The Crown of Tassilo 3








Michael Arram









  Although he tried hard not to show it, Martin fretted through the last few days at home with his mother.  He was a rather more sensitive and considerate boy than many his age, and the internal turbulence of adolescence had not insulated him from the feelings of those near to him.  So he knew he had to be cheerful and amusing for his mother’s sake.


  They talked long about his experiences at Belsager Priory, about the people he had met, the rooms, the visitors and his excavations.  It all delighted her, even his account of riding with the North Surrey Hunt, though she found the description of his blooding by Gus Underwood somewhat excessive.


  Martin could only shrug and inform her, ‘The Underwoods are very fond of blood sports, mother.’


  But beyond anything else, it was King Maxim she wanted to hear more about.  She had passed the biography on to Martin, who had it packed now in his school bag.  The title page read: ‘MAXIM OF ROTHENIA by WELF v TARLENHEIM z TEMPLERSTADT, Professor of Comparative Linguistics in the Rudolf University of Strelsau, formerly Confidential Secretary to His Majesty, translated by E.R. Wilby MA (Cantab.) from the Slavic.’


  ‘He was so nice to me, mother, and you know he did the kungliche pozechnen when I left.’


  ‘The what, dear?’


  ‘It’s the royal blessing.  The king does it to his subjects and friends when they leave him.  It’s so solemn and beautiful, and he kissed me on the forehead.’


  ‘It sounds dreadfully foreign.’


  ‘Oh mother, foreign can be nice.  He also gave me this book on the Rothenian language; I think he sent up to Hatchards for it.  I’ve been memorising the conjugations, and when I get back, Pip and Leo and I will try to talk Rothenian as much as we can.’


  ‘As long as you don’t forget your Latin and Greek, dear.  That’s why you’re at Medwardine.’


  ‘But I like History more.’


  ‘Remember what the archdeacon said: Classics is more likely to get you a prize scholarship to university.  It’s the only way you’ll be able to manage it.’


  ‘I do so want to go to Oxford, mother.  Pip and Leo will go to St John’s, you know.’


  His mother sighed.  ‘That’s the problem with rich friends, darling.  They’re liable to give you expectations beyond your resources.’


  ‘They’re not like that, mother.’


  ‘I know, dear, they sound like very good friends to you, unspoiled and loving boys.  But a knife’s edge cuts, even though the knife itself has no urge to cut you.’


  Martin looked at her, troubled.








  As he watched the gates of Medwardine approach, it was not Pip and Leo who were on Martin’s mind but the prefect Humphreys.  In quiet and secret moments over the holidays, particularly in those last days with his mother, his mind had returned again and again to his two encounters with the older boy.  A deeply physical need for more of the same continually shook his body with a feeling new to him, which he had not yet learned to call lust.


  After stowing his trunk under his bed in West 34, he trotted down the stairs.  As luck would have it, Humphreys emerged from the middle-sixth study just as Martin passed the landing.


  ‘Hello, Humphreys.  Good holiday?’


  ‘Yes thank you, Tofts.’


  ‘Can I … er, polish your boots or anything?’  He gazed earnestly up at Humphreys.  ‘Anything at all.’  He was doing his innocent best to be seductive.


  Humphreys smiled to himself at the naivety of the boy’s yearning.  ‘Maybe later, Tofts.  Time for tea.’


  It was like a bucket of cold water in Martin’s face.  He had fancied that Humphrey had conceived a passion for him as desperate to be satisfied as his own.  Frustrated and aroused, he could do nothing other than take himself off to a stall in the toilets and look for solitary relief.


  A whole week passed and still Martin had not been summoned to the sixth.  He saw Humphreys only at a distance.  He felt both angry and rejected, but also frantic for a repetition of their physical encounter.


  His tenseness was very evident to his two best friends, who did what they could to distract him.  Leo in particular bore with his impatience and succeeded in sublimating a lot of it into language work, both in the Classics and in Rothenian.


  In one of his less self-centred moments, Martin burst out, ‘Leo, you are such a good teacher.  Do you know, I’m top of my Latin group, and only because of the way you help me.’


  Leo dropped his eyes under this sudden volley of admiration.  After a little pause, he came back with, ‘Oh, take some credit for yourself, Tofts.  Now, repeat what you just said to me in Rothenian.’


  And Martin, to his inexpressible delight, found that he could.  Slowly his confidence in the foreign tongue was increasing.  First phrases, then sentences, and in due course conversations in Rothenian began to take place between the three.  But before that happened, there was a setback.


  At the end of the first week of Trinity term, an utterly obsessed Martin crept out of his dormitory just after midnight once again, to steal down to Humphreys’s room.  But this time, as he was reaching the door, he heard whispers and shuffling.  Panicked, he sprang back into an alcove.


  Humphreys’s door opened, and the young man himself peeped around the edge.  Then he looked back and beckoned.  Martin recognised the boy who came out after the sixth former as Metcalf, a baby-faced blond fourth former, who had only his drawers on and held his pyjamas bundled in his arms.  He stole a kiss from Humphreys as he slid past.


  After Humphreys’s door closed, Martin sagged in the corner while Metcalf danced around the corridor outside, struggling back into his nightclothes.  Martin’s bowels had become leaden.  When he eventually toiled silently back upstairs after Metcalf, he found his eyes flooded with tears.








  ‘What is it, Martin?’  Leo was looking at his abstracted friend with a troubled face.


  ‘Oh … nothing.  No, really.  It’s nothing.’


  Leo sighed to himself.  Pip had told him that the little tart Metcalf was back ‘going it’ with Humphreys.  Clearly, Martin had now found out.  Leo dithered about how to approach the matter, then gave it up as too complicated.


  He looked in Martin’s preoccupied face.  Tofts was a blond, the sort Humphreys liked.  His brown eyes and dark skin were striking and made his hair seem brighter than it actually was.  It was only when Martin was next to Pip, who was a straw blond, that you noticed the difference in colouring.


  Leo liked watching Martin, whose full lips and flawless skin stirred him.  But he somehow realised that Martin did not feel the same way about him as he did about Martin.  He wasn’t sure why that was, and it saddened him.  Yet he was glad to be a friend at least: able to express his feelings through his devoted academic help and the sympathy he could show.


  Pip was more pragmatic about lending a hand.  ‘Come on over to the copse, Tofts.  We can look for sticklebacks in the stream.’


  Although Martin didn’t seem immediately enthused by the idea, he knew that resisting Pip was a waste of effort, so he stirred himself.  He slouched down the stairs after the Underwoods, moving in such a careless way that he attracted the dissatisfaction of Westenra, who swatted him round the head and told him to get his hands out of his pockets.








  ‘I suppose it had to happen.’  Pip looked disgruntled.


  ‘But I had hoped we’d last out the year.’  Leo slumped on his bed.


  ‘Do you think it’ll make a difference?’


  ‘Oh yes, I have no doubt about it.  Hang on, I’ll go and get Tofts; he’s bound to know how it happened.  He keeps his ears open.’


  Leo left West 31 and walked along the corridor to 34.  On the way, he was aware of boys poking out their heads from the doorways to stare at him.  When he entered Martin’s dorm, the other boys there stood tongue-tied; one even bobbed a little bow.


  ‘Martin!  Can you join Pip and me in the prep room?’


  Martin nodded and gave his friend a quirky smile, following him without a word.  Pip joined them and, finding only one other boy in the prep room, wordlessly sent him on his way with a twitch of the head.


  The boy looked a little scared at Pip.  ‘Sorry, your highness,’ he stuttered.


  ‘So they know, Tofts.’


  ‘Yes.  Yesterday evening, Wicklow in the fourth remove was reading the latest National Geographic, which has an article about your stepfather along with a family picture.  There were you and Leo on either side of him in Eton suits, as large as life, with his hands on your shoulders.  Wicklow came right up to me with it and asked if it’s true you’re royalty.  So I had to say yes.  When did you find out?’


  Leo sighed.  ‘When I went to the toilet for the Agarol dose and took it down in one gulp, the nurse curtsied and said, “Thank you, your royal highness.”  All the other boys were staring at me as if they’d never seen me before.  What do we do, Pip?’


  ‘I’d better trot down to the housemaster’s and tell him.  He’ll have to make an announcement, I suppose.  What a nuisance.’


  A notice was pinned up in Temple House that afternoon, informing the boys that HRH Prince Leopold Wilhelm Ernst Albert of Rothenia, duke of Thuringia and Ranstadt, and HSH Prince Philip Underwood von Tarlenheim-Eisendorf were to continue to be addressed as Leo and Philip Underwood at the request of the latter’s guardian, HM the King of Rothenia.  The addresses ‘royal highness’ and ‘serene highness’ were not to be used other than for the most formal of occasions.


  ‘Perhaps they can call me “your lowness”?’ Martin wondered out loud.


  ‘Your humility?’  Leo laughed.


  ‘Your ordinariness?’ Pip wondered.  ‘Maybe it’ll give me an advantage in the scrum.  After all, what can they do if I elbow them in the kidneys or bite their bottoms?  “Really, your highness, that was not very nice,” is about all they can say.’  The boys giggled.


  It took a while for things to settle down in Temple House.  Martin at least found himself an object of great envy amongst a certain section of the house, the socially ambitious one.  It distracted him from his lingering misery about Humphreys.


  Still, the misery was not assisted by Metcalf’s behaviour.  Every time he and Martin met on the stairs, in chapel or in the hall, Metcalf gave him a smug little grin.  There was no doubt that Humphreys had talked to the other boy about their trysts, for which Martin was learning to hate the sixth former.


  ‘It’s really a good thing, Tofts.’  Martin had told Leo everything, including that information.  ‘At least you won’t have regrets about his going it with Metcalf.  You can resent him now.’


  ‘Yes, but if the swine spreads all over school the fact that we were going it, what will people think about me … or about you and me for that matter?’


  Leo looked startled, then bit back something he was going to say.  Martin failed to notice, preoccupied as he was with his resentment.


  Soon Martin was morbidly conscious of the way other boys were looking at him.  What attention he was getting was probably only because of his known friendship with the two Rothenian princes, but he imagined otherwise.








  It was now the cricketing season and a certain reversal of roles had occurred among the three friends.  Martin was an avid and practised bowler, while Leo turned out to have the eye and coordination to be a fine bat.  Pip was not so interested in cricket, which lacked the physicality he liked in games.  He took up boxing instead.


  Mr Gale promptly selected Martin and Leo for the school under-14 first eleven.  This helped take Martin’s mind further from his humiliation by Metcalf.  He and Leo were continually in the nets, practising for the big match against Rugby School in the last week of Trinity term.  It was rendered all the bigger when the headmaster announced that the most famous Old Medwardinian, King Maxim of Rothenia, would be present for the match and had consented to make the address at the prize-giving.


  One Saturday afternoon a week before the match, Leo and Martin were given the jobs of clearing away the stumps and equipment after the fixture between the first and second elevens, in which Martin had taken four wickets.  They hauled the bats, leg guards and stumps across to the pavilion.  When they had stacked everything in a reasonable semblance of tidiness, they sat side by side on the groundsman’s roller looking out across the pitch towards the gables of Old School and New Building.  Everyone had gone inside for prep, but Leo and Martin had no immediate desire to follow them.


  It was a cool and windy day towards the end of June.  Both boys were very much at ease with the world, to the extent that Leo ventured to ask Martin how he was feeling now about Metcalf and Humphreys.


  Martin gave a little snort.  ‘They deserve each other.’


  Leo laughed.  This was more like it.  ‘You’re over that infatuation then?’


  ‘Well, yes, I suppose.  Though I … Leo, I’m sorry.  I never asked if this sort of thing makes you uncomfortable.’


  Leo glanced at Martin through his lashes.  ‘No, it doesn’t.  Shall I tell you a secret?  But you must promise to keep it to yourself.  My grandfather, the count of Eisendorf, lived with a man, quite a famous man, my mother’s godfather.  They were … I don’t know what to call it.’


  ‘Can’t be man and wife, can it.’


  ‘No, I suppose not.  But maybe “lovers” works.’


  ‘Was that what Humphreys and I were?’


  Leo shrugged.  ‘I shouldn’t say so.  He was just using you.  I didn’t like it and I don’t like him.  You deserve so much more.’


  Martin, moved by the affection in that remark, put his arm round his friend’s shoulder.  He felt Leo slide closer to him.


  Martin finally said, ‘But there was a sort of thing about what Humphreys and I did.  He would cuddle me into him and hold me tight after we … y’know.’


  ‘I can guess.’


  ‘Anyway, that was so comforting and nice.  It was what I liked, what I wanted more of.  It made me feel good to have him holding me, making me feel safe.  Leo?’




  ‘Have you and Pip ever …?’


  Leo replied without hesitation.  ‘We have once or twice.  But he doesn’t like it much; he just does it to please me.’


  ‘Oh!  Does that mean …?’


  ‘Yes.  I like it too.  I like it a lot, and Martin …’


  Martin’s heart began to beat hard, and his head buzzed with tension.  All the little signals and looks he had been getting from Leo suddenly made sense.  The blinkers had fallen.  The young prince loved him!


  ‘I would so like …’  Leo never finished, for Martin’s mouth closed on his, and put into practise the lessons that Humphreys had taught.








  Their moment of epiphany had come to Leo and Martin.  Pip quickly noticed something new between his two closest friends, which made him smile privately and conclude that, much though he loved his cousin, a lot of the pressure in their relationship was now off him.  He had felt, only half articulated, that Leo wanted more from him than he could give.


  Little likewise was said between Leo and Martin.  Recognising their situation for what it was did not take them far.  In the strictly regimented life of a boys’ boarding school, there was hardly any chance for physical consummation of their mutual attraction, however powerful their desires were.  But they happily existed on private smiles, brief, snatched moments of intimacy and cautiously held hands.


  Their happiest moments were in the prep room, now warm with summer heat, the rich scents of summer fields blowing through the open windows.  They would be working together, sitting close, their hands and legs occasionally touching.  When they could, they talked endlessly, Martin admiring the humour, wit and tenderness of his friend, Leo drinking in the affection and artless admiration of the other.


  They had only three weeks of this adolescent Eden before the final week was upon them.  The cricket match against Rugby was played under glorious blue skies.  Martin took five wickets, one by a catch from his own bowling.  Leo earned the adoration of the watching third and fourth forms by scoring 87 not out, as the third batsman, and forcing Rugby to follow on.


  The final day came.  Trunks were brought out from under beds, and the last laundry packed away.  Pip, Leo and Martin walked the terrace beneath the chapel walls for the last time as third formers.


  ‘What a year, chaps, eh?’  Pip grinned.


  Leo smiled at Martin.  ‘What a year,’ he confirmed.


  Martin asked, ‘What are you two doing over the summer?’


  Pip answered first.  ‘Home to Belsager for a week, and then mother is taking me to see grandpapa and grandmama in Templerstadt for a whole three weeks.  Uncle Welf and Aunt Rica should be there too, with Osku; he’s my cousin, he’s only six.  Then we go to visit grandfather and grandmother Underwood in Winchmore Hill just for a few days.  King Maxim is off to Geneva, but we’ll be joining up again for the shooting at Buccleuch at the end of August.  And that’ll be summer.  I’ll hardly see Leo at all till Scotland.’


  Leo smirked.  ‘You see enough of me as it is.  Grandfather is taking me to Germany, where I’ll be resident in Thuringia for a while.  He said I should be seen there.  I have a feeling it will be very tedious, even with grandfather.’


  ‘And I will be in Berkshire for the whole eight weeks.  Look, it’s Laszlo and the car!’


  The three boys had walked round the corner of New Building, and saw King Maxim’s car drawn up outside the Headmaster’s Lodge.  They strolled along to say hello to Laszlo, then joined the tide of other boys and parents moving into the enormous marquee which had been erected on the lawn.


  The school orchestra was playing and the place was filled with flowers.  The headmaster in gown and cap gave his report for the year before introducing King Maxim of Rothenia, guardian of a third former in the school.  He gave a fulsome résumé of the king’s political career, and praised his current work as ‘an international ambassador for peace.’


  Maxim took the podium and smiled at the boys.  He talked of the world the Treaty of Versailles had created, of the vision of free determination of their fates for the people of the world.  He talked of neighbourliness and the parliament intended to represent all nations, which from its seat in Geneva was to settle international difficulties by debate so they would not be fought over.


  ‘This is the new world, your future world.  If the nations can accept this forum and act together, there will never be a need in your lifetimes for the sacrifice asked of your fathers.  Let us work together for a very different world where the attack on poverty, disease and hunger are mankind’s only wars.’


  The king’s animation and passion in his cause got through to the boys, and the applause as he finished was more than cordial.


  In the presentation that followed, Prince Philip of Murranberg gained the third-form games trophy, Prince Leopold of Thuringia the school Classics prize and Martin Tofts the third-form Latin cup.


  As King Maxim shook Martin’s hand he whispered, ‘I think Leo’s grandfather has written to your mother about spending a fortnight with Leo in the Black Mountains.  Practise your German.’  And that, to Martin, was the biggest prize he earned all year.


  Leo and Martin said farewell in an empty prep room, where Leo delivered the Pensk-Prozechnen.  His kiss did not land on Martin’s forehead, nor was theirs a brief embrace.








  ‘There, sir, if you please, the white building you can see near the top of that hill.’  Laszlo was pointing out the Heinrichshof to Martin.  This was the last stage of their journey from Reading, where Martin’s mother had entrusted her son into the chauffeur’s keeping.  The two had taken the train to London and Harwich, the steam ferry to Antwerp and from there trains that had brought them to Ernsthof, capital of the state of Thuringia in the German Republic.


  Their final stage was made in a handsome black Daimler limousine which had been waiting for them in the station forecourt.  Laszlo became quite sniffy about the skills of the German chauffeur attached to Leo’s household in the ducal schloss.


  ‘How old is the castle?’  Martin’s question elicited no information, nor did any subsequent ones, apart from the request as to numbers of servants.


  ‘At least a score in livery, sir, as well as half a dozen gardeners, foresters and a head cook.  The prince of Thuringia was a very wealthy young man, sir, even before he inherited the Dönitz millions.’




  ‘Oh, his mother’s godfather.  The baron was single and supposedly the wealthiest businessman in Central Europe.  All I know is that he was a lovely, delightful gentleman.  He and the prince’s grandfather lived together in a huge mansion above Pietersberg, or Piotreshrad, in Rothenia near the lake.  When he died he left the bulk of his fortune to the young prince, whom he adored.’


  ‘My!  So how wealthy is he?’


  ‘They say he makes the princes of Thurn and Taxis look like paupers, and that he could buy the Rothschilds with the small change in his pocket.’


  The Daimler emerged from a belt of conifers on to a hillside of improbably green grass.  Facing them was the white front of a great castle with tall, round towers between many-windowed ranges.  Pinnacles and onion domes painted black topped the towers and buttresses.  It was not by any means a classically handsome building, but it projected an aura of power and grandeur.  An impressive banner striped in yellow and black tugged like a ship’s sail at the flagpole of the massive keep.  It was a gorgeous August day, the sky above crisp and blue, yet that was not why Martin’s heart was singing.


  The limousine advanced up a well-maintained drive between lines of stone posts carved with Thuringian wyverns.  Passing under the great gate house, it crossed a bailey laid with multi-coloured cobbles in elaborate patterns.  It finally pulled up at an elaborate porch, on the bottom steps of which were three liveried domestics, the count of Eisendorf and a grinning prince.


  Martin knew to wait for Laszlo to open the car door, but he leaped out as soon as he could.  He shook Gus’s hand before Leo cupped his face, said some Rothenian words and kissed his forehead.  Their eyes met and held.  Leo took his hand and led him inside.


  ‘So here we are, Tofts, in the ancestral pile.  Could you ask for anything more historic?  First erected by my remote ancestor Henry the Black in 1144, though all that castle is long built over.  Most of what you see is from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Luther was imprisoned briefly in that very tower.  Gustavus Adolphus used the castle as his headquarters for the invasion of Bohemia.’


  Gus was smiling at the two.  ‘I salvaged all the artwork from the palaces in Ernsthof and had it hung in the galleries here.  Welf insisted I also have the libraries transported.’


  ‘You must see some of the books, Martin.  There are Carolingian gospels and commentaries which will make your eyes pop out.  There’s any Latin work you choose to mention.  We even have our own librarian, Dr Gasse, a friend of Uncle Welf’s, a very learned gentleman.’


  The porch led into a high antechamber hung with banners and mounted heads of stags and boars.  Suits of medieval armour stood in ranks along the walls.  A grand staircase led up to another great archway through which could be glimpsed a hall with a hammerbeam roof.  But Leo led Martin into a more domestic range, where he opened the door of a light and airy parlour with a view through modern windows into the courtyards.


  Footmen arrived with tea and cakes.  Gus asked some polite questions about the journey, then left Leo to show Martin his room.  Leo whispered to his friend that they were in adjoining bedrooms.


  When they closed the door behind them and were alone together, both boys were overcome with a sudden shyness.


  ‘Well, here we are, Tofts.’


  Martin found he could hardly meet his friend’s eyes.  ‘Yes … here we are.’


  There was a sudden silence which was difficult to fill.  Eventually, Martin reached up, heart pounding, and caressed Leo’s brown cheek.  Leo caught his hand and kissed it.  They came together, and embraced for a long time, with no urgency to do more.


  ‘Tonight,’ Martin eventually whispered in Leo’s ear.  ‘Come to my bed as soon as it’s quiet, will you?’


  ‘Rather.  Try and stop me.  Look.  That little door opens from my room.  I’ve unlocked it.’


  ‘Oh, this is incredible.  Everything I’ve dreamed of.  You know what I want to say?’


  ‘Yes, I know.  Come on, let’s get your stuff sorted so I can show you all over the castle.  You won’t be disappointed.’


  They spent the rest of the evening until dinnertime exploring corridors and galleries, dungeons and parapets.  The Heinrichshof was everything a castle should be.


  Martin found the library perfectly awesome.  Several great chambers were filled from floor to ceiling with volumes stacked in tall, tottering presses.  Rank upon rank of calf-bound tomes advertised their contents cryptically to scholars.  There was an entire shelf of printed Vulgates.  ‘That’s a Guttenburg Bible, we have three of them.  The medieval-manuscript ones are in the vault.  We can look at them if you like.  The earliest full text is twelfth century.  One of my ancestors stole it from the abbey of Reichenau.  The illustrations are glorious.’


  They paused in the largest of the galleries, the one that led between the Great Hall and the state chambers.  Martin looked up at the portrait of an imperial general, bedecked with stars.


  ‘Yes, that’s my father, King Albert.’


  Martin thought the late king modelled his posture and expression too obviously on that of the former kaiser.  ‘How old were you when he …’


  ‘Oh I was eight, but by then Uncle Welf and Aunt Rica had rescued me from Ernsthof and I was living with grandfather in Hentzau.’


  ‘You never told me the story.’


  ‘I will, I promise.’


  After dinner, Gus ordered both boys straight to bed.  Martin hastened to obey.  He lay waiting anxiously and impatiently for the small door from Leo’s room to open.


  Not too soon for him he was aware that he was no longer alone.  Another pyjama-clad figure slid next to him under the counterpane.  A warm body embraced his and a kiss was planted on his cheek.  The scent of Leo Underwood in his nostrils had Martin in a state of high excitement.


  Leo broke off and giggled.  ‘What do we do next?’


  Martin kissed him on the mouth.  ‘We need to remove any obstacles to further intimacy.’


  Leo gave a low laugh now.  There was a rustle and two pairs of pyjamas were dropped next the bed.  They came together again, bare skin touching bare skin.  Martin sighed.


  Leo whispered in his ear as he kissed it, ‘Now Tofts … show me what that wicked man Humphreys taught you.’








  Martin spent the next two weeks in a high state of stimulation, physical and mental.  By day he paced the castle buildings and inspected the foundations.  He filled notebooks with drawings and plans, Leo helping him pace the measurements, quite as excited as he.  Dr Gasse looked out old histories and chronicles which mentioned the Heinrichshof, and found ancient surveys of the structure, some illuminated on parchment.


  ‘My dear boys,’ the doctor smiled, ‘you really are quite natural archeologists.’


  ‘Archeologist?  Is that what I am?’


  Leo nodded.  ‘I think you may be, Tofts.  You’re good at this.  You seem to see through walls and think in four dimensions.  It’s really quite remarkable.’


  In the meantime, Martin cultivated German and improved his Rothenian, which was the language of the dinner table with Gus Underwood.


  What his grandfather made of the two boys together was impossible to say, for he gave nothing away.  But he must have noticed something.  He could hardly have helped it.


  The days passed in high contentment, though all too quickly.  They rode in the forest and swam in a nearby lake when they weren’t exploring the castle or reading.


  Three days before their departure, a car drew up in the courtyard and a small family alighted.


  ‘Uncle Welf!  Aunt Rica!’  Leo hurled himself into the arms of a tall, bespectacled man and his dark wife.


  A small boy bounded impatiently round.  ‘What about me, Leo?’  He too got his hug and kiss.


  Martin was introduced.  This was Professor von Tarlenheim, author of Maxim of Rothenia, who Martin knew was world-famous for being the first man to decipher the Etruscan and Rhaetian languages.


  Family news was exchanged as they entered the castle and made for the parlour.  The youngster Oskar Maxim – or Osku as Leo called him – babbled on to the older boys about the pony Uncle Henry had given him and the fact that Latin and Greek were very boring.  He wanted to be a pilot like Uncle Henry, who was now a colonel in the air force.


  Welf expressed a desire to look at Martin’s notebooks, listening to his explanations of the building with more than patience.  He asked Martin to accompany him as he went to greet his friend Dr Gasse.  The men sat Martin down in an armchair in the library and began seriously questioning him.


  ‘So, young man.  You think this west range is older than the fifteenth century?’


  ‘Yes sir.  If you go down to the undercroft level, you see all this herringbone masonry, which is also to be found in patches up to three floors above.  It’s unlike anything else in the castle, and it’s associated with one datable piece of Romanesque masonry, a chimney stack which still issues at parapet level.  To me it seems clear that Duke Henry’s keep makes up the bulk of the west range, and if that’s the case, then there’s an argument for the curtain wall of his original castle still running here.’


  The men exchanged glances.  ‘This is remarkable, young man,’ Dr Gasse commented with a smile.  ‘Your plan is both neat and well-executed; you’re a natural draughtsman.’


  ‘Look sir, this is my reconstruction of the twelfth-century fortress.’


  Welf’s eyebrows raised.  ‘My word.  Good heavens!’


  ‘Everything is older than it looks, sir.  That’s what I’m beginning to realise in studying antiquities.  Our ancestors didn’t rebuild from scratch if there were perfectly good walls still standing.’


  That evening, dinner was formal.  Dr and Frau Gasse attended and the men – including the two fourteen-year-olds – wore evening dress.  Leo and Martin were much of a size, so one of Leo’s suits fit his friend very well.  They ate by candlelight, with footmen in red Thuringian livery standing around the walls.  The plate was gold and silver, the centrepiece an aromatic mass of summer flowers.


  The conversation began with Martin’s investigations, and he found himself having to explain his theories all over again to Gus and Rica, who were less easy an audience than Welf and the doctor.  In the end he had to content himself with convincing the count that parts of the castle were not just old, but very old.


  Welf sat back and smiled as Martin laboured patiently to put his point across.  It seemed to amuse him very much.


  The conversation then passed to the economy of modern Germany.  Gus was solemn.  ‘The current government has still not got there.  But certainly things are a lot better than they were this time last year … the inflation!  Thank God for the Rothenian krone.  All you see here has been built on the stability of the economy back home and the gold reserves Anton built up in our Swiss accounts.  There is instability and poverty elsewhere in Germany, but not on Leo’s Thuringian estates.’


  ‘For which I am very pleased,’ commented the prince with a smile.


  ‘Ironic, isn’t it?’ added Welf.  ‘The duchy of Thuringia has to be abolished before its dukes become popular.  You seem to be the first Thuringian to be cordially loved by his people, Leo.’


  ‘I think there’s a moral there,’ laughed Dr Gasse.


  Leo gave a quirky look.  ‘I’m sure it’s all about power and the people who seek it.  I’ve never wanted power over anyone.’  He shot a glance across the table at Martin.


  Welf frowned.  ‘Germany at the moment is full of men who want power over others: Communists, Freikorps, the military, socialists and anti-socialists.  They all have unpleasant agendas.  The only thing allowing the Weimar Republic to survive is that they all hate each other too much to combine to bring it down.  It’s a balance of chaos.’


  Gus seemed to disagree.  ‘It will settle down again, Welf dear.  Chaos is in no one’s interest.  The world needs to get back to business, that’s all.’


  ‘I wish I could be so confident.  This is a new world, uncle.  The Bolsheviks do not care for business, that’s not the way their philosophy works.  They have a new economics where two and two can make seventeen, if they so choose.  Then there are the hyper-nationalists like the Italian corporatist … what is his name? … Mussolini.  For him, the State is God, and all must serve its interests like slaves serve an empire.’


  Dr Gasse looked troubled.  ‘So, Welf, you don’t share King Maxim’s optimism about the League of Nations being the future of the world.’


  ‘I wouldn’t put the king’s idea quite like that.  He sees the League as a way of averting wars, that’s all.  He knows too much about how nations behave towards each other to have any utopian ideals, or even much expectation really.  To him, the League is basically a mechanism by which the weak can be protected from the ruthless and powerful, without falling back on the imperial alliances that led to the war.’


  The conversation continued until the port began to circulate, at which point the boys were dismissed to bed.  Undressing together, Martin asked Leo if he had any fears for the world they were growing up in.


  As he pulled off his socks, Leo looked Martin straight in the eye.  ‘Not while you’re my friend, Tofts.’


  Somehow that sort of confidence scared Martin.