The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
Martin Tofts bought his Sunday Times from a street vendor near the Clarendon Building, then strolled on towards Brown’s in the market. Meeting there for breakfast on Sunday, rather than eating separately in hall, had become a tradition for him, Leo and Pip. The church bells ringing out from the spires of Oxford did not stir Martin’s guilt. He had silently terminated his religious observance as soon as he left the Berkshire rectory where his family now lived, for New College. So far as he could tell, his friends had not set foot in a church either, though he was not entirely confident about Leo, who could be very quiet about some aspects of his life, even to Martin.
It was a misty November morning, and he needed his coat and scarf. Turl Street was more or less empty. His friends were already at their usual table with coffee, waiting for him before ordering food. They both looked up grinning, though Leo’s expression had something more: delight and even passion were part of it.
‘Morning, old Tofts,’ hailed Pip. Leo just took and pressed his hand as he came within range.
‘How did the evening go?’ Martin asked, settling opposite Pip.
‘Pretty well. Some of the chaps can be a bit … unrestrained. But everyone seemed to be on their best behaviour somehow. Katherine was very tolerant.’
Martin caught Leo’s eye, and they exchanged meaningful smiles. Pip had literally run into Miss Katherine Lockhart when she rode her bicycle into him on a busy corner at Carfax. Pip had lost his urban skills in his years at Medwardine, and had forgotten to look left as he tried to cross. He was knocked flat and badly bruised.
As he’d said with a strange hint of possessive pride, ‘She was coming uphill at quite a lick. Really, it was impressive. Of course, she has very powerful thighs, the hockey for Somerville, you know.’ Then he had blushed.
Pip had already achieved two blues by selection for the university rugby and boxing teams. He was stroke oar of his college boat and the university club was sizing him up for inclusion as well. He was the emerging sporting star of the matriculating class of 1928. What people were less aware of was that his academic progress in the philosophy school was equally formidable. Philip, prince of Murranberg, was all the rage in his year, and it was as well he had fallen head over heels for Katherine – ‘after she knocked me head over heels,’ he added. All the dining clubs had wanted him as a social trophy, but he was otherwise engaged. Saturday night had been the Rugby Society’s annual dinner at the Blue Boar, which had left him clearly still the worse for wear. He ordered dry toast and looked askance at Martin’s plate, floating with grease and boiled tomato.
Leopold, prince of Rothenia and Thuringia, had made rather less of a splash in the university than he had at Medwardine. At one level this was not surprising. His handsome and dashing cousin attracted attention wherever he went, without making any effort. Leo’s was a much quieter and more academic character. His natural dignity and intimidating connections deterred all but the most determined tuft hunter. He was, however, well-known and admired in his college. He had started attending Union debates with Martin, and they had joined several student societies.
Leo and Martin had made their own small circle of college friends, and Friday night at the Eagle and Child was their more respectable social focus, though they had others which were less salubrious. They were therefore in the mood for as hearty a breakfast as they could get, as their Saturday night had been relatively sober.
Pip looked away from their disagreeable display of appetite and took refuge in a cigarette. ‘My mother insists that we go up at least one weekend this month. Sissi has come out, and they’re all staying in Burlesdon House for the season. I have it on good authority that Max thinks you should attend a minimum of two balls before Christmas, Leo.’
‘I’m not going without Martin.’
‘Yes, but of course you can’t dance with him. I on the other hand will have Katherine; it’s time she met the parents.’
Martin was intrigued. ‘How was she about it all?’
‘Oh, pretty casual. Her great aunt married the cousin of a viscount, so she knows all about aristocracy. She’s not at all intimidated.’
‘Does this mean I have to dress up?’
‘Yes, Martin, white tie and tails. You can afford it now you’re so rich.’
‘Not that rich. I’m just comfortably off. However, the grant does include an allowance for my social life. God, I was so lucky. Fancy New College deciding to offer an archaeology scholarship in memory of General Pitt Rivers, and for the first time this year, too!’
Leo gave a quiet smile. ‘Take some credit for your own good fortune. You got it because you deeply impressed Sir Maurice, and now he has you working in his institute for an honorarium, too. You have a future because you made it yourself, my dear.’
Pip puffed his blue smoke away from the table. ‘Max wants us in London next weekend. We can go up on Thursday.’
Martin shook his head. ‘Not Thursday.’
Pip looked a question.
Leo smirked. ‘That’s our … special night.’
Pip finally registered his point and gave a low laugh. ‘Oh yes, one of your nights out at the Ploughmen. I must come with you one of these days.’
Martin sniggered. ‘I can guarantee you’ll be a hit.’
The Jolly Ploughmen by the castle was one of the city’s gathering places for homosexual men. Leo was constrained in his ability to socialise with the ostentatious homosexual set in the university, which met in private parties in college rooms, or in little groups in houses in St Aldates or on the Cowley Road.
To compensate, Martin and Leo had taken a step down the social scale. They had sought out and eagerly accepted the louche Bohemianism of the Ploughmen. They enjoyed flirting with the St Ebbe’s boys, and sometimes did rather more than flirt. They rarely saw fellow students there, and the few they did meet kept their heads down. Leo and Martin were well-known at the Ploughmen, but not by their real names.
Pip stubbed out his cigarette. ‘Then it’ll have to be Friday, and your other friends will have to miss you at the Eagle and Child.’
The ballroom at Grosvenor House was surging with dancers. Martin and Pip were lodged in a corner with flute glasses of champagne.
‘Rather good, isn’t he?’ Pip observed dispassionately.
Leo was partnering Katherine with real style in the Gay Gordons.
‘I could get jealous, you know.’
Martin laughed. ‘It’s me who should say that. He is a good dancer though. When did he pick it up?’
‘It’s probably heredity, that and a course of lessons at the Aspidistra Room in the Spa at Piotreshrad, the summer he was fifteen.’ Someone came up behind them. ‘Oh, hello sir. You’re not dancing.’
Maxim of Rothenia smiled. ‘Your mother has me pencilled in for the next three. I’m being allowed a rest after a polka with your sister. She is a very fine girl.’
Pip grinned. ‘Rather. So you approve?’
‘We most certainly do.’
‘I was a bit nervous, sir. After all, you could have got a bit stuffy. Her father’s just a country solicitor and all that.’
‘It’s the person we’re interested in, and she seems full of good humour and kindness.’
‘Oh, she is, sir. Bright as a button too. Makes me laugh all the time.’
Martin added, ‘And she takes none of his nonsense either. She relieves the pressure on Leo and me.’
‘Well, I hope neither of you gets jealous. I also hope you find girls to your liking at Oxford.’
For some reason, Maxim’s casual observation caused a flutter of confusion in the pit of Martin’s stomach. The issue of society’s expectations of him had not yet come home. But yes, he was eighteen, and his mother and family would be interested in the lady friends he might be supposed to be making at university tea dances and church socials. Unfortunately, he had no interest in tea dances, church socials or women. His entire emotional life was focussed on the slight, dark-haired man who was sweeping past at that very moment, blue eyes alight with fun as he whirled his cousin’s girlfriend around. Yet when Leo’s glance fell on him from across Katherine’s shoulder, Martin read there what he had read now for four years: total devotion.
Then a new and deadly realisation knocked the wind out of Martin Tofts. Leo had to marry. There was no choice for him. As the last of the Thuringians, he was obliged to produce a child – no, children. There was a whole weight of dynastic expectation on his lover that could not be escaped, and that weight might crush them both.
Pip could be sensitive. ‘What is it, Tofts?’
‘You’ve gone really quiet and pale. It’s not the drink, is it?’
‘No … no. Pip, dearest, they’ll expect Leo to marry one day and produce little princes and princesses, won’t they?’
‘What? Oh, I suppose so, but that’s years down the line … ah! Oh! You and he. Ah yes, I can see how …’
‘There won’t be any room for me in Heinrichshof when there is a princess of Thuringia, obviously.’
‘Oh, but for heaven’s sake, Martin, who knows what might happen? Leo may decide he’ll be a bachelor prince for decades, maybe forever. Then there’s his sister. She’s produced several little Italian sprogs now. One of them can be prince after Leo.’
‘Yes, but they’ll not be Thuringians, will they.’
Pip was silenced.
Martin leaned back against the wall and sipped his drink, his face set, a frown hovering on his brow.
Martin struggled awake. Someone’s foot was in his face, and it wasn’t Leo’s. Another warm body was behind him. There was gentle breathing in his ear and arms clasped around his ribs. That at least was Leo.
Martin pieced together his memories of the aftermath of the Grosvenor ball. He had been more than a little tipsy by midnight and the drunkenness had brought out the reckless side of him. He and Leo had come up from Oxford with the recommendation to try an address in Soho, off Rupert Street. So he had cajoled Leo into taking a taxi to the West End in the early hours. Above a shop they had found a discrete brothel for gentlemen and several obliging young men.
Martin reached out and moved the foot away from his face. The appendage’s owner rolled over and sat up, his hair tousled and a rather saucy pout on his lips. He seemed quite awake. He slapped the backside of another boy on the other side of him, eliciting a crack and a yelp. ‘Tea, anyone?’
Leo stirred, moved incautiously backwards and fell off the rather full bed on to the floor with a thump that shook the room. ‘God! Where are my clothes?’
‘Over there,’ Martin replied, looking around. The room was dingier in the grey winter morning than he remembered it from the night before. It was also chilly, now he wasn’t sandwiched between warm male bodies. The coal fire had long died out.
Still perfectly naked, and with goose bumps speckling his pale flesh, the young man returned with a teapot and two cups on a tray. ‘All part of the service, gentlemen.’
His accent was not noticeably plebeian. He had rather fine dark looks that had attracted Martin’s attention because he resembled Leo a little. He and his colleague had been the only two boys not wearing make-up, which repulsed Martin. What was his name? Eric, that was it. The other boy, a blond, Martin could not put a name to.
Leo had struggled into his long johns and accepted a cup from a still-naked Eric. The unnamed boy stumbled out of the room, the flush of a toilet nearby revealing his destination and purpose. He did not return.
Martin, still sitting on the bed, reached for the other cup.
Eric, having done his duty as host, took a silk dressing gown from behind the door and wrapped it around himself. He perched on an armchair in the corner, his legs gathered under him, looking expectant for some reason.
The bed lurched as Leo sat next to Martin and kissed him. ‘How’s your head?’
‘Strangely clear, thank you.’ Martin gazed across at Eric. ‘Er … I suppose we have to settle up.’
Eric nodded slowly. ‘For the all-night services of myself and Wilf, it would be ten pounds, but since you gentlemen didn’t turn up till one and it was a quiet night, let’s call it eight quid.’ He laughed. ‘Make it guineas if you feel we deserve it.’
Leo answered. ‘That’s, er … very reasonable.’ He looked for his pocket book in his suit jacket.
Eric gave what was quite an attractive grin. He seemed rather collected and unapologetic for a male prostitute. ‘I imagine you gentlemen are Oxford students.’
Martin knew better than to answer leading questions, but Eric intrigued him enough to want to continue the conversation. ‘Do you have a daytime job?’
‘I’m a student too, at the extension college in Camden.’
‘An odd way of financing your studies.’
Eric shrugged carelessly. ‘The classes are in the evening, and I come here afterwards. I have another job in the afternoons, so I can sleep the morning away. Now, I hope you don’t find me abrupt, but this is my room and as soon as you’re off, I can get on with catching up on my rest, or reading if I can’t sleep. He indicated a shelf of books.
Leo felt as though he had been invited, so he went over to read the titles. He saw the Principles of Sociology and Veblen’s Making of the Leisure Class.
‘Of course, if you want to stay on and have some more fun, I’m perfectly at your disposal, for …’
‘… a further consideration?’
Leo shook his head. ‘Last night was very enjoyable, but we too have to get on and make our … excuses at home. I think they expected us back last night.’
Eric gave a sober nod. ‘You’ll be most welcome here any time you are up in the city. You’re very clean and obliging gentlemen. I wish everyone was as obliging. The things some men require, you’d find very difficult to believe.’
‘I’m quite sure.’ Martin had pulled on his clothes and was struggling into his shoes. Leo was already dressed. As they left, Eric put up his face for a kiss, and they met his lips.
‘I never got your names.’
Leo answered. ‘I’m … Oskar and this is Gus.’
Eric gave them a composed look. ‘Nice names. I hope to see you again.’
Leo and Martin decided to walk up Oxford Street. They turned down through Shepherd’s Market and by half past seven were at Burlesdon House. There was no other way in than the front door, where the butler who answered looked more than a little surprised at their appearance.
The two paced quickly across the tiled hall heading for their bedrooms, but fate was against them. Sissi Underwood was coming down the staircase, and she met them with an intrigued look.
‘My gosh! Are you only just back? Pip said you’d gone home early. He fibbed.’
‘Hush, Sissi,’ Leo hissed. ‘No one’s to know.’
‘Oh my word! I’ll bet you went into some dim and dingy jazz den where people use cocaine and opium. Why didn’t you take me? You really are dreadful stop-outs, you know.’ She laughed lightly as she tripped on down the stairs.
The two went into Leo’s room. As they kissed, Martin had to observe, ‘You need a bath … you really niff. All that dancing and … physical activity.’
‘And you smell of Eric and … what was his name?’
‘Er … Wilf.’
‘You were rather acrobatic with them.’
‘You could have joined in.’
‘I couldn’t quite work out how, but it was fun to watch.’
‘Yes, it was fun. However, it was dangerous fun. I’m a nobody, but you could have been recognised. I’m sorry I talked you into it.’
‘I’m going to get that bath before breakfast.’
‘Gus and Oskar … really, Leo.’
His lover laughed as he found his towel and bathrobe.
The two reunited at breakfast, where the rest of the group was gathered. Seeing Helga and Max sipping their coffee serenely, the two miscreants decided their secret was safe. However, Pip swept them with a raised eyebrow, while Sissi surreptitiously stuck her tongue out at Leo.
Pip collared them as they left the room. ‘So, what was it like?’
Martin and Leo had been the object of Pip’s curiosity about their adventures before, and knew it had to be satisfied. So Martin narrated the high and low points of their encounter with Eric and Wilf.
‘My word! You two really do push the edges of the envelope.’ He looked curiously at Leo. ‘And you don’t mind when Martin … er, does it with other men? I’d kill any man who so much as gave a lingering glance at Katherine.’
Leo shrugged. ‘It doesn’t seem to matter to us.’
Martin felt obliged to expand on the point. ‘We know whom we truly love, the rest is just … well, sex. And by heavens it was fun.’ He gave a low and very contented chuckle, although it faltered slightly when he suddenly caught Leo’s appraising look.
They went upstairs to pack their valises in preparation for their return to Oxford after lunch. As they met again in the hall, Martin signalled Leo to join him in the parlour. He took Leo’s hand when the door was closed.
Leo gave his friend a troubled glance. ‘You seem serious. Are you going to scold me?’
‘No, of course not. But something came up last night, before we left for Soho.’
‘It was something Max said about Pip and Katherine. They may well announce their engagement in the new year, y’know.’
‘I had expected something of the sort. They’ve already …’
‘What? Never! How d’you know?’
‘He told me last Wednesday. They’re worse than we are. We’re an old married couple, but Pip’s having it away for the first time and the pair of them are like rabbits. It’s the first sex he’s had, apart from when he and I did it. But you can’t count that. His heart wasn’t in it, as I remember all too well.’
‘Good. I’m pleased. Two nicer people couldn’t get hitched, but you’ve deflected me from the point.’
‘The point being?’
‘Max said something about you and me finding girls in Oxford.’
Leo rolled his eyes theatrically. ‘Oh God. Must we?’
Martin laughed. ‘Shut up, ass. But this woman thing. There are expectations, Leo, on both of us.’
‘But particularly me, you were about to say.’
‘Yes. Yes, I was.’
‘Don’t think I haven’t considered it.’
‘I know you too well for that, Leo.’
Leo walked to the window and looked out on Park Lane for a while in silence. Martin thrust his hands in his pocket and waited, for he did indeed know Leo very well. He was about to get the answer to his question.
Leo turned sharply. ‘I truly love you, Martin.’
‘Of that, I never had a doubt.’
‘Good. I think I always will. Yes, I know that affections are frail, and that we sulk with each other and even bicker, but I never stop loving you, not for a moment. My mind is set on it.’
Martin was silent, basking in the warmth of those words.
‘But one day, I may well take a wife. Not tomorrow and probably not soon, but it may have to happen, and may God have mercy on the poor woman who is offered up as a sacrifice to the continuation of the Thuringian dynasty. For when I do, it will still be you I love, and she will have to live with just the leavings of my affection. I can’t think of a crueller fate for a decent, loving woman.’
Martin’s mouth was open, but he remained mute. His heart had gone cold.
‘The one thing I comfort myself with – and it’s not much of a consolation – is that princely families have very often committed their girls to loveless and hopeless unions for dynastic reasons. When I marry it will be just such an arrangement: some poor innocent girl hoping against hope that I may be her Prince Charming, only to find she’s been sold to the Snow Queen.’
There didn’t seem to Martin anything more to say. The bleak look in Leo’s eyes told its own tale. They knew now the nature of the ogre that would one day block the road they were walking hand-in-hand, and they knew the toll it would demand. Martin broke the silence by suggesting they go and look for Katherine and Pip.
The Michaelmas term continued its even course. They went down a week before Christmas. Martin spent the season with his family in the rectory, but Boxing Day found him on Reading station with a ticket for Harwich and the Antwerp ferry. He was to join Leo at Heinrichshof for the rest of the holiday.
He made the trip alone this time, a self-confident university student. The Berlin train from Antwerp was crowded. Martin had decided to spend the night in the German capital before taking the train south to Ernsthof, where one of Leo’s cars would pick him up.
As he was following the porter with his bag along the platform to his second-class carriage – he had to buy his own tickets now – he suddenly glimpsed a young man just ahead who reminded him a lot of Leo. He shook his head. Though it was not Leo, Martin did recognise him. It was … ‘Eric!’
The man turned and stared, then a dawning comprehension crossed his face. Martin had caught him up by then. ‘It’s … erm, Gus or Oskar isn’t it, the Oxford student?’ He gave Martin an arch look.
‘The name is Martin Tofts.’
The other man inclined his head. ‘Well, I really am called Eric, Eric Kirby. How d’you do?’ They shook hands in a curiously formal way for two men who had in fact been as physically intimate as it was possible for men to be.
Martin answered that he was pretty well, then asked, ‘Are you off to Berlin?’
‘I am. You too? You are! How delightful, look, here’s a compartment if you’d care to join me.’
Martin smiled and said he’d like that very much. The prospect of company brightened the trip, and this particular young man intrigued him as much now as when they had first met in Soho. They settled in the compartment Eric had spotted and sat at the window, opposite each other.
‘What takes you to Berlin?’ Eric enquired.
‘I’m just passing through. I have friends in the south whom I’m visiting over the new year.’ He thought it best not to mention Thuringia; he did not want this rather intelligent prostitute making connections with Leopold. ‘What about you?’
‘Oh, I have friends too. I spent much of last year in the city. What a place! The clubs, the music and … the opportunities. You’d find them hard to believe. I have a lover in Schöneberg called Holge, he’s been at me to come back for a while, and I couldn’t resist. It’s quiet at this time of year and my classes are closed for the holidays.’
Martin nodded. ‘You really are an unusual …’
‘Man, I was going to say. Is that what you did in Berlin?’
‘Solicit? A little, but Holge runs a dingy bar in Motzstrasse just by the Eldorado, and my work there is mostly above board: clearing tables and washing glasses, that sort of thing.’
‘Your German must be good.’
‘It depends what you want it for. I can get by in the bars and beer halls. I expect polite society would be rather shocked at my expressions.’
‘Your English on the other hand is not at all what I’d have expected.’
‘My dear, we are not all we seem. I was quite the middle-class youngster until the war killed my father, and then my mother … she didn’t really recover. I ended up a Barnardo’s boy. They do their best, bless them, but I was not cut out to be the apprentice they thought I should be, so I broke loose. The success of my enterprise you see before you.’
‘You are studying sociology, I think.’
‘Why yes! Oh, your friend looked at my books. Do you know, I actually sneaked into some university classes when I was in Berlin last. I have heard and seen the famous Professor Sombart lecture … the old Nazi.’
‘Nazi? Oh yes, the National Socialist street thugs. I’ve heard of them.’
‘They’re strong in Berlin and the south. You can’t miss seeing them, and you keep out of their way. They’re none too keen on the likes of us and the culture of the Strassejungen. They call us decadents.’
‘My dear, they do more than insult you if they catch you trolling the Platz arm-in-arm with your boyfriend. Strange, because you can often meet the same men out of uniform looking to knock you about in quite a different way.
‘And where, incidentally, is that charming and well-endowed young man you were with before Christmas? Is it all over? Quelle tragedie!’
Martin smiled. ‘He’s well, and we’re still together.’ He did not feel it appropriate to mention that it was Leo whom he was meeting after Berlin.
They chatted on as the train headed eastward. Although fascinated by Eric’s louche and unconstrained life, which the man was too evidently trying to romanticise, somehow Martin was not convinced by the other’s insouciance. There was something Eric was concealing, he was quite sure.
It didn’t take that long to find what it was. Eric, for all his affectations, was a serious student of society, with strong views about Germany and the state of the world. Once he began holding forth, the effeminacy dropped rapidly away, exposing a passionate and animated commentator on the contemporary world.
His eyes fired up when Martin mentioned the League of Nations. ‘A wasted opportunity. How could it ever work, once the United States made it clear it wanted no part of affairs beyond its borders? Unless the whole world backed the League, it was bound to be ineffectual.’
Martin remembered King Maxim’s hopes for it. ‘But it was an ideal worth pursuing, surely?’
‘Ideals, Martin, are like wild beasts. You only pursue the ones that are good for you. Some, like the League, are squirrels and hedgehogs – no meat, so what’s the point. Others, like Bolshevism, are lions and tigers, and are just as likely to eat you!’
‘And National Socialism?’
‘A crazy creed. It’s all about racial purity and superiority. They have this idea that being born blonde and blue-eyed makes you fit to rule the world. They call their ideal human the Aryan. The rest are lesser races, like Slavs and Jews, fit only to serve the others. Their pet theory for the German defeat in the war was that it was a conspiracy of Jews and world capitalism to destroy the anointed master race.
‘It’s a conspiracy of blame. All Germany’s problems come from the corruption in its midst: Jews, degenerates – that’s you and I, dear – Communists and gipsies. We’re all out to thwart the destiny of the Aryan race, and of course we must be crushed.’
‘You’re rather well informed.’
‘Oh, that was Heinz. A sweet boy I slept with last year for a while. He was in the Sturm-Abteilung. He explained it all. It was alright his fucking me, he said, as I was British and so I qualified as an Aryan. He did ask me earnestly about my grandparents and so on, in case I had any Hebrews hidden in my pedigree. I forbore to mention my mother’s father was Welsh. What would he have made of me? It would have spoiled the moment.’
Martin laughed uproariously. Eric smiled back. They talked on. Eric was very interested in hearing about Strelzen, but Martin was unable to satisfy the other’s curiosity about the seamier side of city life in Rothenia. He and Leo had not been in a position to explore it, and they had not dared ask Gus.
The express steamed on across Westphalia and at four in the afternoon arrived in the capital. When Martin and Eric were hauling their bags down on to the platform, Eric asked where he was spending the night. Martin replied that he had no plans and was simply intending to take a room in a station hotel. He did not require much persuading to put up in a room above Holge’s bar, which Eric assured him was very comfortable. As he did, he gave Martin a concentrated glance which Martin interpreted easily enough. He would not resist the moment.
It was as they were walking down the train that a group of English people alighted from a first-class carriage. One, a tall and rather gaunt woman, looked keenly at Martin.
He stopped and raised his hat. He recognised her from one of King Maxim’s literary parties.
She gave him an austere smile. ‘Mr Tofts, I believe.’
‘How are you? Are you in Berlin for long?’
‘Mrs Nicolson and I are here for some months. Business and lecturing. Are you travelling on to Thuringia?’
‘I won’t keep you and your friend. Do give my regards to his royal highness.’
Martin and Eric walked on in a pregnant silence. It soon gave birth to the expected question.
‘Who was that?’
‘Umm … Mrs Virgina Woolf with her husband, and the other lady was the poetess Vita Sackville-West, or Mrs Harold Nicolson as she now prefers.’
‘And his royal highness?’