The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
‘What’s that, Pip?’
Philip Underwood flourished the yellowing copy of the Daily Mail he’d been reading. ‘Kate gave me this. Her aunt Edna was keeping it. It seems this Crowley feller is a real eccentric, Leo. He was living on Sicily in some ruined farmhouse which he called his abbey. The press says he conducted the vilest rituals and injected himself with cocaine. In the end old Mussolini had him expelled from Italy. Crowley regards himself as a powerful black magician, y’know, so you and Marty had better watch out. He might put a curse on you or something.’
‘Believe me, there’s a lot more about him even than that, stuff you simply would not credit. He’s a man without morality or integrity, just a desire for power over others and the satisfaction of his every physical whim. But he has at least two things going for him: he genuinely does believe in all this black-magic tosh he talks, and in his way he is a very considerable scholar.
‘I’ve got some of his books from Bodley. A couple of them had to be signed out from the restricted section at a special request. Once I opened them, I could see why.’
Pip digested Leo's information. ‘What about his connection with Scott-Petrie?’
‘Crowley’s notorious for being bisexual. I imagine he and Frank hit it off in some dive in Germany or France … what a grotesque thought.’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘From Maxim, believe it or not. Crowley is very well-connected and had a lot of money once. Before the war he moved in London society, where he and Maxim have literary connections in common. Maxim was on the phone to me for half an hour. He doesn’t like the sound of Crowley's involvement at all.’
Pip snorted. ‘I’ll bet he told you to keep well clear of him.’
‘Maybe he did. And I’ll listen to his advice. It’s Scott-Petrie I really want to talk to. He’s the sort of gentleman confidence-trickster who’s easy enough to work out, once you know how disreputable and mendacious he is.’
Martin piped up from the other side of their little drawing room. ‘Hmm. You did work him out quicker than I did, Leo dear.’
Pip rallied them. ‘Now here’s a thought. Frank spent ages weaselling his way into James’s good graces, then successfully married his sister off to him. If it had all gone well he would have been confidential secretary and brother-in-law to King Jakob of Rothenia. D’you suppose by now he’s come to the conclusion that he got a poor deal? James is broke and his political ambitions have collapsed. All that’s left to him are some very sleazy associates indeed.’
‘While I am still the prince of Thuringia and not short of a few bob. Are you thinking I might use my connections and wealth to lever him and James apart?’
‘I’ll bet he has his eye on the main chance even now. You can’t trust people like him.’
‘That’s the problem, isn’t it? We couldn’t trust Frank any more than James can.’
‘So if Waclaw spots him this evening down the Ploughmen, what are you going to do?’
Leo smiled across at Martin. ‘Send an ambassador to negotiate with him, as is the wont of princes.’
Although it had been quite a while since Martin had been in the Ploughmen, he found he had not missed its close and fetid atmosphere, the stink of brilliantine and testosterone. The barman gave him a brief nod of recognition, but none of his one-time squeezes chose to acknowledge him. Plump little Georgie Evans went so far as to glance over and cast what looked very like a sneer in his direction.
Martin discovered Frank Scott-Petrie seated in a dark corner and caught his eye. Scott-Petrie didn’t seem in the least surprised at Martin’s appearance and waved him over. Martin approached with a certain reluctance. The man however was all urbanity. It was as if Martin had been the friend he had most wished to see in Oxford.
Scott-Petrie was in no hurry to get to the point. He waffled on about the digging season at Old Hentzau, and his regrets at not getting across to see the progress at the site. Martin tried to match his insouciance, asking politely about the wedding of Caroline to James. Almost without noticing it – Frank was so smooth – Martin found the conversation had taken a turn towards business.
‘Yes, well it looks like I’m going to be an uncle. The baby is due in June. Caroline is not too happy about the arrangements. She wanted a private clinic in London, but James is adamant that it has to be born in Rothenia.’
‘I hear he’s sold the London house in any case.’
Frank gave him a sharp look from under his heavy brows. ‘The Depression is bad for the landowning aristocracy. Rent income’s down. Our place in Cheshire is running into a bad patch. Your prince seems to rise above it all, though.’
‘Leo’s grandfather saw the problems coming, I gather.’
‘James relied on his city brokers … they were telling him to buy right up to the end. Ah well, things will no doubt get better. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I was hoping you or Prince Leopold might still be coming here. I have a friend who would like to meet your prince.’
‘Respectable scholar and all … needs to get access to some Rothenian collections to further his researches, but those Rothenian aristos are so clannish and conservative.’
‘How do you think I can help?’
Frank looked at him narrowly. ‘You may be young, Mr Tofts, but you already have a reputation, not least in Rothenia. You can persuade your prince to open doors. Don’t pretend he can’t do it if he so chooses.’
Martin was becoming intrigued. ‘And who is this man who wants to dig into Rothenian archives, Frank?’
Scott-Petrie could not help looking shifty, if not downright embarrassed. It was clear to Martin that his association with Crowley was not necessarily to his liking. ‘He’s a scholar of the occult, quite famous in his way, a Dr Crowley.’
‘I don’t recognise the name.’ Martin was relishing this part of the interview. ‘Is he attached to any university?’
‘Er … no, no. He’s a private scholar. Very well published in his field.’
‘Perhaps you could point me to some of his better-known works.’
‘No doubt. But do you think …?’
‘Leo? Oh, I don’t know. I’ll certainly mention it to him. Which libraries were you trying to get access to?’
‘The Tarlenheim châteaux: Tarlenheim itself and the big place at Festenberh.’
‘And what is Dr Crowley looking for which is so important that it brought you both to Oxford?’
Scott-Petrie had mastered himself. ‘We’re in town for a number of reasons, but the fact that Prince Leopold is here is an opportunity too good to miss. So you will talk to him?’
‘You didn’t answer my question.’
‘You mean about Dr Crowley’s research? I believe there are a lot of papers concerning a seventeenth-century Rothenian count who was famous as an alchemist.’
‘And Crowley studies the history of alchemy?’
‘Yes, amongst other things.’
‘How did you and Crowley meet, Frank?’
‘It was quite some time ago now. I was in Berlin … on business, and we met up in …’
Scott-Petrie momentarily glared at Martin, then his expression changed to sheepish. ‘Perhaps. He’s an interesting fellow. Very knowledgeable about all sorts of stuff: classics, literature, anthropology, theology.’
‘Sounds like a bit of a Herbert Spencer.’
Scott-Petrie gave a brief grin at the comparison. ‘I don’t think either man would thank you for that, though they certainly both might claim to be polymaths. So, can you let me know what the prince says?’
‘How long are you in Oxford?’
‘Till the end of the week. I’m staying at Wadham, and Dr Crowley has work to do in Bodley.’
‘How can I contact you?’
‘You can ring the lodge and leave a message.’
‘He must have thought you pretty naïve, darling.’
‘I mean … Dr Crowley!’
‘That’s the problem with the likes of Frank Scott-Petrie. He’s so wrapped up in his own cleverness that he can’t admit anyone else has half a brain. Still, it was a bit breath-taking even for him.’
‘It also gives us a whopping great clue as to what he and his people are after: it’s Count Oskar the Great’s papers. Somewhere in them is the answer to all this mystery about Rothenia … or so at least they imagine. You’re not thinking of helping them out at all, are you?’
‘Good heavens, no! But I suspect there’s considerably more yet to be learned from Mr Scott-Petrie. And he seemed desperate to get into the Tarlenheim library?’
‘Of course the problem for us is that we can’t leave Oxford. I’ve got two tutorials this week and you’re supposed to be at the Ashmolean cataloguing the finds from Old Hentzau. I wish we could get back to Rothenia … I have to admit I did quite enjoy our time in the archives at Tarlenheim. Boring but thrilling in equal measures. And when we found Fenice’s manuscript …’
‘There’s not really much we can do about it other than frustrate Scott-Petrie in whatever way possible here. He and Crowley’ll never be allowed anywhere near Prince Franz’s papers, and I think he knows it too. Asking for your intercession was pretty much a long shot. I would guess that’s why they’ve been to London and why they’re here in Oxford. They’re trying to learn what else they can from two of Europe’s greatest libraries. Do you think there’s treasure to be found?’
Leo laughed and shook his head, then mused for a while. ‘Since they’ve decided against all the evidence that you and I are a couple of innocents at large in an adult world, we might lay a few … traps for them.’
‘Tell them what they want to hear. If they’re desperate to impress James or his shadowy backers, they’ll grasp at any straw. Besides, I have another idea I want to try out, though it’ll mean talking Maxim into it.’
‘You’re intriguing me, dearest.’
‘That was my intention. Now how about proposing dinner to Frank and the mysterious “Doctor” Crowley?’
Martin watched and marvelled at Leo’s new ability to use his royal status ruthlessly when it suited him – as it did that Thursday evening. He had booked a private dining room at the Randolph, and his guests were expected to wear black tie. Leo had pulled all the stops out, sparing no expense on wines, Havana cigars and the several courses of a sumptuous meal. Martin suddenly glimpsed what life with Leo might have been like had the prince not grown into the unassuming man his grandfather had worked to make him. Martin smiled to himself at his morning’s memory of a tousled and yawning Leo in his dressing gown, boiling an egg in the little kitchen of their house in Pusey Street.
Waclaw Corbichec had been dragged off – a little unwillingly – to an outfitters and measured up for a livery jacket in Thuringian red. He now stood against the panelling behind Leo, doing his best to look impassive. Martin noticed Scott-Petrie eyeing the sturdy young manservant appreciatively.
Leo had been acting the part of anyone other than the reserved and modest person Martin knew him to be. He had been uncharacteristically facetious and gossipy, casually dropping into the conversation names of such weight that it was if elephants had belly-flopped into a fishpond. ‘David’, ‘Balmoral’ and ‘Thelma’ made their appearances. Martin noticed that Prince George, on the other hand, did not.
Frank was predictably impressed. Crowley however was very difficult to read, seeming indifferent to the conversation and just staring with organ-stop eyes at his young host. He looked like nothing less than an aging Mussolini, with the same shaven head and jutting jaw. Martin wondered whether he was trying to employ his arcane powers to influence the prince in favour of his schemes.
Martin endeavoured to play the role of limp-wristed sycophant to the prince of Thuringia, the role in which he sensed Frank Scott-Petrie had already cast him. He thought he did it rather well, ostentatiously laughing at Leo’s wit and lighting his cigar for him. He nearly asphyxiated with the struggle not to laugh when he caught his lover’s mischievous eye through the smoke.
Scott-Petrie did very well to hold up his end of the conversation for as long as he did, but when the inevitable lapse came, Leo addressed his other guest directly. ‘I’m told, Dr Crowley, that you have clairvoyance and can commune with spirits.’
The man stared at Leo for a disconcerting length of time before answering in a strangely soft voice. ‘I see the Unseen, your royal highness. The air about us is thicker with spirits than tobacco smoke. They seem interested in you.’
Leo gave the man a long stare in return. ‘And why should that be, Dr Crowley?’
‘I sense you have the Gift. You have seen the Departed, have you not?’
Leo flushed but did not answer directly. ‘Frank says you have an interest in Count Oskar the Great of Tarlenheim, the Rothenian alchemical scholar.’
Crowley nodded. ‘Ascarius Aureus – as we call him – was one of the Five Great Western Mages, the last of whom was Cagliostro. I am his reincarnation.’ The blithe confidence and certainty of Crowley’s statement was quite unsettling. Martin caught a troubled expression on the face of Scott-Petrie, who was trying to assess the effect on Leo of the man’s obsession.
But Leo could also be imperturbable when he wished. ‘And what do you know of Count Oskar’s claim to be such a wizard?’
‘As much as is written in the secret books of the Order of the Dawn, which would be blasphemy to reveal around the dinner table. But it is well-known to the common man as much as to the Enlightened that the demon Amon-thoth revealed to the count the secret by which base metals may be made to gold, in return for which the count slaked the demon’s thirst for the lifeblood of a pubescent boy.
‘Oskar the Great had the power to summon spirits and demons and make them do his will. He studied under the last pagan shamans hiding in the fens and forests of Lithuania. He conjured up a bronze statue which prophesied the end of the world to Pope Alexander VII in the Lateran Palace, and it was for that the Holy Office condemned him to death.’
Leo sat back and took his cigar from his mouth. ‘I had heard some of these strange tales. Is it true he achieved eternal youth?’
Crowley became more intent. ‘That certainly is known, but the price was his soul, a debt collected by the great demon Ba‘al Zebûb himself in the year 1687 in the city of Strelsau.’
‘A powerful wizard indeed. What do you seek to find about him in the Tarlenheim papers?’
‘It was said that all his books and tracts were burned by his family, but it was revealed to me that such was not so. The count’s Golden Portifor – the record of his necromancy – was shown by the Marshal Prince of Tarlenheim to Cagliostro on his visit to the court of Rudolf III of Ruritania. The count’s papers and letters may still be there to be found.’
‘So it is in the interest of pure research that you wish to visit Rothenia?’
For the first time there was evidence of an internal struggle on Crowley’s face. To Martin he looked like a man on whom discretion had been urged, but whose every impulse was to talk without restraint. ‘He was a deep scholar of the occult and if his papers still exist they will be a remarkable addition to our knowledge of the Hidden.’
Leo gave a noncommittal smile. ‘As a student in this great university, I’m certainly in favour of scholarship.’
Scott-Petrie re-entered the conversation. ‘I’m sure a letter of introduction to Prince Franz will do the trick nicely. We would be so grateful if you could arrange this for us.’
‘I’ll give it some thought. Now, about brandy. Gentlemen?’
‘Waclaw checked at the Blue Boar this morning. Crowley’s left Oxford for London, but Scott-Petrie’s still at Wadham.’
Leo, just returned from his tutorial on Boethius, was scribbling notes at their kitchen table in Pusey Street. A bell-like hammering came from the ironworks at the back of the house, and the horn of a steam longboat hooted from the canal at the bottom of the road.
Martin looked across the table. ‘What do you think?’
‘There’s more to be got out of Frank … but he’ll have a price. So how do we go about it? If I talk to him I’ll have to put a deal to him, which I don’t want to do directly. But he’s still a bit smitten with you, Marty dear. You could tell it in the way he was gazing at your handsome face last night when he thought you weren’t looking.’
‘What? You want me to seduce him?’
Leo laughed. ‘You can’t seduce a man like Scott-Petrie. He assumes everyone is desperate to get into bed with him anyway, given half a chance. No, what I mean is that he’s sufficiently distracted by your undoubted charms to let things slip. Besides, we could tell he’s uneasy and embarrassed to be in Crowley’s company; he may want to show it by distancing himself from such eccentricity.’
Martin nodded. ‘It’s worth a try. I’ll send Waclaw along with a note to see if Frank’ll join me in the Horse and Jockey up the road for an afternoon drink.’
‘Good. I don’t have to tell you to be cautious.’
‘No. By the way, that thing Crowley said last night, concerning you and spirits. He took you aback, I could tell.’
‘You know the story about what happened in Ernsthof when I was eight, how I saw Oskar von Tarlenheim.’
‘It was more than that, wasn’t it?’
Leo sighed. ‘You’re beginning to read me too well, Marty. Yes, it was. We know Oskar’s appearance was part of some strange, supernatural scheme of things which has been tied up with the Crown of Tassilo since Queen Flavia’s time. Maxim and his father both felt it. Maxim tells me Oskar was dogging his footsteps all through his time in Rothenia. But what if Oskar is just one part of a greater scheme of things?’
‘The existence of St Fenice and her mysterious successors as Levites would appear to confirm it. Until Flavia’s time, the great women of Rothenia provided guardians for some unnamed mystery. It couldn’t have been the Crown during the period of Elphberg rule, for it was on the heads of the dukes and kings, an open sign of their power. No, it’s something else. Fenice herself hinted at it. There is a great and half-suspected spiritual power in Rothenia which has us all in its grip, I’m certain.
‘We know from Fenice’s prophecies that Queen Flavia was a Levite. It seems to me that in 1880, when she gave the Crown of Tassilo over to grandfather and Robert Rassendyll, Maxim’s father, she was working not so much for the Elphberg succession against the Thuringians as towards a bigger purpose: the succession of those future kings, the red-headed boy-warrior and that mysterious Golden Elphberg.’
‘And we too are pawns in the same game.’
‘Oh, undoubtedly. Don’t forget how much Oskar was interested in you, darling.’
‘As if I could. Talking and walking in the dark of night with a dead man is not something I’ll ever forget. All I can think of is the way his eyes shone when I finally saw him uncloaked.’ Martin looked troubled and introspective.
Leo went to kiss him, then called Waclaw in from the back garden where he was composting their planned potato patch.
Frank turned up promptly at the pub to join Martin in a back room. Urbane as ever, he expressed himself very gratefully on Leo’s dinner of the previous night.
Eventually he got round to the main issue. ‘Will the prince give us the reference we asked for?’
Martin shrugged. ‘Leo does what he wants without ever confiding in me. I have to tell you, however, that your companion did not make a very good impression.’
Frank sighed. ‘He is dreadfully intense, alas. What can I say? He is sincere and strangely gifted. He has done and said … all sorts of things I cannot account for.’
‘You believe in his gifts?’
‘Many people do, though lately he’s gone out of fashion.’
‘Wasn’t there some sort of Italian scandal a few years ago?’
‘The so-called abbey of Thelema, yes. You’ve done your research. When one of the postulants died drinking infected water, Crowley’s enemies – of whom he has a great number – made it look like an occult murder.’
Although taken aback at Scott-Petrie’s remarkable openness, Martin quickly moved to exploit it. ‘Frank, excuse me if I think there’s more to all this business than intellectual curiosity about a long-dead necromancer.’
There was no outrage expressed at all across the table. Instead, Scott-Petrie slumped. ‘Crowley is genuinely keen enough to know about that Oskar the Great.’
Martin caught a penetrating glance and felt a rising excitement. ‘This mustn’t go further, Tofts.’
‘I can’t guarantee I won’t tell Leo.’
‘Then no further than the prince. Fine. It’s this: James Rassendyll is mixed up with some pretty queer folk … in the usual sense of the word. Last year, not long before the disastrous episode at Strelsfurt, he fell in with a man called Arno Piotrowicz, one of Wardrinskij’s secretaries. The two of them immediately hit it off, cold fish both.
‘Piotrowicz is one of the inner members of the KRB’s most reactionary Catholic cells. He was training for the priesthood at the seminary in Glottenberh only two years ago, until he was expelled … well, you can guess why.’
Martin laughed. ‘You’ve slept with him.’
A wintry smile greeted that sally. ‘Maybe. He’s young, intelligent and insatiable. He must have had a good time amongst the other seminarians, though apparently his real interest was in the dormitory of the boarding school in the grounds, which is why he was thrown out, though it was covered up.’
‘And does James know all this?’
‘Hardly. To him, Piotrowicz is a fervent Catholic and an associate of Stefan Gulik. Piotrowicz is also a conduit to Cardinal Kraznoij, with whom he has some dubious connection. I can’t say I understand Rothenian church politics all that well.’
‘This Piotriwicz sounds shady and sinister, but so what? Many of Gulik’s people were like him. That sort of politics …’ Martin coloured and stopped in his tracks.
‘… attracts such people, you were going to say?’ Scott-Petrie’s response was smooth and he did not appear offended. ‘But Piotrowicz always struck me as the sort whose agenda was much broader than fascism. Not only did his little group fix on James very early, they seem as keen on him as ever despite Gulik's fall and Wardrinskij’s subsequent takeover. They sit in his study at Hentzau, drinking his Tavelner. I have little idea what the topic of conversation is, but I hear them going on about Rothenian legends, freemasonry and now this peculiar Tarlenheim wizard from the seventeenth century.’
‘Not your sort of thing, Frank?’
‘You know me. It’s all so tiresome, yet that’s how we got involved with Crowley. Those in the know say he’s the genuine article on the supernatural. He’s on his uppers, as may be apparent. James and his associates don’t care for respectability, however, so Crowley was invited over to Hentzau and he came. Ghastly.’
Scott-Petrie passed his hand over his brow. ‘It really is time I was back here in England. Look, I say, Tofts, you’re a young chap who knows people, not least Prince Leopold. I did regret giving up the BBC job. It was all for the Cause, y’know that.’
Martin wondered which ‘cause’ Scott-Petrie saw himself as serving. He assumed his guest meant right-wing politics.
‘Anyway, the thing is, I’d like very much to be back at Alexandra Palace. Now, I know you may be getting famous in the press as a bright young archaeologist, and you couldn’t pull it off for me. But you have friends who can … what say you have a word with King Maxim on my behalf?’
Martin was taken aback. This was not quite the conversation he had expected. ‘Well, I don’t really …’
‘Look at it this way. There are things going on in Rothenia that Maxim ought to know about. If, say, you and the prince fixed up a meeting for me with the king, we could chat about this and that, and who knows what might come out? It would be for everyone’s advantage.’
Martin stared. Leo had yet again read his man, who it seemed was prepared to sell out his tiresome associates for the right price. But would a man as scrupulous as Maxim Elphberg wish to deal with the likes of Frank Scott-Petrie?
Laszlo the chauffeur turned up the drive into Belsager priory. King Maxim and Queen Helga were waiting on the steps as the Bentley drew to a stop. Waclaw, hunched in the front seat next to Laszlo, had been very nervous about associating with the Belsager servants. He had by now been properly kitted out with a valet’s gear, including a Thuringian red waistcoat, although it had taken all Martin’s powers of persuasion to convince him that he did not look ridiculous in a bowler hat. There followed a moment of comedy as Waclaw stubbornly and silently tussled with Laszlo over who should open Leo’s car door. Waclaw, being the bigger man, won.
The king studiously ignored the contest between Laszlo and Waclaw. ‘Come in, come in, boys! And then maybe you can explain what it is you’ve got me into.’
Leo grinned and Martin looked sheepish. As they were passing through the entrance hall Maxim added, ‘By the way, we have another guest. I couldn’t put him off since you two gave me such short notice. Still, his connections with the British government may prove useful.’
When a footman opened the door, Leo gave a delighted whoop on sighting the elegant figure stretched on the sofa perusing the Times. ‘Georgie!’
‘Good to see you, Leo dear! And Martin too. Well met!’ The prince climbed to his feet and gave both a strong handshake.
The queen summoned what seemed to have been an afternoon tea delayed for their sake. They spent the time between eating sandwiches and Dundee cake talking about Pip, Kate and Sissi, Pip’s sister, now in finishing school in Switzerland. She had ambitions to follow Pip to university. Maxim gave a sly smile. ‘Though of course Sissi will have to matriculate at Cambridge. Oxford simply could not cope with both of them at the same time.’ Pip and Sissi had been conducting desultory warfare since she had become old enough to resent his patronising her.
Prince George seemed genuinely interested in Elphberg-family gossip, and was willing to extend that curiosity to Leo’s sister Vicky in Bari and even Martin’s little family in their Berkshire rectory. When he caught Martin’s eye he smiled and said, ‘If you’re one of Queen Victoria’s great-grandchildren, family connections are more a matter of survival than politeness, Master Tofts.’
It appeared his work at the Foreign Office was causing all sorts of problems. ‘Not that I’m in any way indiscrete, of course, but my superiors really have no idea how to deal with a royal who’s no more than a humble wage slave. You’d think they’d be pleased to have someone around whom they can blame for his family’s mistakes … like the British Empire, for instance.’
‘There’s no justice,’ Maxim agreed sagely. ‘Have you heard the latest from Rothenia? It looks like I’ll be making another sad trip there soon. Poor old Marcus Tildemann isn’t long for this vale of tears. He’s refused further treatment for his cancer and has gone home to die.’
‘Tildemann?’ commented a puzzled Prince George. ‘Wasn’t he the fellow who overthrew the monarchy?’
Maxim shook his head. ‘It wasn’t Marcus’s plan that should happen. The poor fellow simply recognised the people’s will to indulge in the fashion for republics and presidents. He’s an admirable man, and part of his greatness is the way he’s held Rothenia together. God alone knows who’ll follow him. A man of nowhere near his calibre, I'll warrant. Then what?’
Martin growled, ‘Not King Jakob Elphberg at least.’
‘Now that’s a strange story,’ Prince George continued. ‘That buck-toothed stiff posing as a demagogue and waving a pistol. It’d have been comic if the possible consequences hadn't been so terrifying … oops, sorry Maxim! After my lecture on the importance of family, I forgot the man’s your nephew.’
Maxim shrugged. ‘I’m afraid that’s a fact which slipped James’s mind too. When did you encounter him?’
‘He and his mother were at Clarence House once, just after he graduated if my memory serves me. He was at the season’s opening ball. I got pinned in a corner by the pair of them. It was awful. I don’t recall his coming up the next season. He'd already run off to Rothenia.’
Tea by then finished, Maxim ushered Leo and Martin into his study, excusing himself to Prince George by the necessity of talking to Leo about family business. They sat round a very welcoming fire in a room already lamp-lit as the winter afternoon quickly turned to dusk. ‘Now boys, let’s hear about this man Scott-Petrie. I won’t have him here, you know.’
Leo nodded. ‘Of course, sir. I didn’t expect you to, but he has what I think may be vital intelligence about the extent of James’s continuing machinations over the Crown of Tassilo. He tells us that James and his fascist cronies are pretty close to discovering something important about it.’
‘You know I myself have no idea now who is keeping it in trust for the future.’
‘Yes sir, we do. But you’re also aware that Count Oskar gave us reason to think that whoever is keeping it was in grave danger of discovery and maybe worse.’
Maxim pondered this while they sat quietly. The only sounds were the fire crackling in the hearth and the ormolu clock ticking from the mantelpiece. At last he smiled and said, ‘Now what is it you’re not telling me?’ He held up his hand. ‘Don’t deny it. The pair of you were pretty hopeless at concealing secrets when you were schoolboys, and you haven’t changed that much. There has to be more, or you wouldn’t be quite so agitated.’
Leo looked at Martin, and nodded. Martin took a deep breath, and began, ‘Well sir, it’s like this …’
Martin eyed up Waclaw, who stood uneasily behind Leo’s seat at dinner. Maxim kept the lavish Rothenian style at Belsager. There were a lot of servants, most of them native Rothenians. Behind each guest was a footman, while at the king’s right hand, presiding over the staff, was a domestic chamberlain splendidly accoutred in an olive-green and gold-laced coat.
Waclaw, detailed to serve his master Prince Leopold, wore the defiantly red-and-gold tail coat of a Thuringian servant. Martin felt for him. Waclaw was being given a crash course in the protocol of a royal household.
It was when he noticed Waclaw receiving some discrete tutoring from a rather good-looking teenage footman to his left that Martin’s sympathy cooled a little. The looks he caught between the two servants seemed to indicate that Waclaw had already made a conquest in the kitchens.
Perversely, Martin felt a little jealous in reaction. He forced himself to concentrate on the table. Georgie and Leo were in deep conversation, while Martin was between Helga and Sissi. Normally he had no trouble chatting with the queen, who had been kind and supportive to him as a boy, and seemed almost as proud of him as she was of Pip. Sissi for her part tended to play the coquette and sharpen her claws on him, though she knew that in Martin’s case there would be nothing more than a brotherly interest in her. But tonight his pleasure in their company paled a little. He was restive, and he thought he knew why.
There were things to be doing, and those things were happening in Rothenia, not Oxford. There was an itch in him to have adventures. His archaeology had been the first tremendous thrill, challenging his imagination and intellect. His sexual adventuring had offered a second intense surge of excitement, at least for a while, until Leo had taught him the costs that went with his cheap conquests in bed. But Leo had also opened up the door to a far more dangerous source of thrills: the great game of state and the perils of political conspiracy. And now there seemed an even more disturbing source of excitement beyond it: deep and immemorial mysteries reaching out from the past to trouble the present. However, for the moment Leo and he were stuck on the sidelines and could do no more.
Meanwhile, Martin struggled to be polite and attentive to his hosts, even if he could not rise to his usual cheeriness.
In the library Maxim had listened patiently as Martin explained their suspicions about James, Piotrowicz and his crew, not to mention Aleister Crowley. He did not argue against their interpretation of events, seeming indeed to agree with them, but he had been decidedly reticent regarding their request in favour of Scott-Petrie. He had made no decision, and they were only at Belsager for the weekend.
Maxim did not follow the old-fashioned ways after dinner. All the guests retired to the drawing room and listened to Helga play Schubert sonatas while Maxim and George smoked cigars.
In bed afterwards, Martin explained his unease to Leo, who responded, ‘I wonder if Maxim doesn’t think the same as you, dear. He was a man who once rode with armies, made plans which shook the chanceries of Europe and held a nation’s fate in his hands. Because he’s so quiet, collected and considered we tend to forget that he’s still that same man. Perhaps he itches to be at the heart of affairs despite his self-imposed retirement. The fact that we’re meddling in deep matters may well alarm him.’
‘It alarms me, Leo darling.’
‘We’ll just have to accept that there’s nothing we can do for the moment, though maybe soon …’
‘You’re being mysterious, Leo.’
‘I am, aren’t I. And talking of mysteries, tomorrow Georgie’s going to unveil his new boyfriend, who's coming down from London to join us for Sunday lunch.’
‘Do tell. I hope he’s a dish.’
‘Well, he’s not Georgie's usual society type apparently. A City man it seems.’
‘Where did they meet?’
‘He’s cagy about it ... Jermyn Street Baths, perhaps?’
‘From what I've heard it’s not a place for talking, so how …?’
‘So I understand. The mystery man must be quite something then.’