The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
The dining room of the Randolph was crowded for a Tuesday afternoon in the first week of February. Ladies in cloche hats chattered, their cigarettes in mother-of-pearl holders poised in limp fingers. A white-haired Anglican bishop in apron and gaiters held court at a table next Leo and Martin’s, talking to a group of men, one of whom Martin recognised as a fellow of his college.
Leo gave his lover a lop-sided smile. ‘They’ll be here in a quarter of an hour. You seem edgy.’
‘I feel responsible for the whole business.’
‘Don’t be. Grandfather has been lonely since Anton died, and he has always missed Marek Rustak.’
‘Who was this Rustak fellow?’
‘Marek died ten years ago. He was grandfather’s valet and steward. Grandfather took him on when Marek was only seventeen. He had previously been one of Count Oskar’s lovers, I think, and worked rather in Eric’s line. Grandfather got him out of trouble with the police, then felt obliged to give him a job. He proved to be a remarkable manservant.’
‘Did they ever …?’
‘I don’t believe so. When I met Marek he was nearly fifty, a fussy and quirky character. He took a lot of getting used to, but I remember him as being so very kind. He always had a pocket of sweets for me and Pip.’
‘How did he die?’
Leo looked solemnly at his lover. ‘If I tell you, you must forget I ever did. Grandfather only told me the full story when I was going off to school. You know my mother was murdered in Berlin?’
Martin looked uncomfortable, but he had asked for this, so he couldn’t complain. He nodded.
‘Maxim told me at the time that the deed was done by agents for my father, who hated her as much as Marek loved her. Marek more or less brought her up, you know.
‘Anyway, Marek swore revenge. He pursued my father from Berlin to Thuringia, and shot him as he was riding in the park at St Hildeburg. Marek was shot himself, but escaped. It was Professor von Tarlenheim who found him in hiding and smuggled him back to Rothenia, where he died shortly afterwards.’
‘Good heavens, Leo, what a tragic story! What a way to become an orphan.’
Leo did not reply, only staring down at the tablecloth. He looked up as his grandfather strode smiling into the restaurant, with Eric a pace behind. Leo and Martin stood.
Gus was in a very expansive mood and looked years younger. Eric, standing at his shoulder, had also changed. His hair was immaculately styled and oiled, a cowlick hanging over his brow. His suit was tailored and his tie beautifully selected. He seemed even fuller of himself were that possible.
‘Your royal highness, Mr Tofts,’ he smiled and nodded at both of them.
‘Sit down with us, Eric,’ instructed Gus.
‘Thank you, excellency.’
‘And you can call me Martin.’
‘I’d like that.’
‘I suppose that means I’m Leo.’
‘I’m honoured, sir.’
‘So grandfather, how’s your new secretary working out?’
Gus gave a little laugh. ‘It’s as if Marek were back, with the difference that Eric can talk intelligently about politics and the world economy.’
‘I’m also working on your grandfather’s literary tastes. So far without much success, I’m afraid.’
‘In revenge I’ve got him to continue his studies for a degree at the college in Piotreshrad. They do classes in German.’
Martin pondered the badinage between the Gus and his new companion. Clearly there was mutual affection, and the presence of a young attractive man at his side seemed to have made Gus come alive again. Martin wondered if Eric was becoming a substitute for Leo in the old man’s life. Certainly there was a physical resemblance between the two, though Eric was taller than the prince by a couple of inches.
Gus interrogated them about their studies, then got on to Rothenian affairs. Eric’s face took on a look of intense concentration. Politics clearly set this young man alight.
What Martin had not appreciated was quite how deep was Gus’s knowledge of the theory and practice of government and economics. He supposed he should hardly be surprised, seeing as these were not subjects on which he had ever engaged the old man. With Eric’s probing and questioning, however, Gus was quite impressive in the range and depth of his responses.
Leo frowned. ‘And what’s happened with Tildemann’s government?’
‘Old Marcus is struggling along with a minority, hoping against hope that something will turn up. Unfortunately, I think he must shortly call an election. Every time parliament votes on his proposals he risks a humiliation, and sooner or later he will be defeated on a key vote. Sooner, I think, because the economy is becoming a matter of serious concern.’
Eric leapt in. ‘He knows he has to take the krone off the gold standard if he wishes to make Rothenian exports more competitive. It’s overvalued on the world exchanges: fine for savings but bad for investment and industry. The domestic consumer market is flat, and German goods are being dumped at such low prices Rothenia can’t compete abroad. There’re layoffs affecting Zenden and Eisendorf, and even factory closures.’
Gus nodded. ‘Then there’s the monarchist issue. We thought Maxim’s and your refusal to have anything to do with the KRB and its allies would damp that issue down, but it’s just flared up again. In fact, that’s one reason I’m here; I need to get over to Belsager to see Maxim.’
Leo looked at Martin, then back at his grandfather. ‘What’s happened?’
‘We underestimated Gulik and his advisers. Having failed at Heinrichshof, Wardrinskij travelled to Norfolk and met your cousin James.’
‘What? No! You can’t be serious.’
‘I’m afraid so. James Rassendyll has declared himself a candidate for the Rothenian throne, a position which has been endorsed by the KRB and its allies.’
‘Oh my God! The complete idiot.’
‘My thoughts exactly, Martin. Moreover, it was announced in the right-wing press that James is to appear with Gulik at a mass rally in Hofbau at the end of the month. No doubt he’s being tailored for a special KRB uniform as we speak.’
Eric gave a sudden giggle. ‘Redheads should never wear black … so unflattering to them.’
The Jolly Ploughmen swarmed with chattering young men that night. There were a few students fluttering round the town boys, all dressed up to the nines in tight woollen sweaters, tweed or leather jackets and bright silk ties. The scent of brilliantine from their lacquered hair was heavy in the heated air – that and an unmistakable odour of male musk.
Leo and Martin had done a period of penance by keeping away from the pub for over a month. Now, showing Eric about the town, they found they could not turn down the opportunity.
One of Martin’s erstwhile squeezes, an easy teenager called Georgy, with kohl around his eyes, leaned over the table and demanded an ostentatious kiss. ‘Where have you been, Oskar?’ he trilled, while simultaneously eyeing up Eric with a coquettish look. ‘You’re new, aren’t you, sweetheart? Are you a student too?’
Eric returned the look with interest. Martin blushed, a little embarrassed at Eric’s witnessing how low he had gone in his pursuit of sex. Leo, who had been rather more discriminating, barely restrained a grin as he watched the interplay between the three.
‘Sweet boy,’ Eric observed in German, raising his eyes. Then he caught Leo’s look, and the two of them exploded with laughter.
Martin frowned and continued in the same language, ‘Did I ever tell you two how much I hate you?’
Leo wiped his eyes. ‘But Georgy’s such a darling. He must have held your attention for all of a week.’
‘I was new to Oxford and freedom. Be fair.’
‘No wonder you ran away to London and Soho. These Puppenjungen are not to West End standards.’
Martin harrumphed. ‘Not to yours, you mean.’
Eric was quite unmoved. ‘I pride myself on giving my all to my work. If I had to be a prostitute, I was going to be a good one.’
Leo gave Martin a look. ‘Apologise, dearest.’
‘I’m sorry, Eric. You were the most … unusual whore I’ve ever met.’
‘I’m satisfied with that, thank you.’
Leo wanted to pursue the topics broached at lunch. ‘Are you comfortable at Piotreshrad, Eric?’
‘Very much so. Your grandfather is a fascinating man, quite aside from his wealth and connections. I’ve never met anyone who can read the markets so intuitively, and spot a trend so surely. At sixty-nine, he’s a marvel, an instinctive economic scientist.’
‘It seems to be the intellectual stimulation you’re enjoying as much as the salary.’
‘He makes me work hard, I’ll have you know. He has a telegraph in the villa linked directly with the markets in London and New York. Were you aware of that?’
Leo shook his head.
‘He deals with agents in Paris and London on a daily basis. You should see the reports I have to wade through.’
‘He seems gloomy about the economic situation.’
‘With good reason. It’s the American markets that he likes least.’
‘I rather thought the U.S.A. was booming.’
‘That’s it, you see. The American economy, which dominates the world, is badly overheated. Its loan market is unregulated, its banking system insecure, yet the world relies on its credit. Your grandfather is rather alarmed by the way New York’s behaving. It’s on the verge of recession, but at the same time the market is feverish. He’s making a lot of money at the moment on blue-chip stocks he invested in five years ago, or he would if he sold, but he says he’s not quite ready yet.’
Martin picked up on Eric’s suppressed excitement. ‘He sees some sort of peak coming?’
‘Exactly that, and then of course a corresponding trough. And if the trough is deep enough, a lot of banks may fail. He’s already cashing his bonds and buying gold, which he’s transferring to his Swiss accounts. Yours too, Leo. He’s moved you out of heavy industrial stock while it’s still rising, and he’s buying property.’
‘He never talks to me about my finances other than in general terms. He gives me a broad idea about how much I’m worth, but he knows my mind won’t hold on to figures. He allows me to spend a lot on the German estates, but property? I think I still have old Anton’s villas at Bad Ischl and Schönbrunn. What else have I acquired?’
‘Huge tracts of Texas, an estate and golf course on Bermuda and a number of streets in London’s West End from the sell-off of the Buccleuch estate for death duties. Also, he’s buying up art like crazy.’
‘Art? No offence to grandfather, but I didn’t know he had any inclination that way.’
Martin disagreed. ‘That’s not quite fair, Leo. What he acquired for Piotreshrad was extremely well-chosen.’
‘I though that was Anton. But art?’
‘He’s commissioned agents in the sale rooms of Paris and London. Your collection of porcelain and old masters is quite remarkable. If you want to see it, you’ll find it at your estate at Heilbrod in the Palatinate.’
‘I really must pin him down about this. I’ll be of age in only two years. It would be nice to know that I had some voice in amassing the collection I’m going to be famous for, apparently.’
They were interrupted by a group of town boys who unapologetically inserted themselves into the group. One of them went further by inserting a hand between Eric’s legs, squealing in delight at his rather camp reaction. Eric was still one them at heart, it seemed. Martin, finding Georgy pressed up against him, resigned himself to an evening less intelligent than it had been up till then. But he was mistaken.
An older man was nursing a pint at the bar. He had been muttering head-to-head with one of the town boys, a particularly fresh-faced blond who looked as if he should be out playing street football with his gang. The boy left with a smirk and a flounce – apparently terms had not been agreed – and Martin got the man’s full stare.
Martin had learned to hold a gaze in places like the Ploughmen if the other person intrigued him enough, and this one did. He slipped out of the human sandwich Georgy and his pal Alfie had him in, which made them scream with laughter as they fell together.
He was welcomed at the bar, where he ordered a half pint. ‘Your friends seem a riot.’ There was a satirical half-smile on the man’s face
‘A little oppressive really. They put the “dim” in “demi-monde”,’ Martin replied.
Although he did not laugh, the other gave the impression he was amused. Close up he was younger than he had first appeared, perhaps in his mid-twenties. He was dressed in the loose tweed jacket and flannels of a young don, which was what Martin took him to be. His broad face was a touch ruddy, his dark hair oiled and well-tended, its fringe arched over the right side of his forehead. Martin knew instinctively that the stranger was of the upper-middle class and had likewise been educated in one of the major public schools.
‘What brings you to Oxford in general and the Ploughmen in particular?’
‘Oh, visiting an old friend and doing a little business.’
‘And this is the pleasure to compensate?’ Martin was learning irony.
The man gave a chuckle so small as to be almost soundless. ‘Frank Scott-Petrie,’ he announced.
‘Martin Tofts. Though here I’m called Oskar.’
‘Very wise. What college?’
‘I’m a Wykehamist.’
‘Ah. I was a Wadham man. It’s where I’m staying at the moment.’
‘You’re not a don, Frank?’
‘No. I write a bit: some journalism, BBC work, reviews and travel writing. Who’re your friends? My word, surely that’s the prince of Thuringia?’ Surprise had contorted his face and his gaze snapped back to Martin.
A sudden emptiness yawned behind Martin’s navel, although he kept his face impassive. ‘Here he’s called Gus.’
Scott-Petrie rallied. ‘Very … wise. It’ll get around, you know, if he keeps on coming to places like this. You and he …?’
‘Well, well. I’d heard he was in Oxford. Maurice – that’s my host at Wadham – is ever so enamoured of the handsome Rothenian prince at St John’s.’ He looked across at Leo reflectively. ‘Though I have to say, the boy may have a fine expression and air, but handsome …?’
‘I imagine your friend must be thinking of the other Rothenian prince at St John’s, Leopold’s cousin.’
‘Face of Apollo? Thighs of Ajax?’
‘Your friend’s a Classicist, I take it? Yes, the description’s recognisably Philip of Murranberg. He is not in the least inclined to homosexuality, however. I should know. I was at school with him.’
‘Ah. You are a well-connected fellow, aren’t you? Tell me, are you free for lunch tomorrow?’
‘Not very enthusiastic … the young are so inescapably sincere.’
Martin blushed. He hated being thought rude, as perhaps Scott-Petrie had calculated. ‘Yes, I’m free.’
‘Then I’ll meet you at the Lyons Corner Café on the High. Half past twelve?’
‘I’ll look forward to it.’
‘Of course you will.’ Frank finished his glass, smiled and left.
‘Georgy and Alfie!’
‘I think he was showing off.’
‘I hope Gus doesn’t find out.’
‘You can count on Eric to be discreet. More discreet than I.’ Martin heaved a sigh and, at Leo’s questioning look, explained about his conversation with Frank Scott-Petrie.
‘He seems interesting. I tell you what, I’ll tag along with you.’
‘What, gatecrash our private engagement?’
‘Absolutely, old Tofts. I’ll dare him to complain.’
‘I’m sure he’ll be very polite in that crystalline and considered way he apparently has, as if he knows the Universe is really a crude and adolescent place but he’s just too well-mannered to draw attention to it.’
‘Martin, believe me when I say no one can take the social high ground against the prince of Thuringia. Being royal has more advantages than you might think. I’ll make him bow and scrape, you watch. But you know, darling, I think our evenings at the Ploughmen had better end.’
‘I had come to that conclusion too. The Georgies, Alfies and Sandies are more trouble than they’re worth, and word gets round. It’s sad really and makes nonsense of the freedom we’d hoped for, but there you are. One of these days we have to grow up and become responsible. After all, we’re nearly nineteen. D’you know, I’m sure I have a persistent twinge in my knee which might very well be arthritis.’
‘Really? I expect your sexual potency is declining too.’
‘I’m afraid so. I can’t find you at all arousing this morning.’
‘What! Not even if I touch you here … and here?’
‘Ooh … ah! No … not at all – though if you were to do it again, you never know.’
‘Fraud. I love you.’ The two young men laughed as they came together under their sheets. Their initial wrestling quickly turned to something more slow and intimate. They heaved, gasped and groaned their way to a mutual orgasm, then fell together and clasped hard.
Martin eventually washed up and dressed as Leo watched him from the bed. They kissed and parted. Martin had got Leo not to persist in his desire to meet Frank Scott-Petrie. ‘Darling, he’s trouble. Best you keep away from him.’
The nature of Leo’s lodging was that his stair opened on to a connecting passage between two quads, allowing Martin to leave more or less anonymously. He headed for his own college set, stopping for a moment to buy a broadsheet paper. He turned to the financial pages as he walked slowly along the Broad, wondering if he could see in the stock-market reports the symptoms of impending doom which Eric had picked up from Gus. The page of figures meant little to him, however, so he folded up the paper and shoved it into his jacket pocket. Unobserved, he sidled through the arch of the Holywell Gate and found his stair, just one more of dozens of students entering and leaving the college.
Once in his rooms, he rubbed his chin and decided on a shave. He then selected his best jacket and light flannels, which he laid on his bed. But Martin Tofts was an assiduous scholar so, putting the anticipation of an interesting lunch date aside, he spent the rest of the morning working on a tutorial paper about the assizes of King Henry II, which was due on Monday.
The February day had turned mild if a little misty when Martin stepped out, a trench coat draped somewhat theatrically over his shoulders and a scarf looped loosely around his neck in the manner he had picked up from Eric Kirby. His hat was at the customary tilt he had adopted in imitation of Ronald Colman. He was pondering adopting a pencil-thin moustache too, but was not yet confident enough about the strength of his beard.
He made his way out on to the Broad by way of Old Quad. Although the Lyons Café was quite full, Scott-Petrie had managed to snag a corner table, whence he met Martin’s questing gaze with a slight smile and a welcoming gesture.
After hanging up his coat and hat, Martin took the seat across from his host. They ordered tea and sandwiches. ‘Just a light lunch,’ Martin insisted.
For a while, Scott-Petrie engaged Martin about his course and enthusiasms, and seemed genuinely interested in the replies. When Martin began asking questions in return, the man obliged by discoursing on his work with the BBC, where he apparently was in the business of commissioning talk programmes. His knowledge of and acquaintance with contemporary poets and writers was intimidating, to say the least. A wash of famous names broke over Martin’s mind: Chesterton, Wells and Shaw to name but the most notable. Scott-Petrie was apparently very close friends with Eliot, who had published his travel writing at Faber. Martin could only counter this with his own acquaintance through King Maxim with the Woolfs and the Bloomsbury circle. But it appeared that Scott-Petrie was well-known there too.
‘So, Martin, if you know the Woolfs, you’ll have an opinion on psychoanalysis.’
‘Er … not really. You mean that Austrian idea about talking through the problems in your mind?’
‘To put it crudely. Analysis is a sophisticated tool to unearth the basic motivations behind your behaviour and personality. Let me explain …’
Scott-Petrie talked on and on. He was fascinating as well as modernistic in his views and – when he wanted to be – tremendously amusing. Like King Maxim, whom Martin deeply admired, Scott-Petrie appeared to be a man of the world. But unlike Maxim, Scott-Petrie was racy, self-consciously sophisticated and, of course, a homosexual. Martin felt himself falling under the man’s spell more than a little.
They had common ground in their experience of Berlin, where Scott-Petrie had spent most of 1927 pursuing boys. ‘So obliging in that city. London is a country village by comparison. So cheap too.’
Martin was barely surprised when Scott-Petrie drained his last teacup, flashed a suggestive grin and offered his rooms in Wadham as a place where they could continue to develop their acquaintance. ‘I think you’ll enjoy it. I know I will.’
Martin took time to look into his own mind. He knew he was tempted by this attractive man, whose twinkling eyes set in smiling creases were so alluring. But Martin looked deeper into those eyes and reluctantly recognised the other for what he was: all too obviously the great seducer. His invitation was staged only to chalk up another significant presence in his bed, another score to boast about. Martin had enough experience of men to realise that Scott-Petrie compulsively sought fresh young bodies to feed his own predatory self-image. Anxiety lay straining beneath the charm.
Although knowing himself to be weak when it came to sex, Martin shook his head and gave a regretful small smile. He had no doubt that for once he had done the right thing. Scott-Petrie shrugged and made little of it, but for a moment, Martin had seen the frustration he had inspired in the man. Leo would be proud of him that night.
‘But you’ll come to dinner tomorrow, yes? You and your prince? Be at Wadham at six-thirty. Ask for my rooms.’
‘Buggery, my dear, was invented to fill the space between evensong and cocktails.’
‘Maurice, you fake. It was invented to fill the space between your buttocks. How many times have I heard you coin that aphorism?’
The fat little don shrugged. ‘Frankie dearest, if one is to be reckoned a wit, one must make sure the choicest offerings are thoroughly introduced around society, like an unsuitable boyfriend.’
The dinner to which Leo and Martin had been invited was a private affair in the fellows’ dining room, a spacious seventeenth-century chamber with an outlook on the garden. Also in attendance were a number of young male Wadhamites. The reason for their presence was pretty much evident to Leo, for they were all clearly attempting to counterfeit the camp aestheticism associated with the outrageous Brian Howard, whom he had met briefly in Ernsthof the year before.
Leo was bored. Unimpressed by the narcissistic performances around the table, he began retiring into his shell. His social eminence protected him from the bitchiness of his fellow diners, who eyed him uneasily.
It occurred to him that their shrieking and cackling was meant to entertain him. Thus they were at a loss when he seemed to be unmoved by their antics, rather than joining in as they apparently had expected. He could imagine them talking to their camp friends over breakfast or, more likely, a late lunch: ‘My dear, Prince Leopold was there. A leather-bound prude. You wouldn’t believe!’
He caught Martin’s eye. Martin was having less trouble with the gales of twittering and affectedness. He was talking head-to-head to a shy and pretty undergraduate whom Leo would have rather liked to be next to. Leo could not resist a smile when Martin leaned across, grinned and silently mouthed, ‘What a bore!’ He also caught the undergraduate’s eye and got a dimpled look which he returned. Martin noted the signal.
Scott-Petrie, sensing that the prince was not happy and that his carefully arranged dinner was being wasted, turned to his guest with a sobered air.
‘I met your cousin last weekend, sir.’
‘And which cousin would that be, Mr Scott-Petrie?’
‘Please call me Frank. It’s the earl of Burlesdon I’m referring to. He was at the Alexandra Palace, talking very lucidly on air about his travels in Mussolini’s Italy.’
‘Ah yes. James is rather fond of fascists. I take it he was delighted with the timekeeping of the Italian railway system.’
‘No sir, actually he was remarking about the Italian government’s dedication to a peaceful Europe, and his hopes that a negotiated settlement of the Rhineland occupation would set the continent on a new course. He wants a strong Germany, Italy and Rothenia so they can be a bulwark for capitalism against the Bolshevik East – “strong”, of course, meaning right-wing.’
‘And where do you stand on such a question, Frank?’
‘I, sir? Strong government is all very well, but only when it’s in the public interest. I have my doubts that Signor Mussolini is a man of the people in that sense.’
‘Forgive me for saying so, Frank, but I don’t quite see you as a man of the people either.’
‘Saving the present company, I can be a man of sincere social concerns.’
Ah! thought Leo. He’s decided I’m a serious intellectual who believes he’s merely a promiscuous social butterfly, so he’s trying to counteract first impressions. He is a bit obvious, but then he wants something from me. ‘I have no reason to believe otherwise, Frank.’ He waited for more.
‘I’ve seen how the economic chaos of modern Germany has crushed the people and their aspirations. I’ve seen how they turn in desperation to whoever promises them most, whether Communists or Nazi thugs. The same people can see hope in the revolution of the proletariat one day, then blame it all on international Jewry the next. They are rudderless, they need guidance.’
‘James is perfectly clear that a strong man like Gulik or Mussolini is just the shepherd for such lost sheep.’
‘Exactly so, sir.’
‘And you, Frank, what do you think?’
‘In my opinion, the earl is a very persuasive man. After the broadcast we went off to his club, where he impressed me with quite how much dedication he has to the people of Rothenia. And not just them. He believes that what has happened in Italy, and what is beginning to happen in Rothenia, will be the solution for many of Britain’s problems. I’ve determined to follow him to Strelzen next month as a correspondent of the Manchester Guardian.
‘I do have a question, though. He mentioned the Crown of Tassilo. What is it? Some sort of national talisman?’
‘You might call it that. In the eyes of the Rothenian people, there can be no legitimacy in their ruler should he not possess it. Rothenians live their history, more so even than the English.’
‘The earl seems to believe that King Maxim is holding on to it for his own satisfaction and sense of self-importance.’
Scott-Petrie failed to catch the sudden harsh intensity of Leo’s face. But Leo just remarked, ‘Indeed?’
‘He has the idea it’s at Belsager or in a safety-deposit box at Coutts.’ Scott-Petrie was definitely angling now for information, which vaguely insulted Leo. It seemed that Scott-Petrie, in his arrogance, equated youth with naivety.
Leo, however, was anything but naïve, after the life he had already led. He knew not to stonewall in his answer, which would have been suspicious. ‘It’s interesting you should bring that up, Frank.’
The man’s eyes brightened momentarily, thus confirming Leo’s suspicions. ‘Oh? Why do you say so?’
‘Strictly between ourselves, I seem to recall his consulting Scotland Yard about certain issues at some point after he returned to England. At least I remember a commander of the metropolitan police visiting the house. Do you think …?’
‘… that he might have confided the treasures to some safe in the capital?’ The man’s expression was eager now.
Suddenly aware that he was revealing himself too much, Scott-Petrie laboured to shut down his face. Leo merely continued smiling blandly. Scott-Petrie went on more diffidently, ‘Well, who can tell. More wine, sir?’
Leo shook his head. Catching Martin’s eye he rose, and the table was obliged to stagger to its feet with him. After making his apologies and thanking his host for a delightful meal, he took his departure.
He waited outside in the well-manicured quad, clear-cut as an etching in the bright moonlight. Brisk steps heralded the arrival of Martin and a third person, the shy undergraduate. Following smiling introductions and quick kisses, the three walked off arm-in-arm.