The Crown of Tassilo 3








Michael Arram








  ‘I felt a fool.’


  ‘What, when we were having sex?’


  Leo gave a rueful laugh at the weak joke.  ‘You know what I mean.’


  ‘Maybe.  Darling, don’t feel too bad.  It’s just that you can’t expect men like your grandfather, Welf and Henry to see you as I do.  You’ll always be a boy to them.’




  ‘But to me you're a hero.’


  ‘Don’t overdo it, Marty.’


  Martin smirked.  ‘I mean it.  What you did at Ebersfeld and Husbrau was amazing to me.’  They embraced, warm skin against skin.  ‘I love you.  Now more than ever.’


  Leo sighed, separated from Martin and sat up in their bed.  Their relationship was tacitly acknowledged at Templerstadt.  Without a twitch of an eyebrow, the butler had placed both their bags in their first-floor bedroom.  Martin believed Gus had made the situation clear to Count Hugo and his wife sometime before they had arrived.


  Martin moved the palm of his hand lovingly over the smooth skin of his lover’s back, pausing to stroke the raised line of the vertebrae.  He sat up in his own turn and embraced Leo from behind, kissing his shoulders.


  Their relation to one another had changed radically in recent weeks.  In the past, it had been Martin who set the pace.  He had been the adventurer and the dominant partner in their sex play.


  Then Leo had changed the rules.  It was he now who was the restless and assertive partner.  He had even been taking the lead sexually, and Martin found that, at the moment, he did not mind this reversal in their roles.  Maybe it was guilt over their recent alienation, or maybe it was because deep down he wanted to be controlled.  Whatever its origin, Martin was not fighting the present state of affairs.


  Leo put his head back for a kiss.  Martin obliged happily and at some length.  They snuggled back down into the bed.


  ‘It’s like this, Marty.  I may not be Maxim, but I do have something to contribute.  Yet my opinions seem to be ignored by the older generation.  If I stood between the KRB marchers and the capital, I think I could get them to stop for me.  What are Henry and Welf going to do?  Shoot James or Gulik in the head?’


  ‘Do you have a plan?’


  ‘As it happens, I think I do.’




  ‘Will you help me?’


  ‘You lead, my prince, and I will follow.’


  ‘Very well, my darling, it’s like this …’








  ‘What’s going on, Eric?’


  ‘Morning, Marty.  Oh, phone calls everywhere and a lot of packing.  The KRB column moved off from Strelfurt at dawn, James at its head.  They’ve gone for broke.  Gulik proclaimed him King Jakob at a rally last night.’


  ‘My word!’


  ‘Yes indeed.  It’s a bit chaotic, but there’s a formidable number of the faithful behind James.  Some estimates say it's as high as thirty thousand, mostly armed.’


  Leo crunched his toast hard.  ‘That puts Gulik outside the law this time.  If his coup fails, it’s Kaleczyk for him.’


  ‘What’s the army doing?’


  ‘No idea.  You’d have to ask that hunk, Henry von Tarlenheim.  Did I tell you I’ve fallen in love?  He’s so dashing.  Perhaps he’ll fly me away from all this.’


  Martin rolled his eyes.  ‘When will you cease from falling for unsuitable men?’


  ‘You never know till you try your luck.  Many’s the apparently conventional heterosexual gentleman I’ve had in my bed.’


  ‘Yes, but they were paying for the pleasure.’


  ‘Nonetheless …’


  ‘You didn’t try it on!’


  ‘I thought there was a connection.  After all, there’s a lot of queerness in his family.’


  The door opened, admitting a tousled Pip in his dressing gown.  ‘What’s that about queers?’


  ‘Eric was saying that you Tarlenheims are a tribe of poofs.’


  ‘I never did.’


  Pip raised his eyebrows.  ‘It was only my late great-uncle that way inclined, so far as I know.  What got you started on this?’


  Leo shook his head.  ‘You really don’t want to know.  It would challenge your masculinity.  Can we focus here?  Time is pressing.  Did you find time to make my call, Eric?


  Eric sobered up.  ‘Yes sir.  He’ll meet us at Strelfurt.  He didn’t join the march.’


  Martin stirred.  ‘Eric’s coming?’


  ‘Of course.’


  ‘What’s going on here?  You’re not cutting me out of something, are you?’  Pip was looking annoyed.


  Leo frowned.  ‘At this rate, Kate and your grandfather will be coming!’


  ‘Now hold on …’


  Leo held up his hand.  ‘By all means you can come too, Pip dear.  But it’ll be crowded in the car.  Get yourself dressed and make your excuses to Kate.  We’re leaving in the Mercedes in twenty minutes.  With all the fuss your uncles are making, nobody will notice our disappearance.’


  Leo put down his napkin and hurried from the breakfast room, Martin following close behind.    ‘Got our travelling bags, Marty?’


  ‘The butler put them in the car’.


  The group called by Eric ‘the grown-ups’ were still holding a last-minute conference in the drawing room.  As Martin passed the door, he glimpsed Gus Underwood in the process of explaining something to Henry, who had donned his air force blues.  Turning to Leo he murmured, ‘Shouldn’t we say goodbye to your grandfather?’


  ‘I’ve left him a note.  There’s no point in explaining it.  Besides, he could hardly say we were heading into trouble – quite the opposite in fact.’


  Pip leapt into the back of the open car, and Eric pulled away the moment he was seated.  The young men were silent for a while as the Mercedes drove down through the park and on to the open road to the east.  Their spirits soon revived, however, as they sped the forty miles to Strelfurt along an empty road on a day of no small beauty.


  ‘Nice weather in which to overthrow a republic, isn’t it?’ Eric observed.


  Pip wanted to know the plan.  How were they going to stop the KRB march on Strelzen?


  ‘We’re not.  We’ll leave that to your uncles and the army.’


  ‘Then what on earth are we doing on this jaunt of yours, Leo?’


  ‘Pip dear, whether the march succeeds or fails, the KRB is a threat that will not go away.  That seems obvious to me.  So what has to be done is to make it less intrinsically dangerous.’


  ‘And how do you propose to do it?’


  ‘Stefan Gulik has used cousin James to climb to some sort of respectability with the monarchist middle classes.  Gulik’s a street thug and demagogue by nature.  With this march on the capital he’s organised, he’s reverting to type.  He’s impatient for power.  One violent effort and he hopes the republic will fall into his hands.  But he’s forgetting the people who stand behind him, those who provide him with funds and manage the KRB’s more respectable side.’


  Pip continued to look puzzled.


  Leo smiled over the seat back at his cousin.  ‘Tell him, Marty.’


  ‘Most of the more delicate diplomacy the KRB does is through a Karl Wardrinskij, the party secretary.  Leo and I met him at Heinrichshof earlier this year, then later on at Piotreshrad.  Though Leo didn’t go along with his suggestions, we thought he was a reasonable man.  Even back then he seemed a bit disgruntled with the odious Gulik, and Leo believes we may be able to play on that.’


  ‘So Eric put a few calls through and I talked to him last night.  He was rather anxious to meet – the sooner the better.’


  Pip began to see the plan.  ‘Well, well.  That’s really quite devious.  While uncle Henry and Welf play men of action, you’re going behind Gulik’s back.  How very … characteristic.’


  ‘What do you mean?’ Eric queried from the driving wheel.


  ‘He means, how like a bunch of homos,’ Martin snorted.


  ‘No … that’s not what I meant.’


  Leo looked hurt.  ‘I hope that’s not what you meant, Pip.’


  Pip blushed and was silent.


  Martin was beginning to sense a distance opening between the three friends for the first time in the years they had been together.  For all he adored Kate, he realised she was drawing Pip away from them.  Then he shrugged to himself.  It had to happen, and it made his relationship with Leo all the more important.  He had survived his exile from Leo’s side at Oxford with Pip’s help, but Pip would not have been available as a willing intermediary between them for much longer.


  They drove on in silence until the road brought them to the edge of the Starel basin, with the broad river valley opening below them and the blue mass of the great Murranberg hazy in the distance.  The spires and rooftops of Strelfurt were ten miles away.


  Eric pulled the car up on the crest of the steep bank down which the road wound its way to the lowlands.  ‘We’re early,’ he observed.  ‘Smoke break, I think.’


  They got out of the car and leant against it, sharing a pack of Eric’s cigarettes.  Pip puffed out a blue cloud.  ‘I really must give these up.  They’re not good for my wind, and Kate is always on about the smell in my room.’


  Eric shrugged.  ‘They keep me calm, or as calm as I can manage.  Besides, nothing’s more useful than an offer of a ciggie when you’re trying to pick up a boy.  It breaks the ice quite nicely.’


  ‘Perhaps that’s why Americans call us “fags”, d’you suppose?’ Martin wondered.


  Leo chuckled.  ‘I really don’t think so, darling.’


  Eric flicked his stub away.  ‘Ah well, back to business.’


  The Mercedes entered the western half of Strelfurt, where the government buildings were concentrated.  There was still an acrid taint of smoke to the air.  The army barracks had been gutted and the roof had fallen in.  The rioting had been violent, judging by the scatter of glass through the streets and the many boarded-up shop fronts.  Police and troops were notable by their absence, leaving the city edgy.  Groups of men stood on the corners, eyeing the car uneasily as it passed.


  ‘Drive over the bridge, Eric.’


  But Leo’s direction was not as easy to follow as to give.  The many-piered bridge across the Starel was barricaded at each end, and armed police were manning a check point.


  A sergeant asked for their papers, then looked closer at Leo.  ‘Are you …?’


  ‘Yes, sergeant.’


  The man snapped off a respectful salute.


  ‘What happened here?’


  ‘Well, highness, the fascists had a fine old time.  They drove off our boys and killed half a dozen of us.  Others broke into the armoury.  The troops didn’t stop them.  They say the major in charge was one of them, anyway.  Then they looted the town, the bastards.  There were killings and there’s talk of rapes too.  They moved out yesterday afternoon, singing their fucking … pardon me, highness … marching songs.  Talk is they walked in torch-lit circles round a big field, had speeches and then camped somewhere down by Walcherstejne.’


  ‘And they head on to the capital today?’


  ‘So they say, sir.  May I ask your business in Strelfurt today?’


  ‘Yes you may, sergeant.  But I’d rather you didn’t.’


  ‘Understood, sir.  We wish you well anyway.  We all do.  Long live King Leopold, I say.’


  ‘Thank you, sergeant.  Drive on, Eric.’


  The car climbed the hill on the east side of town.  Obeying Leo’s instructions, Eric pulled up at a small inn, marked out by the traditional holly wreath on a pole.


  It was dark inside the building as Martin pushed the door open, and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust after the brightness outside.  ‘Mr Wardrinskij?’ he called out.  There was a stir within.  Once he got a better view of the room, he saw several men around a window table, none in KRB regalia.  Wardrinskij was standing behind them.


  Leo and the others had by then joined Martin.  All the seated men got to their feet when they recognized the prince.


  ‘Will you take a chair, your royal highness?’


  ‘Thank you.’


  There were offers of drinks.  Leo and Martin declined but Pip and Eric happily accepted, adjourning to stools at the inn’s counter a distance from the others.


  ‘Thank you for organizing this meeting, sir.’


  Leo smiled.  ‘Not at all, Mr Wardrinskij.  I think perhaps it has been long overdue.  Now we’re here, will you please tell me your views on your organisation’s march on Strelzen – and do be candid.’


  Wardrinskij twitched his moustache in a smile.  ‘I imagine you can guess our views, sir.  But first, let me introduce my colleagues: they are all MPs and members of the KRB executive.  Colonel Rachovskij here was our party’s organiser and regional commandant in Husbrau.  He resigned as soon as the Direktor announced his coup attempt.  Mr Vohl is the party’s communications director, and Mr von Mohlberg is the leader of the parliamentary party.’


  Martin was impressed.  These were three of the biggest names in the KRB movement, and Vohl had been with the party from its earliest days.  He had once been reputed to be Gulik’s closest political ally.  Not any more, it seemed.


  ‘I’m impressed you were able to meet me here, gentlemen.’


  ‘And we were very surprised you asked for the meeting, sir.’


  ‘Well, well, I think we may have things to say to each other.  But do tell me how the march has changed your views about the party’s future direction.’


  Von Mohlberg snorted.  ‘Gulik has made a fool of us all.  This election might not have delivered us a majority in parliament: you saw to that, sir.  But the next might well do so.  Tildemann’s new government will be no stronger than the last one, should he win.  The Direktor has no patience.  All he has to do is wait.  This futile violence will just alienate the middle classes, whom we need to win over.’


  Vohl’s hooded eyes gleamed across the table at Leo.  ‘May I commend your royal highness on your … contribution.  It was well-timed and eloquent.  But in view of your words, I have to wonder why you want to talk to us.’


  ‘Oh, it’s very simple.  I think the KRB can make a valuable contribution to our national life.’


  Eyebrows were raised around the table at this last remark.


  Wardrinskij nodded.  ‘But not under the present leadership, I imagine.’


  ‘Obviously not.’


  ‘So what do you propose?’


  ‘I'm sure you'll agree that coups can be mounted in more than one direction.  It’s time to dispense with Mr Gulik as Direktor, wouldn’t you say?’


  The men stared at Leo, who continued, ‘He is gambling all on this demonstration of strength and violence.  If it goes wrong, as it surely will, he will be vulnerable.  How strong is he now on your executive?’


  Wardrinskij answered.  ‘In my opinion, the majority now would like to see the back of him.  One vote and he would be ousted, and then we could say goodbye to that fool of an English prince too … saving your presence, sir.’


  ‘Very well.  Perhaps you should organise a meeting and a vote then?’


  Wardrinskij demurred.  ‘A moment, sir.  We all here would like to know what your motive is in proposing we remove the Direktor.’


  ‘The peace and stability of Rothenia, of course.  And if you can accomplish Gulik’s deposition, I can offer you something.’


  ‘What’s that?’


  ‘My endorsement of the KRB.’








  ‘I can’t believe you said that.’


  ‘Why, Martin?’


  ‘Support the KRB?  Leo!  They’re fascists!’


  ‘I was aware of that.’  Leo sat smiling into his lover’s face.  He was enjoying the confusion he saw there.


  ‘We didn’t discuss this.’


  ‘I was improvising.’


  ‘No you weren’t.  You intended to say that.’


  Leo laughed.  ‘I can’t fool you, can I.’


  They were alone at the table.  Wardrinskij and his colleagues had withdrawn to a back room for a private discussion.  Pip and Eric were still smoking at the counter over glasses of beer.


  ‘Well, explain it.’


  ‘I don’t want to be king, dearest, you know that.  But if Professor Tildemann gets re-elected, the offer will be repeated.  Since I made myself so conspicuous in the election campaign, I’ll be hard-put to refuse unless I find a way to make it impossible for the offer to be made.’


  ‘So how do you do that without making yourself look ridiculous?’


  ‘Darling, I’m quite happy to make a fool of myself.  I have no political ambitions or policies, and I don’t want to be king.  What bothers me is that I’ve made people believe in me over the past week.  Now I’m going to have to let them down, but better that than allow the KRB to run wild under Gulik.’


  The noisy voices of the fascist representatives rose and fell in the next room.  Martin tapped his fingers and Leo lit a cigarette, smiling quirkily through the curling blue smoke.  Outside the windows of the musty inn parlour, insects buzzed and explored the flower banks.  Martin felt strangely peaceful, in the circumstances.


  With a scraping of chairs, Wardrinskij and his colleagues ended their conclave.


  Leo stubbed out his cigarette and smiled at the returning delegation.  ‘Well, are we agreed?’








  ‘I imagine he thought he could duplicate Mussolini’s achievement.’


  ‘But a coup is about more than wearing tasselled hats and jutting out your jaw to look determined.  Go on, darling, do your impersonation.’


  Leo laughed as Martin sat up in bed and thrust his head forward in the manner of the Italian leader.  Martin laughed too.  ‘Hang on.  This is Gulik.  How does it look?’


  Leo was in near hysterics.  ‘If you can do one of cousin James, I’ll have a heart attack.’


  Martin guffawed.  ‘No, I don’t have the teeth for it.  Think bunny rabbit.’  He collapsed back into the bed, to be received warmly by his lover.


  After a while Leo said, ‘We’re at a turning point now, I feel it.’


  ‘In many ways, I should say.  Which one do you have in mind?’


  ‘After this fiasco of a KRB march, Gulik’s in the Arsenal prison and James is under house arrest at Hentzau.  Wardrinskij was as good as his word.  The KRB council has voted Gulik out of the leadership, largely so the organisation can escape proscription and retain its parliamentary seats.  Tildemann is back as president.  I’ve crippled the monarchist cause by endorsing Vohl’s speech about seeking a coalition with the Christian Democrats.  Tildemann cannot now offer me the crown.’


  ‘So that’s hardly a turning point, is it?  It’s the status quo back again.  The Rothenian republic lives to fight another day, while King Maxim stays in exile.’


  Leo shook his head.  ‘No Marty, the point is, we could have gone the way of Italy or Russia and staggered into being a totalitarian state.  Instead, democracy has survived and the fascists have become just one more right-wing party amongst the others.  Without Gulik, they may even get to be respectable.’


  ‘I see that.’  Martin lay still for a while before tentatively recommencing.  ‘When are you going to stop hiding from your grandfather?  You’ll have to go back to Piotreshrad eventually.’


  ‘Who says I’m hiding?’


  ‘Why haven’t you gone back, then?’


  ‘It’s nice here in Marienbad.  I thought we needed a walking holiday.’




  ‘Don’t you like being here with me, on our own for once, where there’s no Eric to drive us crazy?’


  ‘That goes without saying.  And Eric had to go back.  It’s your grandfather who pays his wages, and he has a job to do.


  ‘By the way, darling, I almost forgot.  There was a telegram from Maxim for you in the lobby.’


  ‘Oh … did you open it?’


  ‘No, of course I didn’t.  I left it on your dressing table.’


  Leo sighed, got out of bed and padded naked over to get the envelope.  He weighed it before returning to Martin.  ‘I’d better see what it is.  Here goes.’  He ripped open the yellow slip and sat concentrating on the contents.  Then he turned to his lover and beamed.  ‘He understands!  He says I’m more of a hero than Henry von Tarlenheim.  He says he admires the way I had to deal with slime like the KRB though my entire being revolted against it.  He says he’s proud of me.’




  ‘Yes.  But he says I’ve got to go and make it up with grandfather … so he was annoyed with me.’


  ‘You can see why, can’t you?’


  ‘Yes.  But maybe Eric will explain to him why I had to do it.’


  ‘You can trust Eric on that.  But darling, you’ll always be a boy to your grandfather – the sweet, loving grandson who had to be saved and protected from his own father and mother.  He can only find it difficult to come to terms with the other Leo, the prince with a will of his own.  Maybe even …’




  ‘Had it occurred to you that he might even resent the way you seized the initiative over the KRB coup?’




  ‘To begin with, you were right about it all.  Then there’s the fact that Gus has been the informal chief of the Elphberg party in Rothenia for over fifty years.  Well … he might have suddenly felt … useless, outdated.’


  ‘Oh!’  Leo looked deeply troubled.  ‘That wasn’t why I did it.’


  ‘I’m sure deep down he understands your motives.  It’s still really important for you to return to Piotreshrad, however.  You two have to work out your new relationship.  And there’s another thing.’


  ‘I’m not going to like this, am I.’


  ‘James.  You have to go and sort him out too.’


  ‘Oh God!  I’d rather wear a KRB hat and strut around like a storm trooper.’


  ‘James can help you find the hat.  He’ll have to be getting rid of his KRB wardrobe now!’








  Martin was at the wheel as the Mercedes turned into the drive of Gus’s mansion above Lake Maresku a week after the events of the coup.  It was a raw day for June, with whitecaps rising on the grey waters of the windswept lake.  The car’s canvas roof was up to protect the occupants from the chill.


  Two footmen opened the car doors and took their bags.  Gus was not waiting for them on the doorstep.  Instead, they found Eric in the hall, smiling broadly.


  ‘Where is he?’  Leo was suddenly deeply anxious about the coming interview.


  ‘Out in the grounds with the dogs, sir.’


  ‘And how is he?’


  A flicker of uncertainty momentarily clouded Eric’s eyes, and Leo did not miss it.  ‘He’s himself.  You really will have to ask him personally, Leo.’


  Leo sighed.  ‘I’ll look for him.  It’s alright, Marty, I’ll go alone.’


  Taking down a tweed hat from the stand in the hall, the prince followed the familiar route out on to the house’s back lawn, which offered a grand prospect of the great lake.  Faint barking reached him from a coppice at the base of the hill.  He walked slowly down the slope to find the old man chatting with one of the gardeners as the dogs snuffled up and down the path.




  Gus turned, his face lighting up in the old way at the sight of his grandson.  It was only when Leo’s heartbeat slowed that he realised how wrought up he had been over the coming interview.  He was folded into a strong embrace, and a kiss brushed his cheek.  There was the familiar smell of tobacco and tweed in his nostrils as he hugged his grandfather hard.


  Gus gave a last few observations to the gardener before taking Leo’s arm and walking him back up the hill.  ‘I’m glad you’ve come, darling.’


  ‘I am too, grandfather.’


  There was silence for a while as they trudged upward.  Gus stopped them both and turned to look back over the view.  ‘I suppose I have to apologise to you.’




  ‘I do.  I was so stupid over the KRB crisis.  I forgot who you were, and what was due to you. Closing you out like that was foolish, and you proved it by the way you acted.  Darling, I’m not angry with you.  Not at all.  The more I think about it, the more I realise how much ease you’ve brought to my old heart.  I know now that, when I die, I’ll have no anxieties regarding your ability to carry on the cause.’


  Leo frowned.  This was worse than Gus being angry with him.  ‘Don’t talk like that, sir.  You’re as fit as a fiddle, and you still have so much to offer.’


  ‘Maybe, maybe.  But the point is, I’ve learned to stop treating you like a child.  You’re a man now, and a fine one too.’


  ‘Has Max been on to you?’


  Gus shot a glance from under his bushy eyebrows, then gave a small chuckle.  ‘Yes he has.  He talked some sense into me, reminding me of another brash young man I had to deal with in Strelzen before the war, and how I misjudged him too.’


  There was a long pause before he continued.  ‘So, what do you think we should do now?’


  ‘What, the Elphberg party?’


  ‘Yes, dear.’


  Leo hesitated, sensing the consequences of the shift in their relationship.  ‘Well, grandfather, Marty said I really must do something about cousin James.’


  ‘Did he now?  He’s right, of course.  You’re probably the only one who can sort him out.  He may listen to you even though he ignores Maxim.’


 ‘The other thing is Count Oskar.’


  Gus started.  ‘What?’


  ‘He left us with that clue of the ring.  His ring.  I cannot for the life of me work out why, but there must be a reason.  He never does anything to no purpose.’


  Gus nodded.  ‘I agree.’


  Leo gave a quirky smile.  ‘But first, I have to go down to Hentzau, and it’ll have to be soon.’


  ‘Oh dear.  All I can say is, I don’t envy you.  James was humiliated and ruined.  Such men are not easy to deal with.  I’ve never yet noticed a tendency in him to learn from his mistakes or listen to advice.’


  ‘Ah well.  I can only do my best.  So tell me about how Henry stopped the KRB march, sir.’


  ‘It’s quite a story …’