The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
The sound of a badly played accordion drifted out of Temple House’s sixth-form common room. False notes and bad timing set Martin’s teeth on edge.
‘Pip, for the love of God, give it a rest!’
His friend chuckled. ‘Philistine. One has to suffer for one’s art.’
‘But it’s me and everyone else that is suffering, old fellow. Whatever possessed you to try to learn that infernal instrument?’
Philip, prince of Murranberg, lay with his six feet two inches stretched along the old sofa. His books were piled on the carpet at the side. He had clearly picked up the accordion to escape the demands of the matriculation examination.
‘Very well, old Tofts. I shall put aside my art for now. Where’s Leo?’
‘In the housemaster’s study on the telephone to Belsager. Your stepfather is approving the travel arrangements. We three are to go by train to Southampton and navigate our own way to Piotreshrad via Paris and Linz.’
‘Ah … Paris. It’s been so long since I was there.’
‘And we have to be with Count Gus three days before Christmas.’ Martin beamed. ‘I say, old Pip, this is a bit of a dream, isn’t it?’
‘Being let loose on the continent of Europe without adult supervision? I hope your mother doesn’t think it’s a nightmare.’
Martin shrugged. His mother’s second marriage to the rector of their Berkshire village and the birth of a half-sister had much simplified his life. He genuinely liked his new stepfather, a good-humoured and liberal clergyman, into whose capable hands he was more than happy to resign the weight of responsibility for his mother. It meant that Christmas in Rothenia with the Underwoods was now eminently possible.
Martin was within two months of being eighteen years of age. He had gained his adult height and proportions. A shock of rich blond hair and a frank, open face made him the handsome young man he had always promised to be. He had been named deputy to Pip, who was head boy of Temple.
Martin bounced down on the sofa on top of his friend, causing the accordion to give a tragic sort of wail. They were wrestling and laughing when Leo came through the door. He whooped and jumped on the squirming pair, who turned on him and pinned him down on the dusty carpet.
Pip grinned in his cousin’s face. ‘All sorted?’
Leo struggled to get free, recognised the inevitable and gave in. ‘Yes. Thomas Cook will send us the tickets through the post.’ He smiled lazily. ‘Are you going to let me up now? You know I’m enjoying this.’ Pip laughed and kissed him.
Leo had grown up slighter and smaller than his two friends. His dark and sensitive face, striking in a different way from their athletic good looks, glowed with an obvious depth of intellect. The passing years had seen him increasingly take over the leadership of the three from Pip as the other two learned to recognise his inner strength and determination and as they encountered challenges intellectual and moral rather than physical.
When Pip let Leo go, Martin hauled him to his feet, holding him in a clinch for a little longer than friends normally would.
Four years of schooling and living at close quarters had led to periods of distance between Leo and Martin. They were not saints, but normal boys who argued and occasionally sulked with each other. Martin had been tempted elsewhere. Leo had not been, however, although he willingly forgave Martin his wanderings. For all that, they had remained close.
Their transition to the sixth had increased their opportunities for intimacy, which they took full advantage of. Pip, complaining once that he was getting tired of being their lookout, had raised his eyes when they laughingly suggested an alternative. That Tofts and Prince Leopold were always going it was well-known across the school and, in its way, accepted and acceptable.
Leo searched around amongst Pip’s books, then smiled as he straightened. ‘Uncle Welf will be glad you’re taking responsions seriously. It’ll only be the week after we come back, you know.’
Martin’s heart gave a nervous skip. For his two friends, little really rode on the Oxford entrance examinations. But for him it was the first delicate step towards a university education his family could not exactly afford. His uncle the archdeacon had too many children to wish to subsidise Martin as well. Martin must pass his Higher Certificate and triumph at Oxford in January to have a hope of the all-important scholarship which would make university a possibility. He had little fear about his Latin and Greek; it was the mathematics paper that worried him.
However, the fun of travel – especially his first visit to Rothenia – distracted Martin. King Maxim always paid for his tickets and hotels, something that was never mentioned. But Martin had to rely on his mother for spending money. Although circumstances were now easier for her, he did not like to be overly demanding. There were adult expenses of which he was becoming all too aware: taxis, cafés, gloves, clean shirts, haircuts, alcohol. His friends would not even notice them, whereas to him they would always be major obstacles until, at some future unspecified time, he joined the ranks of wage earners.
Martin became aware that Leo was still talking. ‘… and on our last day, it’s James’s coming-of-age at Hentzau. It’ll be quite a bash. Everyone is in a state because King Maxim will be there as head of the family, the first time he’s returned to Rothenia since the end of the monarchy. Grandfather half expects demonstrations from all sorts: fascists, Elphberg monarchists, Thuringian monarchists, National Socialists, republicans, Communists, God knows what.’
Martin focussed. ‘Oh! Is it likely to be dangerous?’
Pip looked quirky. ‘Rothenia is always dangerous, Tofts. I thought you’d have learned that by now. Leo and I have been taking small-arms and fencing lessons for a reason.’
This frank admission was not a jest. He knew Pip too well for that by now. Somehow, though, Martin was more intrigued than alarmed by it.
‘Does he know?’ Martin was nervous.
Leo shrugged. ‘I think so … in fact I’m certain of it. But he’s of a generation which would never say, unless you say first.’ He and Martin were walking the terrace of his grandfather’s house above the Rothenian resort of Piotreshrad. The waters of Lake Maresku below them were black where they were not frozen solid around the shore. The trees climbing up every hillside were banked heavily with snow.
‘Let’s get inside. It really must be well below zero here.’ Leo paused when they reached the door. ‘Martin, he won’t mind. He is homosexual himself, and lived with Anton Dönitz for nearly forty years. Even before then there was Count Oskar.’
‘One of the most colourful members of the Tarlenheim family, Pip’s great-uncle. He was a flamboyant diplomat and intelligence agent of the 1870s: quite a stunning-looking man. Come and see his portrait. It was painted by King Maxim’s father. I used to stare at it for hours as a small boy. I fell in love with him and …’
‘I … think I met him once.’
‘But isn’t he dead?’
‘Yes. Odd that, isn’t it? But Oskar has a continuing interest in grandfather and the fate of Rothenia. You really must get to know the story. You’re family now.’
Somehow that last observation warmed Martin more than his heavy winter coat.
The portrait of Oskar was in the main parlour, one of the grand first-floor rooms facing on to the lake in the magnificent Lutyens house that Gus and Anton had built together. It was panelled with light wood: birch, Martin guessed. That day a large coal fire made it cosy and irresistible.
Gus looked up from the London papers that reached him two days after they were published. ‘Good morning, boys.’
‘Good morning, sir,’ they chorused.
Gus Underwood, now in his sixty-ninth year, was hale and cheerful-looking. He seemed particularly good-humoured to have his house full of family over the Christmas season. As well as Leo, Pip and Martin, King Maxim would be joining them soon, with his wife and stepdaughter. Leo’s sister, the princess of Salerno, and her children were also coming.
Leo looked pointedly at Martin and seemed to make a decision. ‘Grandfather?’
Gus smiled at him. ‘What is it, darling?’
‘You know – you need to know – that it’s not necessary to put Tofts and me in separate bedrooms.’
A cloud crossed Gus’s face and he sighed. But he didn’t seem either shocked or surprised. ‘Yes I know, sweetheart. Sleep together you two if you wish and with my blessing. You know I wouldn’t prevent it; that would indeed be hypocrisy of a high order. But I think, for your sister’s sake, you need to keep up the pretence for a while as yet.’
‘You knew of course.’
‘My darling boy, how could I mistake the signs? You come alight when you’re with Martin, and the looks he gives you would burn a hole through a Sunday newspaper. I’m happy for you both, but you know …’
‘Yes sir,’ Martin said. ‘I think I know what you want to say. Our happiness will be precarious, to say the least.’
‘Yes, and you are always going to be in danger from people’s prejudices. What you do together is still a criminal offence in this country, as it is in England. When I was a young man here it was punishable by death. But there are other issues too, which you’ll both have to face one day.’
There was a silence, broken by Leo. ‘Sir, I brought Tofts in here to look at Count Oskar.’
‘Did you, my dear, and why was that?’
‘I thought he should know a little more about the history of our family.’
‘Indeed. What do you want to talk about?’
‘He knows about Oskar and his duel with my father … the first duel.’
Martin looked puzzled. ‘But he died in that duel!’
‘Yet he fought my father again, in the long gallery of the Fürstenschloss of Ernsthof. I watched it.’
Gus nodded. ‘Oskar was indeed run through by Albert of Thuringia in the year 1880 on the lawns of Bila Palacz, where he died in my arms. But his spirit and his love of this country were too strong for death wholly to extinguish them. Look again at that portrait, and tell me who it reminds you of.’
Martin looked above the mantelpiece. The famous count had been a very handsome blonde, with a seductive but not mocking half-smile about his wide mouth. His eyes were a magnetic blue-green that defied convention and categories. Martin had seen nothing like him – until he looked again. The shape of the face, the colour of the eyes and the fall of the fringe were rather familiar. ‘Why! It’s …’
‘Yes, it’s Welf von Tarlenheim, who is in fact Oskar’s nephew,’ Gus continued. ‘Welf was sent to Thuringia in 1917 to assist my attempts to repatriate young Leo, who had been abducted by his father from Strelzen in the year Albert was expelled from Rothenia by Maxim. Welf turned out to be – despite his scholarliness – a very successful secret agent. He orchestrated Leo’s escape from the ducal castle, but as he and Leo were making their way through the corridors and galleries, King Albert came upon them.’
Leo jumped in. ‘Yes. Those moments are imprinted on my mind. My father walked right into us as we were leaving the long gallery. But when he stared at Welf, it wasn’t Welf he saw, it was Oskar. This was the strange thing. When Welf pushed me to shelter behind the gallery door, it was not actually he but someone else looking at me through his eyes. Someone daring and scary, not like Welf at all. And that person fought and defeated my father, knocking him unconscious to give Welf and me time to escape the walls.’
‘Welf was possessed by Oskar, is that what you are telling me?’
Gus answered him. ‘The things Welf was inspired to say and do in those moments in the gallery could not have been said and done by himself. So I believe, after what he told me. It seems Oskar wanted Leo to escape from Ernsthof and intervened so he might. And that concerns me.’
‘Because Oskar was not doing it to help his nephew in a narrow pass, or even to bring my grandson back to me. No, if he intervened, it was because greater issues were at stake, for above all it was Rothenia and the Elphberg dynasty he loved.’
‘Then Leo will one day be king? Is that what you suppose? But he is not an Elphberg.’
‘No, I don’t think that is why Oskar came back from the dead. But otherwise I really don’t understand. All I am sure of is that my Leo has a great part as yet to play in the history of our country. Oskar set a mark on him.’
Leo crossed the floor and sat on his grandfather’s lap, kissing the old man.
‘My word, boy, you’re getting to be a weight. I will be proud of you, I know, prouder even than I am now.’ He looked at Martin. ‘One thing you should also consider, young Master Tofts. Anyone close to my grandson may find his courage tested in quite extraordinary ways. Bear that in mind.’
Despite the cold, quite a crowd was gathered at the door of the church of Ss Peter and Fenice of Piotreshrad.
A ragged cheer went up as the former King Maxim alighted from his limousine, followed by Queen Helga and her daughter, the teenage countess of Templerstadt.
The second car got further cheers. Martin held back. A new Leo was revealed when he stepped down from the car: a self-possessed prince who acknowledged the cheers and applause of the people as if they were his right. The surge of an unfamiliar feeling washed over Martin. He had long loved Leo. Now this possessive passion was mingled with something else, something that took him by surprise: a respect for what Leo was and the position he occupied with such ease and assurance.
They walked into the church, the king, queen and prince all shaking hands with the local dignitaries. Gus, Pip and Martin came behind, escorting Leo’s sister, the princess of Salerno, and her little son, Leo’s nephew, the duke of Apulia.
Martin found Princess Victoria Mechtild charming company. Her English was excellent and her sense of fun irresistible. She was very like her brother, to whom she was devoted. She and Martin had sung English country songs for the guests in Gus’s home the previous night, accompanied by Queen Helga at the piano.
Leo had dimpled at him. ‘You sing beautifully, Tofts, a talent I simply do not have.’
Pip, on the other hand, did have it. He followed on by singing comical Rothenian country songs with his uncle Henry, as they had loved to do when Pip was a child at Templerstadt.
Martin was very much enjoying the house party, particularly the company of King Maxim, whom he had come to venerate. The three boys had, for the first time, been allowed to stay with the men when the ladies withdrew after dinner. Gus liked to keep up the customs of his youth. ‘No cigars, though,’ he had pronounced.
‘They make me sick anyway,’ Pip had replied under his breath.
Martin was next to the king and monopolised him so far as he was able. ‘Sir, I was reading about the republic’s problems. Do you think there will be a call for your restoration, is that why you’re here?’
The king puffed out a cloud of smoke. ‘I hope not, Martin, because I have no desire to be restored. But this sort of dissatisfaction was inevitable; both Tildemann and I foresaw it. The Rothenian economy did extremely well out of the war, and profits from agriculture were very high. It could not last. Grain prices slumped in 1920 and have never recovered. The dairy side of agriculture was always strong in Rothenia, which has helped a little, but farmers are nonetheless complaining bitterly. The agricultural depression has polarised Social Democrat support on the cities and led to a nostalgia for the monarchy in the areas dominated by the Christian Democrat Party, where Elphberg support was always steadfast. Tildemann’s coalition hangs by a thread nowadays. His majority in parliament depends on one dissident CDP member.’
‘But these fascists, sir?’
‘The Catholic Renewal Movement’s Blackshirts? Yes, the KRB is a new thing. Its members are very conservative and corporatist, like their Italian colleagues. They also favour the monarchy, but want all power in the hands of their Direktor, that curious man, Gulik. They really do hate the Communists too. The violence in the southern cities has been truly shocking. They seem to be getting a lot of backing from Italy. Bermann was taking the salute with Mussolini in a rally at Milan only two months ago.’
‘Rothenia seems as turbulent as Germany, sir.’
‘Not quite, although there are common problems. Moreover, there are certain elements of the Weimar sickness infecting this country too, not least – of course – Mittenheim and Merz on the German border. There has been some brutal violence and intimidation against Rothenian interests in the Germanic areas. Only last week, two lecturers in Rothenian literature at the University of Mittenheim were murdered by National Socialist thugs who turned out to be students, which is horrifying.’
‘As far as I understand the movement, it is a virulently racist offshoot of the Freikorps. It’s one of the most vicious of the paramilitary groups which are undermining support for the republic. It has compromised the police and civil life in some areas, notably Leo’s Thuringia, where “Nazism”, as they call it, is very strong. I fear for Germany if such groups take power.’
‘Surely that’s unlikely, sir.’
‘Would that I could be so confident. The governments associated with Streseman have had a good run, but one could hardly claim that the ideal of liberal democracy has gained a hold on the German people. Many still blame Ebert’s Reich for supposedly stabbing the German army in the back in the last months of the war. The German military will not accept responsibility for the defeat, so they and their ilk have created a myth that Jews, Spartacists, capitalists, Communists – anyone you like, really – destroyed the empire from within.’
All these political reflections were running through Martin’s mind as he daydreamed his way through mass that Christmas morning. Since he was not a Catholic, the liturgy had no grip on his attention, leaving him to concentrate on being inconspicuous behind a pillar of the Victorian church.
So far as Martin was aware, Leo too was not a young man of any pronounced religious beliefs. He said he had been brought up as a Lutheran in Thuringia, but had very happily converted to his grandfather’s Catholicism on coming to Rothenia. In Medwardine, Pip and Leo had managed to avoid chapel, something for which Martin envied them. They went instead to the Catholic church in Medwardine town weekly on Friday for confession and once every fortnight for high mass on Sunday.
Martin had been intrigued. ‘What do you confess, Pip?’
‘Oh, nothing much. What’s to confess living in the monastic environment of Medwardine? Just very impure thoughts every now and again and a bit of masturbation, for which it appears I’ll simmer a while in purgatory if I’m not careful. You and Leo, on the other hand … how you two can read Genesis with a straight face is beyond me.’
‘Oh … you mean the sin of Sodom. Hmm. It does give me pause for thought. You don’t suppose Leo takes it to the confessional?’
‘Me? How would I know? I doubt it. I keep to myself quite how impure my own impure thoughts are, believe me. I wouldn’t want to over-excite Father Docherty.’
A very large crowd had gathered by the time the Underwood and Elphberg party came to leave the church. A group of local black-shirted KRB troopers took it upon themselves to clear an avenue to the king’s cars. Responding to the cheers and applause that accompanied their progress, the king and Leo stopped and shook hands, greeting the people as they went.
Maxim paused quite a while to talk to a veteran of the Spa Hills, who had stormed the German trenches alongside him on that day of glory for Rothenian arms. Cries of ‘God save your majesty!’ and ‘Long live the Elphberg!’ followed him to the car. ‘God bless Prince Leopold!’ was also a frequent cry, especially amongst the younger element.
As they all got into the limousine, Pip commented, ‘It seems the rivalry between the Elphbergs and Thuringians has been forgotten over the past few years.’
Leo gave a little laugh. ‘Then thank goodness for that.’
Deep winter still gripped the countryside as the train Gus had hired chugged south from Piotreshrad towards Hentzau.
Leo and Martin sat with the old man, to whom they had a natural bond of sympathy.
‘How long has it been since you were at Hentzau, Leo?’ asked Gus.
‘Not since the king left Rothenia, sir. I’m looking forward to seeing the old place. We had such fun there, Pip and I.’
‘We’ll be stopping for a while at Eisendorf.’
Martin registered this. ‘That’s the place from which you take your title, sir. Is it medieval?’
‘Not at all. There was an old village on the Hentzau estate, but it’s far outgrown its origins. It’s an industrial town which Maxim’s father and I brought into being, more or less. It’s grown to a city of more than a hundred thousand in my lifetime. It has the Torfinn munitions works as well as the Falke Aero-Engineers plant. The Wendell Brothers factories started producing tractors and trucks, but now they turn out high-quality automobiles too.
‘Most of the industry is partly or wholly owned by the Hentzau estate. It’s the main source of the Rassendyll family’s wealth nowadays, apart from its London rents. And today, with James’s twenty-first birthday, it comes into his ownership.’
Leo knew this, so he simply nodded. Martin however, had questions. ‘So will King Maxim lose all his money?’
‘Oh no. He had the use of the estate till his nephew came of age, and the profits of those years have been safely invested for him. Besides that, the Rothenian government settled an income for life – and a large portion of the former royal estates in perpetuity – on him.’
Leo intervened. ‘There’s Eisendorf!’
A forest of brick chimneys had appeared over the trees to the left, leaking or belching columns of vapour and smoke straight up into the freezing air. Warehouses, mills and workshops appeared all round the railway embankment. After crossing numerous viaducts spanning busy streets full of trams and automobiles, the train entered a huge siding, then pulled up with a great gush of steam in the cavernous spaces of Eisendorf station.
The platforms were crowded and bands were playing. Yellow-and-red Elphberg flags were waving, and national tricolours were hanging from the girders. As Maxim and Helga stepped down on to the platform, the national anthem struck up. The crowd sang it with enthusiasm, while Maxim stood with his hat doffed. After the final notes died away, the mayor and the local governor greeted the former king with smiles. Wives and children were presented. Martin was impressed at how everybody curtsied and bowed as enthusiastically as if there were still a monarchy.
Martin and Leo watched the scene through their compartment window. Leo commented, ‘Not much sign of enthusiasm for the republic now, is there?’
‘But isn’t this the Elphberg heartland?’
‘Husbrau? Yes, certainly. I suppose it’s no more than one would expect. Look at all those black-shirted fascists on parade with their flags. They’re making capital out of a loyal monarchist display, damn their eyes.’
‘You don’t trust them, do you.’
‘I most certainly do not. Look at that smirking oaf with the silly Italian hat pawing the king’s hand. That’ll be their regional commandant, I’d imagine.’
Martin took a close look at the heraldry of the Rothenian fascists drawn up opposite the train. The red, black and white national colours were understandably evident. But there were other items that would not have appeared on parade in Mussolini’s Rome. The KRB made great play of its Catholic credentials. There were representations of the Black Virgin of Glottenberg on display, and everywhere – on armbands, as gilded rank insignia, on the tips of banner staves and on the banners themselves – the Crown of Tassilo.
Even more fascists were parading through the high street of Hentzau. Maxim began to look nettled. ‘That damned man Gulik attempted to get me to meet him. I refused point-blank, of course. There is no possible way I will lend anything that looks like support to an avowed enemy of liberalism. The idiot cardinal of Strelzen has appeared on the platform of his rallies. Does he not know what the KRB thugs do on the streets of Hofbau and Zenden?’
Gus frowned. ‘Unfortunately, you can’t stop them parading, especially in Husbrau, where they are so strong.’
Maxim called off a carriage ride through the streets from the station to the Jakobskloster, because it would have appeared he had been given a KRB escort. Instead, cars took him and his party directly to the castle.
‘You’ll love this, Tofts,’ whispered Leo as they emerged from the car into the castle courtyard.
‘My heavens!’ Martin’s historical instincts instantly combusted, leaving him almost lightheaded. ‘I’ve died and gone to heaven! What a place!’
Leo stood beside him peering around. ‘Is it that special?’
‘Special! It’s as perfect a thirteenth-century courtyard castle as I’ve ever seen. Look at those towers! That has to be Savoyard influence, and if the gate tower isn’t modelled on the bastions of the Theodosian walls at Constantinople, I’m not Martin Tofts. Oh! But that stretch there! That’s all modern work.’
‘Yes. There were once eighteenth-century artillery ports inserted there. Grandfather had them replaced with something that looked more original. Clever of you to notice. Most people don’t. Come along, it’s cold and everyone’s gone in, not wanting to get frostbite.’
Leo and Martin tailed in last. The castle’s domestic range was modern and well-appointed. Gus, who had lived there off and on between 1880 and 1919, had remodelled and decorated the castle to a very high standard.
The heating certainly worked, and everyone was taking advantage of it. Maids and footmen were removing coats and carrying them off to some secret place known only to themselves. Hot drinks were already circulating in the lounge. A tall, red-headed young man came out into the hall, bowed, and shook Leo’s hand.
‘Your royal highness.’
‘James. How are you? Feeling more adult?’
The mischievous look on Leo’s face didn’t seem to have registered as humour. ‘It’s only a legal threshold, sir. I feel much the same today as I did yesterday.’
‘Just wealthier, eh? Do you remember Tofts here?’
Martin was swept by the same cold-fish gaze he recalled from when he was in the third and fourth forms and the earl was a prefect and head of Longley House.
‘Yes, I believe so.’ They shook hands. Leo and Martin followed him into the lounge.
A woman Martin did not know was talking to Maxim and Helga. He nudged Pip in query.
‘That’s James’s mother, the dowager countess.’
‘The one who caused all the trouble between James and King Maxim?’
‘The very same. She seems rather smug today, wouldn’t you say?’
A buffet lunch was all that was on offer, so Martin filled a plate and hid in a corner with Pip, not envying Leo’s duty to circulate and be affable. He had to admit, though, that his friend did it rather well, as if not resenting it at all.
‘What’s supposed to happen now, Pip?’
‘We’re going to have a mass at the Jakobskloster this afternoon, followed by a big dinner this evening. There’ll be speeches, God help us.’
‘No formal investiture, coronets, banners and stuff?’
‘Fortunately, no. I can’t imagine James is into that sort of thing. Though it is amusing to think of him having to dress up like a character out of Gilbert and Sullivan in order to enter the House of Lords at Westminster, which I suppose he will do one day. There’s no Reichsräthe in Rothenia nowadays, more’s the pity.’
The mass in Hentzau’s monastery interested Martin considerably more than the church in Piotreshrad, for at Hentzau he was able to sit back and let the architecture of the medieval building speak to him. The religious life at Belsager had been done away with by the agents of Henry VIII, but the Jakobskloster was still a working monastic house, with a continuous history since the twelfth century. Martin felt a degree of awe at the reflection.
The dinner in the castle’s hall that night was sumptuous. The countess had engaged professional caterers for the occasion, and had hired a chef from Vienna.
As dessert was being served, Maxim stood. He took the pose of the practised orator he was, but his speech was hardly political. He recalled the tragic death of his elder brother, James’s father. He mentioned his satisfaction at the upright and intelligent man his nephew had grown up to be, and at the functioning and profitable Rassendyll estate he was able to hand over to him. Only at the end did he mention that James was now, at twenty-one, the undoubted heir to the Elphberg monarchy. Even though he was not called royal highness or prince, nonetheless one day, when Maxim was gone, he would assume the headship of one of Europe’s greatest royal dynasties, which yet had much to offer his beloved nation of Rothenia.
Despite the heavy meal and liberal allowance of wine, Martin was still alert when James stood to reply to his uncle. Pip had dozed off.
The earl started out with some proper remarks about his gratitude for his uncle’s guardianship. As he spoke, the dowager countess his mother looked very frosty. He then fastened his gaze on a distant point and began quite a different speech.
‘It is appropriate today to recall my father and his tragic death in Strelzen, and how much we regret him. Without diminishing my uncle’s great achievements – and they have been superlative – let me observe that the Rassendyll family’s adventures in Ruritania have brought more than their fair share of tragedy. Because of the unbridled dynastic ambitions of one man, I grew up never knowing my father, and my own family was but one of many in this country visited by the dark consequences of civil war.’
Everyone sat up, apart from Pip, who dozed on unconscious, his chin supported by his hands. It occurred to Martin that James’s remarks might be taken to apply as much to his uncle as to the late King Albert, Leo’s father. It also occurred to Martin that this was not tactlessness, but the deliberate statement by James of his own ideas about the future of his family and estate.
‘There is much to do here in Rothenia, I know. New forces are emerging in European politics, and new dangers. My uncle has his own views as to the future of this country. Myself, I feel that some of the movements sweeping Central Europe may be a positive force for progress and stability. We should not attempt to cut them back so much as train these fresh growths to the advantage of the people of whom birth and wealth have given us the leadership.’
Martin looked across to Leo, on whose face he saw for the first time in his life a fixed glare of anger and distaste. It was concentrated unwaveringly on his cousin James.