The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
‘So what does Waclaw do for fun?’
Martin smirked. ‘I hear he’s a bit of a hit with Georgie and Sandy at the Ploughmen’s.’
Leo laughed. ‘It was bound to happen. I imagine that’s why his English is improving so rapidly. He says his lodgings are comfortable; it’s the first time he’s had a room to himself. Where do they …?’
‘Oh.’ Martin looked arch. ‘Apparently the field across the gasworks bridge is where it all happens. I don’t suppose the fun can last long when it’s as cold as this.’
Leo grinned. ‘Enough of this prurience. I want you to come up to Duke Humfrey with me.’
Wrapping his muffler tight round his neck, Martin obediently followed Leo out of the Lyons Corner House and up Catte Street. The lamplight glowed orange in the windows of the Bodleian Library in the gathering gloom of that December afternoon as they passed the domed bulk of the Radcliffe Camera on their left.
Once across the quadrangle, they went through the turnstile and clattered up the north stairs. They emerged into the great Gothic reading room named after Duke Humfrey of Gloucester. The high-raftered space was remarkably atmospheric in the dusk of winter, with the last gleam of blue fading in the afternoon sky outside the fifteenth-century windows. Green lamps shining down on desks were the only illumination. Hunched figures of scholars turned the crackling folios of medieval manuscripts or dozed, as the great slow clock ticked away the centuries. It was there that John Selden, Thomas Hearne and Samuel Johnson had worked, each in his day.
Being sensitive young men, Leo and Martin found this gloomy temple of scholarship a place of some awe and mystery. As they settled around Leo’s desk between the shelves of two Tudor presses, Martin whispered, ‘So what is it, Leo?’
Leo silently indicated the massive printed book he had left open on a stand. Martin pulled it towards himself and looked at the spine, which declared the work to be the Almanac de Roritanie and underneath displayed the subtitle: Consuetudines et antiquitates Ruritaniae cum genealogiis de stirpibus nobilibus illius regni. The title page gave the date of publication as 1818 and the place as Strelsau. The author was Baron Kristof zu Strelfurt-Barchezy, Historiographicus P. et Con. Suae Majestatis Henrici II Regis Ruritaniae Ducisque Mittenhemiae.
Martin pored over a page Leo had marked, headed Tractatus De Domo Illustro Terlenhemensi. ‘A tract on the noble house of Tarlenheim,’ as Martin rendered it. ‘There!’ Leo whispered, indicating a passage.
Martin translated the Latin in his head. It was apparently an extract from a lost Life of St Fenice of Tarlenheim:
‘Now this Countess Fenice lived for many years after the death of her husband Sergius, and passed her days in religious exercises. She corresponded with many saintly men, and received several letters from the Holy See itself. Even in the days of her marriage she had maintained the divine office in her household, employing a choir of clerks. As a widow she secured a dwelling within the royal abbey of Medeln near the castle of Tarlenheim and often joined the nuns in their stalls for the canonical hours. However, she was also Lady of the castle and lordship of Belvoir in the forest of the province of Husbrau, and the demands of secular business often took her far from Medeln.
‘Yet she was a woman of great piety and with her friend, the Duchess Osra, she conceived a plan by which they would undertake the rule of Cistercian nuns and yet remain in the world. The two holy women resided in the abbey during the festivals of Our Lady and the great feasts of the year. If they left on the world’s business, they were attended by a chapel of clerks, and always they affected the dress of professed religious. It is said that as a token of their austere life they each assumed a livery badge of a silver skull, which they wore when out in the world as a token and remembrance.’
Leo smiled up at Martin. ‘You see?’
‘See what, darling?’
‘The skull badge. I can’t believe KRB diehards would care to wear Nazi emblems. No, this is an ancient Rothenian practice.’ He turned over several pages. ‘And look at this woodcut. It’s a copy of an older picture showing Fenice of Tarlenheim having her vision of the Face of Christ.’
Pulling up a chair close to Leo, Martin scrutinised the picture carefully. This was his sort of object. The countess was depicted as if she were in a castle tower, the face of a young man hovering in front of her. A whole series of women were also to be seen behind her, all wearing that same skull badge.
Martin pursed his lips. ‘You’re right, this is interesting. But what do you think it means?’
‘That’s something we have to determine. There are Rothenian editions of the works of Fenice here in the Bodleian, and I’m going to search through them until I find some answers.’
‘You think these silver badges and those of the KRB thugs are linked in some way?’
‘I’m certain of it. My homeland is a strange place, Martin.’
‘It’s certainly beautiful.’
‘There’s more to it than that. I have myself seen uncanny things.’
‘Yes, I remember. There was the time you watched the dead count duel with your father. After what happened to me at Hentzen castle with that self-same ghost, I can believe anything about Rothenia.’
‘It’s deeper than that. There’s a strong strain of prophecy and mysticism in the Rothenian people. You know the stories. There was that very strange business of the bishop of Ranstadt, Josep the Wily, the man who caused the war between the Elphbergs and the dynasty of Glottenberh by falsely swearing to the count of Glottenberh’s illegitimacy. It’s notorious how his descendants have been punished down to the present day.
‘Grandfather told me about a Baron Jamroziak, Queen Flavia's high chamberlain, who staked his political future on supporting the Thuringian succession in 1880.’
‘So? He picked the right side.’
‘Yes, he did. King Leopold, my great uncle, was very grateful too. The baron was given as his reward the keeping of the royal forest of the Wenzlerwald. It was quite a lucrative post, but he didn’t enjoy it for very long.’
‘On his first tour of inspection he was thrown from his horse and fell on a line of spiked iron railings.’
‘Since the curse was pronounced on Bishop Josep, it has hit every generation of his family, which, being rather prolific, has seen its punishment go on and on. It won't be until a twenty-first generation Jamroziak does something noble to save Rothenia that the curse will be lifted.’
‘It’s nice to know a happy ending is in store.’
‘But not in our day. My point is this, however: there’s a thick weave of the uncanny and spiritual in Rothenian life, and I’m beginning to wonder if behind it all is something rather more than just folk tales and superstition.’
Martin looked at his lover in astonishment. ‘What are you thinking about, darling?’
‘There are more secrets at the heart of Rothenia than just the Crown of Tassilo. It’s part of something else … something very much bigger than fascists, royalists and republicans. It takes men – ordinary men – and makes them extraordinary. My grandfather was certainly a remarkable person, yet had he not gone to Rothenia in 1880 he would have remained a simple Suffolk squire’s son, spending his days hunting, shooting and fishing. Instead, Rothenia transformed him into a hero and a nation-builder. Then there’s Maxim Elphberg …’
‘Grandfather told me a lot about the young Maxim. I’ll bet you didn’t know that when he first went to Strelzen, it was as a British intelligence agent.’
‘And grandfather said he was terrible at it. It was obvious to him that Maxim had been called to Rothenia for a purpose which he was just resisting. It was only when things got really tough and Anton had saved him from a German trap that the penny dropped. Once he gave in to what Rothenia wanted of him, Maxim was a man transformed … no, transfigured, in whom all the nobility and majesty of the Elphbergs was set free. He fulfilled everything that was asked of him, even to giving up the throne for the greater good.’
‘How is St Fenice tied into this?’
‘I have no idea, darling. But this is the first connection I’ve yet made with the forces that are dogging us, and I’m not going to let it go to waste. So tomorrow it’s the publications of the Spoleche Roteniske Rekordnij Publikacej for me: the complete works of Fenice of Tarlenheim in twelve volumes.’
‘I suppose that gives you a claim to being considered a martyr of the church.’
‘D’you know, I believe you may be right.’
Martin leaned down and stole a brief kiss from Leo between the bookshelves.
Leo seemed to Martin to be deeply absorbed in his new labours in the Bodleian over the next week. He worked at his desk there till closing time, not arriving home until well past ten. He ate in the covered market at lunchtime and skipped dinner in hall. Martin took to joining him for lunch just to keep in touch with him. Alarmed at the idea of Leo wandering home late at night in his current abstracted state, Martin had words with Waclaw, who was obliged to give up his evenings at the Ploughmen so as to shadow Leo surreptitiously on his homeward journey through Oxford’s empty and foggy streets.
Finally it was Sunday, when Leo had no choice but to stay home. He had been reticent about the results of his research so far, simply shrugging across the café table when Martin queried him. But now Martin pinned him in their warm bed, refusing to let him get up, something Leo was reluctant enough to do anyway.
‘So, tell me. What have you found out?’
‘A lot more theology than I'll ever need in this life, unless I give up this sinful world and enter a monastery.’
‘Unlikely. You enjoy sinning with me far too much.’
‘Let’s sin some more, then!’ Leo laughed.
Half an hour later the conversation resumed. ‘I’ll bet you thought you’d distracted me from my unwelcome curiosity.’
‘No, no. But there’s nothing concrete to report, honestly. It’s just this growing feeling I have that there are things to discover in Rothenia, and Fenice’s writings give me these maddening hints as to what they might be. Y’know, I get the idea that if I read one more tract I might discover something significant.
‘Perhaps the oddest thing is her obsession with the person of Christ. It may be more or less standard for religious women in her day, but there’s so much immediacy in what she says, almost as if she’d talked to him face to face. Then there’s her bizarre vision of the end of the world. It’s not at all conventional. I must find out more about her.
‘What are you doing over Christmas? You said you might come to Belsager.’
‘I had to reconsider. I’ll spend it with my mother and stepfather. It’s only right. My half-sister’s getting old enough to expect a present from her big brother.’
‘Of course. But can you join me in Heinrichshof for New Year?’ Leo looked disconsolate momentarily. ‘It’ll be so lonely this year. Just Dr Gasse and I.’
Martin’s heart was wrenched by the sad look on his lover’s face. ‘You could go to Vicki’s in Bari.’
Leo shook his head. ‘Grandfather was always keen that I show myself in Thuringia regularly, and with things the way they are, it’s even more important to follow his advice.
‘But I tell you what. You’ve never been to my other place at Heilbrod in the Rheinpfalz. We can go there for New Year. It’s about time I got to view the art collection for which I’m apparently famous.’
‘It’s a deal.’
‘Domestic staff are easy to get hold of at the moment.’
‘Who says recession is all bad?’
‘Precisely.’ Leo switched to Rothenian. ‘Waclaw?’
‘What would you say to taking on a job as my chauffeur?’
Waclaw remained concentrated on the road ahead, but he observed, ‘I thought I was doing it already, sir.’
‘Well, yes, in effect you are. But I think it’s time I began to choose my own people. After all, I’m nearly twenty now. Maxim won’t say no, I’m sure.’
Martin smiled. He had found Leo in a very sunny and expansive mood when they had met up in the station at Worms. They were driving now to Heilbrod, where the prince himself had arrived only the day before.
‘What’s the place like?’
‘Oh, very eighteenth-century, dear. You’ll loathe it. Also it’s got badly run down since old Prince Günter died. The house was already beginning to fall apart when he inherited it, and the poor old fellow didn’t have a lot of money to do anything about it. I think grandfather had the roof replaced and installed secure vaults, but it’s a bit bleak inside. There’s a housekeeper and her husband. Two ex-policemen keep the lodge gates but there’s no one else apart from that. I think the garden’s done by contractors, who can’t be very good because it’s become a bit wild.’
‘So what are you planning to do with staff?’
‘I’ve begun. We have Waclaw, don’t we? I’m not sure about the rest. I imagine there are agencies one employs. And you’re going to tell me to leave it to Maxim aren’t you …?’
‘No, no. Tell me, are you thinking of taking up residence here?’
‘It’s about time I did something with the place. Maxim’s got too many other things on his mind. Did you hear old Tildemann is in hospital again? They don’t think he’ll recover from this latest bout.’
‘So more instability is in store for Rothenia? At least the KRB can’t take advantage of it this time.’
‘But you can be sure there will be plenty of other groups who’ll try to capitalise on the republic’s problems. The depression is hitting industry hard. There have already been unemployment marches this winter in Eisendorf and Zenden.’
Waclaw caught the gist of the English and perked up from the driving wheel. ‘Do you think the king will come home again, sir?’
Leo shook his head. ‘No, Waclaw. But I suppose James may be tempted to try his hand.’
‘Then it’s as well we stay out of the country for the time being,’ Martin observed.
The car had begun ascending the wooded hills of the Pfälzerwald, and a turn into a wide drive brought them out on to a great flat swathe of grass at the bottom of a huge natural amphitheatre of starling regularity, like a great wooded bowl. Low and beautiful, Heilbrod had been built at the height of the German baroque. An orangery extended to the north of the terraced garden front, below the balustrade of which ran a long canal, its fountains shut off for the winter. The house was constructed of a honey-coloured limestone.
‘It’s wonderful!’ Martin enthused.
‘Yes, yes. Very different from the ancestral pile in Thuringia. I think it has possibilities.’ Despite his dismissive tone, Martin could detect a certain excitement in Leo at the prospects of this new home in the Rhineland, the first chance he had yet had to make his own domestic mark. ‘Of course, it’s well placed for travelling. It’s easy to connect with Paris, since the French army still occupies the left bank of the river. Then you can head off to Cannes, Nice or Italy. Politically the region’s a bit turbulent. The premier of the local Land was assassinated last year by right-wingers – for being too cosy with the French, would you believe. But up here you can forget about the rest of the world.’
‘How did your family get hold of Heilbrod?’
‘It was the marriage dowry of one of my ancestresses. It had once been a small Augustinian monastery which was suppressed and sold to the Elector. It’s not a very wealthy estate but it includes a lot of woodland: scenic although nowadays not very economic. The eighteenth-century Thuringians kept it up for the hunting. My great-grandfather handed it over to old Prince Günter, who lived the life of a retired scholar and hermit here. It’s still got a very decent library which Dr Gasse is currently cataloguing. Anyway, here we are, and that’s Frau Schultz, the housekeeper.’
‘Oh! She looks grim.’
‘Shh! She’ll hear you.’
‘Does she know …?’
‘She soon will. I have yet to give my orders about bedrooms.’
Leo was all affability as Waclaw took Martin’s bags. The Schultz woman announced fussily that she would put Herr Tofts in the Red Room. She was smoothly cut off by a perfectly unconcerned prince. ‘That’s not necessary, my dear frau. Mr Tofts sleeps with me.’
Martin observed her keenly and saw surprise, shock and then caution fight a swift and mobile campaign across her face. He did not however sense disgust, an emotion which did briefly take possession of her husband’s countenance. There would be an intense conversation later in the housekeeper’s quarters, Martin guessed.
The two young men began an exploration of the principal rooms. Only the library seemed in any way homelike, with two great log fires blazing in opposing hearths. A long gallery along the front of the first floor, its walls crammed from floor to ceiling with canvases great and small, quickly engaged Martin’s close attention.
Leo observed, ‘I believe these impressionists are doubling in value every three days. What do you think of those Italian masters?’
‘My God! The place looks like a miniature version of the National Gallery! Is that …?’
‘Yes, a Bellini bronze. The nude boy is apparently by Michelangelo. Grandfather was very pleased with it and kept it in the conservatory at Piotreshrad. I had quite a fight with Pip before he gave it up.’
‘No. Just joking. He’s saying he’ll be over from Templerstadt on Briskefest, the New Year in Rothenia. I wasn’t supposed to say, but the marriage will be this summer, and he wants to discuss arrangements. I believe it’s to be at his grandpapa’s. Count Hugo is getting infirm now as well as blind. It would be unfair to ask him to travel for the event.’
‘And will you be …?’
‘Best man. He asked me. And you are to be chief usher. It was the condition for my acceptance.’
‘Idiot!’ Martin changed the subject. ‘You’re right, though. This place is awfully bleak. The furniture is all threadbare and the carpets smell.’
‘It was Prince Günter’s dogs. They did their business everywhere. Cleaning makes no difference.’
‘I did not need to know that. What’s the plan?’
‘Well, you and I are going to go through the place with Frau Schultz and a notebook and we’re going to make a long list of requirements. A fellow is going to come down from Berlin next Monday with his catalogues, and another chap will be here from Mainz on Tuesday to give us his ideas about interior decorating. Then on Wednesday we’ll put them in a room to produce a portfolio. It all seems so simple really.’
‘Is there a stable?’
‘Yes, darling. No horses yet, but I’ll get it sorted in due course, that and the hunting. Old Günter let the coverts and game go to rack and ruin. Grandfather would not forgive me for failing to live up to my Underwood inheritance of slaughtering the local wildlife.’
‘And now the Schultzes.’
‘She might be alright, but he’s not to be trusted about our … proclivities.’
‘Oh dear. He did look dour, didn’t he.’
‘You have to get rid of him. Then any rumours he cares to spread will just look like sour grapes. While we have no reason to think either of them is untrustworthy, Maxim has told us to be careful.’
‘On the other hand, I have nothing against either of them. She was very good to old Günter in his last days.’
‘Pension them off?’
‘I’ll think about it. I tend to forget how tolerant grandfather’s and Maxim’s servants are. They never bat an eyelid. I could simply employ homos in future, I suppose. But it would look so odd. I’ll give it some thought. Anything else?’
‘We haven’t seen your bedroom yet.’
Pip drove himself over from Templerstadt in a brand-new Wendel sedan, black and sleek, which tore up the drive in a cloud of dust. They waited for him on the terrace while Herr Schultz sullenly unloaded his bags. Then all three hugged and kissed with their usual affection.
As Pip turned from Martin, he caught Schultz’s hostile glare. ‘You, man!’ he growled.
‘You appear to have something to say.’
Schultz slowly shook his head, though his expression was anything but neutral.
Pip looked him up and down before going over and putting a hand heavily on the man’s shoulder. Pip was tall, broad and athletic. The slighter Schultz began to appear intimidated. ‘The look on your face is insolent, fellow. Now, I ask you again, have you something to say?’
‘No … sir.’ It had been better for Schultz had he not lingered contemptuously on that last word. Pip pounced, and with one hand under Schultz’s crotch and another under his armpit raised him up and hurled him over the balustrade down into the canal. It was a short drop, the water no more than a metre deep, but there was a crust of ice on it.
‘Pip!’ yelled Martin.
‘Oh, for heaven’s …’ Leo echoed.
Pip turned with an eyebrow raised. ‘If this was home, I’d have horsewhipped the scoundrel. No Tarlenheim can tolerate that sort of disrespect.’
‘But you’re an Underwood …’
‘… and a peer of Rothenia. Imagine Count Oskar putting up with such insolence!’
‘Ah well,’ Leo sighed.
Schultz, his black suit shining like the hide of a walrus emerging from the waves, was coughing as he crawled out of the cold, weed-congested water. Leo called after him. ‘Herr Schultz. You are discharged. I expect you and your wife to leave by tomorrow. You will have a month’s wage in lieu of notice.’
The man trudged off wetly, cursing to himself.
Leo gave his cousin a rueful grin. ‘You’d better take your own bags in then.’
Martin trotted after his friends, a little bemused. He tended to forget that Pip and Leo had been brought up in a different world from himself, a world of courts, military ceremonial, affairs of honour and ritual. Sometimes it showed.
‘When did you get the car?’
‘Oh, Uncle Gus’s money has come through, and cars are pretty cheap at the moment. Mother and Maxim had no objection. I needed the vehicle to get from Piotreshrad to Templerstadt, and then on to here.’
‘Quite an exciting drive,’ Martin observed.
‘Is Waclaw Corbichek here?’ Pip inquired.
‘You can blame him. He taught me to drive during last year’s excavations at Old Hentzau. And you can come back with me to Templerstadt too!’
Leo beamed. ‘And Waclaw can drive this time. He’s in charge of my safety, and I have to say I’d feel safer with him behind the wheel. In the meantime, I have to do something about staff, since you’ve engineered the sacking of my housekeeper and handyman.’
Leo found Waclaw smirking at the wet trail Schultz had left across the marble entrance hall as he trudged through to the servants’ quarters. ‘Waclaw, will you ask Frau Schultz to come to me in the north lounge? We’ll have to sort this out.’
Leo looked troubled by the time the housekeeper knocked on the door. He kept Martin with him, but sent Pip up to his room guided by Waclaw.
The housekeeper looked distraught, and Martin knew Leo well enough to realise that her anguish would cause him to soften his attitude.
‘I’m afraid, Frau Schultz, that your husband’s behaviour to my guests means I will have to terminate your employment.’
‘Oh sir, I really am sorry. You must remember that Manfred had a bad time in the war. Gassed by the allies and then six months in a prisoner-of-war camp. And he doesn’t like foreigners … saving your presence, sir, I know you’re from a good German family.’
‘That’s all very well, Frau Schultz, but you see my predicament. Such a man cannot but be a nuisance around my home.’
‘But sir! These are bad times. There aren’t any jobs!’
‘And really, sir, your domestic arrangements … well, they’re your business. Prince Günter in his early days … We all heard the stories, and he was as fine an employer as you could hope to meet.’
‘Of course, of course. Well, perhaps …’
‘After all, Manfred could move to his sister’s in Speyer, and I could stay on here. That might suit everyone.’
‘Well, perhaps …’
‘Sir, your highness, please!’
‘I suppose. Well then, let that be it.’
Martin thought Frau Schultz looked relieved. Perhaps a forced separation from a bullying, dogmatic husband might actually make her happy.
After she’d gone, Leo looked at Martin, embarrassed. Martin reassured him, ‘You handled that well, dear. I suspect she’s genuinely grateful to get rid of her swinish husband.’
‘Oh … good. Do you really think so?’
‘I’m quite certain of it.’
Leo looked relieved. ‘Excellent. Then let’s look in on Dr Gasse. Maybe he’ll have some ideas about recruiting a household.’
‘Good idea. I have a feeling a lot may hang on finding reliable and congenial staff for Heilbrod.’
Leo was serious about having Waclaw drive on the return journey to Templerstadt. Pip insisted on sitting in front, his arms crossed, watching edgily while Waclaw changed gears with professional ease. It took till Regensburg before he stopped twitching.
‘Waclaw’s very good,’ Martin whispered to Leo.
‘What? To put up with Pip’s silliness?’
‘Not quite what I meant.’ Leo squeezed Martin’s hand.
They stopped for a quick lunch at a gasthaus on the outskirts of the city, sitting on its terrace overlooking the Donau. Afterwards they drove directly on to Rothenia and Templerstadt.
Pip ceremoniously ordered the car to be stopped at the frontier and obliged Waclaw to surrender the driving wheel to him. It was so that Waclaw could get the full benefit of his return to his native land, or so Pip claimed.
Though it was a cold January day, the weather was clear and bright with the sun still above the horizon as the car tore up the drive through the paddock towards the gatehouse. Martin was delighted to return to the beautiful medieval house on its hill. Winter-flowering jasmine glowed golden around the inner courtyard, and dogs barked somewhere beyond the domestic range.
‘Grandmama will be exercising them,’ Pip observed.
They found Count Hugo Maria in the lounge, listening to a new Stravinsky recording. He stood with old world courtesy when he knew Leo was with his grandson.
‘Please sit down, excellency,’ the prince insisted.
‘Obliged to you, your royal highness.’
‘How are you, Count Hugo?’
‘Much as usual, I’m glad to say. The countess is very well too. And Mr Tofts, how are you?’
‘Excellent. I don’t seem to have had a kiss yet from my grandson.’
Pip grinned and went over to hug his grandfather. He perched on the arm of the count’s chair, and for a while they exchanged family gossip.
Eventually Pip blurted, ‘Grandpapa! Leo has a question for you. It’s about our ancestor, Countess Fenice.’
The count looked amused behind his customary dark glasses. ‘What can I tell you, my dear? I’m sure you’ve devoured everything there is to read about that formidable lady.’
‘I’ve been through her complete works, certainly. It’s the interpretation of them that has got my curiosity roused. The source of her spirituality intrigues me. I must admit to being no more than an occasional Catholic, and I may have missed the significance of much that she says. Was she really claiming a personal revelation of Christ, like that experienced by Teresa of Avila?’
‘Why do you ask that, my boy?’
‘It’s the intensity of her Meditation, in part. She writes as if Christ’s face was real to her, as real as her husband’s. Then there’s the vividness of her Revelation … it should be one of the great spiritual classics, and would have been had it not been composed in Old Rothenian. This ark …’
‘The ark she mentions in the Revelation?’
‘Yes. It seems to have a special significance, like some sort of reliquary.’
‘I really have no idea, Leo. Fenice has never had the sort of academic attention that female spiritual writers like Hildegard of Bingen or Julian of Norwich have enjoyed. She’s not very fashionable outside Rothenia and her works are not readily accessible, as she mostly wrote in the vernacular.’
‘But you have read her works.’
‘Oh yes, while I was quite young. The library at Tarlenheim had the complete set of her works. I can’t say I got the full benefit of her theology at that age – I can’t have been more the fifteen – but my recall of the texts is quite good.’
‘Then sir, you must have read those obscure passages in her Revelation?’
‘As I recall, it’s full of obscurity.’
‘The ones I have in mind are in the last chapter.’ Leo took out a pocket book and consulted it. ‘It’s about the object called an ark: “Impious hands may seize your ark, but theirs will be as the fate of the Philistines.” And again, “The Lord is with thee, O my Israel. His Ark lieth amongst thee in its chamber of cypress wood. His servants lie wakeful around it, as Samuel in the Holy of Holies.” Now it seems to me that Fenice is talking about something of her own day and age, and not the biblical Ark of the Covenant.’
‘An “ark” signifies no more than the Latin arca, a box, as you all know – with the possible exception of my grandson.’
‘Now, my dear, you know I’m just teasing.’
Leo continued. ‘That may be so, sir. But the passage suggests this particular box contains something of such value that it requires a secret hiding place and guardians.’
‘She mentions “Levites” in some very strange terms that I cannot make much sense of, though she implies they are a lineage of sorts, guardians down the ages.’
Count Hugo Maria subsided, looking meditative.
Martin felt inclined to say, ‘Leo, are you proposing a treasure hunt?’
Leo cracked a grin. ‘Oh come on, Marty! We’re serious scholars. We don’t do treasure hunts … but we do conduct investigations.’
The count broke in. ‘I have to say, boys, that were I your age I might feel inclined to join in your … may I call it a quest?’
Martin cheered. ‘A quest! Absolutely!’
Count Hugo laughed. ‘I only hope you aren’t on a wild goose chase. Of course, Fenice lived far too long ago for there to remain any family legends about her. Though nonetheless we do have an extensive family archive over at Tarlenheim. You might wish to begin your search there. It contains documents going far back into the middle ages. Somehow I never got round to cataloguing it, and Welf, bless him, was interested in earlier and deader languages than Latin.’
Leo was grinning now. ‘This is splendid! Tomorrow we go over to the big house. We have a fortnight to ourselves before we need to return to England. Is Prince Franz in residence?’
‘I don’t know, my dear. He’s usually to be found at Festenberh, of course. I suggest Pip ring over to find out. Now, how about a drink? Pip, go and find your grandmama.’
Footmen in Tarlenheim green livery and holding umbrellas met the three young men. A cold, January rain was belting down on western Rothenia, veiling the hills of Husbrau across the valley of the Taveln.
Pip parked the car and led the way to the doors of the dark Classical bulk of what was the oldest of his family’s residences. The prince of Tarlenheim was waiting within the great octagonal entrance hall. Tall blue porcelain stoves radiated a good deal of heat and made the room tolerably comfortable, despite its size. Elaborate displays of armour and weaponry were arranged against the walls.
Prince Franz IV, now in his mid-forties, still remained a close personal friend of King Maxim, with whom he had worked for the Elphberg restoration in 1910. That fact, as much as his kinship with Pip, guaranteed the boys a warm welcome. Philip Underwood, as prince of Murranberg, used the surname Tarlenheim zu Templerstadt when in Rothenia, aligning himself politically with the several peers of the realm who belonged to the influential Tarlenheim clan.
‘So, your royal highness, you wish to do some work on our family archives?’
‘I am a student, serene highness, so I’ve come to study. It’s the oldest records we’re interested in. You know of Martin Tofts here?’
‘Yes indeed. I followed the news of his discoveries at Old Hentzau with great interest. Meaning no offence, I had no idea you were quite so young, Mr Tov-utz.’
Martin bobbed his head and blushed. ‘It was mostly luck, sir.’
‘I do employ a librarian, but he mostly works at Festenberh. However, I have the keys to the muniment room, where you may have free rein. I’m told the older documents are to be found in the strong room at the back. I would guess this rather elaborate iron key is the one for its door. Lunch is at one, and the princess and I are expecting you.’
After expressing their thanks, they were shown by the domestic chamberlain to the rear of the house and out into a paved courtyard, where leafless trees were visible above the turret of a rather fine stable block. To one side was a set of steps leading down to an iron-bound door, beyond which they found themselves in a series of barrel-vaulted rooms.
‘We’re below the library, sir,’ the chamberlain informed Leo. ‘His highness said you need to look through here to the strong room.’ He indicated a further cellar barred by an iron door. He bowed and left.
Leo was quite excited. ‘This is really thrilling. Who knows what’s to be found beyond that door?’
‘Dust?’ offered Pip.
‘A lot more work than you seem to imagine?’ Martin suggested.
‘Answers, fellows … answers!’ replied the prince.
Martin groaned as he spread out yet another estate account roll to pore over the Latin capitals at the head of the membrane. ‘Oh, here we are. This one’s medieval. It says it was made in the sixth year of Duke Rudolf III. What’s that? The 1470s?’
Leo looked up from yet another parcel of blackened parchment deeds. ‘Something like that. Your ancestors were packrats, Pip.’
Pip had made himself useful stacking and sorting. Historical documents were not really of much interest to him. ‘What’s that, Leo?’
‘They seem to have kept everything. I wouldn’t be surprised to find medieval shopping lists and bus tickets here. This packet contains the leasing rights for pasturage along the river meadows. There are hundreds of them between 1410 and 1426, and absolutely no use to us at all, though a local historian would literally have a field day with them.’
Pip snorted. ‘We could be here for months. How do we find stuff about Countess Fenice?’
Martin paused. ‘We’re not thinking logically here … or perhaps archeologically. This archive has apparently been formed simply by dumping stuff in chests and boxes. But I’m beginning to notice there is a pattern to it. The last time anyone attempted to sort this stuff I’d guess was nearly two centuries ago, just after the house was rebuilt. I imagine it was all brought from somewhere else and roughly sorted at the time into ready-made cases and boxes. Of course, all the overspill of nineteenth-century records has been piled in on top of them since then, but clear away those layers and there may be a pattern to distinguish. In fact I’m sure there is.’
Leo grinned. ‘My hero!’
‘Stop burrowing, Pip, and let me think.’ Martin stood on a table and pulled out his notebook. He began sketching a rough plan of the strong room, then hopped down and started delving into stacks and chests, taking notes as he did so.
His friends relaxed and waited. Eventually Martin smiled and looked rather pleased with himself. ‘It’s clear to me there was a primitive order imposed on the first deposits here in the 1740s. The great drifts of later material disguise it, but here on this side of the room are the boxes of deeds and account rolls – the earliest at the bottom – going down to the thirteenth century in some cases. Huge amounts of irrelevant stuff so far as we’re concerned. Next to them are rentals, terriers and plans, mostly post-medieval, and more obviously used than the rest, so it’s deceptively well-ordered. This means that the sort of unusual material we may be looking for will be elsewhere, but buried under later accretions.’
‘So what do you suggest?’
‘We excavate the eastern side of the room, set aside the mass of later accumulations, and see what if anything is underneath. I think I see some earlier chests under those pyramids of tin trunks. I’d start there.’
The three men went to work with renewed vigour now they’d found direction. Leo and Martin scanned parcels and piles and handed them over to Pip to stack. They got dirty and sweaty very quickly.
‘And I thought historical research was cerebral and academic,’ Pip sighed, adding to another tottering mound of documents.
‘Here we go, fellows,’ called out Leo as they moved the last of the tin trunks and cleared their way down to the first of the more ancient chests. ‘Take a look at it, Marty. How old do you think it is?’
Martin brushed off the dust and scrutinised the wooden box carefully. It was bound with blackened iron straps, and very sturdy. Enlisting Pip’s help, he pulled it out from the wall. ‘It could be sixteenth century,’ was his eventual opinion. ‘There’s no trace of Gothic in the woodwork or ironwork. I just wish I knew more about the typology of joinery.’
‘Time to open up?’
‘This is a bit exciting.’
The excitement did not last. Leo sighed as he lifted the last parcel out of the box. ‘So does anyone here have any interest in seventeenth-century printed Rothenian tracts in defence of just about every objectionable Catholic practice?’
‘The next chest,’ Martin pronounced in a decided way. He was unmoved when it produced nothing but building contracts and rent ledgers for Tarlenheim properties in the Nuevemesten of Strelzen.
There were still two ancient chests left to examine. ‘I need a tea break,’ Pip announced. ‘The excitement is killing me.’
Leo caught Martin looking hesitant. He took his hand. ‘What is it, sweetheart? Do you have one of your feelings about this?’
Martin bit his lip. ‘Maybe … it’s a little like when I dug under that altar foundation at Belsager.’
‘Do you want to go on?’
‘Well no … and also yes. I’m sorry, I sound stupid I know. There’s something telling me that I don’t really want to find whatever we will if we carry on, yet another part of me is urging me to do it. I’ve never felt like this before.’ He wiped his forehead.
‘I still want my tea.’
‘Oh bother, Pip! Go and get some and send down two cups to us. Marty’s on to something important.’
Pip grinned and said he’d be just a moment, but they were to wait for his return before discovering anything important.
‘This one,’ announced Leo. ‘It looks the dullest and least interesting. Sod’s Law.’ They manhandled the smaller of the two chests out from the wall. It was made of dark wood and was locked. ‘So much for that, then.’
Possessed by a spirit of impatience, Martin rattled the rusty and primitive padlock that secured the chest, then wrenched at it. To the surprise of both, it simply fell open. ‘Oh! Not locked then, after all!’ Martin picked the lock up and found that the ancient internal mechanism was corroded away.
Leo pushed back the chest’s lid, which cooperated reluctantly. Inside was what looked like a pile of folders, but on closer examination proved to be parchment-bound booklets in large numbers. He picked up the topmost with some anticipation, then sighed. ‘It’s a library catalogue … and this one too.’
Martin took the first one from him. He then read out the superscription: ‘Catalogus librorum venerabilis comitisse Terlenehemensis per fratrum Willelmum ordinis predicatorum capellanum suum.’
Martin raised an eyebrow. ‘And who do you think this venerable countess of Tarlenheim might be, then?’
‘This may be Countess Fenice’s library.’