The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
‘Are you sure? It’s not my idea of a library.’
Martin shrugged. ‘Oh, I expect there were bound books too, but I imagine they were sold or combined with other libraries later. However, medieval libraries were kept in boxes not on shelves, which meant it wasn’t necessary for the books to be bound so as to stand upright. This is more like what you would actually have found back then. Here you go, darling, take these and put them on that table Pip cleared.’
Leo obediently picked up a stack of parchment and, after blowing a small fog bank of dust off it, placed it where Martin indicated. It was joined soon after by two additional piles.
‘Now, let’s see what we’ve got. You take that catalogue compiled by her Dominican chaplain, and try to match its contents with the titles we have here. Alright, then … first item. Oh! The Book of Miracles by Caesarius of Heisterbach; it seems she liked ghost stories. Found it?’
‘Hang on. It’s not in alphabetical order, but yes, here’s a Liber miraculorum secundum Caesarium. Looks like we’re in business, Marty.’
‘And now … a fourteenth-century gloss on I Kings … very boring!
‘Another gloss … this time on the Book of Revelation … much used and annotated. Hardly a surprise that.’
‘Gregory the Great’s Dialogues.’
‘The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth.’
‘Bit of light reading there.’
‘Augustine on The Care of the Dying. Oh, and here’s something very interesting, a Rothenian-language ars moriendi, a handbook on the deathbed, with pictures!’
‘Darling, I see a pattern here.’
‘You do?’ Martin was enjoying himself, judging by the light in his eye.
‘The books are so far mostly about ghosts, spirits, the afterlife and the supernatural. Countess Fenice seems to have been of a gloomy cast of mind, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Perhaps it might be more accurate to describe her as especially interested in the study of worlds beyond death. That wasn’t so unusual was it?’
‘I wonder if in her case it might have been reading for a purpose. We suspect her of being connected in some way with the strange things that can happen in Rothenia. And now it seems the woman herself was deeply concerned with, well … thaumaturgy … the study of spirits.’
‘How does the first Book of Kings come into it?’ Martin asked.
‘The story of Saul and the Witch of Endor is in it, one of the few ghost stories in the Bible.’
‘Well, well. Let’s have a look at the rest of it.’
When Pip came down, followed by a Tarlenheim footman with a tray of tea things, Leo and Martin had already filled the table. After explaining what they had found, Leo concluded, ‘You see, Pip, this really is the contents of the countess’s private study, or at least the part she used a lot. I imagine the big, bound, illuminated volumes were disposed of or given away in legacies, but this material was simply dumped with a bundle of personal papers: that third pile is a collection of medieval Tarlenheim wills, including her own.’
Martin interjected, ‘Judging by the library catalogue, this is only about a quarter of what she owned, although it may be the most interesting quarter.’
Leo continued, ‘Principally, however, there is this.’ He flourished a thin booklet, plain and uninteresting-looking.
‘This is an unknown work of St Fenice of Tarlenheim, written in her own hand, judging by the superscripts she inscribed on the other books.’
Leo passed it to Pip, who handled the sheaf of pages gingerly. ‘What is it? More about the end of the world?’
Leo smiled. ‘No. It’s a collection of prophecies. Not all her own. The first folios are known prophetic works: Geoffrey of Monmouth on the prophecies of Merlin, Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias, even some notes on the apocalypse of Methodius. It’s this last folio …’
Martin leaned over his shoulder looking intently at the text, and read its verses out, translating them as he did so:
Of the nine kings.
Red and black the cubs of the lion.
Golden and black their hearts.
The first a mirror for princes,
The last a mirror of a prince.
Of the one queen.
Red and white,
The royal Levite.
The skull will rest
Under the red rose.
Of the prince of Albion.
Black the head
Golden the heart
The builder, the peacemaker
The anchor of hope.
Of the king restored.
Red the hair
Of the boy king
Hero of his age
Slayer of the evil one.
Of the greatest in name.
Golden the head
Loving the heart.
Scholar, warrior, saint
The one who died yet lived.’
Leo stared. ‘My word! Can you believe it?’
Pip too had caught the gist. ‘It’s the Elphberg kings. Who else could the prophecies be about? Not only that, but it’s obvious what some of it means at least. I need a sheet of paper. Here we go.
‘Now the nine before the queen – Flavia obviously. No, that’s not right. There were five Rudolfs, two Henrys, and a Ferdinand, that only makes eight.’
Leo shook his head. ‘Actually, Pip dear, she’s right. Maxim told me the story when I was little. There were two men who were called Rudolf V, one impersonating the other. The last of the nine she is talking about is Rudolf Rassendyll, Maxim’s great uncle, who took the place of his cousin the king to save him from a conspiracy. You see, Rassendyll was the spitting image of Rudolf V – his mirror, as the prophecy says.’
Martin paused to digest this. ‘So that would mean King Rudolf I was “a mirror for princes”. How was that?’
Leo smiled. ‘When the pope granted him the royal title, it was because he was supposedly Catholicensium speculum principum fidelium, “a mirror for faithful Catholic princes”. Those were the words of the papal bull.’
Pip resumed. ‘The “one queen” has to be Flavia, so the “prince of Albion” must be Maxim. Fenice isn’t counting the Thuringian kings at all. My, but she does give Maxim a good write-up.’
‘Which he thoroughly deserves,’ Leo affirmed.
‘Absolutely. St Fenice is good! And look! She mentions two more Elphberg kings yet to come! First a “boy king” and a hero. Then the greatest of them … a messianic figure who will die and yet live, be both saint and soldier, and the only Elphberg to have golden hair. Will we ever live to see those days, I wonder? But this is so exciting! Maxim and his father were given prophecies of future Elphbergs too, kings who lie on the other side of a time of blackness in Rothenia’s history. And here we have the same predictions, but from the Middle Ages and in rather more detail. I can’t wait to tell Maxim! If only grandfather were still alive!’
Martin took Leo’s hand and squeezed it. ‘I’m sure he knows it where he is now, dearest.’
Pip kissed the top of his royal cousin’s hair and squeezed his shoulders.
Leo gave a sad smile. ‘I really love you two. You make life so much more pleasant.’
‘We know,’ Pip laughed. ‘We’re like that. Now there is one important thing. The prophecy about Flavia calls her “the royal Levite”. What can that mean?’
Leo stood and looked pensive. ‘Fenice mentions a line of Levites, red- and golden-headed, who will be guardians of … something important. Now of course Flavia is famous for being a redhead, so it seems to me she was a Levite in her day. “The skull will rest under the red rose”. I think we can make sense of that too. Soon after Flavia was interred beside her Rudolf the people began laying red roses on their tomb. They’ve never stopped. Now the skull must be that death’s-head badge we see adorning Fenice and the other women depicted in the woodcut of her Meditation.
‘Flavia was a Levite and wore the death’s head too, which must mean there was a succession of them down the centuries and ….’ Leo went silent. The other two looked expectantly at him. Eventually he shrugged and added, ‘… there may still be Levites.’
Pip interjected before Martin could follow up that remark. ‘Did you say Countess Fenice’s will was in that pile of papers? Have you looked to see what it says? Maybe it will give us a clue about these strange matters.’
Leo said it couldn’t hurt to try and handed the pile to Pip, who selected the manuscript and passed it on to Martin.
After a while Martin looked up. ‘It’s intriguing all right. Listen. It begins with her burial arrangements. It says her body is not to be opened but is to be buried intact within three days of her death in the ambulatory behind the high altar of the abbey of Our Lady of Medeln, next to her friend, the Duchess Osra of Rothenia.’
‘Hmm. Two friends: one from a red-headed family and another from a golden-haired family. Is it true about the Tarlenheims that they’re almost all blond? Just like you, Pip?’
‘It’s true, now you mention it. You should see the galleries at Festenberh; a brunette among them would feel very discriminated against. There’s another thing too.’
‘Well … from the time when we have portraits of the counts of Tarlenheim which give anything like a natural resemblance, there’s a distinct Tarlenheim cast of feature which duplicates itself in every generation, usually in the head of the family.’
‘Is that so unusual?’
‘It’s not unprecedented. The Hapsburgs look a lot the same from Charles V onwards. But I noticed it last year in particular when I was staying with the Tarlenheims at Festenberh. There’s a Van Dyck portrait of Count Oskar the Great, the natural philosopher of the late seventeenth century, the friend of Rupert of the Rhine. It could easily be a picture of my cousin, Prince Franz … apart of course from the long hair, earring and lace.’
Leo decided to call a halt at that point. They had an appointment with Prince Franz for afternoon tea, and it would take at least an hour to put the room back the way they had found it. Martin – since he had the clearest handwriting – was put to work copying Fenice’s prophecies and last will.
Prince Franz of Tarlenheim listened intently to what the three had to say over tea in one of the noble drawing rooms of his house. Nonetheless, he could not hide his scepticism. ‘I cannot deny that my family’s history is marked by strange events and some very curious episodes. Of course you know all about Oskar, my uncle. Who doesn’t? The night he died – a night of storm and gales – an antiquated black coach was seen in the courtyard of our Strelzen house. They say such a conveyance may be heard rumbling into the yard whenever one of the counts of Tarlenheim is due to die. But it is only ever seen by the one who loves him truly. It’s usually his wife, but in Oskar’s case …’
‘… it was my grandfather.’
‘So he told you the story, did he, Leo?’
‘Yes, prince. It was when he was explaining to me what I had seen when Count Oskar fought my father in the gallery at Ernsthof. Grandfather said a very strange thing as he finished his tale.’
‘Yes. He said there was a deep vein of the supernatural within your family that breaks into the world in times of national peril, like a great tide sweeping through a dam broken by a storm.’
‘Colourfully put for old August. But I believe it to be true, though the gift – if such it is – has lain dormant since Queen Flavia’s days, for which I am more than a little grateful. It may be that the modern world of aeroplanes and electricity has been too much for it. So I hope, for I’m not sure I would be up to the sort of life that Countess Fenice or Count Oskar the Great led.’
Martin could not contain himself. ‘This Count Oskar, the one from the seventeenth century. How was he in any way supernatural?’
Prince Franz smiled. ‘He was called Great for a reason. He was a remarkable man. He began his career as a soldier, having violently quarrelled with his father and run away from Rothenia. He fought in the armies of Charles X of Sweden against the Tsar Alexis, and took part in the defence of Riga. He was a friend of your exiled King Charles II of England. It was with the king’s cousin, Prince Edward of the Palatinate, that Oskar lived a riotous and libertine life across Europe in the late 1650s. It is said he penetrated into the harem of the Ottoman emperor for a bet, and was lucky to escape with his manhood.
‘The saving of him was meeting Prince Edward’s elder brother, Rupert of the Rhine, at Dresden in 1658. They discovered a common interest in scientific pursuits of the more arcane sort.’
‘Some might call what they did necromancy, or alchemy if they did not want to be too scandalous. Oskar’s experiments with transmutation were reputed to have actually been successful, He and Rupert are said to have changed lead into gold, though the means by which they did so led to Oskar’s arrest in Prague and trial for both murder and heresy.’
‘It was alleged that a young boy’s lifeblood had to be spilled to complete the experiment.’
Leo looked horrified. ‘And was he …?’
‘Guilty?’ The prince smiled. ‘Unlikely, I think. He had many enemies in the Holy Roman Empire, and his intellectual adventurousness was one way to attack him. He wasn’t liked because he had many Jewish friends and was a famous student of the Kabbalah.
‘There is this, however: He certainly did attempt to find the elixir of life, though he did not have the supposed success with that which he had with transmuting elements. It is said that it was in his day when the ominous black coach first rumbled into the courtyard of the Tarlenheim palace in Strelzen, and he was taken by dark-cloaked creatures to be its first unwilling passenger.’
‘The consequence of a failed experiment, sir?’ Martin was entranced.
‘So indeed they say, though no one can speculate what sort of unnatural exercise of the black arts provoked that response. They also say that his experiments were partially successful. His youthful looks survived uncannily till the day of his death.
‘Which reminds me, there are some very odd people who wish to search his papers. Have you heard of an Englishman called Crowley, of something he calls “the Order of the Silver Star”? No? He has been haranguing me by post and telegram to allow him into the library at Festenberh. He claims to be a researcher in the occult and cites a Mr Scott-Petrie, the brother-in-law of Lord Burlesdon, as a reference. You must know him, boys.’
‘Yes, prince,’ responded Leo, ‘and the mention of Scott-Petrie’s name is enough to indicate that you should have nothing to do with Mr Crowley.’
‘Ah yes. Now I remember. Lord Burlesdon and Scott-Petrie were in collusion over Gulik’s attempted coup last year. Tell me, how is the earl these days?’
Pip growled, ‘Still thick with the more extreme elements of the KRB, so Welf says.’
‘I don’t imagine he can do much harm now he’s been discredited.’
Leo sighed. ‘We can only hope. The problem is, he doesn’t realise quite how discredited he is.’
‘We have to be in Oxford again in ten days. Have you any plans?’
Martin looked up curiously. The wheedling tone was unusual in Leo.
‘The point is this. I’ve been obliged to make up a house party with Cousin David. Frankly it’s a bore, but it’s inescapable. He likes to think he’s still the core of the young playboy set, and I’ll be there to bolster his image of himself, me being young …’
‘… but hardly a playboy. By “Cousin David” I assume you mean the Prince of Wales.’
‘And you’re going to ask me along, aren’t you.’
‘Would it be too awful?’
Martin pondered the invitation. Leopold of Thuringia, as a close cousin of the British and Belgian royal families, occasionally joined his relatives at Balmoral, Sandringham or the château of Laken. There had never previously been a suggestion that Martin should go with him. ‘Why now?’ he asked.
Leo smiled a little. ‘Fort Belvedere isn’t one of your grand royal palaces, so you won’t be too intimidated. It’s more like a country house, so David tells me. He’s just got it and is very enthusiastic about the place, that and his rose garden. It’s also not far from your mother’s. You can nip over and visit. I’m sure she’d appreciate it. In fact, I’ll be happy to come with you.’
‘Really? Mother will be impressed. She’s not met you before.’
‘So you’ll come to Fort Belvedere?’
‘Umm … just this once.’
‘Good. Georgie will be there.’
‘You’ll see. He’s the main reason we’re going.’
They were sitting together in the library of Templerstadt, poring over Martin’s transcript of the last will and testament of Fenice of Tarlenheim. They looked up as Count Hugo Maria entered and found his way to their table with little apparent difficulty.
Taking a chair, he seemed to study them from behind his dark glasses with disconcerting directness. ‘Now, my boys, you were going to tell me about your adventures yesterday.’
Martin took it upon himself to describe their finds, as well as their conversation with Prince Franz. When he had finished, Hugo pondered a moment, then smiled. ‘I think you need to go to Medeln and talk to the abbess. Mother Maria Nativitata is something of a historian of her abbey, and was a good friend of King Maxim's. I’m sure she’ll be very happy to help. I’ll ask Tomas to drop in and fix up an interview when he goes down to the post office in Terlenehem.’
So the next afternoon Waclaw drove Leo and Martin to the abbey. Pip stayed home to await Kate’s arrival. Martin had already visited and sketched the abbey church on earlier stays at Templerstadt, but today they were to be admitted to the magnificent conventual buildings constructed by the Princess Osra, the sister of King Rudolf III, who had been commendatory abbess of Medeln in the period of the Revolutionary Wars, and who had been buried in the abbey church.
A lay sister in a brown habit was awaiting their arrival. She beckoned silently for them to follow her through a wicket gate out of the north transept. The cloisters were austerely classical, their architecture seeming to emphasise the cold of that grey January day. They were led to the rather noble entrance of the abbess’s lodgings, encrusted with Ruritanian heraldry and the monograms and badges of the Princess Osra.
Stairs took them up to a reception room decorated in a style uncannily like an English country cottage, complete with chintz curtains and coverings, and fringed standard lamps, a resemblance emphasised by the room’s diamond-paned casements. Even the furniture seemed reminiscent of home to Martin. The difference was in the number of Catholic religious prints on the Sanderson-papered walls, and an unobtrusive statue of the Sacred Heart on an occasional table in a corner.
Mother Maria Nativitata rose from her writing desk to greet them. Leo, whose youth had been spent in Catholic Rothenia and who had received first communion in the abbey church, kissed the offered hand and stayed head-bowed for her blessing.
‘It is a pleasure to see you again, royal highness, though it has been many years. You were just a boy when you and your cousin Philip Underwood took communion here in … when was it? Corpus Christi 1918, the last year of that abominable war.’
‘I’m surprised you remember me, reverend mother.’
A glance from the abbess quite startled Martin with its intelligence and sharpness. ‘You were not an easy boy to forget, young man.’
Leo blushed, though he had no reason to do so. He stumbled to explain their purpose at Medeln.
The abbess listened carefully. ‘Mr Tovutz is well-known as an archaeologist, royal highness, and that is why I had assumed you wished to visit, in pursuit of his researches. But it seems to me your curiosity is not about these buildings so much as the lives they once contained. Would I be correct?’
‘Yes, reverend mother. We’ve been engaged in researches in the archives at Tarlenheim, and our discoveries there have raised questions which perhaps Medeln can answer, most particularly about St Fenice of Tarlenheim and her association with the abbey.’
‘Ah … many make the mistake of thinking she was a nun of this house.’
‘No … though her friend, the duchess of Rothenia, was commendatory abbess in her day.’
Martin interjected. ‘Commendatory abbess … what does that mean?’
The abbess smiled. ‘In those tolerant days noblewomen might take on the title of abbess and even collect the revenues of the office while living an aristocratic lifestyle outside the cloister. The real work was done by a prioress. The practice was not generally a good one and was often condemned.
‘However, we were talking of Fenice of Tarlenheim. When she was widowed she went before the bishop of Modenehem and took vows of chastity and continence, but not the full monastic profession. She lived in the world, rather like a tertiary of an order. She visited this monastery regularly and joined in the office with the sisters. But it was not till the Duchess Osra retired here that she settled in this place, and even then did not take vows. She and the duchess lived together in the palatial hall that once stood on the west side of the abbey's outer court, near the guest house. It’s long gone now of course.
‘Fenice only took her full vows on her deathbed. She said her heart might have been in the cloister but her body was too often obliged to be in the world.’
Martin chipped in. ‘And she was buried here, reverend mother?’
‘Yes indeed. Originally she was placed next to the duchess her friend, but when she was canonised there had to be changes. Her body was moved to a shrine behind the high altar.’
‘May we see it?’
‘Normally I could not allow you to do so, but since Prince Leopold is asking, this is a different case. He is a descendant of the Duchess Osra, and a member of the family of our advocates. He can therefore claim the right to walk the choir aisles of our church.’ She smiled charmingly. ‘And as a family retainer, you may accompany the prince, Mr Tovutz. Now how about some tea? We have the Earl Grey variety if you’d like.’
Half an hour later Abbess Maria Nativitata led them along a private passage giving on to the abbey’s tribune, and down a narrow stair cut through the great north-eastern pier of the crossing and so into the church. Then she took them round the back of the northern stalls of the choir and to the rear of the high altar, blocked from their view by a towering stone reredos and canopy.
Martin’s instincts were once more tingling. A large Gothic shrine carved in black polished stone stood in the easternmost part of the ambulatory, lit by high shafts from the radial chapels. It was one of the most starkly threatening structures Martin had ever seen. It loomed over them, crested by sharp pinnacles, like some beast rising out of an ancient world.
‘Yes,’ the abbess whispered. ‘Ugly is it not? It was not meant to be seen like this of course. It was stripped of its silver plating and statuary by the French dragoons who occupied this abbey in 1807. It was the year when Napoleon marched into Strelzen on his way to Vienna. We have never got round to undoing the damage to the shrine, even if we could afford it.’
Martin was looking all around. ‘Up there, reverend mother! The vaulting above has a painting on it. Is that a giant Christ figure?’
The abbess squinted up at the ceiling. ‘Yes. The medieval painting is faded, but I have always assumed it was originally meant to be seen as if a giant Christ was standing behind the shrine. When the erection of the baroque reredos and canopy blocked the view, however, the painting lost its dramatic point.’
Martin too was staring up. ‘It’s an unusual Christ face. It’s young and shaven.’
‘Rather eccentric, but I’m sure it cannot be unprecedented.’
Leo came out of his meditation. ‘And is the body of Fenice still under that shrine?’
‘That’s a difficult question to answer, royal highness. The French did a lot of damage to the church. They stabled their horses in the nave and watered them in the font. They stripped out everything of value and pillaged the surrounding countryside. The nuns were driven to take refuge with the Jesuits at Modenehem. It was a year before they could return. A lot of the graves were desecrated. The soldiers pried up the flagstones with their bayonets and stole the rings off dead fingers. Only Princess Osra’s grave escaped them. She had died five years earlier and her tomb was still being prepared at the time of the French invasion. She was resting anonymously under the crypt floor.’
‘So Fenice may have been disturbed?’
‘Perhaps. The accounts of the time only mention the blasphemous treatment of the shrine, not that it was opened.’
It seemed to Leo momentarily that the abbess was being evasive. Before he could pursue the point, Martin asked, ‘Where is Princess Osra’s tomb?’
The abbess motioned them to follow her back around the ambulatory. One of the radial chapels had been altered and enlarged, and when they were taken through an ironwork gate, a huge Classical tomb was opened to their view.
Leo gasped. The design was positively theatrical. The princess was rising from her broken sarcophagus to be taken up by angels. Above marble clouds and through gilded sunbeams, the Virgin was waiting to receive her with a crown of glory. A baffled Death slunk away like a defeated villain in a melodrama.
‘Oh, my word!’ Martin exclaimed. The monument was really striking, finer than any other of the period he had seen.
Mother Maria Nativitata gave a little smile. ‘As the epitaph will tell you, it was raised by King Ferdinand for his aunt. It was designed and executed in the Bracci workshop at Rome, I believe.’
Martin sketched and made notes, while the abbess walked Leo round the other side of the choir to view the remains of Duchess Osra’s Gothic tomb, also sadly mutilated by the French.
After they had rejoined Martin, they left by the door into the nave. Thanking the abbess profusely for her time, Leo and Martin took their leave and walked pensively up the simple, empty nave out into the cold January air by the wicket of the west door.
‘What do you make of it all, dear?’ Leo asked.
‘Take a look at my sketch of the Osra figure. What do you see?’
Leo studied the notebook. He sighed. ‘As I thought. The abbess was concealing something. Is that …?’
‘A death’s head on the statue of the princess. She too was an Elphberg Levite.’
The two young men paused on the stairs of Fort Belvedere.
‘I told you he’s alright. Quite quiet really, and I shouldn’t say this but …’
‘He’s also a bit dull, dearest.’
‘He’s the Prince of Wales, Leo. He doesn’t have to be intelligent.’
Leo and Martin had arrived by taxi from Sunningdale station. Leo had declined the offer of a limousine to bring them from Waterloo.
The Prince of Wales had proved to be a short and strangely undistinguished-looking man wearing a grey tweed jacket. It was only as he was being introduced that Martin finally matched the slight figure with nicotine-stained fingers to the newspaper pictures he had been seeing all his life.
The surprise for Martin had been meeting his first royal mistress. Lady Furness was a very American lady in her late twenties. Though not conventionally pretty, there was certainly character and strength in her square face. Martin was bemused as to what his mother would have made of the woman he was asked to call Thelma. His mother assumed that mistresses were what foreign nobility took, not proper British royals.
After cocktails, they had gone up to their rooms to change for dinner. Before they rejoined their host, Martin grabbed Leo’s elbow in the corridor. ‘Who’s Georgie?’ he insisted.
Leo grinned. ‘My favourite cousin. His royal highness, the Prince George Edward Alexander Edmund, David’s younger brother. You’ll like him. He should turn up any time soon.’
‘Why will I like him?’
Leo laughed. ‘He’s … like us, dear, and very much so. You are not to sleep with him. He’s extremely charming and handsome, and I imagine you’ll appeal to him as much as you do to me, even if he’s nearly ten years older than we are.’
Dinner was not as difficult as Martin had feared. Lady Furness had read the papers and wanted to know all about the Hentzau dig, so Martin made his modest contribution to the table talk. The men did not retire after dinner, but stayed and smoked, adding to the thick blue haze over the table and causing the attendant footmen to cough discretely behind their hands. It was as the port was circulating for the second time that the door opened and a slim, elegant man in a lounge suit joined the table. He took a vacant place next to Martin and ordered a whisky.
‘Leo I know,’ he smiled. ‘You must be his friend.’
Martin confirmed it.
Prince George made a very good first impression, warm and confident. ‘And when I say friend …’
Martin blushed and stuttered when he found a hand squeezing his thigh. He quickly realised the charm next to him had a dangerous edge. It seemed also that Leo’s tendencies were not a secret in some royal circles.
The conversation on the table was general. There was no further comment from Martin's neighbour, although he caught several amused glances from Leo, at the head of the table next to their host.
The gathering dragged on towards midnight. Eventually Prince George offered him a cigar from a case and prompted him to take some fresh air on the terrace. A wink drew Leo too.
It was cold outside but a relief from the dense, smoke-filled atmosphere within. Martin’s eyes had been streaming from the irritation. He had resolved at some point in the meal to give up tobacco. For the moment, however, he lit up from Prince George’s proferred lighter.
When Leo joined them, he kissed his cousin on the cheek and hugged his arm.
‘Delightful to see you, Leo.’
‘And you, Georgie dear. You’ve met my Marty.’
‘You’ve developed a fine taste in men. I am envious. I wish I were so lucky. I’ve just come from Maxim’s. We’ve been having a long discussion about Germany, a subject on which your opinion would be very welcome.’
Georgie proved to be well informed and politically acute, the very antithesis of his eldest brother. He and Leo talked long enough for Martin to find himself shivering in the January night air. It turned out that the prince had begun work at the Foreign Office and was looking for an appointment to the German desk.
Eventually Leo noticed Martin’s discomfort and brought the interrogation to a close. ‘And you, Georgie, who are you seeing?’
The prince puffed out a cloud of cigar smoke. ‘Well, odd you should ask. I met a city fellow at Maxim’s, and we fell into bed the first night. Quite a chap; must be in his early twenties. Knows Germany too. Got a lot out of him, in all senses of the word. I have his phone number. I rather think we’ll be getting together again.’
Leo beamed. Martin knew how much his lover was addicted to romantic novels and films, and was avid to hear about love affairs, homosexual and otherwise. But Leo too was feeling the cold, and suggested they rejoin the table.
Lady Furness was leaving the dining room as they entered, giving Leo an excuse for them to seek their beds too. Martin was glad their stay would be brief. They would go by train to Reading in the morning, following which he would have the pleasure of introducing Leo to his family. He took a ceremonious leave of the heir to the British throne, and was reassured that the prince did not seem to think they would meet in the morning.
‘Oh, well done, Waclaw!’
Leo’s manservant beamed. He had preceded them to Oxford by a week, time enough to stock their pantry with milk, bread, eggs and all the essentials.
‘I’ll make us a tea,’ Martin offered. Waclaw had got used to his prince preparing tea, toast and boiled eggs. Though still embarrassed to be served by his employer, Waclaw was adaptable and very tolerant. However, he was manifestly happier when it was Martin in the kitchen.
By the time Martin had finished his preparations and Waclaw had fought him successfully for custody of the tea tray, Leo had covered the kitchen table with his file and notes. ‘Waclaw, you’re to stay for this.’
‘And sit down.’
Waclaw complied a little reluctantly.
‘Now you two, it’s time to summarise what we’ve found out in the past weeks, and then plan what to do with it. Let’s begin with the lost Crown … it really is lost too. Maxim gave it to the late General Franz von Tarlenheim who passed it on to a person unknown: unknown to Maxim too. The late Count Oskar, in an attempt to warn us that whoever had it was in danger, left as a clue a class ring from the military academy at Alfensberh. I had rather he had been more explicit because the clue was too elusive for any of our friends to work out.’
Martin was nodding. ‘I still have that list of suspects. My money’s on old Voydek.’
‘But he’s in America and has been for the past few years. Had he been the custodian of the Crown, you would expect him to have stayed in Rothenia, like grandfather did when he had it.’
‘So no progress there.’
‘No. Putting that aside for the moment, we seem to have accidentally stumbled on to a bigger question. We’re not the first to have discovered it either. James and his fascist friends are on the scent of some ancient mystery at the heart of Rothenia, a mystical and unnamed treasure watched over by a line of shadowy guardians, the first of which may have been St Fenice of Tarlenheim.’
‘They seem to know about St Fenice.’
‘Regrettably so. Not only that, but I rather suspect their sporting of silver death’s heads on their lapels means they may be deeper in this mystery than we are. They knew about the significance of that badge long before we did.’
‘But they don’t know about Medeln.’
‘Probably not. That's fortunate, because there are still things to be discovered at the abbey, I think. Abbess Maria Nativitata knew more about St Fenice than she was saying. I’m rather glad we didn’t let her in on the prophecies we found.’
‘And do you think the Crown and this other …. business … are linked?’
‘Who knows? We seem to have beaten them to the archives of Tarlenheim at least.’
‘But they are aware that there is other material in the library at Festenberh which we know nothing about, perhaps in the papers of Count Oskar the Great.’
‘I fear so, Marty. They know they themselves cannot get access to Festenberh, but they are trying to approach it through whatever respectable connections they can muster.’
‘If you can call Frank Scott-Petrie respectable.’
Waclaw raised his hand hesitantly at that point. Leo looked a question. ‘Highness, Mr Scott-Petrie was at the Ploughmen two nights ago. He took up with young Sandy. Sandy says he’s staying at the Blue Boar with a very strange man.’
‘A man called Crowley?’
Waclaw looked helpless. ‘I’m … not sure. It might have been. These English names …’
‘Well there,’ concluded Leo. ‘They’ve followed us back to Oxford, and if so, I don’t think they’re here for a social call. Was Scott-Petrie accompanied by anyone else, Waclaw?’
The Rothenian shook his head uncertainly. Leo looked at Martin, who shrugged. ‘Do you think it’s us they’re after? Are we in danger?’
Leo clenched his jaw. ‘I’m not sitting still to find out. I think we must get to Scott-Petrie before he gets to us. Waclaw, you need to be down the Ploughmen tonight and if you see Sandy, find out what he’ll tell you. This five-pound note should be all the incentive Sandy needs. If Scott-Petrie himself turns up, rush back and let us know.’
‘What’ll we do if he does appear?’
‘Why, talk Marty! What else?’