The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
‘I suppose it had to be he,’ observed Martin as they looked down from the gallery window of Belsager Priory at the man who had just stepped out of the taxi on to the gravel drive.
‘Hmm … Georgie always did have low tastes. Did I tell you about the blackmail Maxim had to get him out of when he became entangled with a renter a couple of years back?’
‘Georgie celebrated the end of his stint in the navy by going on the town. Fortunately for him, Portsmouth dock-gate boys really aren’t very knowledgeable about the world of high society. Otherwise it could have got very nasty.’
‘You mean the blackmailer didn’t recognise him?’
‘He’s not a well-known royal. The boy just thought he’d snared a posh lieutenant from the Atlantic Fleet and was threatening him with the Port Admiral.’
‘Look, here he comes. Bet they’ll kiss … oh, how disappointing, just a handshake. We’d better go down and act surprised.’
Leo and Martin clattered down the main staircase and caught Maxim’s bemused greeting of Prince George’s house guest. The guest waved at them over the king’s shoulder.
‘Yes dears! It’s me! I’ve got a prince too, Marty! And he’s British! I feel so patriotic I could wrap myself in the Union Jack.’
Prince George also was looking bemused. ‘You know this house, Eric?’
Maxim finally broke into a grin. ‘Mr Kirby is a friend of the family. No doubt he chose not to share that information with you to add to his own enjoyment of his arrival.’
‘And it’s lovely to be here again, sir.’ Eric grinned back. It seemed he and Maxim had made their peace. Maxim took him by the shoulder with a laugh and led them all into the lounge.
Leo sat next to George. ‘It’s just like Eric, he will have his fun. I’m so pleased. He’s really a lovely person once you get past the eccentricity.’
‘And how do you and Marty know him?’
Martin shook his head. ‘It’s a very long and sordid story.’
Eric broke in. ‘Leave me to tell the sordid bits! I love those parts!’
Leo shushed him. ‘Later. After lunch. You are a case, Eric.’
Maxim looked rather boyish as he surveyed the room. Leo had noticed in the past how the king’s spirits tended to rise in situations others would have found stressful or even embarrassing. He rang for the queen, who had adopted Eric.
She was evidently delighted to find him in her reception room once more. She kissed him and sat next to him. This also surprised Leo, who'd never really imagined him making any woman feel motherly, but Eric plainly revelled in the petting and attention.
Prince George was still looking bemused.
Eric’s grin broadened. ‘Did I miss mass, dears?’
‘Impeccably timed as ever.’ Leo shook his head. A priest had come from Dorking that morning to celebrate mass for the king and queen in Belsager’s private chapel.
‘You were going to tell me how you knew Eric,’ asserted Prince George.
Maxim smiled and nodded at Martin.
‘Oh very well, but not with Maxim here. Sorry sir, but some of it’s … confidential.’
The queen laughed. ‘Go up to the library then, my dears. It will be an hour yet till lunch.’
The story was soon told, despite Eric’s constant interruptions and elaborations. ‘No, I did not do that!’ Martin protested at one of his exaggerations. ‘No one could. It’s impossible.’
‘But it was fun that night, wasn’t it?’
Leo looked unconvinced. ‘Only in retrospect. I’m amazed we got away with it. It was an incredibly stupid thing to have done. However, we were naïve and more than a little drunk.’
George shook his head. ‘You might give me the address.’
‘Now, now!’ Eric laughed. ‘Certainly not. Besides, the police shut it down on one of their recent purges. The Depression has put a lot of boys on the streets. They say the Home Office is alarmed enough to mobilise the Met. You have to be careful. Cottaging is getting more dangerous than ever. They send sweet young officers into the pissoirs to entice one to do what comes naturally, and the next thing you know you’re in Bow Street Magistrates’ Court being disapproved of and claiming it was all an unfortunate misunderstanding.’
It was Leo’s turn to be curious. ‘So tell me about you and Eric, Georgie.’
His cousin gave a tight smile. ‘It was my turn to be reckless. I met him at a soirée in Maxim’s townhouse. He failed to mention he was there as a friend of the king’s. I assumed he was some sort of literary connection. He dragged me off to the baths and we had … an interesting time with several partners.’
Eric smirked happily. ‘It was a good night at Jermyn Street.’
George shook his head. ‘I did enjoy it, I’ll admit. It’s been a while. Since I’ve left the Navy the family have become very … concerned about me.’ He gave a shrewd glance at Leo. ‘It must be familiar to you already, Leo. Believe me, it will be worse as you get older. “When are you going to settle down?” “Have you thought about the future?” Even David’s at me, and the king …!’
‘And he has no suspicions?’
‘David knows, of course. But the gossip columns are happy enough to link me with any number of society flappers, and that distracts from my occasional odd – very odd – adventure.’ George smiled and squeezed Eric’s thigh.
When the two men’s eyes met, Martin seemed to glimpse something new in Eric’s expression, a certain happy docility he had never seen there before. Martin was suddenly very sad for him. Glamorous, feckless and handsome, George could never maintain any relationship, just the thing Eric apparently thought he had finally found.
‘Very well, Leo. I have talked to friends at Alexandra Palace, and the BBC will be willing to employ Mr Scott-Petrie on at least a short-term basis.’
‘Thank you, sir. I realise you must have found that hard. I do think it will be a sacrifice worth making.’
‘How are you going to manage this, my dear?’
‘He’s still in Oxford … I wonder actually if he has anywhere else to go at the moment, since he’s cutting his links with James and that man Piotrowicz.’
‘I heard his family’s place in Cheshire has been sold to pay off debts. He has no income, so I imagine his dining rights at Wadham may be all there is between him and starvation. I should think that, if you and Martin interview him, you will have all the cards. So get what you can out of him.’
Leo stood and shook the king’s hand. As he was about to leave, Maxim held him back. ‘I’m not happy about it, Leo, but I have also done what you asked. Next Thursday at midday you need to be at Bicester airfield, where the transport will be waiting. Colonel von Tarlenheim will pilot you himself.’
‘Thank you, sir, that’s exactly what I had hoped for.’
Leo looked earnestly at his guardian. ‘I will be, sir. But believe me when I say that what we are going to do was intended … I don’t know how or why, but this affair was meant for me and Marty to resolve.’
‘Well met, Mr Scott-Petrie, how are you?’
‘I … hadn’t expected to see you, your royal highness.’
‘Martin told me what you had to say last week. It seemed to me I must get involved, so here I am.’ Having decided to meet Scott-Petrie on his own territory, Leo was perched on a chair in the senior common room of Wadham College. At ten in the morning, there were no fellows around to be offended by the presence of an undergraduate in their sanctuary, even if he was a royal prince.
Scott-Petrie looked momentarily taken aback, but he rallied. ‘I assume you know all about what Martin and I discussed.’
‘Yes, and since then I’ve had a conversation with my guardian. He has – as you know – many friends in the BBC and was willing to take soundings on your behalf. It seems they’d be happy to hire you once again in your old position.’
‘The Features department?’
‘So I believe.’
When Scott-Petrie looked both relieved and gratified, Leo moved to take advantage of the mood of the moment. ‘You told Martin you had some disturbing information about James and Piotrowicz. Since you are quitting their cabal at Hentzen, perhaps you could enlighten us about its intentions.’
Scott-Petrie’s expression shifted back again to one of anxiety. There was a definite unease about him, even fear. Leo began to suspect he was not merely frustrated at what was going on in Rothenia, but frightened.
‘Perhaps you might tell me a little more about this man, Arno Piotrowicz?’
Scott-Petrie gathered himself. ‘He’s a strange fellow. The oddest thing about him was how well he and Crowley got on once they were introduced. It was as if they’d met before, though Arno denied it. Not only that, but Crowley behaved as if Arno was an initiate in one of his occult groups. They seemed to share a common reference, if you can imagine such a thing.’
‘Perhaps I can. Whatever one may think of Crowley, he has a mesmerising effect on those around him, which can only be because he has an intuitive grasp of what makes those people tick. I imagine so-called mediums and clairvoyants have much the same gift or ability to impose – whatever you wish to call it.’
‘I fear there is more to it than that. However, let us accept what you say for now, sir. Lord Burlesdon is a simple man in many ways, and appears not to grasp quite how sinister are his associates. They represent themselves to him as monarchists and patriots out to restore the Elphberg dynasty.’
‘But you don’t believe them.’
‘No sir. Nor do I believe the interests of the KRB movement are uppermost in their minds. They have their own agenda.’
‘And what would that be, Frank?’
‘Lord Burlesdon wants to find the Crown of Tassilo.’
‘I know that.’
‘Yes, well, no doubt you do, sir. So indeed do young Arno and his associates. However, they have different reasons. James wants the Crown so he can renew his bid for the throne of Rothenia, whose people are much more likely to accept him with that talisman in his possession, as we are aware. For James it’s a matter of pure dynastic politics – well, perhaps not so pure. There is the matter of his hatred of King Maxim.’
‘But Arno and his cell have a different purpose?’
‘So I believe, sir. It is clear to me they think the Crown might lead them to other treasures. They say they intend to restore the Elphbergs, but in reality they just want James’s help and finance to gain for themselves the Crown and whatever else is to be found with it.’
‘You don’t think it’s because they’re art thieves, I take it.’
‘No sir. Far from it. It was Arno who suggested we take on Crowley as a consultant, and it was I who was sent to negotiate terms with him. Frankly, I believe they just wanted me out of the way. It was for the same reason they sent me with Crowley to Oxford. They have Lord Burlesdon firmly under their thumbs by now.’
‘Aren’t you alarmed for your sister in that case?’
Scott-Petrie gave an indifferent shrug. ‘Caroline can look after herself, believe me. The point is that Arno Piotrowicz has revealed himself as something of a devotee of the black arts. He could meet Crowley on equal terms.’
‘How do you know this?’
‘There’s the Oskar the Great business. Piotrowicz knows a remarkable amount about him and his activities. It’s quite impressive for such a young chap. I have a feeling Cardinal Kraznoij opened some doors to him at the Vatican Library. In the seventeenth century, the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition became very interested in old Oskar. He only escaped because the Secretary, Cardinal Barberini, was influenced on his behalf by King Rudolf I. But I imagine the Inquisition’s papers still have much to say about Oskar’s activities.’
Scott-Petrie subsided into a troubled gloom. Leo waited patiently for him to resume his narration. ‘Once Crowley arrived at Hentzen, he and Piotrowicz would disappear into a tower with a bottle of whiskey for hours at a time. It was as they huddled together over his notes that they decided to try to get into the Tarlenheim archives.’
‘And what are they looking for?’
‘It’s this Golden Portifor, which Crowley is convinced still exists.’
‘What’s so important about it?’
‘Crowley believes it contains rituals and incantations of great power. Furthermore, Piotrowicz has an account of Oskar the Great’s stay at Prague in 1676 written up by the rector of the university for the Holy Office.’
‘Do you know what it says?’
‘No. But from their mutterings, it seemed to describe a source of power the count was able to draw upon, a secret talisman greater than any other known in the world.’
‘And this is what they are really after? Do you know anything more about it?’
‘Only that it is concealed deep in the heart of Rothenia.’
‘What about the Crown?’
Scott-Petrie took on a cautious air. ‘What is there to know? Isn’t it in a bank vault in England?’
‘Do you believe that, Frank?’
‘Piotrowicz believes it’s still in Rothenia. He thinks the talisman and the Crown are linked.’
Leo pondered this. It seemed he had learned all he could from this man. But one more question occurred to him. ‘The skull badges Piotrowicz and his men wear. What is the reason for them?’
‘Some Catholic nonsense. James told me it was a symbol associated with St Fenice. They had a lot to say about her too. They’re very interested in her stay at the abbey of Medeln.’
‘Very well. That seems to be everything, then. I expect you’ll be wanting to get off to London.’
‘Yes … yes, indeed. It’s just …’
‘Could you lend me twenty quid?’
‘And you gave it to him? I can’t get over it!’
‘Call me a fool …’
‘You’re a …’
‘Shut up, Pip!’ Martin shouldered his duffel bag. ‘Are we ready?’
‘Got everything, Waclaw?’
‘Then into the car, and off we go.’
Waclaw took the wheel of the Bentley touring saloon they had borrowed for the day from one of Pip’s more well-heeled friends. They stopped on the Banbury Road to pick up Kate, who was waiting on the verge muffled up against the cold in an old fur coat smelling rather of mothballs, as Martin unwisely observed.
They were in Bicester in time for an early lunch. Pip took a deep gulp of his pint. ‘So what’s the plan?’
Everybody looked at Leo. ‘Your Uncle Henry is waiting with his plane to fly us to a private airfield near Hofbau.’
‘And then …?’
‘You’re being mysterious, Leo.’
‘I know. Irritating, isn’t it?’
‘Why the secrecy?’ Kate gave Leo a lopsided look, the same one she used to curb Pip in his wilder moments.
‘There’s a reason. You’ll find out before we land in Rothenia.’
‘Fine then. Be mysterious. It’s a sign of an immature mind, you know.’
‘So they say. But I like surprises and I assume my dear friends do too. Isn’t that right, Marty?’
‘As you say, Leo.’
Kate grumped, ‘You know, don’t you Martin.’
‘You wouldn’t be grinning like that if you didn’t. If it turns out you know too, Pip my darling, your life won’t be worth living.’
Pip hid his reaction behind a bland smile.
‘I wish Waclaw were coming with us.’
‘He has to take the car back, Kate. Besides, with two stalwarts like Pip and Martin in our midst, I can’t see that we’ll be short in the muscle department. In any case, what dangers there are will be of a different sort, I rather suspect.’
‘More mystery, Leo.’
‘Yes, indeed. Now eat up, we have to get on. Henry von Tarlenheim awaits.’
Although Bicester airfield was a military installation, there had been no difficulty about a Rothenian aeroplane landing there. Colonel von Tarlenheim was well-known to the flying world and had friends everywhere. His silver Falke 12 monoplane was parked near one of the huts, where several RAF personnel were eyeing it curiously.
Waclaw took the car over to the plane and unloaded the bags. Pip went shouting for his uncle, who emerged from the control room smiling, talking to an RAF group captain. Henry von Tarlenheim, now in his early thirties, was as slim, youthful and handsome as ever. The perpetual cigarette jutted from a corner of his mouth.
‘God, he’s a dish,’ Kate muttered in Martin’s ear.
Martin had to agree. ‘And doesn’t he look gorgeous, even in oily overalls?’ he muttered back.
‘Hmm? What’s that?’ asked Pip.
‘Nothing, dear,’ Kate blithely replied.
Henry walked over and shook hands all round. Pip got an especially strong grip, as he was the colonel’s favourite nephew. Pip indeed had long hero-worshipped Henry, to the extent that he had caused Queen Helga a lot of anxiety over his teenage ambition to join the Rothenian air force. It had been Henry himself who talked the boy out of the Rothenian military academy of Alfensberh and into Oxford.
‘If you’re ready, so is my plane,’ he exclaimed in Rothenian. ‘It’s a new Falke. Heated cabin with proper seats. They’ll be fitting bathrooms next. Oh, by the way, if you need to go, now’s the time. It’ll be a four-hour flight to Hofbau. I’ll be piloting it some of the way, but I have a co-pilot. That way, once we’re in the air, I can come back to chat. It’ll be nice to catch up. I haven’t seen you for some while, Leo my boy.’
The cabin was indeed comfortable, with twelve passenger seats. They each sat by a window and watched excitedly as the plane took off. Despite never having flown before, Kate seemed not in the least nervous as the Falke’s engines sputtered into life, and the machine began to bump across the grass to the runway.
It took a while for them to get accustomed to the sensation of flight. Kate and Pip in particular stared down with deep interest at the English landscape unrolling below them. Not until they sighted the blue and sparkling waters of the Channel did they settle into the business at hand.
‘Tell all, Leo,’ insisted Kate.
‘Since you’re not going to let it go, I will. We – or at least Marty and I – are of course going on to Festenberh to continue our researches into Tarlenheim history. You two are expected for the long weekend at Templerstadt, aren’t you?’
‘There’s more, though.’
‘You really are a nosy woman.’
‘We have to ask questions of the colonel.’
‘Is that it?’
The cabin door opened and, as if on cue, a smiling Colonel von Tarlenheim emerged from the cockpit. He perched on a seat and asked them how they were enjoying the flight. They chatted a while before Leo expressed a wish to see the cockpit.
Taking the vacated co-pilot’s seat, Leo listened attentively as the controls were described to him. At length he interrupted. ‘Colonel?’
Henry halted in the middle of his lecture on altimeters, surprised.
‘I’d appreciate a few words in private, sir. It’s about your ring.’
‘My ring, Leo?’
‘The one you’re wearing on your left hand.’
‘My class ring? It’s the one I got from Alfensberh.’
‘I believe the silver one means you graduated as top of the year.’
‘Your uncle Oskar won it in his day too.’
‘Yes, so I believe. Excuse me, Leo, but what’s this about?’
‘What would you say if I told you that Oskar’s tarnished class ring appeared at Hentzen in the place where my grandfather had once concealed the Crown of Tassilo?’
‘Yes. I think you know how the late Count Oskar had a way of meddling in the affairs of Rothenia and indeed your family. That ring was supposed to have been buried with him in 1880.’
Although Henry von Tarlenheim remained silent, his look had gone from one of friendliness, to tolerance and now to suspicion. Leo noticed that his grip on the control stick was making his knuckles white.
Leo continued, ‘My grandfather had all sorts of ideas what the discovery of that ring signified. But he was convinced it meant that the keeper of the Crown was in danger of some sort. Now I’m not so sure. Let me tell you what I think.
‘At some time in the early days of the republic your late uncle, General von Tarlenheim, handed on to you a circular green box bound with brass. He told you what was in it, and how you were to guard it with your life for the future of Rothenia.
‘You are a Tarlenheim and know your duty to the king and your country. You pledged yourself to the task, only to find you had a problem. You were an active officer in the air force and travelled everywhere. You weren’t sure what to do, until finally a solution occurred to you. There was a place where the box might be easily and safely concealed: the abbey of Medeln, a sanctuary closely involved with the history of your own family and that of the Elphbergs. Where better to hide the box and the dynastic treasure it contained? Not only that, but with your family home just a few miles away, it would be easy for you – despite your busy life – to keep an eye on the abbey.’
Leo finished and folded his arms. Henry stared ahead at the sky and clouds. Eventually he said, ‘You’re mistaken if you think I’m the keeper of the Crown of Tassilo. I’m sorry Leo, but your fancies have carried you away.’
Leo nodded. ‘I hardly expected you to say any different. But there is more. There is no doubt in my mind the Crown is concealed in the abbey, and I think I know exactly where. Right under the shrine of St Fenice.’
‘Why on earth do you think the abbess would allow me to do that?’
‘Because Mother Maria Nativitata is your aunt, the youngest daughter of Prince Franz III. Of course she would help you. She’s a firm friend of King Maxim’s, and would be very willing to have Rothenia’s greatest treasure in her keeping. But the point it is this, colonel: it’s no longer safe there. James Rassendyll and his associates are in pursuit of it. They are interested not only in Medeln but in your family as well.’
‘Leo … for heaven’s sake!’
‘The danger is real, colonel. You must take me seriously.’
There was another period of silence. The plane droned and vibrated under them. Finally Henry mused, ‘Supposing … just for a moment … you’re right, what are you suggesting I do?’
‘That’s up to you. The important thing is to remove the Crown to a safer place, as soon as you possibly can.’
‘I’ll think about it, Leo.’
‘That’s all I want you to do.’
Leo left the seat and returned to the cabin. Martin met him with raised eyebrows, to which Leo replied with a shrug.
A February drizzle filled the air as Henry’s car drove them up the drive to Templerstadt. The colonel had been subdued since their landing at Hofbau. His four young companions chatted away, pretending not to notice.
They parted without a word after the family civilities. Kate disappeared with Countess Sissi to discuss marriage matters. The three boys assembled in the drawing room.
‘So he wouldn’t rise to your bait?’
‘No, Martin. But then I didn’t think he would. Still, maybe he’s nervous enough now to worry about the Crown.’
‘Does the abbess know what he hid there?’
‘I wonder. She’s a remarkable woman. Did you know that when she was a girl she was a maid of the bedchamber to the late Queen Flavia?’
Martin shook his head, then stared. ‘You mean, you think she might be a Levite?’
‘I’m pretty sure that’s exactly who she is.’
‘My word, Leo! Then she’s the person we need to talk to, isn’t she?’
‘Perhaps, but I doubt we’d get anything out of her. Why would the guardian of the secret of the ages spill everything to three overcurious undergraduates? No, we need to find out a lot more before we seek out the mother abbess.’
‘And we have only till Tuesday to do it.’
‘Yes,’ added Pip, ‘I have the varsity rugby fixture on Wednesday.’
‘We’re off to Festenberh in the morning. Your grandpapa is loaning us his car. We have another archive to search.’
‘The Golden Portifor?’