The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
‘What’s in the papers this morning?’ Leo reached over and sorted through a pile of newsprint sent up from the town.
They were sitting in the lounge at Piotreshrad. Leo was wearing a tartan dressing gown over his pyjamas, and reminded Martin irresistibly of the boy Leo Underwood from their Medwardine years. Martin, reclining on the carpet at Leo’s feet dressed only in a Chinese silk robe belonging to Eric, received a ruffle of his hair and a kiss as the prince leaned above him.
‘The Ruritanischer Tagblatt is worth a look, darling. The others are very unfair about old Tildemann. They seem relieved he’s gone. There’s no grace or gratitude other than in the grand old paper.’ The Ruritanischer Tagblatt had begun publication before the 1848 revolution in Ruritania, and ‘the grand old paper’ was its affectionate nickname amongst Rothenian liberals.
Eric entered. He was already dressed in a tweed jacket, woollen shirt and a raffish knitted tie. Under his arm he carried a ledger. ‘Anything new on the elections?’
Leo frowned. ‘There’s a lot of fuss in Mittenheim with the fascists. They’re demanding German observers be sent in to monitor the election campaign.’
‘Let me guess, Nazis from Thuringia?’
‘Fraid so, Eric. The bad news is that James Rassendyll has now managed to identify the monarchist cause with the KRB and Gulik.’
Leo gave a look as though he had tasted something deeply unpleasant. ‘When I think of King Maxim and what sort of man he is, and then this fool nephew of his ... James is polluting the clear wells of the Elphberg cause.’ He suddenly threw down his paper and crossed his arms, looking decided about something. ‘Well, there’s only one thing for it, fellows!’
Martin glanced up from the floor. There was something in Leo’s voice he did not recognise. ‘Er … what have you in mind?’
Eric raised his eyebrows.
Leo gave a malicious little smile. ‘It’s time to resurrect the Thuringian claim to the throne.’
Martin got up on his knees. ‘What?’
Eric burst out laughing. ‘Sir, you are … really … that is so devious! I would be proud. Honestly.’
Martin stared at them both. ‘But you can’t! Leo, you always said you had no interest in being king of Rothenia – that Maxim was the only man with a right to the throne!’
Leo was grinning now. ‘So I did. But times change. With things the way they are and the Rothenian republic in decline, there is a lot of royalist sentiment around at the moment. Don't worry, this is not the time for a restoration of the monarchy. Maxim says so, and I believe him just because he’s Maxim. But James is going to go ahead anyway. To have him standing up as the only contender for the throne means he alone is in the spotlight, which will show up his silliness, his objectionable authoritarianism and the sleazy connections he has formed.
‘So for a generation to come, maybe more, whenever someone mentions the Elphbergs, all they’ll see will be James’s rabbity face and all they’ll hear will be his droning voice spouting fascist rhetoric. They’ll associate the Elphbergs with Gulik and his KRB. If I stand against him and assert my claim, however, he’ll no longer be in centre stage. Monarchist support will be divided. I’ll do my best to confuse the issue further. Maybe I can use the Mittenheim region to help us rather than hinder us for once. Mittenheimers will drop James if I'm the alternative, simply because I’m German.’
Eric looked entranced. ‘Oh, Leo! I’m so proud!’
Martin too was beginning to catch light with the idea. ‘Good grief! It’d work. All we have to do is find a way to launch your cause. Long live Leopold II, king of Rothenia!’
Gus wandered in, preceded as usual by a couple of his dogs he’d just been walking round the estate. He raised an eyebrow. ‘What did I just hear? Treason to King Maxim?’
Eric's smirk widened as he filled his boss in on the scheme. Gus, deep in thought, went over to the buffet and poured a coffee. ‘Darling, it’s a worthy scheme, though there are dangers.’ Then he looked over at the young men and gave a distinctly boyish grin. ‘But it might work. It’ll muddy Gulik’s waters for sure, which can only help Tildemann. I’m proud of you. Eric, I think some calls to Strelzen are in order.’
‘Yes, sir. The Ruritanischer Tagblatt?’
‘And the Strelsener Deutcheszeitung if you want German support. Then I think Eric and Martin had best draft a press release, don’t you, darling?’
‘Yes, grandfather. I suddenly feel all militant about the rights of the ancient house of Thuringia and resentful of the hateful Elphberg usurpers. Damned if there’s not a crusade in me after all.’
‘It might be best also to get in touch with Tildemann – no, leave that to me. It’s been a while since Marcus and I had a chat. I feel we may have things to say to each other.’ Gus went off to his study whistling to himself. The dogs trotted after him.
Gus Underwood could spend money when it suited him. His cheque book was deployed to hire halls and subsidise those German-language parties willing to adopt the cause of Leopold of Thuringia with enthusiasm. The provinces of Mittenheim and Merz blossomed with yellow-and-black bunting and flags.
Leo toured the west of Rothenia in an open Mercedes, showered with roses and blessings. Sitting in the back of the car as the Thuringian motorcade sped away from Mittenheim heading for a rally in Ebersfeld, he confided, ‘I feel a fraud. Not much of one, it’s true, but I do have something of a conscience about all this. I’m winding up these people’s hopes to no purpose.’
Martin shrugged. ‘The howls of outrage from the KRB and the right-wing press make it all worthwhile. They’ve been hit hard. You’re glamorous and charming, while James is stiff and boring. You take a good photo too. You’re like the Prince of Wales, darling. No, better. You at least have a brain.’
Leo frowned at Martin. The two princes were cousins, and although he privately agreed with Martin’s assessment of the heir to the British throne, there were family links to be respected. Martin raised an eyebrow quirkily at Leo and smiled.
The cars sped on through the summer lanes of Rothenia. Risking car sickness, Martin ran through the notes of the speech Leo was to give in the rally at Ebersfeld, the biggest yet. ‘This’ll come as a shock to them all.’
‘I hope so.’
‘You’ve never spoken in public before, have you?’
‘We went to the Union a few times. If some of those asses can do it, it can’t be that difficult.’
‘Aren’t you nervous?’
‘Well … a little. Fortunately, Max gave me lots of tips.’
‘But he’s a born speaker.’
‘I might be too, for all we know.’
‘I’ll be there cheering.’
‘Me too,’ Eric put in from the front seat. ‘Whatever you say and however badly you say it.’
Leo chuckled as the car drove on. He was enjoying himself. For the first time in his life he was taking an active part in public affairs instead of being an observer or hapless victim. His princely descent seemed to equip him for this. He found that in dealing with people he was adopting the mannerisms of his guardian, King Maxim, one of the shrewdest political operators of modern times.
His confidence took something of a tumble when they reached the outskirts of Ebersfeld. The Social Democrats had made a real effort, and with the natural affinity of the German population towards Leopold’s candidature for the throne, many thousands of people were lining the road into town.
‘Now we’re for it,’ murmured Martin.
Eric snapped, ‘Damnation. Look! Bloody Nazi flags everywhere. The bastards are trying to jump on our bandwagon.’ There were a significant number of swastika flags hanging from windows or being waved in the hands of the crowd.
To cheers, the music of bands and a blizzard of flowers, Leopold of Thuringia entered the central market place. Police were much in evidence, though the mood was festive. Leo stood and waved as the car nosed through the crowds, doing his best not to make any gesture that might be interpreted as the notorious Nazi salute. Nonetheless, he saw a company of brown-shirted sympathisers making just that sign – and in his direction.
Leo, followed by Martin and Eric, climbed up on to a tricolour-draped platform in front of the town hall. The local SDP organisers were ready to receive him and made plenty of capital from their monopoly of the stage.
After a brief introduction, Leo was ushered to the microphone. The sight of a huge sea of faces looking directly at him rendered him momentarily mute. The crowd fell eerily silent.
‘People of Ebersfeld!’ he began in German, then faltered. The crowd stirred and for a moment Leo felt panic rising in his throat. But at that point, as the platform party started looking sideways at him, Leo realised what his message should be. He deliberately put down the notes Eric had prepared for him.
‘Rothenians!’ he continued. ‘For we are not Germans and Slavs gathered here in this square, but all one nation.’ A swell of murmurs grew and subsided, while catcalls came from the brown-shirted section of the crowd.
Leo, remembering Maxim’s advice, ignored the dissent and ploughed on. ‘If I am ever to be king of this land, dear friends, it will be as the king of all of you – Ruritanian Germans as much as Rothenian Slavs. The blood of both runs in my veins. I may be Duke of Thuringia, but I’m Duke of Ranstadt too. I love both places, because each is equally my home.’
A swell of noise rose again as he paused, and with a prickle in his neck, Leo recognised that the people's cheers far outnumbered the whistles and hoots coming from the Nazis.
He went on in a ringing voice, inspiration sweeping aside his inexperience. ‘I will be king of a united people, a king such as Henry the Lion, a king like Rudolf V, a king like the great Maxim Elphberg!’
Now a surge of approving cries filled the square, echoing back from the house fronts. The Nazis fell silent, though a few defiant swastikas still waved furiously. Leo was trembling with the wash of emotional feedback cascading over him from the crowd.
A moment later, he was awed when the cries died away at the lift of his hand. ‘To be Rothenian is to love freedom! To be Rothenian is freedom! Freedom from hatred of one’s neighbours, from persecution, from the oppression of ideologies. Freedom to think and speak as we wish. We live in harmony, we Rothenians, as men should: with respect for our fellows, German, Jew and Slav alike. We do not hate. We do not persecute. Rejoice in our great heritage, and turn away from those who would make us lesser men!’
A huge roar awoke from the tens of thousands of throats in front of him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the swastika flags disappear and the brown-shirts begin to melt away.
‘You are the heirs of Queen Flavia, who made this nation what it is. You must never cast aside her gift to you: a nation where different peoples live together in peace. Our land is unique and it is for you to preserve it. When you vote, remember that great queen. Who would she want you to vote for?’
‘Tildemann!’ came the combined voice of the crowd.
‘God bless, you my people! God bless you in your coming out and going in! A father’s blessing to his people!’
With the royal blessing the crowd erupted. The national anthem surged out, and was still being sung when Leo left the stage ten minutes later.
‘My God!’ shouted Eric in his ear. ‘Flavia’s not the only great queen this country has produced!’
Martin found himself that night in the unusual position of being under Leo in bed. He was taken fast and furiously and was left breathless by his lover’s passion. As they lay together exhausted, Martin had to ask, ‘Er … was that the result of your oratory?’
Leo laughed, though a little self-consciously. ‘I can’t tell you the sensation of power it sent through me. I felt ten times taller than I am. I felt as if I held all those people in my hand.’
‘You were amazing.’
‘Yes, but I must never do it again. It was so easy to inflame them – and so dangerous. I could have made them do mad things, horrible things.’
Martin held Leo tight. ‘Better you, darling, than power-mad oafs like Mussolini or Gulik. You accomplished something wonderful today. You gave the people a belief in their country and opened their eyes to why they are all part of a great nation. I don’t know, but I think that in five minutes you might have undone years of Gulik’s hate-fuelled rhetoric.’
‘I hope so. What’s Eric organised for tomorrow?’
‘You’re appearing on a platform in Hofbau with Tildemann.’
‘Oh, then I suppose we’d better get to sleep.’
Martin gave a look of arch disappointment
‘What’s the problem?’
‘Well, I was hoping you might be thinking of making another speech.’
Leo giggled. ‘I can imagine why. You really liked me that way?’
‘I certainly did. Come on … you can do it.’
‘Very well then, you asked for it. On your tummy, Marty.’
They woke entangled not long after dawn with Eric Kirby banging on the door. ‘Wake up, your royal highness, and whoever you’ve got in there with you, you dirty old queer!’
‘Good morning, sir.’
‘That was not funny!’
‘Oh … a bit more tact, you think?’
‘Anyway. Breakfast is ready, and we leave at six, sir.’
As Leo and his entourage departed the hotel, there was a crowd smiling, cheering and waving tricolours on the pavement opposite. He paused, then crossed the road to shake hands and exchange greetings. Martin walked behind him and, with the help of a couple of policemen, tried to keep Leo from being mobbed. Leo seemed relaxed, chatting happily with old ladies and young men alike. When he finally broke free, the people were cheering and blessing him.
The cars pulled away at last. Martin leaned back and observed, ‘It seems a pity you can’t do politics for a career, darling.’
‘Do you think so?’
‘Look at those people. It was as if you were a film star. You can talk happily with anyone.’
‘I think you’re getting two things confused, Marty. The real business of politics is compromise and evasion. I can’t do any of that. I’m just good with people. I can do celebrity, nothing more.’
Martin was unconvinced. ‘Yesterday you inspired tens of thousands of people with a vision of their native land as a home of freedom and tolerance. Don’t tell me that wasn’t politics.’
‘No, dear, it was oratory. I can put over the message well enough; what I doubt is my ability to deliver what I preach. That’s why we need people like Tildemann.’
‘But not Gulik.’
Leo laughed. ‘I’m afraid the odious fascist can accomplish both arts equally well. We must thank the heavens that cousin James can do neither. He's the KRB’s bad luck.’
Their cars drove through the wooded hills and shallow valleys of the province of Merz, a comfortable landscape of small farms and tiny villages. It was a journey of barely ninety kilometres, so they reached Rothenia’s second city in good time for midmorning coffee at an inn on the great square.
Professor Tildemann was waiting in a back room with two party officials. Leo thought the professor had aged considerably from when they had last been together. Although the man had always been stooped, he now seemed withered as well.
His voice did not quaver, however. ‘Your royal highness. I think we have to thank you for your last-minute assistance, so very welcome and so unexpected. Your guardian, the king, will be overcome with pride.’
‘He did not of course know anything about it, professor.’
‘That’s the beauty of it, sir. It looks as though you’re defying him and rekindling the old Thuringian rivalry with the Elphbergs.’ Tildemann gave a slow smile. ‘The KRB cannot point the finger at King Maxim and accuse him of interfering with the rightful claims of his nephew.’
‘I hope it’s had an impact.’
‘My local representatives say the fall away from the Nazis in the western provinces has been most gratifying, while the KRB is reeling in Husbrau and the cities.’
‘So we have a chance?’
‘More than we did a week ago, certainly. But may I say that the tenor of your message was what most impressed me.’
‘You may say so, professor. Believe me when I tell you it was from the heart.’
‘You are a most remarkable young man, sir. So like the king in many ways.’
‘I think rather it’s my grandfather’s influence you may detect.’
‘A very great man.’
‘Indeed.’ Leo took a seat, allowing the other men, who had remained standing while he did, to settle around the room’s table. ‘Now gentlemen, there’s not much more to be done, I believe.’
One of Tildemann’s aides answered. ‘As you know, sir, the elections will be on Saturday. There will be SDP rallies in all the major cities on that day. The president will speak at Martzfeld in Strelzen. We doubt it would be a good thing for you to occupy the hustings at that late stage. Your message has been received loud and clear by all who need to know. The monarchist press has abandoned Count James in preference for your claims. Only the KRB party magazines advocate his candidacy and they seem half-embarrassed about it now.’
‘Ah … but had you thought what may happen if you win the election decisively, professor? People will expect a restoration of the monarchy.’
Tildemann waved his hand in a deprecatory gesture. ‘As you know sir, I would not myself be averse to just that.’
‘But this is where it becomes difficult, because I have no intention of taking Maxim’s throne if it is offered to me.’
‘We understand that. So I shall again ask the king to return to the Osraeum and sit once more in the throne of his ancestors.’
‘And he will refuse again.’
The professor scratched his head. ‘I wish someone would explain to me why that should be. Surely everyone now knows the measure of the man. Is it pique that prevents him?’
Leo shook his head. ‘I think there are bigger issues here than one man’s pride. He has his reasons.’
‘Oh yes … the prophecies. I am a pragmatic man, sir. I understand nothing of this.’
‘I can hardly claim to understand it myself.’
‘The people will be disappointed, angry even, should you not fulfil your claim to the throne.’
‘That’s the thing, isn’t it? We need to find a way to withdraw, once James’s claims are neutered.’
‘I would not resist the proclamation of King Leopold II, faithful servant though I am of the Elphbergs.’
‘It will not happen. I think my fate lies elsewhere.’
‘More mystery. Really, your royal highness, dealing with your family is like communing with the oracle of Delphi: things half said and mysterious hints are all I hear. The older I get the more impatient I am with it.’
‘All I ask, professor, is that you give the matter of my withdrawal some thought. Now, I believe we are to appear together on a rostrum this fine morning. I really would appreciate a cup of tea first.’
Leo, Eric and Martin decided to stay in Hofbau for the election. They were more keen to do this as Gus had moved in the meantime to the country house of Templerstadt, where his oldest friend, Count Hugo Maria von Tarlenheim, lived.
Leo himself drove them up into the Taveln valley on the Friday. He had spent much of his childhood at Templerstadt, for the count was Pip’s grandfather, and father of Helga, the queen of Rothenia.
The Mercedes rumbled into the courtyard of the medieval house. ‘My God, what a handsome place!’ Martin was predictably enamoured of the architecture. ‘I must get into that chapel.’
‘Later, sweetheart. First we need to see grandfather.’
Eric was touchingly excited to be returning to his post by the side of his employer. ‘Sir! Sir!’ he shouted, waving from the back of the open car.
As it pulled up, a beaming Gus appeared on the shallow doorstep of the house’s entry. Leo was given a close hug, and his grandfather whispered some words to him that caused him to glow with pleasure.
Gus ushered the three young men into the house to a beautiful reception room, where an old couple were sitting. Count Hugo Maria was a venerable-looking man with a pointed white beard. His blind eyes were concealed behind dark glasses. The countess his wife, a remarkably spruce and handsome woman for her age, rose to greet all three, embracing Leo as if he were a son.
Coffee was served and family gossip exchanged. Pip and Kate would apparently be joining them at the weekend, when they were free of their obligations to the Old Hentzau dig.
In the meantime, there was a sheaf of letters and telegrams from King Maxim for Leo’s attention. Gus wanted to go over them carefully with his grandson.
Before they departed to the library, Leo whispered something in Count Hugo Maria’s ear.
The count gave a frown. Calling Martin over, he offered his arm, and together they walked out into the courtyard. ‘Take me into the chapel, my dear.’
Martin obliged, rather distracted by the beautiful proportions of the building as he entered. The count’s words therefore took him aback when they registered in his mind: ‘So you have met my brother.’
His brother? After a puzzled pause, Martin worked out to whom the count was referring. ‘Count Oskar? I … think so. Yes.’
‘Alarming man, is he not?’
‘And very beautiful.’ Then Martin flushed, realising he had betrayed something of himself. But Count Hugo seemed not to mind; his brother after all had been a flagrant homosexual.
‘August tells me Oskar led you a merry sort of dance … just like him, I’m afraid.’
‘In retrospect, after I got over the scare, it seemed to me that he was having fun.’
‘Lying flat out and grinning his head off?’
‘As it happens, yes.’
‘That was Oskar. How I do miss him. But what was he up to this time?’
‘No one has any idea, sir. I had rather hoped you might.’
The count pondered a while. ‘It will be about an impending crisis, you can be sure. This ring …?’
‘It was silver, with the device of a rose on top of crossed swords.’
‘I recognised the design as soon as August described it.’
‘Sir? But you’re …’
‘Blind, yes. But my memories from when I still had my sight are remarkably clear. I once saw a ring just like that.’
‘It was on my brother’s finger. He came back from Alfenszberh wearing it.’
‘The officer-cadet training school of the Rothenian army. At seventeen, he graduated top of his class in fencing, horsemanship and marksmanship. I would also say that, had there been a category for seduction of his classmates, he would have been top in that too. There was not anyone able to say no to him.’
‘So the ring I saw may have been his?’
‘I believe so, though it is difficult to imagine what the token might mean. Yet there must have been a significance to his interview with you.’
Martin was pretty sure there had been a personal meaning intended for him alone, and he believed he knew Oskar’s intention. The Crown of Tassilo was another matter. Only one living person knew where it was, and the dead count seemed to be telling them there was danger to whoever was its guardian.
The old man sighed. ‘Then I suppose we must wait to see what else happens. Welf and Henry will be here soon and will have a contribution to make.’
‘I know your son Welf, sir. I don’t think I have met Henry.’
‘He’s always abroad for some reason or other. He’s something of a national hero: the first Rothenian to fly the Atlantic in one of our own Falke planes. He is a colonel in our air force. He has just made his mother very happy by announcing his engagement to a young French lady. Sissi is so relieved. She thought he’d never settle down. With Pip and Kate engaged, that’s two marriages she can enjoy herself fretting about.’
By election day, Templerstadt was full. Welf’s children played in the courtyard or on the lawns. The drawing room was occupied by the elder Tarlenheims and Gus. Eric was there too, taking shelter from the children whom he professed to loathe.
The reception hall had been given over to the younger set. Leo, Martin, Pip and Kate held one corner, while Welf and his wife together with Henry and his fiancé took another.
Colonel Henry von Tarlenheim was in his mid-thirties, though he looked younger than that. He had a military smartness about him despite his civilian clothes. A heavy smoker, he was continually disappearing outside in obedience to his mother’s prohibition on smoking indoors. His fiancée was one Hélène Debiès, whom he had met at a rather select villa party at Cannes that spring. She was slim, dark and very French – and another chain smoker, though she had more self-control in the matter than Henry.
The day passed slowly, an undercurrent of anxiety in the air. Gus and Eric took over the count’s study that afternoon and Eric was continuously on the phone. At four, as the others were having tea on the lawn, Leo and Martin joined them.
Eric was chewing on a pencil and making notes, while Gus twiddled his fingers and looked pensive.
Leo settled on the arm of Gus’s chair. ‘What’s going on, grandfather?’
‘Oh, it’s frustration, my dear. The polls don’t close till seven this evening. There has been some violence in Zenden and in the capital, where fascists are having gang fights with communists, but mostly it’s been orderly.’
Eric put down the phone. ‘Something's going on in Strelfurt which sounds ominous.’
Leo looked a question.
‘A group of about thirty KRB supporters took up their banners four days ago and started a walk from Glottenberh, heading for the capital. Well, by the time they got to Strelfurt, a KRB regiment had assembled to greet them. Gulik and cousin James arrived there last night for one of their damnable rallies, which ended up getting out of hand.’
‘In what way, out of hand?’
‘They’re armed, sir. The police have been driven out and the army barracks stormed. That’s the last news to come out of the town, but lorry-loads of KRB heavies are converging on Strelfurt from every direction.
‘The post-cart has brought up the morning papers from Strelzen. The KRB rags are calling for a protest march from Strelfurt on the capital.’
‘What on earth do they think they can accomplish?’
Gus growled, ‘The intention is clearly to disrupt the counting of the vote in the capital and attempt to neutralise the election. It may not be a revolution as such, but its effect may nonetheless be catastrophic for the republic. If the election has to be re-staged, it will not benefit Tildemann and his party.’
Leo was furious. ‘Damn the man Gulik!’ he swore. ‘When will he learn? This must be stopped!’
Gus put his hand on his grandson’s arm. ‘Unfortunately, that may not be easy.’
‘For heaven’s sake, why?’
‘The army is the only solution at this stage, but you must know that under the republic it’s been reduced to a shadow of what it once was. It sounds as though the Strelfurt garrison was swamped, and the next nearest units are in the capital. If this march on Strelzen gathers force, there is no guarantee the troops will attempt to halt it.’
‘Then what can we do?’
‘I think we have to leave it to Tildemann and such powers that be.’
Leo shook his head. ‘The president is no man of action. He may be steadfast politically, but you need a man like Maxim in a crisis like this.’
Eric shrugged. ‘The king’s in Surrey.’
‘But I’m here!’ declared Leo.
Gus looked alarmed. ‘What on earth are you proposing?’
‘I mean I can’t let those fascists overthrow the constitution of this land and place James Elphberg-Rassendyll on Maxim’s throne. If I have to shoot out what brains the fool may have in his head, I’ll put myself between him and Strelzen.’
Martin looked bewildered at the turn of events. ‘But …’
Leo turned on him. ‘Don’t try to argue me out of it. Eric, get the car.’
‘Er … I’m not sure that’s the best idea, sir.’
Leo was getting unusually heated. ‘Grandfather! Are you going to tell me you have no faith that I can do it?’
Concern, love and hesitation were mixed in the old man’s expression. ‘Leo … of course you are a prince and a brave man, but not a man of action.’
‘Give me a moment, I must think.’ He stood and paced the room, then shot a glance round from under his bushy eyebrows.
‘Get Henry and Welf!’