The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
Martin wrote every two days to his mother, who wrote back as often. Almost hating himself for it, he mentioned the offer of a holiday in Surrey. As he knew she would, she replied urging him to go to Belsager Priory and not mind her. He could not absolve himself entirely of manipulation but, guilt aside, he eagerly showed his friends her latest letter.
Leo nodded. ‘The school holidays are the last three weeks of April. You could come to us for a week or ten days, and still be with your mother for most of the holiday.’
Pip grinned. ‘Excellent plan. What d’you think, Tofts?’
‘My friends, you have a house guest.’
To his surprise and secret delight, he found himself being hugged, one Underwood on either side. ‘Is this the Rothenian way?’
‘Only with good friends,’ Pip laughed, squeezing him again around the ribs before they separated.
Letters were immediately written, and in the last week of March 1924 all was arranged. Martin would be at Belsager from 5th April to the Tuesday of Holy Week, ten days later.
As the end of term approached, it couldn’t come too quickly for Martin and the Underwoods. However, Medwardine was not yet finished with Martin.
On the Wednesday, he was idling into the entrance hall of Temple after his tea when Cameron, a fifth former, called down from the landing, ‘Tofts! Fag wanted in the middle sixth, jump to it!’
Martin ran up the stairs to find Humphreys alone in the study. He stopped at the door shyly.
The young man smiled and invited him in. ‘Glad it’s you, Tofts. I need you to do these shoes, and do them well. Sit there at the table, you know where the polish and brushes are.’
Martin nodded, but said nothing. He laid down newspaper and got busy, while Humphreys draped himself across an armchair, taking up a book. As he worked, Martin was very conscious of the other boy, and though he didn’t dare look around, somehow knew he was being closely watched.
He was startled when Humphreys eventually said, ‘You’re famous as a polisher, Martin.’
Did he call me Martin? Tofts was astonished. ‘Er … really?’ he squeaked.
‘Absolutely. When you’ve finished with the shoes, I have … another job for you. The buttons and buckles of my OTC uniform need some attention. Do you mind?’
Martin shot a glance at Humphreys from under his lashes. ‘Not at all.’
‘How are you so good at it?’
‘Oh … I just let my mind go and let my fingers get on with it, I suppose.’
‘You mean you enjoy it?’
‘It can be soothing.’
‘Er … yes.’
Martin put down the second shoe. He was very aware of the smell of Humphreys that hung about them.
‘Your hands are all smudged with blacking.’
‘Come into my room and you can use my sink.’
He led Martin into his bedroom and indicated the basin. As Martin was rubbing in soap, he sensed Humphreys behind him, breathing heavily.
‘You’ve missed a bit.’ The older boy bent over him and took his hands. Martin’s heart pulsed hard as his hands were gently taken and stroked. He was closely surrounded by a male body and could not stop himself pushing back against Humphreys.
The sixth former groaned as the boy nestled into him. He turned Martin in his arms and stared down into his face. Martin looked up timorously when their mouths met. Without breaking their kiss, Humphreys lifted Martin and carried him to the bed.
‘Are you alright, Tofts?’ Pip was looking at him quizzically.
Martin had no idea how to answer. At one level he was ecstatic. His head was full of the memory of new sensations. Mostly it was the warmth of a powerful body clasping and surrounding his own. Then there were the unfamiliar smells and the touch of Humphreys’s hands where no one’s hands had been before.
‘Good. You seemed in another world for a while.’
‘Just a bit abstracted.’
He was desperate with longing to be back in Humphreys’s bed. The older boy had pecked him on the lips as Martin had dressed and left, but did not say when he was to return. Another world had indeed been opened up to Martin, one he knew he wanted to live in. Although he hung around the stairs to the sixth-form study for a while, no Humphreys emerged. Sighing, he repaired to the top floor looking for Pip and Leo. They had gone to their private fencing classes, however, so Martin sat disconsolate and alone until the electric bell rang for lights out.
He lay restless in his bed. He could usually ignore the night-time noises of boys breathing heavily, turning in their sheets and muttering, but this time sleep would not come. After midnight, he rose and stealthily left his dormitory, padding carefully down the moonlit stairs. There was no sound in the house.
He reached Humphreys’s room and hesitated for a long time, the chill hurting his bare feet. The boys’ doors had no locks and he knew there was nothing to keep him out. Finally making his decision, he turned the handle and went in, softly, closing the door carefully behind him. He stood at the bedside and lightly shook Humphreys’s shoulder. The young man stirred and sat up blinking.
‘You must be freezing. Come in here.’
Martin climbed into the warm space offered him, his heart beating high.
Though Leo and Pip noticed how quiet Martin was the last two days at Medwardine, they said nothing. Martin was too abstracted to see the glances that passed between his friends.
‘Tofts and Humphreys are going it I think, Leo.’
Leo flushed slightly. He knew what the boarding-house slang meant. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Just look at him, always hanging round the lower landing in hopes.’
‘Oh dear. Does he know …?’
‘About Metcalf last term? I don’t believe so.’
‘Then we’ll just have to cushion his landing. What a beast that Humphreys is.’
‘He just doesn’t think. It’s as well we’re away home tomorrow. That’ll take Martin’s mind off it. Of course none of the sixth would try it on with us.’
‘Should we tell?’
‘Why? No one’s forcing anyone. From what I can see, Tofts is head over heels, poor fellow.’
Friday came and Tofts stopped mooning about as packing monopolised his time. He also regained his interest in all things Belsager. ‘And will your grandfather be there, Leo?’
‘He comes on Palm Sunday, so you’ll see him for a few days.’
‘You won’t be disappointed.’
‘I should think not. How do I address King Maxim?’ This was a particular point of nervousness with Martin, as Leo well knew.
‘Stick a label on him with the required postage stamps.’
Martin looked impatiently at his friend.
‘Yes, that was bad. But you haven’t been laughing much recently, Martin. I thought I’d give it a try.’
Oh … it’s just nerves, you know.’
‘Well don’t be nervous. Laszlo will be here with the car first thing. He’s staying overnight in Ludlow. Get some sleep and you’ll be as right as rain.’
The olive-green Daimler was parked outside New Building when the boys returned from breakfast. Martin kept looking hopefully for a glimpse of Humphreys, but only had a distant glimpse of him with a group of other sixth formers. He felt strangely dashed, as if he was being cast off and ignored.
Laszlo was a dark-haired man in his late twenties. Leo explained that he had been a young footman in the Osraeum palace in Strelzen, and had chosen to follow his king into exile. Now he was the principal chauffeur in Belsager priory and had married an Englishwoman.
He bowed low to the two princes. Then he comprehended Martin too in his deference, which much flustered the boy.
‘We’ll all sit in the back, Laszlo,’ Pip announced.
‘As you wish, highness,’ Laszlo replied in heavily accented English. ‘Please keep a window open in case one of you gets car-sick.’
Martin had not had many long car rides in his short lifetime, and never one which took him all the way across England. With Pip and Leo on either side of him, there was no chance of boredom. It was springtime now, the hedgerows alive with flowers and new green. The day was fresh, and clouds scudded across the blue vault above them. Martin’s fixation on Humphreys receded for a while.
By early lunchtime the car had reached Oxford, where they were expected at the Randolph. When Laszlo delivered the uniformed boys to the hotel, the manner of their arrival guaranteed curious stares, as well as the deference of the doorman and desk staff.
Laszlo stood behind them as the hotel manager himself greeted them in the lobby. With murmured ‘royal highnesses’ and ‘serene highnesses’, he ushered them personally to a table in a crowded restaurant. Fawning waiters and the maître d’hôtel hovered. Other tables stared at them covertly. Schoolboys being shown that level of attention could only be young men of consequence.
Pip grinned across to Martin. ‘Bet I could get them to give us wine if I stamped my princely foot.’
‘Is this what life’s like for you all the time?’
‘Pretty much – except when we’re at home of course, then we’re the lowest of the low. They make us sweep out the stables and black-lead the grates.’
‘What language do you speak at home?’
Leo let off a volley of incomprehensible words.
‘Was that Rothenian?’
‘Yes. Mostly we speak Rothenian or German, unless we have guests. But we’re all happy in English, apart from the servants, and you won’t have a problem.’
‘You two speak Rothenian when you’re together at school, don’t you?’
‘We prefer it.’
‘Will you teach me? I’d like for us all to speak it together, like some secret code.’
Leo laughed. ‘That’d be a fine project for the holiday. Yes, wonderful! What d’you think, Pip?’
‘Great idea.’ So they began with simple words in the restaurant. The meal, which might have been intimidating to Martin, sped by in a gale of laughter at Martin’s pronunciation.
Following dessert, the three boys spilled out on to the Banbury Road. Laszlo frowned at them, particularly Pip, whom he knew for the leader. ‘Highness, you aren’t going to get me into trouble, are you?’
‘Not at all, Laszlo. But Master Tofts here has never seen Oxford. Surely you can spare us half an hour for the sights, can’t you?’
‘But only half an hour, highness.’
So the boys ran across to the Martyrs’ Memorial, dodging the many gowned students on bikes. They had a severe albeit amicable disagreement about the rights and wrongs of the Reformation, with Martin feeling obliged to defend the Church of England. They carried on the dispute all the way up the Broad, where they admired the Bodleian Library and Sheldonian Theatre, before finding a sweet shop and filling their pockets with toffee and sherbet dips.
Laszlo was waiting impatiently when they returned and reassumed their places in the rear of the car.
‘So Oxford, Martin? Do you like it?’
‘Very much. I’d like to be a student here one day.’
Leo nodded. ‘Good, because Pip and I are down for St Johns if we matriculate. The king said it’s compulsory for our family. It’ll be nice if you’re here too.’
Martin felt a surge of determination that one day he would join the undergraduates in short gowns pedalling through the drays and vans of the busy city. But, his troubled mind asked him, what about money?
It was getting dark when the car turned off the Dorking road towards Belsager. Pip had moved to the front seat and was conversing in a low voice with Laszlo about the domestic news of the priory. Martin and Leo had dozed off in the back seat, Martin’s head unselfconsciously on Leo’s shoulder.
The priory was situated in a wooded valley that ran into the North Downs. Their first sight of it was of a picturesque, many-gabled bulk looming through the trees. The car turned on to a wide drive across the parkland.
Martin, by now awake, discovered his feeling of nervousness growing. The other boys were simply excited to be coming home.
The car pulled up in front of the priory’s main range. Martin was a little disappointed to see nothing obviously medieval about the great house. Indeed, from what he could guess, it seemed to be in the Gothic style of a century before. But he did not give up hope about its antiquity. Pip had told him there were ‘old bits’, which sounded promising. Although Pip’s reliability on such a point was suspect, Leo had nodded amiably and confirmed it.
The domestic staff was on the alert for them. A butler and several footmen descended on the car as it pulled up, unloading bags and trunks. The butler bowed very low to the boys.
‘Where is his majesty, Tibor?’ Leo asked, with the assurance of one who had dealt with servants all his life. Martin, whose mother had ceased employing a maid on her entry into widowhood, was tongue-tied.
The butler led them into a flagged entrance hall, the walls hung with many exotic animal heads. A grand baronial staircase led to the upper floors. ‘Tea is in the parlour, royal highness, serene highness, sir.’
‘This way, Tofts.’
The two princes walked swiftly through one of the smaller panelled doors, Martin hurrying to keep up with them.
‘Mother!’ shouted Pip and ran into the arms of a woman who had risen smiling at their entrance.
‘Maxim!’ Leo likewise dived into the arms of a handsome dark-haired man, who had been sitting with his wife on the sofa. Both boys were kissed and embraced long and hard.
Leo broke off smiling. ‘Sir, this is Tofts. I mean, Martin.’
Martin had hung back shyly. The king strode over to take his hand. ‘Welcome to our home, Martin Tofts.’
Looking up nervously, Martin replied, ‘Thank you, your majesty.’
‘Now let’s have some tea.’
They sat around, cups in hand. Leo and Pip were voluble about their journey and the last term’s experiences. ‘… and Tofts, sir. He led the paper chase and won the house sprint. He left us in his dust.’
The king smiled at Martin. ‘So you’re an athlete, Martin?’
‘No sir, I just run fast.’
The king laughed. ‘It’s a start. When I was at Medwardine, I wished I had been good at track events. Unfortunately, I was stocky enough to be pressed into the rugger side, with the result that to this day I still have some interesting scars.’
‘Pip is the rugger man, sir. He scored over a dozen tries in his matches, and made I don’t know how many more.’
Pip grinned. ‘For the pride of Rothenia!’
Leo laughed. ‘For the Crown of Tassilo!’
‘The Crown of Tassilo?’ Martin’s curiosity was piqued, something about that phrase resonating in his head.
Leo gave a sidelong look at his foster father, who smiled and nodded. Leo continued, ‘The royal Crown of Tassilo is the national symbol of Rothenia, Martin. Have we a picture, sir?’
King Maxim went across to a sideboard, opened a drawer and took out a slip of lavender paper. ‘This is a Rothenian twenty-krone note from the time when I was still king.’
Martin took the bill. On one side was a portrait of a formal-looking and younger Maxim, in uniform with a chain of a chivalric order around his shoulders and decorations at his neck. On the other was a large picture of a remarkable diadem. The circlet was apparently made up of figured panels, with elaborate and jewelled highpoints. Pearl-encrusted bars enclosed the top. It was most unlike the crowns of the English regalia in the Tower.
Leo went on, ‘You see, Martin, this lower bit – over a thousand years old, would you believe? – was given by the German emperor to Duke Tassilo, our ancestor. It’s been used ever since, except it went missing when my great uncle took the throne in 1880. Then it mysteriously reappeared at the coronation of King Maxim. Sir, you never told me how that happened.’
‘I may one day, Leo, but not yet. The Crown is a great symbol of our nation, and the republic very much wants it. President Tildemann knows its worth, and I don’t just mean its monetary value. The republic has by no means been the answer to all Rothenia’s problems, so anything to aid in rallying the nation is of importance to Tildemann and his party. The Crown’s disappearance with the end of the Elphberg monarchy has not helped the people unify around the new constitution.’
Pip looked mischievous. ‘Then there’s been Uncle Welf’s book.’
The queen laughed. ‘My brother has finally told the public the truth about the reign of King Maxim. It has come as a real shock to many people quite what my husband went through for his people’s sake.’
Martin was curious. ‘My mother has read the English translation. She said it was … very romantic.’
The queen sat Leo and Pip next to her on either side, and kissed them both. ‘In the meantime, we are a family of happy exiles and Maxim is in great demand as a statesman.’
Leo burst out, ‘He works forever to make the League of Nations a success, so we will have no more dreadful wars.’
Martin looked up at the king. ‘Would you go back to Rothenia if they asked you, sir?’
Maxim took on a solemn air. ‘There may one day be a king of Rothenia again, but it won’t be I. I have had my day and done my duty, at least as king. But it may happen that I can help Rothenia in other ways. If the League does its job, for instance, Europe will be a safer place for my people. Neighbour will no longer go to war with neighbour. All disputes will be settled by peaceful arbitration.’
Leo pursued the point. ‘He was the man who made sure Rothenia stayed neutral during the Great War, and because of his sacrifice, it is wealthy and prosperous – or at least more so than its neighbours.’
‘But this crown, sir. What became of it?’
There was a momentary pause at Martin’s question, as the other three looked at the king. He just gave a gentle smile. ‘The Crown is kept for Rothenia’s future, and guarded from those who would use it for their own advantage.’
Martin reddened a little, aware that he had pushed his curiosity a little too far.
Fortunately, the king didn’t look angry. He turned to the others. ‘How’s James?’
Pip raised his eyebrows. ‘He’s a prefect, sir – worse, he’s head of Longley. He doesn’t talk to lowly insects like third formers, you know that.’
Leo interrupted. ‘Actually, he was quite nice to me the couple of times I’ve talked to him. Isn’t that right, Tofts?’
Martin was gaining confidence in present company. ‘Perfectly correct. He let us live when you presumed to address him.’
‘He wasn’t rude?’
‘No sir, just distant.’
‘He’s more than a little like his father, then. My brother Julius always had a preoccupied air about him, as if there was something going on in his head which was far more important than the world around him.’
Leo laughed. ‘Exactly right, sir! Oh sir! Tofts wants to learn Rothenian.’
The king looked interested. ‘It’s quite a hard language, though it helps if you have German.’
‘No German, sir.’
‘Ah well, it’s just application and listening, when all is said and done. It is Pip’s mother tongue and Leo is quite at home in it. Many of the servants habitually speak it among themselves. Keep practising and you’ll have some basic facility in a week maybe, but after that it gets harder.
‘Now, boys, why don’t you change out of your uniforms? Time to play. That’s what’s holidays are about, isn’t it? You need to go down to the stables to say hello to your horses after all these weeks. See if the ostler can find a mount for young Tofts while you’re at it. It’ll be a meeting of the hunt the Monday before Easter.’
It was the first morning of Martin’s stay at Belsager. He had awoken in a four-poster bed to a discrete knock on his door. A maid had drawn the curtains and brought hot water. Washed and brushed, he had found his friends already in the breakfast room.
‘Today,’ Pip announced, ‘we’re going to find you a mount, Tofts. You have ridden haven’t you?’
‘A bit yes, at Drake’s farm back home.’
‘Good. We’ll ride round the park till you’re comfortable, and then head up on to the Downs.’
Leo smiled round a mouthful of toast, swallowed, then added, ‘It’s grand equestrian country, Martin. We ride all the time when we’re at home.’
Although the idea of riding was appealing, Martin had a very different agenda in mind. Knowing Pip’s way of going on, however, he realized that if he wanted to do something on his own account he would have to insist. ‘But the priory ruins?’
‘You still want to see them?’
‘Well, yes. It was the only reason I came.’ He gave a malicious grin.
‘You’re wicked, Tofts.’ Leo smiled at him fondly.
Pip rolled his eyes, ‘Oh well, if you must. I’d thought you got enough History at school. But there you are. This afternoon for the ruins, will that suit?’
Riding towards Epsom across the high Downs on a sunny April morning was a wonderful experience. Their three mounts cantered along the chalk paths in line, Pip first, naturally. Martin was quite willing to put up with the ache in his rear and the sore legs.
Pip found an excuse not to explore the ruins after lunch. He foisted the job of guide off on Leo, who had more idea about those sorts of things, as he said.
The two boys left the modern residence by an office passage. The back of the building let on to a crisp, green lawn. The house itself, which faced west, was in the shape of an ‘L’, the main block running north and another wing east.
Martin stood in the centre of the square lawn and began noticing things. There were regular stumps of flint masonry poking up from under the grass. A large bank covered in shrubs and small trees ran east-west to his north, another north-south to the east.
Leo was looking amused. ‘You act as though you’re trying to make sense of something.’
Martin grinned back. ‘You know, I think I am. So where is the medieval priory?’
‘I have no idea. But there are a lot of old stones all over the place.’
Martin was concentrating now. He was recalling the many books he had read about monasteries, especially works showing the block plans of buildings, which were often standard constructions. His mind retained these sorts of things. Martin knew Belsager had been a Cluniac priory, quite a large one in fact, founded by the famous Bishop Henry de Blois of Winchester. It was likely to have been laid out much like any other Cluniac house, he decided.
He began to orient himself, finding he was quite able to think in three dimensions. Half to himself he pondered, ‘I suspect this is the cloister area. Those stacks of flints are the remaining bays of the arches. That means … hmm.’
‘What?’ Leo was impressed.
‘The main house is actually built over the prior’s lodging. The office wing would be the refectory. The priory church is under those shrubs there and that must be the dormitory block and chapter house running south. Let’s go and look at where the church must have been.’
Leo trotting behind and looking quite interested, Martin strode across the lawns and plunged into the undergrowth. Deep in the shrubbery he found a variety of moss-and-ivy-grown arches, together with many fallen stones. He began pacing out measurements, adding them to the sketches which filled out page after page of his notebook.
Leo watched patiently, if a little bemused. Martin led him onwards. ‘Now, let’s go into the office wing and see if there are any remnants of the old refectory.’
They began poking around the corridors, washrooms, kitchens and sculleries. Martin, his eyes shining, pointed to a massive stone structure. ‘Look! Can you believe it? The modern kitchen is still in the medieval one. See those ovens and chimneypieces? The windows have been altered and knocked through, but it’s mostly intact. This is amazing!’
Leo nodded, agreeing with a smile that it was indeed amazing. Then he took Martin’s arm and led him in to afternoon tea, his friend talking all the while.
Queen Helga was there with her daughter, the eleven-year-old countess of Templerstadt.
‘Ma’am,’ smiled Leo, ‘Tofts has got a lot to tell you about your house.’
The ten days’ stay at Belsager was all Martin had hoped, and more besides. King Maxim was charmed with the boy’s enthusiasm for the medieval remains of the priory, and got the gardeners to loan him trowels, wheelbarrows and spades.
Leo and even Pip were happy to assist Martin in an impromptu excavation to help reconstruct the plan. The gardeners were ordered to assist the principal dig, where, like a junior Flinders Petrie, Martin located the platform and foundations of the priory’s high altar. More than that, as he ran his trowel along under the remains of the altar, he located a dry cavity in which he discovered a white and corroded leaden plaque.
Pip and Leo whooped, ‘Treasure!’
They went running back to the house and showed the king and queen. Maxim looked impressed. ‘My word, Martin. Whatever it is, this is a find. There’s writing on it. Go and spread out some newspapers on the table in the butler’s pantry and clean it up.’
The three boys looked at the dusty, earth-caked square of metal. Leo got a shoe brush and began flaking away at a corner. It was hard work, and they took turns, but in the end they had a clear surface, scored with indecipherable marks.
Pip frowned. ‘Hang on, I’ll get some greaseproof paper from next door, if cook will let me, and I’ll show you a trick.’
He returned and laid the paper over the plaque. Then he took a pencil and began rubbing against the face. Slowly, spindly lines emerged and connected.
Leo and Martin watched intently. ‘It’s Latin alright,’ Leo announced.
‘Can you read it?’
‘It’s medieval Latin, which is not the same as the stuff Cicero wrote. But I’ll give it a crack. Finished, Pip?
‘Just about. Here you go. See what you can make of it.’
Leo sketched out a fair copy of what he could understand: + IN NOMINE PATRIS ET FILII ET SPIRITVS SANCTI : .T. ARCHIEPS CANTVARIE .R. EPS LVNDONIARVM. HANC ARAM CONSECRAVERVNT. FEST. ASSVMPT. VIRGINIS. ANNO MCXXXX. REGNO REG. STE …
‘My word!’ breathed Leo. ‘It’s a chunk of history alright. It says the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London dedicated the altar we just dug up in the year 1140, on the Assumption of the Virgin – that’s 15th August to you, Tofts, you Protestant.’
They ran off to report the find proudly to the king.
‘I’ll have it framed and mounted. I suppose I’d better call the local archaeological society round to look at it too. Well done, boys, and particularly well done, Martin. You really must meet Pip’s Uncle Welf one of these days. You seem to have a lot in common.’
All three boys went to bed tired but jubilant that night. When Martin came down early to breakfast the next morning, it was to find an old gentleman there before him.
‘Oh hullo, sir.’
‘Would you be Master Martin Tofts, now?’ The man was very kindly and Martin realised he must be Leo’s grandfather, Gus Underwood, the count of Eisendorf. His voice had a slight foreign intonation, though Martin knew he had been born in Suffolk.
‘I arrived late last night. Since we old men don’t need much sleep, however, here I am down before you all. How are you enjoying your stay?’
‘It’s all too short, sir.’
‘You’ll be here for the meet tomorrow at least.’
‘Oh, yes sir.’
‘I’ll be riding out myself, age notwithstanding. The North Surrey Hunt will be starting from Belsager. It should be quite a sight. Have you ever ridden with a hunt before, Martin?’
Leo and Pip came through the door at that point, to hurl themselves on the old man. He ruffled their hair and called them scamps who were growing far too fast.
Settling down to breakfast, they brought Gus Underwood up to date, including the excavations in the priory church. Leo insisted that his grandfather see the plans and sketches Martin had made. While Martin showed them off, his face animated and smiling, Leo hung around his shoulder. Glancing up from grinning at his friend, Leo caught a suddenly intent look from the old man, a look that seemed to bore straight into his head.