassed by the fervour of his mother’s welcome at the village station. He feared a group of local boys had heard her say how much she had missed ‘her darling little Marty’. But he hugged her back, startled to find that his chin fitted between her shoulder and cheek in a way it had not done before. He had apparently grown.
His mother noticed some changes too. That was perhaps what led to a visit from the archdeacon in the week after Christmas.
The Venerable Joseph Tofts was Martin’s father’s eldest brother, who was in fact twelve years older than the late Captain Tofts. Martin found the man difficult to talk to at the best of times, which he found odd, seeing as how the archdeacon had seven children – three sons and four daughters. You would have thought he’d therefore had plenty of practice in communicating with the young.
Martin stood in front of the seated archdeacon for the interview in the little drawing room. ‘Now my boy, did you make good use of your first term in Medwardine?’
‘Yes sir, rather!’
‘I take it that means you did. What works of Latin and Greek are you reading?’
Martin told him, and also informed him of his progress in Divinity and History.
The archdeacon continued, after first clearing his throat. ‘Your mother thought I should say a few words to you … ah, generally. You will be fourteen, she tells me, in the new year.’
‘Yes sir, on the first of February.’
‘Good, good. Now you are clearly growing. And … er, with growing come certain changes. The world looks different, you see.’
‘Good. And indeed, you become different too, you see?’
‘I think so, sir.’
‘Excellent. Your feelings … they change too. You begin noticing things … er, that you never did before.’
‘Really, sir?’ Picking up the man’s embarrassment, for which he could not account, Martin began to wonder where this was leading.
‘Indeed. All sorts of things, but girls … you notice them.’
Martin, who had attended all-boys’ schools his whole educational life and had little contact with the other sex, apart from his mother and the school nurse, had to confess to himself that he had not noticed girls in the slightest.
‘It’s important that you approach the subject of girls with caution, you see.’
Martin assured the archdeacon earnestly that he would do exactly that. The archdeacon look relieved and took his departure from the cottage. Mrs Tofts thanked him fulsomely, though for what, Martin could not quite understand.
By Christmas Day Martin had relaxed into home life. Over their turkey dinner, he was beginning to talk to his mother about his new friends.
‘My goodness, and you think your friend Leo is a royal prince? Darling, I’d be really nervous about talking to a boy like that.’
‘Oh, Leo is a real chum, Mama. He mucks in with us all. You’d never know he was the son of a king and a duke and all that, let alone a royal highness. He and Pip keep it to themselves, though I think some of the prefects are aware of it.’
‘King Maxim of Rothenia. Now he’s a very noble and romantic figure. I followed his doings breathlessly in the Times for years. He seized back the throne for his dynasty and restored peace to Rothenia. He kept it out of the war, which proves what a wise man he is. But he gave up the throne without a fight when it seemed his people wanted it that way. He lives in England now.’
‘In Surrey, at Belsager Priory where Leo and Pip are now.’
‘I’m sure you’re right. There’s just been a book published about King Maxim by his former secretary. It’s caused quite the sensation. It’s the translation of the original Rothenian version. It’s been in all the reviews. I’ll get a copy for you, darling.’
‘I wonder what having a king for a stepfather makes Pip; it means his mother is a queen.’
‘I expect they made him a count of something.’
‘It would seem right. Pip and Leo are like brothers. They don’t look much the same, but they’re like I imagine brothers should be. They stick up for each other and are always having a laugh together.’
‘Darling, if your father had lived, we had hoped to give you a brother or sister, you know.’
‘Oh, it’s alright, Mama. I wasn’t complaining …’
But his mother’s eyes were by now glistening.
‘Mama, I don’t mind, honest.’ He picked up his wineglass and pledged her, ‘To absent friends.’
Mrs Tofts gave a pale smile. ‘To absent friends. Darling, your father would be so proud of you.’
Now it was Martin’s turn for his eyes to fill.
‘Bombarding that regiment there!’
‘It’s out of range.’
‘No it isn’t. Give me that ruler. There you are, see? It’s under a yard.’
‘It won’t be easy. You’ll need 10 and over to score, and that’ll be the maximum of two casualties … I don’t believe it! Double six! How can a Thuringian have the Elphberg luck?’
Pip removed two toy soldiers from his line of Ruritanian grenadiers. The boys had taken over the gallery of Belsager Priory, where they were currently refighting the Battle of Luchau. Pip was King Henry the Lion defending his realm, and Leo was Marshal Saxe. A green sheet had been stretched over piles of books illicitly taken from the library. Blue chalk marked the course of the river Starel, while Pip’s collection of model railway houses made up the town of Luchau.
The battle, fought with rulers and dice, raged across the floor that Boxing Day – or Stefansfest, as it was known in the household of Maxim Elphberg, former king of Rothenia. Eventually, Henry the Lion triumphed as history demanded. Marshal Saxe conceded defeat with a certain amount of grace, being able to withdraw safely sufficient of his troops to claim some sort of moral victory.
From the chair next to the fireplace, where he was reading his book or dozing, Leo’s grandfather smiled and applauded. ‘Very eighteenth-century and civilised of you, boys. Which reminds me. At your age, Rothenian boys should be receiving tuition in arms. I wrote to Medwardine that I wanted Leo to be in a fencing class. The fee is additional to your bill. And what about you, Pip?’
‘Rather, sir. I wonder if Tofts will too.’
‘Tofts? That’s the friend you’ve made, yes?’
Leo smiled. ‘He’s a brick, is Tofts. Did I tell you how we became friends, Grandfather?’
‘I believe so. He was very rude to you, then did the manly thing and came to apologise. He sounds a good fellow.’
‘That’s it, grandfather. He’s only got his mother, rather like Pip, but his mother lives as a widow. I don’t think they’re too well off, but you don’t like to say anything. Could he come and visit, sir?’
‘I don’t see why not. But if he did, your secret would be out.’
‘We don’t like not telling Tofts the truth about us. I’ve had to come near lying sometimes, and I don’t think it’s right.’
‘All credit to you for that, Leo. If you believe you know the lad, trust him. After all, it will emerge sooner or later. The house prefects and staff know, and one day soon someone will say something. Then there’s James, of course. Do you have much contact with him?’
Pip snorted. ‘Uncle Gus! He’s in Longley. I only saw him once last term.’
‘I talked to him,’ volunteered Leo. ‘He was a bit distant.’
Gus Underwood nodded. ‘Ah! He’s a boy with some grievances, though not about you I think, Leo. It’s poor Maxim, whom he somehow blames for being king. It’s all James’s mother’s fault really. The countess has no understanding of the way succession custom works in Britain or Rothenia. She was determined almost as soon as her husband was dead that Maxim was cheating her son out of his birthright.’
Leo gave his grandfather a quirky look. ‘I thought it was the house of Thuringia which was supposed to have a grudge against the Elphberg-Rassendylls.’
Gus chuckled. ‘You don’t really seem to care, Leo.’
‘No. I’m a loyal subject of King Maxim’s. Pip and I know what he did for our country. I’d fight for him in his army.’
‘Me too!’ Pip looked fierce.
‘My brave boys. I believe you would do just that, if Maxim had an army nowadays. But James’s mother thought Maxim was stealing his nephew’s estate away from him, and had usurped James’s claim to Rothenia. James seems to have been taken in by her.
‘In fact, Maxim saved the family fortune. He reversed all his elder brother’s bad decisions and sorted out the mess in the London estate. Not just that, but he rebuilt our interests in Rothenia and, despite the fall of the monarchy, preserved all James’s inheritance.’
Leo nodded. ‘Tell us what he did in Germany, grandfather.’
The old man smiled. ‘As you know, Leo, the German government restored some of your family’s estates in Thuringia. But they were run down because of the war, and the castle in the Black Mountains was almost derelict. Maxim used some of his Rothenian fortune and agents to rebuild and redevelop your agricultural and rural estates. He made investments which have set you and your sister up very nicely.’
Pip smiled. ‘That’s funny, Uncle Gus, because mother said that you were the one who did it all.’
Gus shook his head and looked innocent. ‘Not at all, my dear. I don’t know where she got that idea.’
‘And she said Uncle Anton was very generous too.’
A pang passed briefly across Gus’s face. ‘Anton was an extremely generous man, who loved the pair of you very much. He was your mother’s godfather, Leo, so you were his family as far as he was concerned. He has left you a very rich boy indeed.’
Pip gave a smiling pout. ‘And me a pauper, uncle?’
Gus laughed. ‘You know you’re very well taken care of.’ He got up, saying he was off to take Sissi for a walk.
The boys went back to their battle. Eventually Pip looked across at his cousin. ‘I think we should take Tofts into our confidence, don’t you?’
‘Whatever you say, Pip. You know I always do as you tell me to.’
The bigger boy laughed. ‘And you always say “I told you so” when it goes wrong.’
Leo looked fondly at his cousin. ‘But it rarely does, Pip.’ The fond look was returned.
By the end of the three-weeks’ holiday, Martin was ready to get back to school, though he was still feeling guilty about leaving his mother. At last the day came, and with it the taxi to take his trunk to the station. His mother gave him three sovereigns his uncle had left, which consequently made him feel very much obliged to the Church of England, as indeed he should have.
The journey was tedious, with changes to manage and porters to tip at High Wycombe and Birmingham New Street. He was greeted by several boys on the platform when he finally reached Bridgnorth Junction, where he ventured four pence on a large and doughy Eccles cake. He was sitting on a bench chewing his treat when Andrews, a third former from Tait House, prodded him with an elbow. ‘Cavey, Tofts! It’s the Longley Louts.’
Martin nearly coughed up his mouthful. Greenside and Slade, two middle-sixth prefects, were swaggering along the platform. Their inventive reign of terror in Longley House was a byword in the school. An ineffective housemaster had allowed the prefects there to run things their own way, and their idea of discipline was excessive. Martin kept his head down and looked elsewhere.
The school had hired buses to meet the train at Medwardine Station. The trunks were loaded by porters and school servants while the boys took their seats. Martin sought refuge in the third-form swarm, but was appalled to find that the Louts were on his bus – not just that, but they were looking in his direction.
Fortunately they glanced past and hailed another sixth former behind him. ‘Well, Humphreys, what grubby little specimens you have in Temple. Piggy Tofts there, disgusting swine, scoffed himself sick at Bridgnorth. What a school of manners your house is.’
Martin saw they were berating John Humphreys, one of his house prefects, a generally quiet and placid young man who mostly kept to himself. But not today, apparently.
Humphreys gave a small smile, apparently not in the least riled. ‘Greenside and Slade! I imagine your idea of a school of manners would be the sort Caligula would run. Is it true that last term you made poor little Amherst say thank you after every cane stroke? Odd idea of manners that is. I understand his father will be coming up to give his opinion of you in person to the Head.’
Martin looked at the Louts and was delighted to see them blanch. Part of him realised the two were cowards as well as bullies. They ceased their jeering and began whispering intently to each other, like two much smaller boys getting their story straight before interrogation.
Humphreys leaned forward, smiling. ‘Don’t mind them, Tofts. I think their days of authority are numbered after what they did to Amherst. Here, take this packet of toffees. I don’t like to see you looking down.’
Martin glowed with gratitude and whispered his urgent thanks to his protector.
‘Don’t mention it. How’s your journey been?’
Martin was astonished and gratified to find himself chatting with one of his house prefects all the way up to the school entrance.
As he organised his trunk under his bed, Martin began to wonder how he was to deal with Pip and Leo’s secret. It was evident they did not want to make anything of Leo’s royal blood in school, and he believed he knew why. Such boys as Leo had little normal contact with others, and his grandfather clearly wanted him to have a period of ordinariness in what was bound to be an extraordinary life.
Loyally, Martin decided that if they said nothing, then neither would he. Something inside him revolted at the idea of ostentatiously parading his cleverness by hints and smirks at secret knowledge. No, until they let the information out, he would keep it to himself.
As he stumped down the stairs to supper, the Underwoods were coming up. ‘Martin!’ they whooped, getting a big grin in answer. There were no hugs, but plenty of laughter as they found their usual places and tucked into bread and jam, tea and game pie.
‘How was your holiday?’ That was a question everybody asked and there was no way round it.
Martin probably imagined the eyes of the other two meeting. Leo smiled at him, however, and said they had loved being with his grandfather. Christmas had brought Leo a Märklin train set and Pip a big box of soldiers to add to his already large collection.
‘I’d have liked to bring them here. Leo and I had such battles. We reconstructed the battle of the Spa Hills with the … I mean … we could do war games. We made up a set of rules so our cannon could bombard and our cavalry outflank on our battlefields. It was wonderful … or it would have been but Leo is simply not competitive.’
‘I hated winning. Pip was so noble in defeat it made me feel a brute.’
Martin had a surge of regret that he could not have been one of the boys moving blocks of soldiers across the carpets of Belsager Priory. He could imagine Maxim of Rothenia smiling and offering his advice on the battle of the Spa Hills, where Martin knew from his reading that the king had personally led his troops against a German invasion.
Martin had very little to say about his own Christmas.
The three boys happily got back into the school routine and gossip of Temple House. One item that lasted a long time was the shakeup at Longley House. The Head had finally awoken to the problems there, sacked the prefects and discharged the housemaster.
In the meantime, it was announced in Longley that the lower sixth would take over prefect duties, as the middle form was in disgrace. Lord Burlesdon was made head-of-house at seventeen, perhaps in a move to reassure the parents.
Tofts and the Krauts were sitting together amiably in the prep room of Temple. The end of January was windy but unseasonably warm that year, so the room was not too cold. As usual, Leo was sitting next to Martin, checking his Latin prep for him.
‘No, Tofts, the genitive of princeps is principis, not princepis. You’ll have to write it out again. Now decline it for me.’
Martin smiled back into the grinning face of his friend. ‘You are a tyrannus, Leo.’
‘Do as you’re told.’ The boy laughed while trying to look stern.
Martin sobered up. ‘Princeps, princeps – now the first one’s the vocative. What I was saying was, “Oh prince!”’
Pip called over, ‘And which prince were you addressing?’
‘Pardon?’ Martin was startled.
Leo looked over to Pip. ‘What, do we do it now?’
‘Might as well, your royal highness.’
Martin put up a hand. ‘Look, if this is about Leo being prince of Rothenia and duke of … where was it, Thuringia? … I already know.’
Now it was Pip and Leo’s turn to stare. Pip asked how he’d found out, so Martin told him.
‘Well that was impressive, Martin. And you kept it quiet too.’ Leo grinned. ‘What about Pip?’
Martin shook his head. ‘I don’t know about Pip.’
‘He’s a highness too …’
‘Just a serene one.’ Pip stuck out his hand. ‘May I introduce myself: His Serene Highness, Philip Underwood von Tarlenheim-Eisendorf, prince of Murranberg and count of Eisendorf.’
‘So what do I call you both?’
‘We hope you’ll call us your friends. All this highness business is not for school in any case.’
Leo added, ‘Pip’s mother and stepfather …’
‘The queen and king, you mean?’
‘Please, Tofts … anyway, they said they’d like you to come and stay at Belsager this Easter. How about it?’
Martin went pale. ‘Are you serious? I … I’m not sure.’
His friends looked disappointed.
Pip tried to reassure him. ‘It’ll be alright, they’re really wonderful people, the king and my mother …’
Leo interrupted him. ‘No, Pip, it’s not that. Martin doesn’t want to leave his mother alone. Isn’t that right?’
Martin nodded. ‘I’m sorry. She’s lonely without me during term time. I don’t want to abandon her in holidays too.’
Leo reached over and rested his hand on Martin’s sleeve, his blue eyes looking intently into Martin’s. ‘You’re a good sort, Tofts.’ Martin blushed deeply.
One day a week later, in early February, Martin had his first moment of recognition within the school. He was light in frame but had stamina, and was a natural runner. He tended to leave his friends behind on cross-country events and Mr Gale, the games master, had noticed.
The February weather was mild and not particularly damp, so the housemasters of Temple and Tait organised a paper chase for a Saturday afternoon. It was Martin and a fourth former from Tait who were selected to run the route with the canvas bags of coloured-paper confetti in advance of the racers.
Leo beamed at Martin. ‘We’ll be following in your footsteps, old chap. This is a bit of a distinction for you.’
Ten minutes before the event, the boys began to assemble on the gravel in front of Temple. Martin and Swain, the fourth former, loped off along the front of New Building, taking turns to lay the trail.
Martin set a tough pace, partly to show off and partly to make sure their pursuers would be even further behind. The bag sawed and scraped at his shoulder, but it got slowly lighter as the paper was scattered from his and Swain’s hands. They ran the six miles through the woodland and farm tracks of their route in less than an hour, finishing with a sprint up from the South Lodge to the Old School which left them slumped on the ground with chests heaving and heads down between their legs.
After he had caught his breath, Martin decided to go and wash his mud-spattered legs. Temple House was apparently empty, so Martin went to the bathrooms and stripped at the sinks.
As he was working away at himself with an illegally-soaped flannel, a shift of a footstep caused him to glance up, startled. He saw the prefect Humphreys in the doorway, staring at him surprised.
Martin froze. He felt embarrassed and looked ludicrous with his skinny backside exposed. There was a long moment before he stood up straight and covered himself with the flannel. ‘Sorry, Humphreys, didn’t know anyone was here.’
The prefect’s stare was making him uncomfortable. Eventually Humphrys responded, ‘Oh, heavens. I told old Armitage I had a cold. I have books to read. Much rather that than splashing through the mud. Did it go well?’
‘Er … yes. They haven’t begun trailing in yet.’
Martin wished Humphreys would go away, and eventually, after one last stare, he did.
‘Good morning, Leo.’
Martin stared at his friend as he once again dared to address a senior boy, in this case, his lordship the head boy of Longley House. He had to admit that Lord Burlesdon seemed to see no difficulty in the situation. But then Leo, as a royal prince and duke, could look down on a mere earl, even if there was a five-year age difference between them.
‘How’s the new job?’ The three boys had paused on the terrace under the chapel.
Burlesdon didn’t smile – it was not a vice he readily succumbed to – but he inclined his head with what amounted to affability. ‘Oh, a bit tricky after the mess Slade and Greenside made of the place. The Head expelled Slade, which helped.’
‘The third form in Longley say you’re a great improvement.’ The young man’s head inclined again. ‘Will you be returning to Hentzau for Easter?’
‘Yes. Mother likes going through Holy Week at the Jakobskloster. She says the tenants appreciate the count appearing in church for the First Mass, so there I shall be.’
‘Give my love to the old place.’
‘I shall. Does young Tofts here know about …’
‘Yes, he does.’
‘Then, good morning, your royal highness.’ The earl actually bowed to Leo.
The two third formers watched him walk around the side of the chapel. Martin turned to Leo. ‘You’re a cool one.’
‘James isn’t so bad. Just a bit of a cold fish.’
‘What sort of relation is he to you?’
‘Oh, it’s quite interesting. He’s directly descended from King Rudolf III, but through an elder illegitimate line, whereas I’m descended from Rudolf’s younger legitimate son, Henry II, though his daughter. When Queen Flavia died in 1880, James’s grandfather was almost made king, but my great-uncle was imposed on the country by the powers instead.’
‘That’ll be Leopold of Thuringia.’
‘Yes. His nephew and heir, Albert, was my father.’ Leo’s face clouded as he said the name, which Martin could not quite account for. ‘Anyway, James’s father was murdered in suspicious circumstances in Strelzen in 1909, leaving James’s uncle, Maxim Elphberg, as claimant. He overthrew my father and became king.’
Martin was a little confused by all the detail, yet he was particularly struck by one thing. ‘How did the heir of the Thuringians end up under the care of an Elphberg king?’
Leo bit his lip. ‘It’s a long story, and to tell it properly, I’ll need Pip. Maybe someday. But King Maxim has been better than a father to me, that’s the truth.’
Martin developed a discomfort around Humphreys. He kept on catching side glances from the sixth former, and felt uneasy around him. Yet at the same time he admired the confidence and kindness of the older boy. Martin mostly fagged for Westenra, but he found himself wishing Humphreys too would ask him, though he never did.
It was all so disturbing and distracting that Martin sternly lectured himself about keeping his mind on his work. One day at the end of February, he got to the prep room and found Leo with his head down. Leo looked up as Martin came in and, as usual, smiled. Martin got a stack of books, pulled up a chair, and joined him.
Martin had chapter 34 of Book 1 of Cicero’s De Officiis to translate. It had a sobering effect: Atque etiam cum relaxare animos et dare se iucunditati volent, caveant intemperantiam, meminerint verecundiae, quod erit facilius, si ne in eius modi quidem rebus maiores natu nolent interesse.
He chewed his pencil and wrote in his rough book: ‘And even when they wish to relax their minds and embrace merrymaking, they should be alert to going too far, and act modestly. This will be easier if the younger are not unwilling to resort to amusement with older boys.’
‘Have I got this right, Leo?’
‘Let me have a look, Martin. Yes, perfectly accurate.’
‘What does it mean?’
‘Oh … I think it’s that Roman thing, you know.’
‘No. I don’t understand.’
Leo gave Martin a close look. ‘Pip’s uncle Welf said that Roman boys used to … I mean, well, it was alright for them to have boyfriends.’
‘Well, yes, I have boyfriends.’
‘No, Martin. How do I put this? You have friends who are boys. But a lot of Roman boys used to associate with each other, instead of chasing after girls.’
‘Oh … you mean they kissed each other and …’
Leo looked in his friend’s eyes and gave a decided nod.
Martin pondered this startling information. ‘So what he’s saying here is that younger boys should have boyfriends who are older, to keep them in order. Is that it?’
‘Yes, I suppose it is.’ Leo smiled and twitched his eyebrows.
They went back to their studies. After a while, Martin looked up and asked, ‘Do you think that sort of thing is wrong?’
Leo shook his head. ‘It rather depends on the boys, I’d say.’
The conversation lapsed once more as they got on with their work. Martin had begun to realise something about himself and his feelings for Humphreys. And was it just Humphreys? The same feelings made themselves apparent as he looked across the table at his friend, at the curve of his brown cheek and the way his dark hair fell in his blue eyes.