The Crown of Tassilo 3








Michael Arram








  ‘Hey Tofts!’


  Martin raised his eyes from his magazine.  Across the Junior Common Room, Aelred Watkiss was waving a Daily Telegraph.


  ‘There’s that friend of yours, what was his name, Scott-Petrie.’


  Martin went over to take the paper, which had a picture of the grinning journalist looking into the camera while shaking the hand of Stefan Gulik at a party function in Hofbau.  James Rassendyll was standing to one side in a black uniform, the usual cold-fish look on his face.


  Martin sat down to scan the article, spread over three columns: THE NEW EUROPE, by F.R.V. SCOTT-PETRIE.  It was full of the usual arguments: Europe needed to avoid another war like the last; the defeated axis powers had rightful claims and should be appeased so they would become our allies in the bigger battle against Red terror; Italy was showing the way in erecting bulwarks of state control against Bolshevism; Rothenia, Germany and Italy could be the dam holding back the Communist tide.


  He read the endorsement for Scott-Petrie’s patron with no surprise.  ‘As in Italy, Romania and Yugoslavia, the monarchy in Rothenia could be a powerful force for national unity and cohesion.  James Elphberg-Rassendyll, count of Hentzau, stands poised to accept the Crown of Tassilo from the hands of the much-respected son of Rothenia, Stefan Gulik, who has devoted his political career to the restoration of the monarchy and the establishment of a strong and effective corporate state.  All that blocks his way are the pale relics of decayed republicanism, and – paradoxically – the former king, Count James’s uncle, who refuses to make over to him the historic Crown itself, despite the legitimate demands of the Rothenian people.’


  Martin growled, ‘Rubbish!  Utter rubbish.’


  ‘Hey!  Don’t screw up my paper, Tofts!’


  ‘Sorry, Watkiss.  That man makes me angry.’


  ‘Even so.  When are you off back to Outer Thuringia?’


  ‘It’s Rothenia.  As soon as prelims are done.  Want to come?’


  ‘God no!  I went to Deauville with mother last year, and that was enough foreign travel to last me all my life.  I just don’t get on with abroad.  Mark my words, old chum, Britain was never happier and more prosperous than when it had nothing to do with the continent.  Bring back the good old days, say I.’


  ‘Thank you for that heavyweight analysis of world events, Aelred.’


  The man waved his cigarette absent-mindedly and went back to the racing pages.  Martin considered him an all-too-common type, an example of the resurgent reluctance in Britain to engage with a Europe that had stolen away over a million of its young men.  Watkiss summed up for him a damaged nation crawling home to hug its injuries to itself.


  Martin was lonely.  At the other end of Broad Street was a man who had loved him and whom he had loved for several years, to the exclusion of all others.  He still loved Leo, but was unable to come to terms with the conflict between that love and his need for sex.  It was a hunger that simply would not go away.


  He was eyeing up another undergraduate as he sat there, brooding with half his mind, and the man – Lewis by name – was timidly eyeing him back.  Lewis was a small Welsh boy: Lonely, just as I am, Martin guessed.  They kept meeting on the stairs, and he had caught Lewis once staring after him in Old Quad.


  Damn it!  He got up and walked purposefully across the room, straight at Lewis, who looked at first fearful and then hopeful.  Taking a seat, he leaned close.  ‘Could I talk you into a drink in my set, Lewis?’


  The Welshman gave a shy look up at him through his lashes.  ‘Oh, I don’t, y’know … drink alcohol.’  His soft accent was very sexy, as was his shyness.


  ‘I have tea, squash, water … anything you like.  I think we should sit down and get to know each other.’


  ‘Oh yes … I’d like that.  I’d like that so much.’


  Martin stood up and walked away smiling.  He didn’t look back, never doubting Lewis would follow him.  What a seducer I am become, he thought, and what would Leo say to my doing this.  But for the moment I am not lonely.








  ‘Mr Tov-utz, sir!’  Waclaw, a sledgehammer over his broad shoulder, was beaming at Martin.  He had been pounding tent pegs into the turf of the meadow where the archaeological team was camping.  ‘Tov-utz’ was as close as he could get to ‘Tofts’.


  Martin grinned and shook Waclaw’s hand.  The Rothenian had a strong grip.


  Looking around, Martin saw that between the universities of Oxford and Strelzen a very large team had been assembled.  A small village of tents and marquees had been erected, a steam tractor and bulldozer had been hired, and several trailers were parked around.


  Followed by Waclaw, Martin went over to the trailer designated as the office for the excavation’s directors, of which he was proud to be one.


  Welf and Professor Bjelerocz sat around a camp table inside.  Bjelerocz, dressed in tweeds, gaiters and a black broad-brimmed Rothenian hat decorated with the usual two eagle feathers, was puffing acrid smoke out of a large Bavarian pipe.


  Both professors stood.  Welf smiled and introduced Martin to the other in Rothenian.  Martin replied with a facility which clearly pleased Bjelerocz, who invited him to take a seat.  It seemed that Professor Bjelerocz was not going to resent the junior standing of the Oxford team leader.  Martin knew that Sir Maurice had sent a very long and weighty letter of introduction on his behalf.


  A map covering the vicinity of Hentzau was spread across the table.  Professor Bjelerocz tapped a spot on the plan with the mouthpiece of his pipe.  ‘It’s this area where we need to concentrate our main energies.  We’re here on a hilltop a quarter of a mile from the medieval settlement of Hentzau.  The banks and ditches indicate an iron-age Celtic fort, but one which was re-occupied by invading Slavs, maybe in the early settlement period around 700AD.’


  Welf nodded.  ‘Although there’s very little written record, the foundation document of the Jakobskloster does mention the “castrum vetus de Hentezen” as a place near the town in the twelfth century.  So I imagine where we are is “the old fort of Hentzau”, wouldn’t you say?’


  ‘Most likely.  You can see why it might have been abandoned in the 1140s.  The new Rothenian aristocracy would have wanted modern western castles with walled towns and monasteries surrounding them, to make them feel fashionable and up-to-date.  The present castle is on a much more imposing site than this, and the town was placed beneath it where a powerful rivulet could turn mills for grain, fulling and leather working.


  ‘It was Count Bolslaw of Hentzau who built the monastery of St James, which is still there, and laid out the market town around 1140.  I think he must have erected the castle too at much the same time.  But the earlier counts, his ancestors, would have ruled from here, I think.  So we must hope to find their timber hall somewhere on this site, and perhaps also the mission church which St Vitalis is said to have raised in 922 “in municipio Hentzensi,” according to his Life and Acts.


  ‘There’s mention of a bishop of the church of Hentzau in the tenth century, though the office was later suppressed and transferred to Luchau.  That’s why I suspect Hentzau, more than just a county, may originally have been a sub-kingdom of the Rothenians.  It had a powerful dynasty, it attracted the interest of St Vitalis and it had its own bishop, so a lost cathedral may be around here somewhere.  Then there are the tombs …’




  Welf smiled.  ‘The early Hentzau dynasty would have been buried in the old Rothenian style, underground in tomb-houses made of monolithic stone slabs.  They’re usually placed in the vicinity of their old forts.’


  Martin grinned.  ‘This seems very exciting.’


  Professor Bjelerocz smiled back.  ‘It certainly is.  I’ve long ached to have a go at this site.  It could answer so many questions about the early history of our people.’


  Martin asked respectfully, ‘What’s your plan for the excavation, professor?’


  The old man smiled, exactly like a general who has been given an extra division of troops and told that his adversary’s troops have run out of ammunition.  He waved his pipe around.  ‘With all this trained manpower and with these resources, we can do things on an almost Egyptian scale.  I propose a simple trench across the ramparts to establish the nature of the fortifications.  We’ll concentrate most of our resources on the highest part of the hill, and I think we should strip the soil level by level on as wide a front as we can.  We’ll soon see what the nature of the settlement is.


  ‘As for you, Mr Tofts, I propose you run some scouting trenches at interesting points, to see if we can find substantial structures.  The weather is fine and the prospects are good.  Gentlemen, this could be the most significant dig ever carried out in Rothenia.’


  Professor Bjelerocz pulled out a bottle of sparkling white Tavelner.  He popped the cork and produced three tin mugs.  He proposed a toast, which Martin and Welf drank with smiles and enthusiasm.


  Armed with maps and surveying instruments, they went out to join the Oxford team to plot the area of the site to be stripped.  Before the evening was well advanced, Waclaw at the controls of the bulldozer had delicately removed the turf and top layer of soil.  The area was left to dry overnight and reveal any initial patterns of foundations.


  After inspecting his part of the site and making sure all had been cleared away, Martin strolled over to the Oxford tents.  Philip had set up a camp stove and, the usual cigarette in his mouth, was supervising the preparation of the evening meal.


  Katherine was ostentatiously not participating in the domestic tasks.  She and the other two woman diggers were sitting at their tent entrance, drinking Rothenian beer from bottles.  Katherine was smoking a black cheroot.  She smirked at Martin.  ‘Pip has agreed that men and women are to take turns with the cooking and washing up.  Is that alright with you, Martin?’


  ‘It seems fair.  Besides, I know quite how bad a cook you are, Kate.  This way I’ll eat decently at least once every two days.’


  She pouted.  ‘What can you expect from a university and England ladies-hockey player?  You’re lucky I’m not stealing your razor to shave.’  Then she gave a very feminine laugh.


  Martin offered his arm and they strolled together around the foot of the hill to where the little river Erljirn wound its way across the meadows to join the Arndt.  They took a path which led them upstream a mile towards the town of Hentzau.


  Just outside the town they found a public bench where the path crossed a small bridge giving access to the back lanes.  They had a fine view of the Jakobskloster to their right and the castle towers rising in the distance above the roofline.


  ‘Well here we are, Martin.  Never mind what’s going on in the dig, tell me why we’re really here.’


  Martin shrugged.  ‘James Rassendyll is still in residence up on the hill, and in a few days will be hosting a youth rally of the KRB.  Gulik will be coming down from his lair in Hofbau and there will processions and speeches.  Look!  They’ve already begun putting up stands on the sports field over there.  I think they’re expecting as many as five thousand little fascists.  There’ll be a big camp upriver, but a lot of them will stay in Eisendorf.’


  ‘And what will we be doing?’


  ‘Ah … I’ve had some ideas about that.  Pip, Waclaw and you will be active around the town.  Since you’re only common or garden diggers, no one will care where you go.  But I … well, Welf gave me some ideas, which I’ll keep to myself for the moment.


  ‘Very well, be mysterious.’  She paused.  ‘Leo’s up at Piotreshrad.  Is there any plan …?’


  ‘We lived within a quarter of a mile of each other in Oxford, yet I only saw him once the whole of last term and that by accident.  We barely did more than exchange civilities.  Why should I travel sixty miles up to Lake Maresku to do the same?  It’s over, Kate.  Let’s be realistic here.’


  She hugged his arm.  ‘I’m sorry, Marty.  I see the unhappiness in his eyes.  He really misses you.’


  ‘One day, when we’re less angry with each other, we’ll be friends again, or so I hope.  I really do.’  Tears came unbidden to Martin’s eyes.  After a long silence he said, ‘I can’t ask Pip, Kate, but I can ask you … is he seeing anyone?’


  She smiled.  She had expected the question.  ‘No, I don’t think so.  He has friends around college where there are plenty of boys who are ready to throw themselves at the fabulously wealthy prince of Thuringia, but he’s not interested.’  She gave him a shrewd glance.  ‘He’s the sort who loves only the once the way he loved you, Marty.  He’s not interested in anyone else, even if he’s put you behind him.’


  The tears kept coming, rolling down his cheeks now.  Martin wiped his face.  ‘That is so terribly sad.’  There was a catch in his voice.








  Gus Underwood looked across the lounge at his grandson, perched on a sofa with a book, in much the same way as he had done when he was only eight years old.  Leo was a man now, of course, but somehow he had preserved through all the tragedies of his childhood that same openness and dignity which of itself would have made Gus love him, even without Leo’s being his daughter’s only child.


  Leo looked up and caught the old man’s gaze.  He smiled.  ‘Grandfather, tell me about grandmother, my mother’s mother.’


  Gus was taken a little aback.  ‘Elena was a very fine and gentle woman.  Though she’s been dead now over forty years, she still lives on in you.  You have her expression and her dark looks.  I keep a photograph of her in my study.  Why do you ask, my boy?’


  ‘It’s just that all your love affairs over the years were with men.  You’re as much a homosexual as I am, but you married a woman.’


  Gus nodded.  ‘There was an expectation that, once I had made a success of myself in Rothenia, I would marry and have children.  Although I loved Anton so very much, still I did want a child of my own, and thought I was enough in control of myself to be as decent a husband as most men.  Fortunately – perhaps mercifully – my resolution was never tested, because your grandmother died in childbirth.  Maybe she was spared unhappiness as a result.’


  ‘And you found that you could …?’


  Gus smiled.  ‘Yes, dearest, the mechanics worked fine.  When you’re young, just a breath of air can get you in the mood for … well, you know what – even if you’re “musical,” as we called it when we were boys.  Now, what’s this about?’


  ‘Martin and I have split, and I’m sure it’s for good.  I’ve begun to think of the future, in which I don’t believe there’ll ever be another man who’ll attract me the way Marty Tofts did.  Instead, maybe the time has come to plan for the fate of the house of Thuringia.’


  Gus was now concentrating hard.  ‘Do you imagine you’re strong enough to do what you seem to be proposing?’


  ‘I don’t know, grandfather, but I’d very much like to believe I am.  I think that if the right woman came my way, I could be a good husband to her.  Besides, unlike you in your day, I have an inescapable duty to my house.  I am the last of the Thuringians and Heinrichshof must have a prince after me.  But … how does one go about this?’


  Gus shook his head.  ‘I hope you may be being precipitate.  I had a lot of time for young Tofts.  He was good for you, and there’s no doubt that deep down he loves you, whatever differences have separated you both.


  ‘The decision to marry and have children needs time, dearest.  You’re very young yet, though I know you feel as though time is pressing on you.  But if you’re sure about this, I had best consult with Maxim and Helga.  They’ll have ideas.  Princely marriages are different from those of common people.  You can’t just go out and choose whom you like.  There’ll be expectations of lineage, faith and education.  But I suspect also, in your case, the woman would have to be quite special, someone a man like you could talk to and be a partner with.  And would you tell her your true nature?’


  ‘Did you tell grandmother?’


  ‘No, I never did.  I never had to really.  Do you think you would?’


  ‘Yes, I believe so.  There can be no true marriage where there’s not also truth.  It might be harsh, but it would be harsher yet to enter into matrimony deceitfully.  She should know, and have her chance to pull out before she’s committed.’


  ‘My boy, you never cease to make me proud.’


  Leo crossed the room, knelt in front of his grandfather’s chair and hugged him.  Gus stroked his dark hair, gradually becoming aware of the suppressed sobs shaking Leo’s shoulders.








  Welf was early at Martin’s tent.  The signal flash of a torch playing on the canvas was at eleven, not midnight as they had initially planned.


  Martin poked his head through the flap, peering up at the tall figure in the gloom.  The stars were blazing in the Rothenian night sky, and the outline of Welf’s head took a bite out of ribbon of the Milky Way.  ‘Is there a problem?’


  Welf chuckled in a very youthful way.  ‘No.  But I’ve had some news which means we have to get going.’


  ‘What’s happened?’


  ‘If we go now, my sources tell me we’ll find an empty castle.  The earl and his Svengali are at a dinner in Eisendorf and won’t be back till the early hours.’




  ‘Come on, Martin, we’ve got a long, dark walk ahead of us.’


  ‘But if we wait an hour, the moon will have risen.’


  ‘Can’t be helped.’


  Martin scrabbled for his coat, for the night was clear and chilly.  As he stood up next to Welf, he observed how dark his companion bulked in the night.  ‘You’re wearing a cloak – very operatic.’


  ‘… and appropriate.’  Again the youthful laugh – odd, because to date Martin had always found Welf dryly amused rather than bubbling – but a touch of danger could change people’s character, or so he had heard.


  They walked across the river meadows towards the streetlights of Hentzau.  The stars were so bright that Martin’s eyes eventually found the grass beneath his feet was grey, not black.  A heavy dew was forming.


  The trail they had made through the grass behind them was dark as Martin looked back to the campsite on the hillside.  At that point, his mind told him there was something about the trail he should notice, but what it might have been eluded him as Welf began speaking quietly.


  ‘I was sorry to hear about you and Leo.’


  Martin sighed.  ‘It was inevitable, I suppose.  I have my … failings, which were just too much for my poor prince.  I drove him away, I realise that now.’


  There was a brief silence.  ‘And could you not fight your failings?  Men can change.  Love can do that.  You did love Leo, yes?’


  ‘Of course I did!  But it’s not as simple as you suggest, Welf.  It’s different for … for people like me, for homosexuals.  Think of that uncle of yours, in bed with half the men in Europe in his day, so they say.’


  Martin heard an intake of breath at his side, and was suddenly alarmed that he had offended the professor.  Rothenians were touchy about family honour, he knew.  But the reply when it came was even and measured.  ‘I think Count Oskar may well make my point.  He was promiscuous and perfectly indiscriminate about what men he bedded.  He didn’t love any of them, he just loved sex.’


  ‘My point exactly.’


  ‘Not really.  For you found a man to love very early, one most people would go through their whole lives dreaming they might meet and never be so lucky.  As it happened, my uncle also found such a man.  His tragedy was that having met Gus Underwood, his true love, at the end of his life, he had to let him go.  His duty demanded he sacrifice himself for the cause he loved even more.’


  ‘What is your point?’


  ‘My point is that Oskar changed.  He found out at last what it meant to love another.’


  Martin knew the story, and to him there was a weak spot in Welf’s argument.  ‘But would Count Oskar have changed for good?  Would his proclivities have dragged him back in the end to the world of bathhouses and casual tricks?  Would Gus have been enough for him?’


  There was a long silence as they continued to walk along the stream bank towards Hentzau, its lights now just beyond the trees.  Eventually, Welf replied, ‘I can’t answer your questions of course, Martin.  They depend on might-have-beens.  But I have heard that in the few months Gus and Oskar were together, Oskar changed beyond what anyone would have thought possible who knew him.  I like to think …’




  ‘Nothing.  As I said, might-have-beens and romantic fantasies.  But we’re talking about you, not a long-dead libertine.  You are not Oskar, you are a warmer and more kindly man, you are just so … young.  You don’t see what you have, what you two could be and could do.’


  Martin was surprised at the professor’s vehemence.  ‘I’m touched by your concern and sympathy, Welf, but really, it’s different for men such as I.  You couldn’t understand.’


  ‘Couldn’t I?  And if you’re talking about men such as you, isn’t Leo such a man too?  He is fixed in his affections.  Why can’t you be the same?  What stops you from doing what you know to be right?’




  ‘You underestimate yourself.  Fix on your love for Leo.  That should give you all the strength you need!’


  The passion inspiring the man walking next to him surprised Martin. Welf’s voice was almost trembling.  What was there in the man’s past to have produced such emotion?


  They were at the bridge and the empty lanes of Hentzau stretched beyond.  The lamps of the town were surrounded by dim aureoles as the ground mist rose from the fields and the little river that ran around its margins.  The stars still glittered hard and bright in the black sky above.


  ‘Now what, Welf?’


  ‘Now we take a risk and see if my memories of the castle are as good as I think.’


  ‘What do you think we shall find?’


  ‘Ah … that’s the thing, isn’t it?  But at the least we will find where the crown is not.’


  ‘And that will help?’


  ‘Certainly.  The point is not to find the crown, just to make sure that it’s not in a place where the enemies of the house of Elphberg can find it.’


  ‘And you know where that place of danger is?’


  ‘I think I have a general idea.’


  ‘How?  Did Gus let something slip?  Did you and Tomas know where he put it that day?’


  There was an odd pause in the conversation.  Martin sensed that the man next to him was puzzled at what he had said, which was puzzling in itself, as Martin remembered what Welf had let slip in the car journey from Strelzen to Piotreshrad.  He looked again at his cloaked companion.  The lamplight gleamed dimly on the blond hair that escaped from under his broad-brimmed Rothenian hat.  The face was hidden in the shadow of the brim, but it could only belong to Welf.


  Martin shook his head.  This was silly.  ‘It’s in the back parlour, isn’t it?’


  Welf looked at him sharply.  ‘Yes … and you are an acute fellow to work it out.  Let’s go forward, the night’s passing quickly now.’


  They walked through the empty lanes of Hentzau.  The inns and beer gardens were closed, and the KRB activists had yet to arrive.  It was a curiously dream-like experience stealing through the sleeping town.  They met no one, and not even a dog barked.


  The mist was thick above the river as they reached the castle.  Welf led them round the edge of the park.  Light occasionally gleamed through the lancets set in the castle walls.


  Welf pulled Martin up short.  ‘This way,’ he hissed.


  Martin trotted to keep up with the athletic stride of the professor.  His fitness did Welf credit; he walked with the elasticity of a much younger man.


  A small, dark arch opened in the wall where they reached it.  An iron grating closed a stout oak door, embossed with thick black nail heads.


  ‘Have you a key?’ Martin asked.


  ‘No, but there’s a trick to it.’  Welf occupied himself with the grating.  There was a rattle followed by the apologetic creak of the door.  Welf disappeared into the dark opening, Martin following hard upon his heels.


  In the narrow corridor on the other side, the smells of damp and old cooking told Martin they were in a scullery passage.  Welf did not bother to put on the lights.  Martin, who could hardly see a thing in the gloom, stumbled as the shadowy figure ahead of him disappeared up a staircase.  It took him a while to regain his balance.


  Dim illumination seeped down from above.  After two flights Martin emerged into a panelled and lamp-lit corridor.  Where was Welf?  He had disappeared.  Martin swore in his head, looking round desperately until he realised he was standing in the cross passage which led from the hall to the domestic wing.  Knowing the direction Welf would have taken, Martin turned left.  The floor was carpeted, allowing him to steal along quietly till he reached the door.  Where was Welf?


  He entered the back parlour, which was in darkness.  It was safe to put the light on, for the single window looked out on the grounds, and the room was rarely ever used.  It smelled musty.  Black Rupert sneered down from his picture frame over the fireplace.


  Martin knew the Crown of Tassilo had some association with this room.  He had suspected it since his dream vision in the car that day when Gus had liberated him from the police cells.  Welf had just now confirmed it, but where was Welf?


  Then it struck him.  How had Welf known of this room’s importance, when in the car all he had told Gus was that he suspected he had brought the crown to the castle?  With a lurch of unease under his breastbone, Martin felt abandoned and exposed.  There was something very seriously wrong about all this.


  Gradually he mastered his panic.  This was no time to go to pieces.  The room was sparsely furnished, just two armchairs and an occasional table with a faded flower arrangement on it.  The floor was covered with only a couple of throw rugs.  There seemed no obvious trap door, and in any case Martin’s architectural memory told him there were cellars immediately under this section of the castle.


  To the right of the fireplace was an ancient section of elaborately carved panelling that seemed to double as a buffet.  This seemed more hopeful.  Martin examined its recesses and motifs, squinting in the limited amount of light thrown by the dim bulb.


  Just to the right was a large panel that sparked his interest.  It featured a very skilled carving of a lion engaged in combat with a mythical creature having the lower body of a lion surmounted by the head and shoulders of an eagle: a wyvern.  His heart beat faster.  Why was this familiar?  Then he remembered.  Leo’s coat of arms quartered the arms of Thuringia with Rothenia, and the supporters of the arms were an Elphberg lion on the right side with a Thuringian wyvern on the left.


  Martin began examining the panel closely.  He took out his penknife and probed for any likely slot.  Down the right-hand side there was a narrow joint of sorts into which he slipped the knife blade.  It caught.  With a click and a whirr, the panel yielded slightly.  Absorbed now, Martin got his nails in the groove and pulled the small door open.  Within was a dark space.


  Martin was about to search inside when a stirring behind him sent a chill down his back.  He was not alone.  He turned about quickly.  In the armchair facing him sat a young man of appalling familiarity, dressed in a green uniform jacket laced in silver.  His trousers were grey with a silver stripe and his legs were crossed.  He had his hand cupped to his handsome face, which bore an amused expression.


  The resemblance to Welf was astonishing, but it was not Welf.  This was a man a decade younger in appearance, who had a brightness in his eyes that was not at all human.


  Martin fainted.