The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
‘We’ll be there in just half an hour, sir.’
‘Thank you, Eric.’ Leo settled in the back of the Mercedes, thus signalling to Eric that he had rather not talk on the journey down from Piotreshrad to Hentzau. Taking the hint, Eric reined in his frenetic social impulses for a while.
After some minutes of silence, Leo decided Eric was probably bursting to chat, so he relented. ‘How’s the economic situation?’
He caught Eric’s grin in the rear-view mirror. ‘Chaotic. Your grandfather is up all hours monitoring the markets, and I can’t answer for his international telephone bill.’
‘So what’s going on?’
‘Since the American markets are so volatile, it’s not easy to say. A lot of money is on the move with all the wild speculation taking place. I think your grandfather is worried, if truth be told. He’s been selling bank stock and buying gold. You only do that when you believe a serious crisis is on the way. At the same time, however, he’s buying industrial stock in America, which seems a bit reckless in the circumstances. He seems to know something I don’t … it’s like he’s waiting for a signal.’
‘How wealthy is grandfather?’
‘I have no idea. I imagine we’ll not know till Pip and you inherit it all, an answer I can wait for as long as you like.’
‘Amen to that, Eric. And how’s my fortune doing?’
‘Oh, there I can be more specific. The Dönitz holdings in Eastern Europe have been steadily liquidated now. Gus has transferred most of it into international property, art objects and Swiss-based investment funds. A lot has been sunk in improving your estates in Thuringia and the Rheinpfalz, but I suppose that’ll show a return eventually. If you’re interested in figures, you must be worth at least fifty million sterling, more likely double that. You’re one of the wealthiest men in Germany and Rothenia, and probably the wealthiest prince in continental Europe.
‘I’ll bet Maxim’s getting a lot of flak from royals with marriageable daughters. Does he tell you?’
‘Oh yes. He’s had approaches from several of the Catholic royal houses. My sister is very keen to get me married off too. The way she goes about it, she might as well have a prospectus printed up and circulated.’
‘What … she doesn’t know?’
‘No. Somehow I’ve never got round to telling her.’
‘But Maxim knows.’
‘Yes, he does, which is why he just deflects the enquiries. But if I left it up to my sister, I might be unhappily married to a Bourbon, a Hapsburg or any number of southern German princesses.’
‘Pip seems to have it easier.’
‘He’s sorted himself out, bless him, and done very well. He’s a practical sort of bod, and Kate and he match like eggs and bacon. She’ll make a fine princess of Murranberg. Of course, they’re bound to settle in England, which is a pity. My life is likely to be acted out elsewhere: here and in Germany, I think. You like it here, don’t you Eric?’
‘Oh yes, sir. It’s a dream come true.’ He grinned. ‘All those wonderful Rothenian boys in Piotreshrad. You know there’s a nude bathing area north of the board walk? You can just wander into the trees behind it and take your pick. There are men having sex quite openly, just like the Heath, but the bodies are more tanned and the weather warmer. I must have had three of the darlings up me yesterday evening one after the other, and they’re so polite.’
‘I guess I’d better not share that with Martin.’
Eric gave a smile. ‘I don’t think he’d be interested anymore, Leo. He’s changed. You tamed him.’
‘I never wanted to tame him, just slow him down and get him to consider what he was doing.’
‘Well, whatever you did, he’s a happier man, that’s for sure.’
Leo smiled to himself. If truth be told, he was well pleased to have taken his lover in hand. It had gratified him more than his performance in the political crisis of the previous month. The change in their relationship was nowhere greater than in their physical coupling. Martin was increasingly asking to be taken by his lover, a turnaround which more than any other was exciting Leo. Judging by the noise under him, it seemed to excite Martin too. Leo was coming to the conclusion that Martin had been alarmed and scared by the tempestuous demands of his own hedonism and promiscuity. He had wanted Leo to take his helm and anchor him in a safer place.
Eric chattered on about his Piotreshrad life while Leo listened with half an ear. They drove past Eisendorf on the new ring road, the many plumes of steam and smoke which erupted from the industrial city passing them by on the left.
Eric’s remark broke in on Leo’s abstraction. ‘Hentzau beyond the next hill, sir.’
Leo looked for the appearance of the picturesque town around the corner. The towers of the great castle appeared first, followed by the roofs and steeples of the old borough at its feet. Glancing south across the fields, he caught sight of the distant tents and trailers of the archaeological excavation, to which Martin had returned a few days previously. There would be a reunion that afternoon.
But present business took the car up the hill to the familiar gatehouse. Leo had great affection for the castle that had given him refuge after he escaped the custody of his tyrannical father during the Great War. Here he had spent the first delightful days and months of his freedom, safe in the arms of his lost mother and the protection of his grandfather. It was here he had met Pip, his cousin and first great friend, with whom he had roamed the woods and swum in the streams of the castle demesne in perfect boyish liberty.
He smiled as he remembered one particular day when, after a plunge in a brown woodland pool, Leo had first realised where his sexuality lay. He had tentatively reached out to stroke and play with his cousin’s naked body, and had not been denied. He vividly recalled his success at a later date in finally persuading Pip to do more than embrace, kiss and stroke, and initiate him into the pain and ecstasy of homosexual intercourse.
Now Hentzau was the possession of a very different member of his family. Leo shook his head as he pondered the mystery of James Rassendyll. He knew James, with a first in philosophy, was very intelligent. Unfortunately, the intelligence was unmatched by much human intuition or emotional engagement. He simply did not relate to people. Worse, he tended to think those around him were out for their own gain and determined to do so at his expense. And where there is no trust, there cannot be love.
A policeman at the gate saluted when Leo handed over his papers, then pulled back the barrier to permit Eric to proceed. The house arrest seemed no more than nominal.
The castle was unchanged to Leo’s eyes. A footman in an olive-green coat emerged to open the car door for him and accept his card. Taking his hat, the man ushered him into the familiar lounge, on whose carpet he and Pip had so often played with their toy soldiers.
James Rassendyll, count of Hentzau and Burlesdon, was standing with his back to the window. Correct as ever, he greeted Leo as royal highness and gave a bow but did not offer his hand. Leo had to suggest they sit, even though it was James’s home.
‘I’m sorry things have come to this, James. I wonder you stay in Rothenia.’
The man gave Leo a cold look, but did not answer directly. He was playing with a metal object in his hand. ‘It’s very … kind of you to come, sir. I don’t however see that we have much to say to each other.’
‘I don’t expect you to understand, James, but I had to do what I did. Gulik is not the leader Rothenia needs, and … your association with him did the monarchist cause no credit. I’m sorry you went as far as you did in the pursuit of the KRB’s aims.’
‘It was for the greater good. History will vindicate me. That is all I have to say on the matter.’
‘As you wish. Then perhaps I should ask what you propose to do now?’
James frowned. ‘I shall continue to work for the cause. What else should I do? If the Rothenian people can’t now see the need for renewal and strong, national government, they may well do so in future. There are circles in Britain too where I can be of help. The socialist menace grows all the time. Of course, you were still in school during the General Strike. Had you been with me on the streets of London as a special constable, you would have thought differently, believe me.’
Leo was well aware that James had enlisted with the British government’s efforts in its dramatic confrontation with the unions in 1926. It was at that point the young earl had begun his association with dubious reactionary and fascist groups.
‘Don’t you think it would be better to go back to England and build bridges with Maxim? I know he'd be delighted to see you and come to some understanding.’
James’s look became even frostier were that possible. ‘I would prefer not to discuss the matter, if you don’t mind. Besides, I have plans which keep me in the country. As soon as this house arrest nuisance is over with, I plan to marry.’
James seemed momentarily gratified by Leo’s reaction. ‘I employed an English fellow as my confidential secretary earlier this year.’
‘He said you had met. I was introduced to his younger sister when she came out with him to Hentzau in February. The Scott-Petries are a good Cheshire family. She seemed amenable to my proposal. She’ll have to convert, of course, but I don’t think reception will be a problem. I had a Jesuit over from Modenheim to talk to her. She was very good about everything. Once all this foolery over the march is done, I’ll contact mother and begin the arrangements.’
Leo stared, then rallied. ‘Congratulations James. I’m sure it will be a new beginning for you. Just the thing in the circumstances.’
As the earl paused to gather his thoughts, he continued to play with the object. Leo recognised it at last. It was the ring left in place of the Crown of Tassilo, Count Oskar’s ring.
Eventually James responded. ‘A new beginning … I really don’t think that’s the way I see it. No, I think I will continue along the path I’ve taken. I made my claim to be king, and much though I was ridiculed for it, I believe I am the best person to pursue the monarchist cause. I shall not give it up.’
Leo shook his head. ‘Maxim says the time isn’t right to restore the monarchy, and if he wanted to be king again he could be, with just a telephone call to President Tildemann.’
‘Prophecies and superstition. You cannot seriously expect me to pay attention to such nonsense. Really, Leo, you surprise me.’
‘I might say much the same, had I not experienced things which persuaded me otherwise.’
‘That phantom Count Oskar, you mean? My dear prince, I expected better of you.’
Leo bit back a reference he was on the point of making about the very ring James was playing with. Instead he observed, ‘The Crown of Tassilo is hidden and is not going to reappear until the time is right for the king to return. Every Rothenian knows that, which is why they would not support you, James. You did not have the Crown.’
‘As I said, superstition and nonsense. Kingdoms are won by political manoeuvres and agreements. I will try again, more prepared next time.’
‘You would be better advised to make a family home here and manage your estates, James.’
‘Did Maxim suggest you come here and tell me this?’
‘You know better. Who was it that scotched your support in the KRB? It was I alone.’
For once James gave Leo a slight and wintry smile. ‘You were astute. But I shall not underestimate you again.’
‘I mean what I say, James. There are rough times ahead economically. Everybody is on edge, and when one of them is Gus Underwood, I would take the situation seriously.’
‘My agents tell me otherwise, and I leave such decisions in their hands.’
‘Then I have said all I want to say. Do please follow my advice. Come to an agreement with your uncle. Maxim really does know what he’s talking about.’
Leo stood and James stood also. After a hesitation, they shook hands and Leo left, repeating his good wishes on his cousin’s engagement. He resumed his hat in the porch, answering Eric’s raised eyebrow with a shake of his head.
Leo took up the ‘trowel-scraping’, as he called the process of archaeology, with a mixture of familiarity and reluctance. His back began to ache in the usual way within half an hour of getting on his knees in a trench.
Martin was continuing with the excavations of the riverside tombs, where yet another major discovery was under way. One waterlogged burial close to the stream had yielded a corpse in a remarkable state of preservation. Martin and Sir Maurice Henson were closely engaged with scientists from the Rudolfer Universität as to how it should be kept from deterioration.
Leo found the whole business very ghoulish. He preferred to keep his distance from the headline discoveries and scratch away up on the hill, where Pip and Kate were still working. Kate, having in fact become an enthusiastic amateur, was talking of joining her local archaeological society when she got home. Pip was looking anxious as to whether the same would be required of him.
One bright July day Kate and Leo were working side by side at the gatehouse site. ‘My back is killing me,’ he complained.
Kate knelt up and stretched. ‘We need a break. I’ll go and make tea. Do you want some?’
They sat on the step of one of the trailers nursing their mugs and gossiping. Leo enjoyed chatting with Kate. They had found a certain sympathy in their shared love of Pip, and Leo liked to explore the byways of his cousin's character with her. But today he wanted to talk about James.
‘What would a woman see in a cold fish like him?’
‘He is well off, Leo, and I imagine he will be even more so out of Maxim’s estate in due course.’
‘How mercenary, and now I come to think of it, how like her brother Frank. Have you ever met her?’
‘Coincidentally, I have. Caroline and I were at the same school, though she was a year above me. She’s very pretty, you know. A lot of the girls had a crush on her.’
‘What, you don’t mean …?’
‘Perhaps. Though I doubt she’s done it since school. Mind you, she had a very unsuccessful coming out. She wasn’t very nice to the boys … so they say.’
‘So you think …?’
‘Oops. Poor James. But then I can’t imagine he’s going to be happy in any field of human endeavour. Why should marriage be different for him?’
She dimpled. ‘Love goes for a long way in marriage, I think; but Leo dear, there’s more to it than that. It can be a partnership of convenience. James wants a respectable wife and, no doubt, children. She wants to be independent of her odious family – and believe me they are a nasty bunch. Her mother is – I have to say it – a bitch, and we know her brother all too well. So Caroline gets what she wants. She will be a countess and independent.’
Leo looked uncomfortable. ‘I may understand it, but I don’t like it. I’ve had too much to do with unhappy marriages.’
Kate put her arm round his neck, and kissed his cheek. Leo hugged her back. ‘What about you two?’
‘Pip and I will finish our degrees first, but after graduation, we plan to marry.’
‘Good. I’m delighted.’
‘And you’ll always have a home with us. You and Martin both.’
Leo smiled and gave Kate another squeeze, before groaning his way to his feet and trudging back to his trench.
The digging season came to an end at Old Hentzau in the first week of September. Term began for the Rothenian students nearly a month before those from Oxford, and the Rothenians had to depart early, even though the weather continued to be fine. Pip and Kate duly packed up and went off to Templerstadt for a week before returning to England. Leo took himself to Heinrichshof, leaving Martin to superintend the mothballing of the site.
Digging would recommence in the summer of 1930. American universities were begging for the chance to send student parties, which allowed Sir Maurice and Professor Bjelerocz to plan a much more ambitious second season.
Martin made his way from Hentzau to Strelzen for a brief visit to Welf and Ulrica von Tarlenheim in their beautiful villa high on Amstelstrasse. So one Tuesday afternoon he found himself on the sunny lawn behind the house drinking a chilled orange juice with the professor while watching the children playing on the grass.
‘I’ve been thinking a lot about your encounter with my uncle Oskar.’
‘I doubt we’ll ever fathom his purposes, Martin. Nonetheless, since we now know that it was his class ring in the cavity at the castle, we clearly must continue to pursue the clue he left us.’
‘I think so too, but how do we do it, sir?’
‘Oskar won the graduating prize in his day. It occurs to me that we should find out who else possessed the same distinction.’
‘Your brother Henry did.’
‘Indeed, and that may be very significant. But there were other quite famous names who have the same Alfensberh ring, not least the celebrated General Alfons Voydek.’
‘I’ve heard of him. But didn’t he resign over the republic’s army cuts three years ago?’
‘He did. And he retired to his parents’ farmhouse in the Wenzlerwald region to write books on strategy and breed horses. When I last heard from him he was a visiting professor at West Point. He wrote me an amusing note saying now he was teaching in the English language, he understood the true meaning of fear.’
‘Do you think …?’
‘That the Crown may have gone to him? It’s certainly a possibility. But take a look at this list. At least six of those men were associates of my late Uncle Franz’s; three of them, including Voydek, were his good friends.’
‘What do you propose, professor?’
‘I’m not entirely sure, Martin. Really. Danger threatens the Crown of Tassilo, despite our success in deflecting the attention of the KRB.’
‘So where lies the danger, sir?’
‘I would not underestimate James Rassendyll, for one. He may be misguided, but he’s not incompetent and is totally remorseless. He hasn’t given up his ambitions, from what Leo says. If he had the Crown, he could rekindle what he sees as his rightful claims.
‘Then there are these ultra-Catholic extremists, of whom Stefan Gulik was only the noisiest and most public. He had his backers in the Church and the military. He’s cooling his heels in the Arsenal prison now, but the others are still out there and may continue the struggle covertly. If they do, I rather fear for Leo as much as for the Crown.’
Martin stared. ‘Are you serious, sir?’
‘Why yes. Leo is now seen as the most formidable obstacle to an Elphberg restoration. Oh, we know why he did what he did. But he revived the Thuringian claim, and as a result the right-wing royalists will consider him a great danger. These were the men who were glad to see the back of Maxim. Chancellor Beck was that sort, and his Christian Democratic party was full of such bigots. Maxim was too liberal for them. They wanted a king like Rudolf IV in the old days: reactionary and ultramontane, just like James. Leo is more objectionable than Maxim because he is not just a liberal, but a German and Protestant by birth, even if not by upbringing.’
‘What do you fear, professor?’
‘Nothing I can put a name to. You must know, Martin, that Rothenia is not a safe country, for all its charm. Passions run deep here, and violence is never far away.’
Martin slept badly that night at Amstelstrasse, his head fermenting with images of faceless men and nameless threats to his lover.
‘Fascinating.’ Leo shook the magazine he was reading. Martin looked a query. The prince smiled. ‘Dr Eckener’s dirigible carried photographers on its round-the-world flight. These aerial shots of Siberia and Mongolia are superb. Do have a look.’
Martin took the National Geographic off Leo. ‘Pretty amazing, yes. Those airships fascinate you, don’t they?’
‘Uh-huh. We live in remarkable times, Marty.’
‘Henry von Tarlenheim hasn’t much use for zeppelins. He says they’re clumsy and dangerous machines. There was that big French one which went down in the Med some years ago killing dozens of people.’
‘But he’s an aeroplane pilot! Zeppelins may put him out of a job if they are successful. Maxim was telling me the British government has plans for giant airships, carrying cannon like floating fortresses in the sky; bases for squadrons of planes, able to transport troops and drop them over enemy cities by parachute.’
Martin grinned and raised an eyebrow.
Leo shrugged and chuckled. ‘Oh very well, it’s all scientific romance, I know, but it does stimulate the imagination. I wonder what the future of warfare will be?’
‘So despite the League of Nations, you think there will be wars in the future?’
Leo got up. They were in one of the great drawing rooms of Heinrichshof, with modern plate-glass windows looking out on the forested hills of Thuringia. It was a bright morning, with few clouds. Martin and Leo had been reunited the previous night. They were feeling particularly contented with the world and with each other. As Leo put it, they needed a period of tranquillity to catch their breath before diving back into university life, especially after the events of the previous summer.
Leo paused at a window, surveying the hilltops of his German estates. ‘I hope there won’t be any more wars, but people are people. Look at the KRB, the fascists and the Bolsheviks. There are so many movements like them in our modern Europe, they thrive on hatred and envy of their neighbours. They’re already in power in Russia and Italy, strong states which can mobilise armies and navies to oppress their weaker neighbours. Sooner or later this will mean a war which will drag everyone in again, just like last time.’
Martin went to stand behind Leo and took him by the waist, kissing the back of his neck. ‘And we both lost so much to the last war, didn’t we? I lost a father, and you both parents. I don’t want to have to live through that again.’
‘Something tells me, it won’t be like that. Old Voydek once gave me the benefit of his wisdom on the future of warfare.’
‘Oh? How old were you?’
‘Just ten. He’d come up to Piotreshrad to visit grandfather. He was a grand fellow, Voydek. He talked to me as seriously as if I had been one of his staff officers. He might not have been the sort of adult who could make you laugh, but he could certainly make you think.
‘Pip and I had been playing soldiers on the parquet floor of Anton’s gallery. I had made a trench out of books and mounted machine guns along it. Pip and I had been having a row about casualties. The whole business made him uncomfortable. I should have remembered that his father had died between the lines at Passchendaele.
‘Voydek looked down at us and said there would never be another war like the Western Front. When we asked why, he told us the invention of the tank had re-introduced mobility into warfare, and therefore static lines could easily be outflanked. Future warfare would unfold rapidly and infantry would find itself at a severe disadvantage unless it was given weapons to destroy armoured vehicles, and found mobility of its own.’
‘A shame he resigned, then. Rothenia could do with such a man, if you’re right about the future.’
‘The republic has no time for the armed forces. The army’s too tainted by Elphberg loyalism, and of course the officer corps was heavily aristocratic. Hardly a surprise when the military budget crept down and down annually. The armed neutrality of Maxim’s day is no longer possible. Maxim never claimed to be a soldier, but he knew the value of an army that would intimidate potential aggressors. It depresses me. President Tildemann is a good fellow, a democrat and a man of principle. His government has been honest and well-meaning. But he does not have Maxim’s imagination and insight and we’re beginning to see the consequences.’
‘And what about the sinister forces Welf talks about?’
‘I really don’t know. There’re enough open enemies to the republic to worry about, in my opinion. The NSDAP here in Thuringia is increasing in strength. The Landtag in Ernsthof has a Nazi minister in a coalition … remember Herr Korngeibel?’
‘Oh Lord … not that gauleiter fellow?’
‘The very same, Marty. He’s the education minister of all things. He’s causing controversy by trying to fire all Jews teaching in schools and technical colleges as “subversive to the German Reich and agents of Bolshevism”, if I remember correctly.’
‘And people listen to him?’
‘Oh yes. People are worried about the bad days of inflation and unemployment coming back again. They’re happy to blame any group that the likes of Korngeibel points at.’
‘This is awful, Leo.’
‘Yes it is. It will be the great struggle of our time to prevent such horrors.’
‘How can it be done?’
‘Grandfather says the allied powers were foolish to try to make Germany pay for the war. They should have aimed to restore prosperity, because that would have taken the wind out of the sails of the extremists and revolutionaries. Look at Germany now. Its democracy is trembling on the brink. One cold economic blast will send it over into the abyss, and then what?’
‘We’d better hope things continue as they are, then.’ Martin paused. ‘But … er, does Gus think they won’t?’
Leo shrugged. ‘I don’t understand these things. I wish Eric were here … no, really.’
Martin laughed at Leo’s qualifier. ‘Well, he does cheer things up, and he is very bright.’
‘A pity he’s so keen to have sex with you.’
Martin coloured slightly, hesitant in the face of what looked like Leo’s jealousy. But he braced himself. ‘To be fair to the man, it’s not just me. He’s happy to have sex with almost anyone. But once he saw how things were with us, he did have some qualms. He’s not entirely without conscience. In fact, he gave me a lecture about fidelity once.’
Leo relieved Martin by laughing. ‘It’s fine, darling. I don’t mind Eric at all. I could forgive the man anything after what he’s done for grandfather.’
‘Good. That’s alright then. Now, how about our ride?’
Steepling his hands, Gus Underwood looked up at the portrait above the chimneypiece of his study. The figure pictured there smiled down at him. It was a particularly fine portrait of Anton Dönitz, the companion with whom he had spent the greater part of his life. It had been painted when Anton was thirty and still the slim, graceful man Gus had met in Vienna in another world, when Franz Josef had been emperor of Austria and Flavia queen of Ruritania.
Anton had been dead now eight years, and Gus missed him daily. Their love had been quiet and devoted, one you could happily grow old with and miss dreadfully once it was gone. It was not the overmastering passion he had experienced so briefly with Oskar von Tarlenheim, that wild and dauntless man.
Gus smiled to himself as he wondered how it would have been had he and Oskar ever lived to be two old gentlemen in their seventies. The thought of Oskar with arthritis, a walking stick and blue-veined, spotted hands seemed almost blasphemous. He lived always in Gus’s head as a figure of beauty and vitality, as sleek and dangerous as a panther. Gus wondered, as he often did, whether it had been his own youth he had been in love with, as much as Oskar, in those long-ago days.
Spurred by his memories, Gus pulled out a folder from the lower drawer of his desk. Here was his last will and testament, a thick sheaf of papers and schedules. It was up to date and in order. Most of his estate was destined for Philip Underwood von Tarlenheim zu Templerstadt, prince of Murranberg, his great nephew. Seeing the way things had been going, he had transferred much of his capital to London and sold off most of his Rothenian property, for he foresaw that Philip and Kate would settle in England after they married. Still, the house at Piotreshrad would always be theirs if they wanted it.
There was just the industrial stock, and this morning’s news from the markets had convinced Gus that it was time to move. It was all very well buying gold, collectibles and property in advance of the inevitable recession, but he had tied up a lot in bank stocks and heavy industry that must now be shifted while the volatile market was at its frenetic peak, and then put in safer places.
The management of Leo’s estate was Maxim’s business, though he always took Gus’s advice. And under Gus’s guidance Leo’s vast wealth, which included Anton’s millions, was now safely rigged for whatever wilful surprises the world might spring on it. Gus could not do much about the unprofitable tracts of forests and farms around Heinrichshof and Heilbrod, the two German châteaux left to the house of Thuringia. He was cautious about landed estates, and he had faintly resented the capital which had to be sunk in improving the ancestral Thuringian lands. He had seen the way Rothenian farming had collapsed after the war and thought there was little prospect of a financial return, whatever the investment had done for Leo’s popularity in his homeland.
Gus had more time for other sorts of assets. Vaults in Zurich were stacked with gold bars stamped with the Thuringian wyvern, proof against inflation and falling markets. Discrete property investment portfolios spread over three continents were held by companies which Leo ultimately controlled. Whole streets in London’s West End and Manhattan; ranches in Kansas and Wyoming; hundreds of miles of farmland in the Midwest; resorts in Bermuda; oil wells in Texas and the Far East; all spread the risk and offered handsome returns. Gus had been particularly interested in accumulating canvases and sculpture through agents in Europe’s auction houses. The galleries and cellars of Heilbrod were now an Aladdin’s cave of triptychs, portraits and landscapes. Sumptuous collections of manuscripts and incunabula filled the shelves of Heinrichshof's library. Gus wanted his beloved grandson to be as strongly buttressed against an uncertain future as he could manage.
For Gus was worried. The instability of the Rothenian republic concerned him, as did the growth of extreme nationalist parties at home and abroad. Apparently there were even black shirts in Britain nowadays. But most of all, the markets worried him. He had studied them for decades and was closely in tune with their moods. Currently they were feverish. Such moods could soon shift into panic, causing stocks and banks to come tumbling down. Then who knew how long it would take for confidence to return? So, it was time to move, for Philip’s sake.
Gus stood and searched for his hat and stick, calling for his dogs. It was a fine late-September day. The sun glittered on the great lake below and the light breeze had that touch of chill which Gus still associated with the beginning of a new school or university term. He paused on the terrace to appreciate the view. Eric was probably still in bed, after a night out in the town, where he was already notorious. Gus gave a quirky and boyish grin to himself. There was something in him which delighted in the way Eric shocked everyone he encountered. He wished he’d been as careless of convention, but Gus, homosexual or not, was very much still a Suffolk squire’s son and a man of his class and age.
He made his way down through shrubberies and paths to a small promontory which pushed out into Lake Maresku. A large Classical pavilion domed in lead had been erected on its summit. The dogs knew where he was going; they bounded ahead. Gus paused for breath on its broad steps.
Through the pillars he saw the great limestone sarcophagus below which slept all that was left on earth of Anton Dönitz, his companion and lover of many decades. They had once lain together on just such a promontory on Corfu, and looked up from the hot marble at the remains of just such a pavilion.
They had been in their thirties, still insatiable in their physical need for each other. They had been swimming naked, then made long, tender love in the shade between the broken pillars, the dark sea the only witness to their unrestrained passion. Lying together and kissing after they were spent, Anton had said inconsequentially, ‘Don’t bury me in some musty church in dust and cobwebs. Put me in such a place as this. I could happily lie here for eternity, especially if you’re by my side.’
So when Anton had died, Gus had raised this facsimile of the Corfu temple on the nearest thing Rothenia had to a coast, and here he had laid his beloved. Gus was unsure whether he would lie beside him, however. While Anton had become something of an agnostic as he had grown older, Gus was a conventional Catholic who thought he would be happier being laid to rest in a church. He could not join Count Oskar in his slot in the Tarlenheim catacomb. The woman to whom he had been briefly married, the mother of his only child, lay in the Jakobskloster churchyard in Hentzen. His daughter was herself buried beneath the floor of the Thuringian mausoleum in the park at Zenden, where perhaps he should ask for his own remains to be interred. Then, realising it would hardly matter in the end, he decided to leave the decision to his executors.
Gus sat a while on the steps of Anton’s tomb, gazing at the sparkling waves of the lake as they endlessly broke on the beach below. On the other side of the bay he could see the town of Piotreshrad. He had been partly responsible for its growth from a small fishing village to the thriving resort town and spa it now was. It was Gus’s disposal of Rassendyll money which had built the industrial city of Eisendorf to the south. Now the workers and bourgeoisie of Eisendorf filled the boarding houses and hillside villas of the pretty new town in season. Yachts and steam launches rocked at their moorings in its harbour. Even today, there would be promenading crowds on Piotreshrad’s boardwalk.
He stood stiffly, a feeling of giddiness surprising him as he did so. He had to steady himself with his stick. The dogs got the message and began snuffling along the path back up the hill to his house. Gus plodded on along behind them and through a stand of trees. He shook his head to clear the dizziness which still affected him. Most unusual. By the time he had come to the first bench on his way to the terrace, he could hear a buzzing in his ears. He was not breathless, but suddenly felt rather weak.
As he sat, Gus suddenly realised that he would not have the strength to get up again. The buzzing in his ears had become a steady thumping and the edge of his vision was clouded. He sat, puzzled, unaware that his stick had clattered to the ground.
Suddenly he felt a presence behind him and noticed a pair of young hands clasping the back of the bench. But he could not look around to see whose hands they were, though he recognised the voice when it spoke.
‘Well, my dear August, a fine race you ran, was it not? Try. You can answer.’
Gus attempted to speak yet could utter no words. His mouth was immobile. Then somehow words were framed in his mind, and a reply came.
‘Yes, my dearest, the race has ended … or the new one begun, whichever you choose to believe really. Oh, I know what you are thinking. All those regrets and farewells. You held me when I lived my last moments, remember? What you need to know is that our mortal cares become something different where we are now.
‘My meddling in the world, you ask? It was allowed, for my human concerns echoed those of others. But at last I am done. Don’t fear for Leo. Now Martin has come to his senses, it’ll go differently with the boys than it would have and, as a result, our homeland will be a happier place.’
Gus was becoming aware that he was shedding the heaviness of age. He smiled and stood to face the man who had appeared behind him. And as he stood, he shed his mortality as well. It was with a young man’s hands that he took Count Oskar’s. They embraced and kissed, reunited at last and glad with a happiness beyond this world's. Oskar’s blue-green eyes sparkled as they separated. ‘Look, darling mine, others are waiting.’
Gus turned with a smile to see many figures approaching from the lake. Before all of them a slight, dark man walked towards him briskly, a very graceful man, his face alight with joy. Hand in hand with Oskar, Gus went down to meet them.