The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
Martin felt a hand on his shoulder. As he was shaken by it, his situation came back to him. He sat up abruptly, blurting out, ‘Count Oskar!’
A black-shirted man he did not know was staring down at him. Behind the man were two faces he did know, those of James, earl of Burlesdon, and Stefan Gulik, Direktor of the KRB.
The earl seemed bemused. ‘Mr Tofts. What an unexpected pleasure to have you in my home. I trust you have an explanation?’
Martin flushed red. There was in fact no possible explanation that would get him out of this one; the best he could hope was not to implicate his friends. As it happened, Stefan Gulik seemed to need no explanation and provided his own. He apparently did not follow the earl’s questions, which were in English, but broke into Rothenian.
‘You know this person, excellency? It seems he wishes to be a gentleman burglar. But what was he thieving, eh? I’ll tell you what. It’s the Crown he’s been seeking, and what’s more, he has found something too. Look at that panel he’s opened.’
Martin’s heart was in his mouth. He looked over at the buffet. A square opening showed black against the polished wood. Gulik went to search it, but was restrained by James. ‘A moment, Stefan. This is my house, and what might be concealed there could properly be said to belong to me and my family.’
Gulik shot his host a dark look, but pulled back. James peered into the cavity, then felt around inside it. He turned, a disappointed look on his face. ‘Empty,’ he pronounced. ‘Just this rather undistinguished object.’ Between his fingers was a tarnished silver ring. ‘This, I take it, was not what you expected to find.’ He held it up to Martin’s view. The ring was plain apart from the bezel, which carried the device of a rose upon crossed swords.
‘I don’t think it was always empty, though, was it? I hope you don’t mind, Mr Tofts, but I must have you searched. Waldemar, please do the necessary.’
Martin was helped to his feet, and then his coat, jacket and trouser pockets were turned out. Waldemar looked back at the earl and shook his head.
‘It seems we’re both disappointed men tonight, Mr Tofts. Please don’t deny why you’re here. What I would like you to explain is how you knew of this hiding place in my home. Did Prince Leopold let slip something during one of your … liaisons?’ Then he added with a cold look, ‘It seems to me that, if Leo knew of this place, the only reason you could be here is to take advantage of his misplaced confidence in you. This is your own private enterprise, I’d guess. I am so disappointed … though not surprised. You always seemed to be a hanger-on with his own purposes, right from the beginning at Medwardine.’
Gulik glared at Martin. ‘Allow me to deal with the thief in my own way.’ There was a glint in the man’s eye that more than hinted as to what his intentions were.
James shrugged. ‘I don’t think that's necessary. After all, he’s done us a favour. We always suspected the Crown had been taken to England. This seems to be where Maxim kept it when he was in Rothenia, and the fact that it’s empty simply confirms what our sources told us about Maxim’s contacts with Scotland Yard when he arrived in England. It’s in Coutts’s vault or some other London repository.
‘Now, Mr Tofts, I’m going to have you escorted off my property, and I warn you not to show your face around here again. You may not be so lucky next time. I will of course let Prince Leopold and King Maxim know quite how you repaid their patronage and trust. I have no doubt they will be very disappointed in you.’
A cold smile and a glitter in his eyes revealed that James could be counted on to take some pleasure in the work of discrediting Martin to his friends. Martin did his best to live up to his role of treacherous hanger-on. He adopted what he hoped was a scared and baffled look.
Waldemar took him by the biceps and propelled him out of the room, across the corridor and to the castle gate. At the gatehouse, a party of black-shirted Iron Guards – Gulik’s elite bodyguard – was waiting. It was with kicks and punches that Martin was pitched down the drive towards the town.
Limping and with a bleeding mouth, Martin made his way through the silent, empty streets. As he reached the outskirts, his heart leaped in his mouth. On the bridge he was confronted by a tall, dark figure, its blond hair glinting in the light from the last of the streetlamps. His heart nearly stopped with fear.
‘Oskar?’ he quavered.
‘Martin … what in heaven’s name?’
‘Oh thank God!’ Martin almost sobbed. ‘Welf.’
Pip and Kate leaned intently towards Martin as he told his story. Welf relaxed back on his chair, looking at Martin meditatively through the tobacco smoke curling up in the light of the storm lantern.
When Martin finished, Welf observed, ‘So he’s back again. That can only be bad.’
‘Bad?’ Pip queried. ‘I thought he was on our side.’
‘Your great uncle was a man whose whole mind was fixed on the house of Elphberg and his beloved Rothenia. He exalted the interests of the dynasty and nation over all others, even his own. He went cheerfully to his death, knowing that by dying he would gain his ends. That should tell you how little he rates individual human interests.’
‘But didn’t he help you escape the castle of Ernsthof back in 1917?’ Martin observed.
‘Yes he did. I wonder at that. But it was not for my sake, his nephew. Maybe it was because he wanted his Gus reunited with Leo, but I rather think there was more to it than that. His intention was to scotch the claims of the house of Thuringia, and how better to do so than to separate King Albert from his son and heir, which he did very effectively.’
‘He led me to the Crown’s hiding place.’
Welf frowned. ‘And then made sure you were discovered by our enemies. He wanted them to know it was empty, and your bruises and danger meant nothing to him.’
‘It wasn’t empty.’
Pip remarked, ‘There was the ring. Here, Martin, here’s some paper. You’re a skilled draughtsman, show us what it looked like.’
Martin made his sketch quickly and efficiently, then passed it round the group. He looked at Welf. ‘Do you recognise the device?’
‘No, I’m afraid not. It was of silver, yes?’ Martin confirmed this. ‘Then it’s not particularly valuable as an object. The rose is a common device in Rothenia. It features in nearly a third of the armorial bearings of the nobility. The crossed swords may have some military meaning I suppose. I have to say the design looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t think why.’
Martin shook his head. ‘I'm sure it’s important. It’s possible that Oskar wanted me to see it, as much as for James and Gulik to see the otherwise empty hiding place.’
Kate was still fascinated by Martin’s encounter with a long-dead man, especially what Oskar had said about Martin and Leo. She tried to draw Martin out on this, but there was too much Oskar had told him about Leo and love that he needed to ponder. Was this another example of Oskar's manipulating the living? Was his talk of love and constancy just a stratagem to manoeuvre Martin where he wanted him?
Somehow, Martin thought not. Oskar had been talking to him alone, to Martin Tofts, in those minutes. His conscience told him that the revenant had been trying to open his eyes to what he had been doing to a man who loved him. 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 came back into focus as Kate smilingly asked, ‘And he was handsome?’
He answered reluctantly, ‘Handsome far beyond human measure … when he revealed himself, although the look in his eyes was extremely … frightening.’
‘Those eyes have seen things the living don’t and can’t see. It’s hard to describe, but I don't want to meet him again, having met him once.’
Welf nodded. ‘When Leo was a boy he said much the same after seeing Oskar: beautiful but very alarming.’
Over the next few days, Martin kept his head down … literally. He was in the excavation trenches across the site of Old Hentzau, or in the sheds identifying pottery fragments and artefacts. His energy, doggedness and knowledge had earned him the respect of his diggers and his Rothenian colleagues. At that level things were going well. Indeed, the volume and importance of the finds quite swamped his anxieties and regrets for a lot of the time.
Martin mapped and reconstructed the foundations of the fortifications. In the meantime, Professor Bjelerocz had located and excavated the postholes of the great hall of Old Hentzau's ruler, whether he was Slavic chieftain, sub-king or count. While there was no sign of the house-church of the complex, Martin had a hunch which he was going to pursue.
As he dug on the hilltop, his eye was constantly drawn to a scrub-covered tongue of land below Old Hentzau around which the little river Erljirn looped, creating a sort of peninsula. Martin’s mind kept posing questions. Why was that stretch of river meadow not being grazed? Why was there a raised embankment closing off the peninsula? How did it relate to the Roman road which crossed the Erljirn by a ford at that point?
A week after his nocturnal adventure at the castle, Martin finally mustered the determination to broach the subject in a conference with the two Rothenian professors.
Bjelerocz sucked on his Bavarian pipe and snorted, ‘It seems to me that you’d be better employed in trying to locate that lost church.’
Welf was more sanguine. ‘The church isn’t in the enclosure of the hall where we expected it to be, Téodor. It could be anywhere in the fortified precinct, and that’s a wide area. Martin has produced some cogent reasons why this land down by the Erljirn may be interesting. I say we give him a couple of diggers to clear the site of brush and see what may be there. We can spare a couple of days, considering the amount that’s coming up from the hilltop dig.’
Bjelerocz snorted again. He was fond of Martin, however, and allowed him to use Waclaw and Pip as his detached team, provided the rest of the Oxford students continued to work on the gatehouse that had been located on the hill earlier.
So one Tuesday, a small van drove them with their implements down the quarter of a mile to the river. They were followed by a tractor, which Waclaw used to uproot bushes from the low bank that closed the peninsula.
Once they’d finished, Martin took measurements and made a plan. ‘Here’s a definite entry, with the traces of a shallow track. But why? There’s nowhere to go once you get on to the neck of land.’
Pip shrugged. ‘There might have been a farmstead in there, protected by the rivulet on three sides, while this bank was the entry wall.’
‘Hmm. But the Erljirn is so shallow you can cross it on foot with ease in most places. I suppose it might keep animals out though. There’s only one thing to do, and that’s slash down the undergrowth beyond the bank.’
Waclaw and Pip were easygoing and hardworking men. They asked no further questions, just stripped off their shirts, shouldered spades and mattocks and began methodically clearing the peninsula.
By the evening, between the three of them they had cleared two hundred square yards, a third of the area, and Martin was busy with his surveying instruments. Pip sat on a tree stump smoking as Martin drafted his plan.
Finally Martin put down his board and stared.
‘So what is it, Tofts old fellow?’
‘Come and look.’
Pip peered over his shoulder. ‘Well. Looks very like two lines of humps, I’d say. What do you think it is?’
‘To be truthful, I think it’s a graveyard. It’s placed in the Roman manner on the road out of town, and located near water, in the Celtic tradition. I rather think … or hope … it’s the tombs of the ancient dynasty of Hentzau.’
‘My word! That’ll be a sensation. So what will we do tomorrow?’
‘Get some more help and open up a barrow.’
The next morning the riverside site was swarming with interested visitors. The Oxonians grinned at each other. Tofts had done it again. Bjelerocz was puffing away at his pipe like an express train on an incline, his face very excited.
‘So which one, Mr Tofts? The choice is yours.’
‘I’ve been looking at the plan. One would expect the first tomb raised to be that of a very important individual, with the others placed around it. So this one,’ he indicated with a pencil, ‘seems to have a certain centrality to it.’
‘Very well. Use all the Oxford team and see what you find. No treasure-hunting, mind. Take it easy.’
Martin smiled and began marshalling his forces. He set the diggers in three teams, none to work more than half an hour in a stretch to maintain freshness and alertness. Supervisors kept watch among the diggers, recording and monitoring. It was Pip who made the first find an hour into the dig. A whoop brought Martin and the other supervisors to his side.
Several brushes were at work on a green metallic shape two feet long. A camera was already being readied to record the moment. ‘A bronze stag,’ Martin eventually pronounced. ‘No associated finds, so possibly a votive offering to the dead. Pre-Christian of course. Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen, we have found the first pagan Rothenian prince.’
By the evening the dig had revealed the monolithic slabs of the internal grave house under the barrow. That was as far as they could go before night fell. Arc lights were set up and the site placed under guard.
Across the Elrjirn the KRB rally was going on, the distant floodlit field by the town full of marching battalions of black-shirted youths under their flags. The sounds of national songs and loudspeakered tirades drifted down the river on the steady breeze that blew from the forested hills above the town.
All the diggers had retired to the camp. Martin sat alone on the barrow, a bottle of beer – his fourth that evening – his only companion. The excitement of the past two days had driven the events at Hentzau Castle from his mind. Under the stars, riding shotgun on the tomb of an ancient Slavic prince, he reflected on the Rothenian prince who had shared his bed for so many years, and the ache pierced his heart. He sighed. The beer was making him maudlin, he knew, yet the misery underneath was still real.
Snatches of conversation kept coming back to him, the words of a dead man seared now into his heart, a man who himself had loved truly and lost: 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.
What did Martin Tofts want out of life? Love – he'd had it, hadn’t he? Devotion – he had tested it to the limit and beyond. Unconditional affection – he had thrown it away and trampled all over it. It could all have been so different, had he mastered himself the way he knew he could have. He was truly repentant.
The light breeze ruffled his thick head of hair, and a rich scent reached him with it, an uncommon fragrance that caused his hackles to rise. It was so familiar and yet so strange. And then he was aware of a dark figure watching him from across the river, a shadow against the floodlights of the KRB rally. His breath caught. He knew who it was and he rose, dropping his bottle. He would have answers, and no atavistic fear of the dead and their strange purposes would stop him now.
He walked to the water, and stumbled across the stream to climb out, splashed up to the knees and his boots waterlogged. The dark figure was still there, sitting on a fence now. Martin walked across to it steadily, though breathing hard.
As he closed with it, the figure got smaller, and more familiar. It was not who he had feared, it was Leo.
Martin could just see that little smile he knew so well around his former lover’s mouth, and it broke his heart.
Martin fell to his knees in front of Leo. ‘Why now? Why here?’
‘I had an invitation from James to come down to Hentzau and hear about your iniquities. It was very shocking, so I felt I had to come down to the site and hear your own account of your sins. Pip told me where you were.’
Tears had begun to fill Martin’s eyes. ‘I can’t begin to list my stupidities. I hurt and abused the only man I’ve ever met worth loving. I treated him like a common tart, and prostituted myself to my own lusts. I am the world’s greatest fool and the world’s greatest slut. A man had to come back from beyond the grave to tell me this so I believed it.’
‘I’m gibbering, forgive me, my prince. Please forgive me. I love you, love you forever, Leo Underwood. And only when I lost you did I come to realise it, to know that I must change to be worthy of it.’
Leo sat quietly regarding the penitent at his feet. Kneeling there awaiting his fate, Martin was struck by how calm and kingly Leo looked, a man in whose hands justice properly belonged.
‘Stand up, Martin Tofts.’
Martin stood, and Leo hopped down from his seat. ‘I told my grandfather I could love only once the way I loved you. You are special to me, and maybe I want too much for you to be like me, even though you can’t be. But God knows, I’m no saint either, so why am I being so judgemental? We’ve been here before, Marty. When you were a boy you came to me and Pip and made an apology for your rudeness to us at the Armistice Day service for 1924, do you remember?’
Martin nodded mutely.
‘Well, I thought as you did how brave you were and how near to tears. We forgave you then, and it was the happiest day in my life when I got to call you friend. And now here you are in tears again at my feet. Darling, I forgive you with all my heart. How could I not? You changed that day when you were a boy, and maybe you will change again, if I love you and you truly love me. But even if not, I need you too much to hold your faults against you. We’re young, and we have so much still to learn.’
The two young men fell together, embracing long and hard. The same strange fragrance blew about them in a breeze that wafted from the hills and whipped their clothes and hair in its joyful passage.
The work progressed next morning on the barrow. The sun blazed down. Summer had come. The work had acquired an extra digger, and Leo Underwood in shirtsleeves scraped diligently away at the earth around the capstone. He paused only to smile up at the supervisor, clipboard in hand, who smiled back down at him.
There was a lot of smiling going on. Pip and Kate, working together on the barrows, kissed as they passed each other on the ramps. The world had regained balance, and Martin Tofts somehow felt as if he had come through a long illness back into health.
With the grave house cleared, a crack could be seen between the capstone and one of the uprights. Someone tapped Martin on the shoulder while he was trying to determine if the dark space would reveal anything to a torch. He looked round. A green van was bouncing along the cart track that had once been a Roman road. It had curious aerials on its roof, and blazoned on its side was Roteniske Radiozve.
A radio journalist hopped out of the car and greeted an astonished Martin, asking for an interview. Martin caught Pip’s amused eyes and agreed. He caused outright laughter by borrowing a tie to wear while doing so. ‘No one can see you, darling,’ Leo whispered in his ear as he went past.
The journalist said he had been sent to report on the KRB rally and had been delighted to hear of the excavations from the locals, much more interesting than the KRB posturing. ‘Tedious. Always the same. Flags. Marching men. Now this, the public will be interested in.’
A thing like a toffee apple with wires around it was thrust under Martin’s nose. When a technician with a cylinder and a pair of earphones gave the thumbs up, the questions began. ‘Now tell me, Mr Tov-utz of Oxford. What is it you are hoping to find here?’
Leo sat grinning up at him from the ground, cross-legged, watching him endure his interview. Martin's heart sang as his eyes kept being drawn back to the sweet and gentle face fixed on his. If only he could focus on that rather than his sexual appetite, he might live to be a happy man.
After the radio crew had packed up and taken their leave, Martin clapped his hands for the crew to return to the serious business of archaeology. It was with Leo at his shoulder holding the torch that Martin gazed into the darkness of ages, and announced, ‘I can see something gleaming … yes, it’s gold.’ There were cheers and in the dancing and jumping about, no one noticed the kiss Leo placed on his cheek. He would not have cared if anyone had.
The Old Hentzau dig was making headlines across Europe. Reporters and crowds swarmed in for conducted tours of the diggings, anxious to see the slow emergence of a great Dark Age treasure into light. The barrow’s occupant had been a king, a man over six-feet tall, whose armour and weapons were intact. He lay on the floor of his chariot, its horses slain and placed beside him, gold diadem about his skull, shield in his bony hand. Buckets of Byzantine coins, musical instruments, drinking horns, bracelets and necklaces filled all the available space. The Strelsener Tageszeitung announced it was the grave of Ruric, which led to further media invasions and heated denials from Professor Bjelerocz.
The name of Martin Tofts appeared in the New York Times, quoted in the same paragraph as that of Howard Carter. But such attention meant nothing to him compared with his contentment that Leo was sharing his tent, making his meals and smiling at him across the dig. He had learned that triumph is nothing in life unless there is a kindred soul to share it with in the evening, and a heart beating at one's side throughout the dark hours of the night. So Martin Tofts at last began to grow up.
Piotreshrad was swarming with summer visitors. Long trains from Hofbau, Strelzen and Eisendorf disgorged crowds which swarmed off the platforms on to the boardwalk and filled the pleasure boats and gardens.
A grinning Eric Kirby sat at the wheel of a Citroën in the teaming station forecourt. He got quick pecks on the lips from Leo and Martin as they slid into the back seat. ‘So you’re back together … excellent. The natural order is re-established and my hopes of seducing his royal highness are dashed.’
‘There was never a chance. You’re the commonest commoner I’ve ever met.’
‘I have my charms, sweetheart, as the itinerant population of this resort are discovering. There’s a sweet little pub-ette off the boardwalk where a nice class of Eisendorf apprentice is much enhancing my romantic life … and the little darlings are only here for the week so there’re no consequences. You should come along, Marty.’
Martin took Leo’s hand, smiled and replied that he had found much better things to do. He caught an unusual look in Eric’s eyes in the rear view mirror; he rather hoped it was approval.
When the car drew up, Gus was waiting on the terrace with the usual pack of dogs around his feet. ‘Welcome back, Martin.’
‘It’s good to be back, sir. I can’t tell you how good.’
‘I had a feeling you’d be returning, and I’m glad I was right.’
‘Sir, there’s something really urgent we need to discuss.’
‘I gather it has nothing to do with the archaeology of Old Hentzau and the antecedents of Ruric the Rothenian.’
Martin shook his head. They went inside, and Leo took Martin’s hand as they did. It was unsaid, but Martin had a feeling that from now on they would mostly be together, whether in Oxford, Heinrichshof or Rothenia.
They found seats in the beautiful lounge that Anton and Gus had built overlooking the panorama of the lake – today swarming with excursion craft and yachts. Eric sat cross-legged at Gus’s feet, looking from him to Leo. Leo and Martin occupied armchairs facing the old man.
Martin leaned forward in his chair. ‘Sir, I saw and talked with him, Count Oskar.’
Gus gave a start, looking alarmed. ‘What?
Martin described first his dream of seeing through Oskar’s eyes at Hentzau. ‘… and, sir, he was with you. It was you when you were younger.’
Then he moved on to a description of the night Oskar had walked him across the river meadows to Hentzau.
When Martin finished, Gus seemed deeply troubled. ‘Bless my soul,’ he repeated several times. Eric glanced up at him, worried.
Leo too was concerned. ‘He only comes when there’s a crisis. But what crisis could it be?’
‘I think it’s you he’s bothered about, Leo. This is twice now he’s intervened in your life.’
Eric chipped in. ‘There’s more to it, I’m sure. There was this ring. Describe it.’
Martin obliged, but no one had much idea what it meant. Leo repeated what Welf had mentioned about it's seeming familiar, but nothing more could be said at the time. Eric however undertook to ask around the Piotreshrad jewellers in case anyone recognised the device.
Martin stared squarely at Gus. ‘You knew the Crown was not there, sir.’
‘Yes, of course. I moved it from Hentzau after Maxim left Rothenia, but when I took it away I’m perfectly sure there was no ring in the cavity. It was quite empty.’
‘Then we must assume it’s in some sort of danger where it is now. Do you know where that is?’
‘No, I don’t. Maxim appointed a new keeper … and before you ask, I have no idea who it is. For secrecy’s sake, the box was taken to its new guardian by a third party, Welf’s uncle Franz, who's long dead now.’
They sat silent for a while. Then Gus asked quietly for Martin to tell him how Oskar looked. He did his best to oblige.
Gus nodded. ‘Yes, he was wearing that uniform when I last saw him before they closed his coffin. Tell me more of how he sounded – and his expression, tell me about that.’
‘He was the most beautiful human being I’ve ever seen, sir. But then, he wasn’t quite human. His eyes … I can’t describe them: more light than colour is what comes to mind.’
Gus got slowly to his feet. ‘I’m sorry, boys. I must take a stroll out on the terrace for a while.’ He smiled. ‘Osku had a talent for turning my head upside down when he was alive, and he hasn’t lost it. No, I’m fine, Eric. Give me half an hour or so. I need to think.’
Leo looked at Martin concernedly. Martin turned to Eric. ‘Is he alright?’
Eric shrugged. ‘Although he’s seventy years old, he seems pretty fit to me. He still walks the dogs around the estate without getting out of breath. He’s not keen on driving the cars, but I’m told he’s never been. His appetite’s good. He doesn’t sleep well, but then neither do I … unless I’ve had sex first.
Leo stood and took Martin by the hand once more. He led him upstairs, where they kissed and sat on Leo’s bed.
Martin mused, ‘I don’t think Count Oskar is finished with us.’
‘You think not? I wonder. I believe he may be finished with me and you, but not …’
There was a look of something resembling fear on Leo’s face. ‘I’m worried. He’s all I have, the thought that …’
‘Don’t let your fears carry you away, darling. You heard Eric. Your grandfather’s in good health. Besides, you do have others who care for you: Welf and Rica, Maxim and Helga, and don’t forget this rather stupid English boy who hangs around you being a distraction and a nuisance.’
A kiss was the only possible answer to this. They walked down to the lounge again to find coffee had arrived – and not just coffee. Eric, a telegram clutched in his hand, was looking tense.
‘What is it?’
‘Tildemann’s resigned. He lost the last vote of confidence. Elections have been called.’