The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
A hand fell on Leo’s shoulder and gripped it. King Maxim drew him close to lightly kiss his cheek. They did not speak.
The funeral was over. A mound of flowers covered the closed grave in an apse of the Thuringian mausoleum in the royal park of Zenden It was a heavily Romanesque structure inspired by its Hanoverian counterpart at Frogmore in Windsor Home Park.
Leo’s great-uncle and namesake lay beneath his marble effigy under the rotunda. His grandparents, King William Henry and Queen Adela, were in a transept. His mother, the countess of Rechtenberg, was laid in the same apse where Gus Underwood now rested. Leo made a note that suitable tombs must be erected over them. One day he too would be laid in that apse. The thought comforted him a little in his loneliness.
Eventually he spoke. ‘I’m glad my father’s in the Matthiaskirche at Ernsthof. I couldn’t abide the thought of him and grandfather being under the same roof, even in death.’
Maxim stirred and took his hand from Leo’s shoulder. ‘The doctors have concluded that it was an aneurism in his brain. It was so quick he would have been barely aware of his passing and would not have suffered.’ Maxim was quiet a while. ‘It was just like losing my father again. I imagine it’s even worse for you.’
‘I feel as if I’d fallen into a dark pit from which I’ll never escape.’
‘You’re loved by so many others, Leo. Travel. You need to put some distance between you and his death.’
‘Where can I go?’
‘Go down into Italy to your sister’s. She’ll be delighted to see you; your family is so important at this time. Take Martin. He’d love the antiquities. Bari will still be beautiful even this late in the year.’
Leo shook his head. ‘My studies, Max. I can’t leave Oxford for that long.’
‘No one will grudge you a week.’
Leo took one lingering look at his grandfather’s last resting-place before allowing the king to shepherd him from the cold, empty mausoleum out beneath the slate-grey October sky. A line of black cars and a knot of dark figures waited for him. Martin stood solemnly, his hat in his hand. Eric Kirby was to one side, his eyes red with weeping. It was to him that Leo went. He gripped the young man’s hand.
‘Oh, Leo,’ Eric whispered.
‘He took care of you, Eric; he loved you.’
‘I know, but I’d rather he was alive to scold me.’
‘Come along with us. There’s so much to sort out.’
‘Leo, we have to talk … the investments.’
‘I can’t be dealing with that now, Eric.’
‘Someone must. I know he was getting ready for a major coup before he died. The sale of his industrial and bank stocks has to be ordered. I’m so worried.’
‘But no one can do anything. The estate is not yet in the hands of his executors; so far Maxim and Welf have no idea what he left.’
‘I can tell them. Leo, it’s important.’
‘Come with me and Maxim in the car.’
Leo led the way to the large Wendel saloon, shaking as he went the hands of the group of mourners who had accompanied the body of Gus Underwood to Zenden after the state funeral and requiem mass in the cathedral of Strelzen. The streets had been thronged with bare-headed Rothenians as the flower-bedecked motor hearse had driven down from the Domshorja into the Third District. The count of Eisendorf, still remembered for his defence of the palace in 1880, remained a hero to many Rothenians. However, the fact that King Maxim, Queen Helga and Prince Leopold were in the funeral cortege was what principally drew the crowds.
Leo indicated to Martin that he should take the following car, and placed Eric between himself and Maxim.
Although the king made an effort, Leo suspected he found Eric’s flamboyant and unapologetic homosexuality difficult to take. It also became apparent that Maxim’s assessment of Eric’s judgement was coloured by the same prejudice. That and his grief for his late friend and mentor seemed to make Maxim abrupt and dismissive of Eric’s concerns. But then he was much unlike his usual self.
‘I will of course take all this under advice,’ he eventually concluded.
‘But sir, I don’t think there’s much time!’ Eric pleaded. ‘I know his excellency was ready to move last week. He left some notes …’
‘When I get over to Piotreshrad with Welf on Tuesday, we’ll go through them.’
Eric subsided, looking troubled.
‘What do I do about Eric?’
Martin shrugged. ‘Gus left him a fair-size nest egg. He’ll never need to go on the game again. He can be a man of leisure or return to his studies.’
‘That’s not what I meant. He thinks grandfather was on the verge of a pretty gigantic business coup. The serious problem is that much of Pip’s inheritance was tied up in it.’
‘Maxim and Welf will get round to it, won’t they?’
‘Let’s hope so. But do they understand what grandfather was doing? I doubt it. He was pretty much unique in his field. They’ll have to wait until they can contact their stockbrokers in the City and take advice. By then it’ll probably be too late. I wonder what can be done?’ Leo was finding the anxiety about Gus’s estate was cancelling a measure of the aching grief he felt. It gave him something else to worry about, not least his beloved cousin, Pip. He wanted to be active.
Martin observed, ‘Today’s Sunday. The markets are going to be closed anyway, aren’t they?’
‘I suppose so, although I still think it’s important. Let’s go and find Eric. I expect he’ll be down in Piotreshrad at that bar he hangs around in.’
Leo and Martin put on their coats and quietly left the house. As they exited the drive and took the lane down to the lights of the town beneath, the first thick flakes of snow began to fall. Winter was coming early to Rothenia in 1929.
The two young men were encrusted with white by the time they reached the ‘Bar New Yorck’, as it called itself. Eric was sitting morose in a corner, several whisky glasses in front of him. Most unusually for him, he was not at the centre of a social group. He looked as woeful as Leo felt, in fact.
Leo did not doubt that Eric had loved Gus deeply and sincerely as a man, not just as someone who had made everything possible for him. The time he had spent as Gus’s confidential secretary and companion had been for Eric all he wanted out of life, apart from sex. Now it was gone, and the intellectual excitement he so craved was gone with it.
In his present state, Leo found himself deeply in sympathy with Eric. He sat close to his friend, taking and squeezing his hand.
‘Oh Leo,’ Eric sighed tearfully.
Martin shook his coat free of snow and took the other side of Eric.
‘What can we do, Eric?’ Leo asked.
‘About the trading? Nothing. I know he was preparing to dump the bank stock last week. But things are moving fast in New York. It may already be too late to do what he planned. The market has peaked and it’s moving erratically.’
‘But if we don’t do anything, what’ll happen?’
‘Pip will inherit some property but not enough capital, and maybe a lot more debt than he could ever pay off.’
Leo gnawed at his lower lip. ‘I can’t allow that. Pip wants to do so much. He and Kate are on the verge of marriage too.’
Martin intervened. ‘Couldn’t we get in touch with … I don’t know … maybe Gus’s lawyers in Strelzen? They might have some ideas how we could get round this.’
Eric shook his head. ‘You can’t get lawyers to move quickly about anything, especially Rothenian lawyers. They still use quill pens.’
‘What can we do then?’
Eric looked from one to the other. ‘I could do something…’
‘It’d be illegal and I could go to prison.’
Leo stared. ‘Would you still do it?’
Eric met his eyes. ‘If you ask me, my prince.’
‘Then tell me.’
‘Very well, sir. It’s unlikely the news of Gus’s death will have yet reached America. He communicated with his agents by direct telegraph link from here, and they executed his instructions according to a series of prearranged codes.’
‘So you could issue instructions to them in his name as soon as the markets open tomorrow.’
‘Yes, though as I said, it may already be too late.’
‘We'll have to take that risk. So do it, Eric. If it goes wrong, I’ll move heaven and earth to protect you. You’ll never regret what you did.’
Eric did not answer. Perhaps he was too emotional. He just nodded.
‘Gus would be proud of you.’
Martin stirred in their bed. Leo was already up and sitting in the window seat, tightly swathed in a dressing gown, slippers on his feet. Martin stretched and reached for his own dressing gown. The room was very cold and his breath issued as vapour. When he kissed the top of Leo's head, he saw the landscape outside had turned white and blue, apart from the black waters of Lake Maresku below.
‘The snow must be at least a foot deep,’ Leo observed. ‘Still, it won’t last. It’ll all be slush by this afternoon. The sun is up, and once it climbs over the mountains the day’ll get warmer.’
‘Time for a snowman then?’
Leo looked up with a sad little smile. ‘I don’t think I’m ready to enjoy myself yet, sweetheart.’
‘I know. Sorry.’
‘Don’t be. I think Maxim was right. I’ll go and visit Vicky and Ferdi and the children in Italy. Will you come?’
Martin kissed Leo again. ‘I’d better get back to Oxford. How long do you think you’ll be?’
‘Oh, no more than a week. I can take one of the new seaplane flights from Brindisi back to London. Won’t that be fun? But yes, I’ve not been given leave and the senior tutor may become unhappy with me. Besides, I love our little house in Jericho, and it’s beginning to look so pretty.’ Having taken the option of living out of college in their second year, Leo and Martin were now occupying a rented terraced house off Walton Street, without benefit of servants. Leo was proving to be remarkably domestic for a royal prince; relishing the boiling of eggs and washing of milk bottles.
They returned to bed. Martin was surprised when Leo began determinedly stripping him. Throwing off his own clothes, Leo urgently demanded Martin take him, something he had not been asking for much of late.
Martin responded with enthusiasm and made love to his prince with all the tenderness he could muster, trying to show Leo with lips and fingers quite how much he cared for his bereaved lover. As they lay together afterwards, he knew his consideration had been noted and appreciated.
Rising at last for breakfast, they washed and made their way to the front parlour, where a large party had already gathered round the table.
Martin fitted himself in next to Pip. ‘So this is your house now.’
Pip looked around himself, bemused. ‘I suppose so. I’ve never owned property before. But I love this place as much as the two men who built it and made it a home. There are no ghosts here for me, only happy memories. Kate’ll be coming out to Rothenia next week, while the lawyers keep me here. He left me almost everything, y’know. I feel I can look Leo in the eye at last.’
Martin privately quelled a sick feeling in his stomach. They had decided not to tell Pip quite how fragile were his prospects of wealth. Eric said Pip must not appear to be in any way an accessory to the fraud he was about to commit that afternoon. Eric was currently in the library, feverishly working on figures and codes. Martin rather thought he had been up all night.
As Martin left the table, Maxim called him over. ‘You’ll be with us for Christmas at Belsager, I hope.’
‘Yes, sir. So far as I can commit myself. It’ll be a sad occasion for Leo without his grandfather, but being surrounded by friends and family will help, I have no doubt.’
‘Excellent. It’s a blessing he has you, Martin. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to us that you two are together.’
Martin murmured his thanks and turned away as his eyes flooded with tears. He took his leave.
Leo carefully closed the library door. He looked around. This was so much his grandfather’s room still. His heart lurched, for he almost expected to see the old man sitting in a wing chair playing with one of his dogs. What was to happen to the animals now? It was up to Maxim and Welf, he supposed.
Eric looked up from the table. He seemed haggard and nervous, which was perhaps to be expected. Martin was more composed, though the cigarette in his hand indicated that he felt the tension too. He was no more a habitual smoker than Leo.
‘The markets in New York open in – when – fifteen minutes?’ Leo asked.
Eric nodded without replying. He shuffled his papers and took a gulp from a whisky glass. Then he moved over to a side table holding a teletype machine. ‘I can start now,’ he observed. ‘Wish me luck. Kiss?’
They obliged and pulled up chairs to watch as Eric’s long fingers tapped away at the keyboard. Leo was bemused to think of the electrical pulses flashing across central Europe and under the Atlantic, almost instantly. How his world was shrinking. Somewhere in a Wall Street broker’s office the pulses were being converted into a stream of instructions.
Eric paused. Suddenly there was a rattle as the teletype began to receive a message. After ripping it out and scrutinising it, he gave a nervous grin. ‘They’ve acknowledged the first batch, and will start selling when the markets open. Stocks rose slightly on Friday after some falls last week, so we won’t be the only ones out to make a profit in this morning’s dealings. It’s the size of what we’re selling that bothers me. Gus spread his investments, but even so it’s a mass of stuff.’
Eric brooded a while, checked his watch and sent off another message. Then he returned to chewing his nails. They were all silent till the teletype commenced chattering once more. Tearing off the sheet, Eric began making notes and calculations. The afternoon wore on. Tea arrived and Martin took up a book, though he found it hard to concentrate.
At five, Eric sighed and went to pour another whisky. They looked at him expectantly. ‘For good or ill, it’s done, my dears. I’ve just rendered myself liable for thirty years in the clink.’ Leo went over to Eric, kissed and hugged him.
The man smiled. ‘Still, one can have fun in prison, so I’ve heard. I don't suppose it's at all like The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’
‘It won’t come to that, Eric dear. I’m sure you’ve done what grandfather would have wanted.’
‘I do hope so. Ah well, back to the keys, even though it’s murder on my nails. I have to transfer the money by wire out of the American banks to the right accounts on this side of the Atlantic. In for a penny, in for a pound … or in this case, somewhere in excess of fifteen million sterling.’
‘How much?’ Martin shrieked.
‘By today’s market values. Gus had sunk most of his fortune in the speculation. It was going to be a grand coup. It would have been a lot grander had he pulled it off last week.’
‘My word. But at least Pip now has the wherewithal to get married and keep his dogs and horses, however profligate Kate turns out to be.’
Eric smiled with a bit more confidence. ‘There is that. I feel like a good fairy.’
‘So you are, dear.’ Leo returned the smile. ‘Now, when do you think we should confess what we’ve done to Maxim?’
‘Umm … perhaps we should wait till I’ve bought a ticket for the liner to Montevideo?’
Martin nodded. ‘Confession to this sort of sin isn’t going to be easy. Not only was what we did illegal, it may also have cost Pip a lot of money.’
Leo looked defiant. ‘But we couldn’t tell Pip. They would have put him in the cell next to ours.’
‘It’s only me who’s going to gaol for this one, my dears. Don’t even think about confessing. Only my fingerprints are on that keyboard.’
Leo and Martin sat waiting as their bags were brought down from their room. They were planning to drive together to Strelzen that Wednesday afternoon, stay overnight in the station hotel at the König-Rudolfs Bahnhof, and take the early morning trains to their various destinations: Leo to Vienna and Italy; Martin to Hamburg and the ferry. Eric was pacing up and down in front of the windows.
‘I’m sorry, Eric, it looks like we’re running away to avoid the consequences.’
‘I know it’s not like that, Leo. Nice of you to stay for the detonation at least. Shall I ask for King Maxim to come in?’
‘Soonest done, soonest mended.’
Eric pressed the buzzer for a servant. A maid entered, bobbed and went off to find the king.
It was a full half hour before three hearts leaped into three mouths as the king entered. He was looking abstracted. ‘Oh! All three of you? I was just expecting Eric.’
They shuffled to find the right words to kick off the uncomfortable interview, but Maxim thwarted them by sitting down and waving a piece of paper at them. ‘I’ve just had this telegram from my agents in London. The telephone lines have been busy.’
‘I'm surprised. I thought you at least would have been monitoring the markets, Eric. Hadn’t you heard?’
‘Heard what, sir?’ Eric asked weakly.
‘Why, the crash! There’s panic on the exchanges. The dollar is collapsing and banks folding! Good God, man! Wall Street has lost much of its value overnight.’
‘It’s nice of you not to say I told you so, young Eric. It seems I owe you an apology. Unless the markets recover, I’ve pauperised Philip by not listening to you.’
The three younger men looked at each other speechless.
‘Of course, I accept full responsibility. I’ll do what I can to bail him out, but the failure of all those banks will have left him with debts I can’t even begin to comprehend.’
Leo looked at Eric, and winked. Finally a ghost of a smile managed to fight its way through the amazement on Eric’s face. ‘Er … sir. I have a confession to make.’
The Virginia creeper on the outside of their picturesque terraced house in Pusey Street had flamed bright red. Leo remarked on that new beauty as he stumbled over the doormat while simultaneously trying to shuffle entry keys and shopping bag without allowing the door to close on him.
‘Got that, Mr Underwood sir.’ Mrs Fellowes, their cleaner, took the bag off him.
‘Oh … thanks. Didn’t see you there, Mrs Fellowes. How’s Mr Fellowes’s back?’
‘Could well be better, sir. But thank you for asking. He will go down in the rain to his allotment garden … he's always been stubborn. Mr Tofts said he’d be back from the Bodleian in time for tea.’
‘Jolly good. Thank you. The house looks sparkling, really.’
Mrs Fellowes basked in Leo Underwood's approval. It was a gift of his. She would have been further delighted had she known that Mr Underwood of St John’s was a royal prince, but he had spared her that burden.
Leo put the kettle on for his afternoon tea. Although he had been in houses with servants all his life, his grandfather had made sure he could manage the basics of housekeeping without them. ‘Leo my boy, it’s either that or you go into the army. That’s the only way youngsters like you can otherwise learn how to take care of themselves.’
Recalling his grandfather sent Leo off into yet another reverie. It was all part of the grieving business, as he had learned already in his short life. When he reconnected with reality, he realised the kitchen was filling rapidly with steam from the bubbling kettle. He hastily turned off the gas, while burning his hand on the hot handle he had grabbed. He cursed and put his fingers under a stream of cold water.
The doorbell rang. Leo grabbed a towel and was chafing his hand as he opened to admit Eric Kirby and a heavily built man he took a moment to identify as Waclaw Corbichec, Martin’s friend, who had worked on the dig at Old Hentzau. Waclaw was holding his cloth cap in his hand, looking simultaneously lost and shy.
‘Yes, dearie, it’s me. Mind if I invite myself in? You know Waclaw, yes?’
Leo kissed Eric and gave him an extra-hard squeeze. Then he shook Waclaw’s hand and invited both men in. ‘Tea?’
They settled in the small front parlour, where there was an upright piano on which Martin cheerfully hammered out music-hall hits and tunes from The English Hymnal. Eric looked around in amusement. Waclaw kept the nervous grip on his cap and his silence. His purpose there would have to be elucidated by Eric in his own good time.
Eric kept to English, despite Waclaw’s primitive grip on the language. ‘D’you know, I could fit this entire house into the lounge of my flat in Connaught Gardens.’
‘We like it.’
‘I’m not surprised. I envy you both.’
‘You can come down anytime. You know that. How’s the life of wealth and ease?’
‘Difficult to come to terms with. Your grandfather was ridiculously generous. Even in the current financial situation, I’m more than comfortable. Maybe when I’m older and falling apart the cost of renters will reduce me to penury, but at the moment there are still men willing to pay me for the privilege of a hand job.’
‘Old habits. He was not unlike Waclaw here. Built like the proverbial shithouse – pardon my French. I wasn’t even looking for it. Normally I spend the night at Jermyn Street if I’m feeling up for something, still …’
‘There are times when I’d like to settle down with one sweet boy. You two really have a lot to answer for. You’ve corrupted me.’
‘Married life is not for everyone, Eric. Somehow I can’t quite see you in an armchair, smiling across your hearth at Mr Right.’
‘Hmm. Who knows? Anyway, I didn’t come down here to discuss my sex life, fascinating subject though that is.’
‘I’m going to go into business, sweetheart. Stocks, securities, investments, portfolio management and accountancy all under one roof. What do you think?’
Leo shrugged. ‘For what it’s worth, you have my vote. I expect Maxim would also endorse your project after the coup you pulled off on Wall Street. You beat Black Tuesday by the proverbial whisker and saved the Underwood millions.’
‘And the good news is I won’t go to gaol. Maxim swore an affidavit that I was acting under his instructions.’
‘Yes. Though he did privately add that his instructions had been the very opposite of what you did in fact do.’
‘I’m calling it investment consultancy. There’s an awful lot of insecurity around nowadays in relation to the market. Oddly, people are all the more anxious for advice and reassurance, despite the fact that no one ever predicted the current depression. It’s the same reason medieval people were so keen on their doctors, or so I imagine. They need reassurance from someone who appears to know what he’s talking about.’
‘So how can I help? I won’t be able to take advantage of your services for over a year yet. I’m not of age, remember?’
‘Of course. But your recommendation counts for a lot in money circles. Everyone knows what a Croesus you are, and though your fortune’s taking hits in some areas, Gus’s strategic switch of your investments into gold and art works has made you even more fabulously wealthy than you were before.’
Leo could do nothing else but agree. So Eric’s stationery would feature the legend ‘By appointment: financial consultants to HRH Prince Leopold of Thuringia and Rothenia’.
They had a second cup of tea, although a taciturn Waclaw refused the refill. It was at that point when Martin came in through the door, his eyebrow raised at the scene he found in his lounge. He kissed Eric and also Waclaw.
The latter looked grateful for the attention. ‘Prosim, Herr Tovutz!’ he grinned.
Martin kept to Rothenian. ‘Nice to see you, Waclaw, but what are you doing in Oxford of all places?’
Eric jumped in. ‘Oh, I was saving that. It’s Maxim’s idea. I’ve got a letter from him which he didn’t want to entrust to the postal service.’ He handed Leo a white envelope embossed with the Crown of Tassilo and the Belsager Priory address.
Leo frowned as he opened it and extracted the following:
Saturday 16 November 1929
I’m sending this by means of Eric Kirby, whom I’ve come to trust, for obvious reasons. He will be bringing with him young Waclaw Corbichec, who I know to be trustworthy for other reasons. Without wishing to be overly mysterious, I think it best at this time for you to have dependable people around you. Welf is of the same opinion, and indeed sent Mr Corbichec from Strelzen to me at Belsager carrying his message to that effect.
What I’m proposing is that you engage Waclaw as a manservant for this term at Oxford. I know you and Martin want to organise your own domestic idyll, but Welf and I would sleep easier if a handy fellow like Waclaw was in the house with you. He’s done his military service and knows how to take care of himself and others. If you can’t find space for him under your roof, put him in lodgings nearby. He and his expenses are being paid for by your estate.
Eric will explain some of the reasons why we’re asking you to do take Waclaw on. The rest will have to wait for the next time we meet, which will probably be at Christmas.
With love from all here at Belsager,
Leo turned to Eric. ‘Maxim says you have something to say.’
‘I do indeed. His majesty had a lot to convey, and despite the temptation to fall into those dark pools of his eyes … what a doll, as gorgeous as Ivor Novello – did you see him in The Gallant Hussar, by the way? … as I said, despite temptation I listened very carefully.
‘It’s your cousin James again. He and that dreadful – if sexy – fellow Scott-Petrie are thick as thieves, now that Scott-Petrie's sister’s the countess of Burlesdon. He’s never away from Hentzau apparently.’
‘So what’s James up to, Eric?’
‘Welf is keeping his eyes on Hentzau. He has lots of contacts, of course. But I rather think he’s employing more direct means to gain information from James’s household. Maxim says James is our one known point of contact with those shadowy powers behind Gulik and the Rothenian reactionaries, so he must be watched carefully so long as he’s in Hentzau. He’s there a lot, too, since the economic downturn. Because he scoffed at your grandfather’s warnings, his investments in England and Rothenia took a major battering. He’s sold the Park Lane house, y’know.’
‘What! That’s where Martin and I had our first season’s ball.’
‘An insurance firm bought it. A lot of the Norfolk estate was heavily mortgaged to fuel his ill-advised speculations. Much of that will have to be sold too. His freehold income in the West End is slashed. He lives in Rothenia now, as it’s cheaper. All the English servants have been discharged. I imagine Lady Caroline will feel she got the bad end of the deal, especially as she’s delivered her part of the bargain. A young Lord Lowestoft may be on his way.’
Leo’s eyes were wide. ‘What a parcel of news. Is there any more?’
‘Oh yes, lots. Where was I? Ah! James. Welf’s informants at the castle have been noticing several regular visitors, leading members of Gulik’s former Iron Guard for the most part. They come after dinner to smoke in the lounge while drinking James’s whisky. They all wear an odd lapel badge: a silver death’s head, rather like the Nazi SS storm troopers who are that man Hitler’s bodyguard. I imagine that’s where they got the idea.’
‘And the upshot of all this is …?’
‘One of the items our agents scavenged from the wastepaper basket in the study was a street map of Central Oxford.’
‘I see you’re up with me.’
‘Maxim and Welf fear I’m a target.’
Leo turned to Waclaw and addressed him in Rothenian. ‘Are you armed, Herr Corbichec?’
Waclaw bobbed his head nervously. ‘Oh yes, your royal highness.’