The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
Lake Maretsku was very blue in the early April sunshine. Martin breathed deeply of the warm Rothenian air that had none of the chill still present in England. Here spring was already tending towards summer. ‘Wolf! Maisey!’ he called out to two of Gus’s sheepdogs, whom he had undertaken to walk down to the lake and back.
Martin was temporarily content. He had spent a quiet couple of days with his family, then headed straight for Rothenia. He was relieved to be away for a while from Oxford, its duties and temptations. Leo was currently in Heinrichshof but would be with them soon. In the meantime, Martin was feeling tremendously relaxed.
There was a large house party assembling for Holy Week. Professor von Tarlenheim, his family and his brother Henry had already arrived. Philip Underwood and Katherine would join Leo in Germany and then travel on with him to Piotreshrad. Just as Martin reached the terrace of the house, Count Tomas Bernenstein appeared with his wife, Princess Maria Elphberg, Maxim’s sister. Several children were darting around. They homed rapidly in on the dogs, asking Martin their names, stroking their hair and ruffling their ears.
Eric Kirby was in his element, marshalling servants like a military adjutant, though he did not look too comfortable with the children.
Gus kissed the princess. ‘And how is little Maus?’
‘Pregnant again, Gus, so not so little. We’re growing out of Orbeck.’
The count her husband gave a slight smile. ‘We could add a wing.’
‘Or the boys could share a room. Really, Tomas, when we moved into that great old place I thought it would be big enough for a regiment. But with five children it’s like an anthill.’
Gus chuckled and ushered everyone inside. He didn’t seem to mind at all the chatter and shriek of young voices filling his elegant home – quite the opposite.
‘God, Martin. It’s wearing, all that noise. How do you put up with it?’
Martin smiled quirkily at Eric. ‘They’re adorable. If circumstances were different, I could contemplate children of my own.’
Eric guffawed. ‘Dearie me, sweetheart. Think of the horrors you’d have to go through to get them … ugh. The very thought! Sacrificed on the altar of heterosexuality. I shiver with distaste. God, I need a drink. Come with me, let’s escape this well-upholstered kindergarten.’
So Martin and Eric walked down into Piotreshrad, where they found a congenial café along the lakeside boardwalk. Since it was too cold out on the terrace in the sharp wind off the water, they took a table inside where a porcelain stove in a corner of the bar basked them in waves of warmth. They sat sipping glasses of a rich red Tavelner, the wine of Husbrau, which Eric had taken to with enthusiasm.
‘You like it here.’
Eric grinned. ‘It’s not too lively at this time of year, but I have hopes of the summer when the tourists arrive from the cities.’
‘That’s not quite what I meant.’
Eric gave a new sort of laugh for him, happy and carefree. ‘I know, Martin. Yes, I do like it here. I can’t thank you and Leo enough for getting me this berth.’
‘It was nothing to do with us, you know. It was all Gus. We thought you were going to try blackmailing us.’
Eric gave a mischievous pout. ‘I might still. But in the meantime, I seem to be caught up in the heart of one of Europe’s economic hubs, watching the unrolling of something I had been merely reading about in the classrooms of Camden. It’s so fascinating it’s interfering with my sex drive.’
‘Have you been watching what’s happening here in Rothenia.’
‘Oh yes. Your Leo’s cousin, Lord Burlesdon, is making waves.’
‘So I gather. He’s embraced fascism as the solution for all the ills of the western world and a buttress against the red menace in the east. What’s he been doing since he got here?’
‘Gus and I keep an eye on him. He’s attended two large rallies. One of them was a big torchlight event, the sort those people seem to enjoy so much. He took the salute with Gulik in a huge parade down the Rudolphs Platz in Strelzen. They estimate there were sixty thousand blackshirts with their flags and banners. Very impressive. Then when they marched into the Third District, the Communists set upon them, throwing bricks and slates down on them from the roofs. A lot were injured.
‘I’m afraid Lord Burlesdon’s as thick as thieves with Gulik, which isn’t a good thing. Gulik is a cunning politician. He knows that associating with people like the cardinal of Strelzen, and now James, will help him with the middle classes. Once he’s built up support there by harping on about the red menace, he will be electable.’
Martin frowned. ‘What about Tildemann? He’s supposed to be a canny operator. He’s surely not lying down and taking this, is he?’
Eric shrugged. ‘No idea. Gus speaks highly of him, of course. But Tildemann’s getting on. His wife died last year, and he looks very tired in newspaper pictures. Maybe he’s just lost it. Another Tavelner? My, this stuff is better than the beer in the Ploughmen. If only we had Piotreshrad’s equivalent of Georgy and Alfie, you and I could make something of tonight.’
Martin looked into his friend’s sultry eyes and did not resist saying, ‘There are the two of us, Eric dear. Let’s see what we can do together later.’
Eric’s smile became broader. ‘Y’know Martin, I think you and I are not too much different, at least when it comes to sex.’
‘I’m afraid you’re right, and it worries me. Now how about that Tavelner?’
‘Tofts! Is that you? Hold on, my dear fellow!’
Martin looked around. An arm waved at him from amongst the press of Saturday shoppers congesting the pavement on the west side of the Rudolphs Platz.
‘Well, it is you.’ Scott-Petrie offered his hand and took off his hat, in the old-world way he affected. ‘What brings you to Strelzen?’
‘Just a weekend in town really. I’m out at Piotreshrad, and a friend and I decided to take a break from the house party.’
‘A friend? Prince Leopold?’
Martin was beginning to curse his bad luck at running into this intrusive gossip. ‘No, only an acquaintance from England. Leo’s in Germany. What about you? How’s the journalism shaping up?’
‘Fine, fine. I say, there’s a rather good café just up the square.’
‘What? The Flavienerhof? It’ll be a bit crowded at this time of day.’
‘Do you know a better?’
‘Not a better, but the tea room of the König Heinrich II is adequate and easier to get into.’
With Frank Scott-Petrie at his elbow, Martin forged his way through the crowds down to the southern end of the square and led the journalist up the steps of the large hotel. The tea room reminded him of the Randolph so much he was almost tempted to ask for cucumber sandwiches, but settled instead for tea and a stand of cream cakes. When they came, Martin remarked to himself how Frank tucked into them like a greedy schoolboy.
‘Have you seen much of Lord Burlesdon?’
‘Oh yes. I’m up now from Hentzau, where I had a week with him. Gulik and the Italian ambassador were there.’
Martin glanced sidelong at his companion. Scott-Petrie’s determined indiscretion had just confirmed Gus’s speculation that the Direktor of the KBR was in close personal contact with the leader of Italy’s fascism. ‘It seems the earl’s treating you rather well.’
‘It’s the publicity. His ambitions are considerably broader than Rothenia, you know. He’s tried to set up a fascist union in Britain, though without much success. He lacks …’
‘As you say. He has intellect and a vision of sorts, but he orates like an abstracted parson. He can’t set crowds cheering no matter how hard he tries, whereas Gulik has them howling after only five minutes. Also he can only speak German, and the KRB is a very Rothenian organisation. He fumbled this blessing thing he was supposed to give at the end of the rally.’
‘If you say so.’
Martin was suddenly possessed by a vision of Leo’s earnest face and large eyes looking into his own while blessing him when they were boys. The memory stirred him deeply. He wanted that face next to his and those eyes looking into his own again. The depth of his love for Leo suddenly yawned below him like an opening chasm. How could he ever want anyone else? But the sad truth was that he so often did.
This reflection was just as well, as Scott-Petrie began a series of insinuations with the obvious intention of getting him into bed. Martin deflected them. He might find Eric’s carefree, laughing and uninhibited attitude to sex attractive and irresistible, but that was because all Eric wanted was the joy of a physical encounter. Scott-Petrie wanted something more, something Martin was not willing to give, whatever it was, suspecting it would compromise his devotion to his prince.
He stood and took his leave. If he appeared brusque, Frank was not in a mood to notice. He clearly regarded Martin as a potential source of intelligence as much as sex, and was going to be tolerant of any disagreement. When he pressed Martin to join him that evening if he was staying overnight in town, Martin agreed at least to meet up for dinner on Stracenzstrasse. He and Eric had plans for later, but he had hopes that he could shake Scott-Petrie off before then.
Eric, with his background, could be endlessly adaptable and tolerant. Martin was hard put to work out if he was being ironic in his artless stare into Scott-Petrie’s face, as the man retold his anecdotes about his sexual adventuring in Oxford, Berlin and London. Eric certainly gave all the appearance of being fascinated with the writer.
‘So what do your people do, Eric?’
Eric looked momentarily disconcerted, although it was a very English and middle-class sort of question. ‘My people? Oh! I’m an orphan. Father killed at Messines and mother … well, she went downhill fast after that. I was brought up by guardians.’
‘Where did you go to school?’
Martin noticed Eric’s jaw tighten. He had devised a fictional account of himself, purely for Gus’s sake, he said, though Martin reckoned that Eric rather enjoyed making a fantasy of his life. Now Eric began deploying the fruits of his imagination. ‘I never did. I was tutored at home, and didn’t feel the need to go to university. Since then I’ve managed a bit of travel, and some occasional irregular employment.’
Martin alone noticed the very slight stress Eric put on the word irregular.
‘And what are you doing at the moment?’
Eric gave a little smile. ‘Oh … I suppose you could call it work as a companion.’
Frank narrowed his eyes. ‘Ah … some older man smitten with your looks …’
‘… and availability.’ Eric was now smirking broadly.
‘Am I allowed to ask who the lucky old feller is?’
‘Oh no … it’d imperil my cosy little allowance to tell you that, Frank.’
‘I understand. But does he ever let you off for an afternoon or evening?’
‘Occasionally, yes. I’m free tonight, as you may notice.’
‘Free to join me later?’
Eric shook his head. ‘Sorry, Martin and I have a date.’
‘Maybe I can come along.’ Eric looked across at Martin. The man’s persistence was irritating, but Martin saw that it might be better in the circumstances to indulge him.
Martin cleared his throat. ‘Yes, why not? I imagine Strelzen’s underworld can’t compare much with Berlin’s, but we’re going to sample what delights it can offer.’
Eric went on, ‘There’s a club I’ve heard of called The White Tree, at the back of the Neue Platz.’
‘Ah yes. I remember someone in Berlin mentioning it. I’m certainly game.’
It was nine when they left the café and strolled east along Stracenzstrasse. Before they got to the light and bustle of the Neue Platz, they took a right-hand turn into a narrow back road of warehouses and workshops cutting south towards Festungstrasse. Halfway down was a lamp over a dark entry-passage.
Several men and boys hanging round outside an open door gave the three of them a look-over as they pushed back a leather curtain to go inside. Martin’s eyes smarted in the smoky, not to say faintly fetid, atmosphere. The smell did not promise well for the toilets. A man sitting near the door with a cash box in front of him took ten krone off each of them and pronounced them members.
A quite convincing transvestite was singing slow German jazz songs to a piano accompaniment from a small stage, a spotlight bright on his blond wig. A few couples were dancing. Most of the men were sitting in groups around small tables, though one or two couples were necking.
Eric was impressed. ‘A bit smelly, but it’s busy at least. Ooh! Look at that little stunner … just let me get my hands on him.’ He had soon cornered the coy teenager and was deeply engaged in a seduction to which the other party seemed very amenable.
‘I expect that’s the last we’ll see of Eric tonight,’ Martin observed a little ruefully as he found a corner table. Frank went off and returned with two beers. He didn’t seem that interested in talking, which suited Martin, who was again missing Leo. When Martin came back into focus it was to find himself alone, while Frank stood at the bar talking to a boy who looked far too young to be in such a place.
Martin found himself catching men’s eyes, but perversely refused to meet them or look interested. He got another solitary drink. Despite his moodiness, he was not really surprised when a young man slid into the seat next to him that Frank had vacated some time before.
‘I’m Waclaw, you’re new here.’
‘Just a visitor. Martin.’
‘Ach, a foreigner. English?’
‘You speak good Rothenian. I’m impressed.’
Martin had to smile at the compliment, to be met by quite a glorious return grin on Waclaw’s face. ‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a tram conductor.’
Martin studied the man’s open, intelligent face. It was pleasant looking, if not quite handsome, and contained something that Martin took to immediately. He could not quite pin it down, but it was a quality his growing experience with men led him to believe would translate into friendship and rather good sex.
‘So what do you do, Martin?’
‘I’m a student.’
‘Ah … well I can imagine why you’d be here.’ He suddenly gave a cheerful and uncomplicated laugh. ‘In Strelzen I mean, not in the White Tree … though I hope I can guess correctly why you’re here too.’
Martin gave an answering chuckle. He caught and held Waclaw’s eyes, confirming his availability. But before they got on with the serious flirting, Martin wanted to do some private research of his own, and Waclaw was as good a subject as any.
‘What I’m really looking to find out here is something about Rothenia’s national treasures … the Black Virgin of Glottenberh, the cathedral treasury and the Crown of Tassilo.’
‘Well, you can see them all, apart from the last one. It went missing years ago, when King Maxim left. They say he took it with him.’
‘Do you believe that?’
‘No, not really. Maxim was a good king and a great man. I saw him once quite close up when I was a boy and he was going into the cathedral after Army Day. He was so handsome and so brave, a true Elphberg. He would never have taken the Crown out of Rothenia. No, it’s still here somewhere. He left it hidden.’
‘Interesting. But where is it then?’
‘Ah! Many people have wondered that. It could be anywhere really. It will return when the new king comes, that much I’m sure of.’
‘What about the KRB and their new mascot?’
‘Ha! Those villains and their English prince!’ He caught himself. ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with being English, of course.’
‘Naturally not. But he’s an Elphberg, isn’t he?’
‘Yes. But he’s not King Maxim. Maxim’s the one most of us want back, or if not him, then young Prince Leopold. This … Count Jakob, he’s a posturing usurper. Standing next to that fat-mouth Gulik in his black shirt and silly Mussolini hat. No true Elphberg would do such a thing. Elphbergs are their own men, through and through.’
Martin was becoming very intrigued by this conversation. It seemed that intelligent Rothenians were less susceptible to rumours and smokescreens than the likes of James Burlesdon and Frank Scott-Petrie imagined.
Waclaw shook off his serious face and smiled. ‘Have you got somewhere to go, Englishman? I only have a bed I share with my brother … there are five of us in two rooms.’
‘I have a hotel room in Postgasse. Small, but very comfortable.’
‘Then why’re we waiting?’
‘I can’t imagine.’
Martin quickly looked round the room. Both Eric and Frank were engaged with their companions, Eric was in a dark corner and his position with his companion left little to the imagination. Martin was just about to nip across and tell Eric he was going back to the hotel, when there was a sudden stir and muffled shouting at the door.
Black-uniformed police in their leather helmets were pushing inside. Most of the club stood and stared. Those with more self-possession bolted for a rear door, including Frank’s young object of lust, leaving the journalist bemused.
A lieutenant stood in the centre of the club. ‘Stand where you are. Have your papers ready. You’re all under arrest!’
There was a groan from the older members. ‘For what?’ screamed the singer.
‘You should know, pervert!’ the officer bellowed. ‘Get that unnatural thing out of here!’ Wig askew, the man was hauled off the stage by two policemen and bustled out of the club.
The police backed everyone against the wall, then the lieutenant and his sergeant went along the line looking at papers. Eric’s squeeze was next to Martin; he was shaking.
‘You. Says here you’re only sixteen. Check the name, sergeant. As I thought: on the run from the reformatory, cuff him and take him out.’
Martin was next. ‘Foreigner. All the world’s trash ends up here. Run out of boys’ arses in London have you, you piece of human shit? Come to corrupt our own youth. You make me puke.’
The lieutenant spat in Martin’s face and then, almost passionlessly, went to cuff him hard with the back of his hand. His arm was seized by Waclaw before the blow could land. Waclaw went down under the boots and fists of three officers.
Martin was hauled off, with a protesting Scott-Petrie at his side. ‘You’re making a mistake, officers! I’m a journalist, a friend of important people. Really, this is too much.’
The club clientele was lined up in the dark street outside. One by one they were looked over by a sergeant. Some were pushed on their way, others, mostly the youths, were shoved into a police van. Scott-Petrie was quick to realise the way out. As the sergeant reached him, he had a fifty krone note in his hand, which disappeared into the sergeant’s. ‘On yer way, faggot,’ the officer said and Scott-Petrie shuffled off, with a brief, scared glance back at Martin.
Then the sergeant looked Martin over. ‘Foreigner! You a homosexual?’
Martin looked at a bloodied Waclaw being hauled out of the White Tree by two officers, to be thrown up into the van. A blazing resentment in his heart, he looked levelly at the sergeant. ‘Yes,’ he growled, ‘I most certainly am.’
‘In the van wiv ‘im.’
The rattle of keys at the cell door caused Martin to look up. It had been six hours since he had been arrested, and the morning light was beginning to filter in now through the cell window. Eric, who he knew had got away, must have seen Martin being taken into custody, and could be counted on to sound the alarm.
‘You, faggot, get on yer feet.’ Martin slowly stood. The officer had his shoes and Martin put them on. ‘This way,’ he was brusquely told.
Martin picked up his jacket and followed the policeman. When he reached the end of the tiled corridor, another door was unlocked and he was once again in the charge room. A different police lieutenant was standing at the desk talking to Gus Underwood and Welf von Tarlenheim. Gus looked over and gave Martin a pale smile. ‘Are you alright?’
‘Insulted and spat on,’ Martin replied coolly, ‘but otherwise intact.’
The lieutenant gave him a hostile glare. ‘You can take him now. Obviously, being a foreigner and not speaking the language he had little idea of what sort place he had been taken to. I’m just glad the misunderstanding has been cleared up.’
Martin glared back. ‘And what about Waclaw?’
‘A tram conductor called Waclaw I was talking to in the club. Where’s he?’
The lieutenant looked sharply and a little nervously at Gus.
Gus joined in. ‘Perhaps you can indulge my young friend’s curiosity.’
A list was checked. ‘He was released to the infirmary.’
‘Gus, Waclaw stopped them beating me up.’
The lieutenant leaped in. ‘Enough of that sort of allegation. You had better have some evidence to back up such wild accusations.’
Gus smiled. ‘But he made no allegation.’
‘What? Oh … well it was implied.’
‘What was implied?’
‘That our men had beaten up the tram conductor.’
‘I didn’t hear that. Did you hear that, professor?’
Welf shook his head. ‘I think I need to talk to Colonel Reszinskij. Did I mention he was a family friend as well as being chief of police in the Neuvemesten District?’
‘Look, here are the details. See, he fell down some steps.’
‘There are no steps at the White Tree,’ Martin observed sardonically.
Gus held up his hand. ‘Martin, it’s time we left. We’ve got a car. We can check on your friend at the infirmary.’ He looked back to the lieutenant. ‘I really do hope there has been no irregularity here, as I’m going directly to Colonel Reszinskij immediately after the infirmary.’
The lieutenant stiffened and went white. ‘Certainly not, your excellency. I’ll be sure to inform the captain and he no doubt will start investigations.’
‘For all your sakes, I think that might be prudent.’
Martin put on his jacket and left after Welf and Gus. Welf took the wheel of the black Wendel saloon that was parked outside the barracks.
Gus climbed into the back seat with a sigh. ‘The last time I did that was for poor old Marek, back in the year eighty. I must say the cells are a lot more modern and clean nowadays.’
‘Gus, I’m …’
‘Don’t apologise, Martin. You did nothing. You’re the victim here. Tell us what happened.’
As they drove through the morning streets down into Sudmesten, Martin recounted what had happened the night before.
Welf snorted, ‘The police are getting more corrupt. Harrassing homosexuals is one way to increase their incomes. So many of them are KRB sympathisers too.’
‘I’d like to give that Scott-Petrie creature a piece of my mind,’ added Gus. ‘Fancy running out on you like that.’
Martin gave a quirky look. ‘I had no expectations of him. Where’s Eric?’
‘At the hotel, very worried about you. He got in touch with Piotreshrad in the early hours as soon as he gave the police the slip.’
Martin smiled. ‘I’m glad I can count on some friends.’
When they found Waclaw, Gus talked to his doctor. It seemed the young man had a broken wrist, three cracked ribs and a ruptured spleen. He smiled wearily through his bruises at Martin, who took the bedside seat.
Martin said, ‘I’m sorry this happened, my friend.’
‘I’m sorry it ruined what was shaping up to be a great night.’
‘Maybe some other time. I’d really like that.’
‘Me too. But I won’t be up to much for a few weeks. No work either, and where there’s no work there’s no money.’
‘Don’t worry about it. My friends here are paying your bills and they’ll make sure you won’t go unrewarded. They’re … we’re … very grateful for what you did. You’re a brave man.’
Waclaw looked at Martin closely. ‘You’re rather a well-connected English student, aren’t you?’
‘Never mind that. Give me your address, and remember this: If there’s any way I can help you, you must let me know. I’m deeply in your debt. Here’s my card.’
Waclaw gave a little chuckle. ‘You should know better than to sign blank cheques, Martin.’
‘I meant it.’
‘Then kiss me before you go.’
The interview with Colonel Reszinskij was affable. He was at least concerned about his men taking bribes, though inclined to play down the allegations of brutality.
Eric was waiting in the foyer of the small hotel on Postgasse. With no shyness or care for raised eyebrows, he warmly embraced Martin and kept a grip on his hand once they had broken apart.
They took the back seats in the car as soon as it was packed and the hotel bill settled. Welf stayed behind the wheel and Gus sat beside him. Neither Eric nor Martin had managed to sleep much the previous night, and soon were nodding on each other’s shoulder.
The stress and tension sent Martin into a deep slumber. He was not normally a man who dreamed much. Sometimes he woke with vague memories that he had been dreaming just before, but he could never remember what he had experienced. Not so this time.
He was in a castle he recognised as Hentzau, though the courtyard was not as he recalled it from his recent visit on James’s coming-of-age. Artillery pieces were laid in a series of casemates which helped his sleeping mind file this away as a vision of the past.
A vaguely familiar young man was pacing alongside him, dressed in the clothes of fifty years before, a rough Norfolk jacket and breeches. He was very good looking in a healthy, outdoor English way. They were talking inconsequentially, and seemed to be delighted with each other’s company. They entered the castle’s lounge and paused at the door to kiss intimately, an experience which Martin thoroughly if vicariously enjoyed, even in his dream state.
The lounge was different, both in terms of the furnishings and paintings. There was certainly one thing missing that his unconscious mind insisted was important. He and the other young man sat awhile chatting like lovers, or so it seemed. At last, with a laugh the other took him by the hand and out into a passage, the one that led to the back drawing room.
‘They think it’s haunted. Of course with Black Rupert looking down, who can be surprised? Marek’s been spreading rumours about sudden temperature drops, invisible hands gripping shoulders, items moving unaccountably … the boy has a fevered but useful imagination. Come and see!’
As the dreaming Martin moved to the door, he passed a mirror and looked at it reflexively. The face he saw was not his own, but that of a stunningly handsome blond man, blue-green eyes alive with humour, love and life. He stopped, stared and awoke abruptly.
Martin’s head rested on Eric’s shoulder. Eric was still fast asleep, so Martin did not move, afraid he might wake his friend. All at once he became aware of an intriguing conversation going on between Welf von Tarlenheim and Gus in the front seats.
Welf was saying, ‘… I well remember it, the last days of the Beck ministry. Mittenheim had just erupted into rebellion and I had barely escaped. I think I knew what it was he had sent, but I didn’t say. I’m not so sure about Tomas, but maybe I underestimate him. We had so much else on our minds. I just need to know, is it still there? If so, it’s in danger. It’s in the heart of enemy country now. And they’re on the track, you know. They’re devious and determined men, not at all the fools some think. My rooms in university were burgled a fortnight ago, and volumes of my diary were taken.’
Gus suddenly sat up, alarmed. ‘Which ones?’
‘The ones for 1919, and yes, my trip to the castle was in it, though not the king’s instructions.’
‘God damn it all to hell!’
‘At least there’s this.’
‘They won’t get much out of it unless they read Latin shorthand.’
‘As you say, Welf, we shouldn’t underestimate them. But I can explain nothing to you on this. You know why. Suffice it that precautions have been taken, and there are guardians in place other than myself.’
Eric suddenly snorted in his sleep, obliging Martin to sit up. He yawned ostentatiously and asked, ‘Where are we?’
The conversation dried up at the front. Welf replied, ‘Not far from Strelsfurt, Martin. We’re stopping there for a late lunch.’
Martin grunted and pretended to subside back into the upholstery. But his brain was trying to make sense of what he had heard and seen – or rather, he suspected, what he had been shown. And to what purpose?