The Crown of Tassilo 3
THE UNNATURAL ARCHEOLOGIST
‘I’m impressed. It reminds me of … what’s the place? Chatsworth?’
‘Except Festenberh’s got a much longer front and it’s on a hilltop. Very dramatic.’
‘So tell me how the Tarlenheims got it.’ Martin composed himself to listen.
‘It was in the reign of Rudolf III. The original owner of Festenberh kidnapped the king’s sister – the Princess Osra who’s buried at Medeln – and raised the flag of rebellion. The story goes that the bishop of Modenheim, one of the less wild members of the Hentzau dynasty, got admittance to the house – more of a castle then – and killed the count of Festenberh in a sword fight. The king offered the house to the bishop, but he turned it down, so then Rudolf rewarded the loyal Tarlenheims with a grant of the place and its forest.
‘When the Marshal von Tarlenheim succeeded to his family estates, he used a lot of the plunder from his wars to rebuild Festenberh in the grand classical style. I think he wanted to rival the Duke of Marlborough’s palace of Blenheim. It must be a bit of a liability to them nowadays. Although staff costs more, the Tarlenheims like to maintain the old ways. I intend to keep things at a more modest level in Heilbrod, believe me, dear.’
The two young men paused at the end of a tree-lined walk below the great house. There had been unusually little snow that winter in Rothenia, but the trees were denuded and the forest scenery was bleak. Martin adjusted his scarf to deal with the icy blast which was scouring the hill of Festenberh. Eventually he suggested they return indoors to continue work. There was no sign of Pip, who had been delegated to engage the attention of his cousins in the Tarlenheim family in order to deflect it from Leo and Martin.
The library at Festenberh was almost as long as a gallery. Tall windows alternated with presses so high they had inbuilt ladders to reach the books on the upper shelves. Martin and Leo soon found their hopes of any worthwhile discovery dwindling. The place was just too enormous, yet they felt reluctant to ask the librarian direct questions.
Martin had suggested a strategy that they should inquire about the Tarlenheims and King Rudolf I, pretending they were researching a dissertation as part of their degree work. They could only hope the librarian didn’t know that Oxford included no dissertations in its undergraduate assessment. The librarian had been very helpful, but only in piling up an unlikely number of printed books dealing with the reign of the first Rudolf of Ruritania.
Martin decided on more direct tactics after their break from work. ‘Dr Gregoricij? It seems to me that Count Oskar I of Tarlenheim was a key character in the reign.’
‘Oskar the Great? Not really. I don’t believe he spent much time at the Ruritanian court. He lived abroad for much of his life. The Tarlenheim estate underwent some dilapidation in his day; he was very much an absentee landlord. Count Sergius III had a lot to do to retrieve the family fortune, I believe.’
‘We’d really like to look at any books and papers of Count Oskar's you might have.’
The librarian appeared put out. ‘Really? I thought you were interested in politics. Well, if you must. His estate documents are out at Tarlenheim, and I’m not entirely sure …’
Dr Gregoricij excused himself and left, asking for an hour to check through the catalogues. Leo and Martin stared at each other. Leo shrugged.
But the librarian returned well within the hour and beckoned the two to follow him. He led them along a passage and into a study, where he indicated several small cardboard boxes. ‘That’s all we have from the time of Oskar the Great.’
‘Are they his personal papers?’
‘There are some of his books, and a collection of letters bound into a guard book. Not very much really.’
Martin glanced at Leo with that peculiar look he acquired when a discovery was in the offing. His eyes widened and a small smile took possession of his mouth,
Leo grinned back. ‘You’ve got that feeling again, haven’t you?’
Martin watched Dr Gregoricij disappear before pointing at the bottom box. ‘In there,’ he whispered.
Leo opened the container and pulled out several folio books, all bound in black leather stamped in gold with the arms of Tarlenheim. After lining them up, the two stood over them as Martin opened each volume to its title page.
There were four of them. One was in both English and Latin: Mysteriorum Libri Quinque or Ye Five Bokes of Misteries by Dr John Dee, published at Louvain, as Martin noted. The others were in Latin: the Maior et Minor Claves Salomonis regis; the Libri Tres de Occulta Philosophia by Henricus Agrippa, and a slimmer volume marked Tractates de Chrysopeia Alchemica.
Leo pondered a moment. ‘At first sight, just what you’d expect to find in the library of a seventeenth-century alchemist and Hermeticist.’
‘Nothing significant then?’ Martin’s tone showed disappointment.
‘I didn’t say that. These must have been pulled off the shelves of the Tarlenheim library and boxed away safely, for the sake of the family reputation. When I was researching Crowley’s works in the Bodleian these very titles came up, I’m quite sure. But there is something odd about them. I’d not seen mention of that edition of Dee’s book and … this collection of alchemical tracts is peculiar.’ Leo picked up the volume and riffled the yellowing pages. ‘Sendivogius, I know. But this Greek work … oh, my! Good heavens!’
‘What is it?’
‘Well, it’s entitled the Alchemica of Stephanos Aigyptos. I suppose it means Stephen of Alexandria, and the diagrams are what you’d expect, but the text’s not even in Greek! It uses the Greek alphabet alright, but the words … they’re in a mixture of Old Rothenian and English, of all things!’
‘Is it the Golden Portifor?’
‘I can’t say for sure … not really knowing what a Golden Portifor might look like. I’d have said no, because the Portifor was a journal and I suppose would have been in manuscript; this is printed and made to look like something other than it is.’
‘Secrets!’ Martin’s eyes were shining.
‘Get a pencil, darling, we have a lot of work to do. I’ll dictate and you write.’
‘Of them all, this last one seems the most relevant, but it’ll take some thinking about.’ Martin closed the bound volume of Count Oskar the Great’s correspondence. He put away his pencils in the slim wooden box he had been using since his Medwardine days.
Night had fallen outside the windows of Festenberh. They were all three to stay that night in the great house, and would soon need to change for dinner. The prince of Tarlenheim was in the capital, but Princess Louisa was in residence at Festenberh with the children, for whom Leo, always gentle and full of fun, had long been a favourite. The young Count Maxim Rudolf of Tarlenheim, the ten-year-old heir to the estate, was determined to learn more about English cricket, so they ended up playing several overs with a softball in the long gallery, assisted by Counts Paul and Hugo, his little brothers.
‘I insisted to mama that I should go to your English school, Leo!’ the handsome boy proclaimed. ‘You, Pip and Martin had such fun there!’
Leo winked at Martin as he agreed with the count. ‘But you know, you won’t be able to take your mama with you, boys.’
This came as a shock to young Hugo, who seemed distressed at the idea. ‘I shan’t go, then.’
‘I expect it’ll be Alfensberh for you all … that’s where our family usually goes,’ Pip reminded them.
‘No,’ asserted Count Maxim Rudolf, ‘Cousin Welf went to the Rudolfer and learned ever so much. He’s a professor, you know.’
‘But I want to go to Alfensberh and be a soldier, or maybe a pilot like Cousin Henry,’ objected Paul.
‘Or a general,’ added little Hugo hopefully.
Just then the bell rang for dinner and the three boys scampered off to the nursery, while Martin and Leo went to change.
‘I trust your visit has been worthwhile, my dears?’ asked the princess over the soup.
‘Oh yes, ma’am,’ agreed Martin. ‘Some dead ends, but we found interesting material amongst Count Oskar the Great’s books.’
The princess raised an eyebrow. ‘Franz wanted to name one of our boys Oskar, but I wouldn’t have it.’
‘It’s an ill-omened name in our family. Both the Oskars of Tarlenheim came to a bad end. The first – well, you know the story about the deal with the devil and the black coach. Then his grandson … he was killed in a duel.’
‘Wasn’t your husband’s uncle an Oskar?’
The princess rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, well we know all about him, Martin. And the less said the better.’ Martin blushed despite himself.
Pip cut in smoothly, ‘We Tarlenheims of Templerstadt keep up the name, don’t we? Welf’s elder brother was an Oskar, and Welf called his son after him. Young Oskar Maxim is a fine young fellow, quite a teenager now.’
‘It’s just not a name fit for a prince of Tarlenheim, or in my opinion it isn’t. There is a family legend that no lord of Tarlenheim called Oskar will prosper. It’s a name best avoided. Franz was easily persuaded in the end to call our eldest Maxim Rudolf. The king was happy to be godfather, and you know how those two got on so well in the good old days. How I miss the court at the Osraeum. What were the people thinking of when they voted out the monarchy.’
‘I do believe they regret it now at least,’ Leo remarked.
‘“I told you so” is cold consolation,’ the princess returned.
‘Amen to that at least,’ agreed Pip.
The princess paused, and then changed tack. ‘So, Martin, tell me about your discoveries.’
He cursed internally, for he had hoped he had headed off Princess Louisa’s curiosity. But he smiled innocently enough. ‘There is a collection of his letters to his wife and agents in Ruritania. They have something to say about the troubled times in Eastern Europe, with the Turks at the gates of Vienna. Didn’t King Rudolf II lead an army to the relief of Austria?’
‘So he did, and his son, Henry the Lion, led the counterattack against the Ottomans in Styria. You’ve seen the statue in the Rudolfs-platz, or Rodolferplaz as we have to call it nowadays.’
Martin realised that the princess had a troubling curiosity about and knowledge of Rothenian history, so there was nothing for it; he had to offer details, or at least ones which might deflect her. ‘Most of the letters were written from abroad in the early 1670s. There’re some from England, some from Bohemia and some from Rome. Mostly they’re requests for supplies. The poor countess had to run his estates in his absence and deal with the moneylenders.’
The princess sighed. ‘That was the way it was with men in those days, especially noblemen. And didn’t he ever tell her how much he was missing her and the children?’
Martin gave a regretful shake of his head. ‘I’m afraid he doesn’t appear to have been very affectionate. Perhaps it was his day and age, or maybe he was just too much of an intellectual.’
‘That’s not an excuse. Welf von Tarlenheim is as scholarly a man as you might hope to meet, yet he’s a fine husband and father.’
‘As you say, highness. One can see from the letters how it was that old Oskar left his family affairs in such a mess when he died.’
The princess seemed satisfied that it was proved in her eyes that the notorious Oskar the Great had indeed been as big a scoundrel as his reputation indicated. She moved on to current politics, much to her guests’ relief.
Martin tapped on Leo’s bedroom door as soon as he was sure the house was quiet. He slipped quickly inside, to be welcomed with smiling passion. It was some while before there was any need for words, other than whispered directions and intimacies. Later, sitting up sated in bed, they spread Martin’s neat transcripts on the counterpane in front of them. Feeling the cold, Leo had draped a shawl across their shoulders and, wrapping an arm round Martin’s waist, hugged his lover close.
‘You dealt with Princess Louisa deftly, darling. That wicked old Count Oskar. She didn’t approve of him one little bit.’
‘So let’s talk about what we really found, because it’s not straightforward at all. This last letter was the only one not to his wife. It’s been kept because it lists the pledges the count had entered into in Prague for six thousand florins, reckoned against his estates and some family jewels.’
Martin gave a laugh. ‘For a man who supposedly turned lead into pure gold, his finances were a bit desperate, wouldn’t you say?’
Leo returned the amusement. ‘Poor fellow. It may well explain why he was quite so keen on transmuting base metals. It was about the only hope he had of restoring his fortunes. But it’s this passage at the end, where he lists the places he will visit on his return to Rothenia. He intends to go to Ranstadt, thence to Belvoir castle in the forest of Glottenberh, and from there to Medeln to consult the abbey’s archives and finally home to Tarlenheim.’
‘All places associated with St Fenice, as it so happens.’
‘Yes, and clearly this is no coincidence, because of what we found in the coded section of the Chrysopeia Alchemica.’
Martin riffled through his notes. ‘He’d discovered those same prophecies in St Fenice’s notebook as we did. Here’s a copy of the list of the Elphbergs, with his own notes. He identified the first Rudolf alright, and made some rather clever calculations on the basis of lengths of reigns. He puts Flavia right where she should be, in the middle of the nineteenth century.
‘But here’s the interesting thing. His notes shift to English at the end and he writes: “The last mentioned of these future Elphbergs is a man of golden hair, not red as is often the case with that noble house. Now whether or not this man may be the last Elphberg, he stands counterweight to the golden-haired One who is at the root of the story, in the heart of the greater mysteries of the kingdom of Ruritania: vide inter secretioria.”
‘“See amongst the more hidden things”,’ Martin translated. ‘Do you think that’s an allusion to his Golden Portifor?’
‘Very possibly. And according to Oskar we have a final mystery, a Golden One at the beginning and end of the Elphberg story. Now what on earth can we make of that? But here’s the real point, dearest. Oskar was well aware of St Fenice’s prophecies and their importance. He must have been intending to pursue her trail across the country, so he hadn’t found the core of the mystery at the time he wrote this letter. What’s the date of it by the way?’
‘Umm. The twenty-second year of Rudolf II king of Ruritania, that’s … oh!’
‘It was 1687. The year Oskar the Great died.’
‘You think …?’
‘Maybe he was getting too close to the truth.’
Martin dragged his attention back from the window of the car. Pip was in the front, concentrating on the road, a welcome new development. ‘Sorry?’
‘You’ve been distracted since breakfast. What is it?’
Martin gave a wan smile. ‘Had it occurred to you that what was dangerous for Oskar the Great to pursue in the seventeenth century might be just as dangerous today?’
‘You’re thinking about that man Piotrowicz and his people.’
‘Yes. He has his sources as well, which may be better than ours. I imagine he too is closing in on St Fenice’s secrets. He’s ruthless, and I know enough about Rothenia to fear that murder and violence are more likely to happen in our search here than they would in England.’
‘True enough. Suddenly I wish we’d brought Waclaw. But we’ve got so far, Marty. We can’t let it go now.’
‘No, you’re right, Leo. I just wish we had a revolver or two. I’d feel safer. All of a sudden it’s like living in a Buchan novel.’
‘But I like Buchan novels! I see myself as a regular Hannay and you’re his best friend Arbuthnot! I always thought there was more to those fellows than you would dare to put in print. Not only that, but Sandy Arbuthnot was a New College man too, so there!’
‘You don’t seem the steady, dour Scotsman to me, darling.’
‘No? I could be the mercurial, seductive East European man of mystery perhaps.’
‘Again, it simply isn’t convincing. No such man would have your thoroughly bourgeois taste for treacle pudding. I don’t think they make novels about our sort. Pansies aren’t supposed to be men of action.’
‘What about Lawrence of Arabia?’
‘You mean …?’
‘Oh yes. Maxim told me. He knew him at Oxford. I met him at one of Maxim’s soirées … apparently Lawrence gets boys to beat him on the bum!’
‘Oh good grief, is no illusion sacred?’
‘And he has a very high-pitched voice.’
‘Well, that’s conclusive then. Really Leo, can you be serious?’
Leo beamed. This was not the first time Martin had noticed his lover become increasingly jocular as the situations became more precarious. It was not so much that Leo had a taste for danger, it was more that, being a prince, he had developed a sense of personal inviolability.
Martin was beginning to worry that Leo was underestimating precisely how vicious their enemies might be, and so taking needless risks. But he also knew Leo to be a man of quiet courage, whose judgement of situations had been proved correct on several occasions recently. He gripped his lover’s hand and squeezed it.
It was later, as the car took the road up into the Taveln valley, that something else occurred to him. The change in Leo since even before his grandfather’s death was striking. Although he had grown into a modest, affable and charming person, full of the inner confidence of men of his high rank, Leopold of Thuringia was noticeably changing into something more: a man of vision and enterprise, a man such as Maxim Elphberg or Gus Underwood.
And with a sharp mental gasp, it came to Martin that, all unawares, the spirit of Rothenia had taken possession of his Leo and was moulding him for a greater purpose. He was convinced of it, and it alarmed him no end.
Count Hugo Maria was waiting for them when they arrived at Templerstadt. A servant summoned them to the library, where they found Kate sitting at the old man’s feet, smiling up at one of his pleasantries. She had fallen hard for his Victorian charm, to the point of startling Pip by declaring that his grandfather could teach him a thing or two about how to talk to the female sex.
‘Your grandmama is quite lovely about how she and the count met as children. They fell in love before they were even twelve years old.’ She then switched to an impish look, ‘… and the things she told me about what he was like in bed as a young man … you have a lot to live up to, Philip Underwood!’
The three joined Kate on the carpet in front of Hugo. He listened very carefully to all they had to say, then smiled. ‘The scholar in me applauds you boys, though none of my excursions into libraries were quite as exciting as yours seems to have been.’
Leo looked up. ‘And what of the abbey of Medeln, sir? We think there’s a secret to be found there.’
‘I’m sure you’re right. My dear sister the abbess may be counted upon not to tell you what it is, even if you’re right. A more stubborn little girl I never knew. She gave my poor dear mamma a terrible time, while my father spoiled her hopelessly. That was one reason why she spent so much of her time at the palace. The queen was very much taken with her and was one of the few who could keep her under control. They were quite close.’
‘But sir, this mystery? What might it be?’
‘I have no idea, but it seems to have bound together some of the greatest characters in our history.’
Pip nodded. ‘And whatever it is, Count Oskar the Great thought it resided in the abbey down in the valley below us. So that’s where we must go.’
Hugo shook his head. ‘My brave boys, you may be right but you should not rush in. As dangerous as this secret is, even more dangerous are the rivals who also wish to discover it. I have to advise you to exercise caution. If only Maxim were here…’
Late that Sunday afternoon, the four of them were trudging down the hill from Templerstadt in the direction of Medeln abbey. It was a four-mile hike, but Pip said he would prefer they walk.
‘Look at it this way, fellows. We need to prepare ourselves, and also make as low-key an entry to the abbey as we can, bearing in mind what we intend to do.’
Leo shrugged. ‘I don’t mind. It’s a pleasant walk through the Taveln valley, even if it is a little on the damp side underfoot. Your grandmama has rung ahead to let the abbess know we’re coming. I wonder if she guesses what we’re planning?’
Kate, in her ancient fur coat and rubber boots, objected at this point. ‘And what are you really planning?’
Leo continued, ‘I think Henry von Tarlenheim was shaken enough by our interview to have done something by now. Hopefully the Crown of Tassilo has been moved. Either he’s handed it on to a new guardian, or found a different hiding place.
‘This will of course have alerted the reverend mother, who’ll get out of Henry why he’s suddenly taken the Crown from its refuge in her abbey. I imagine then she’ll be rather keen to get us into her lair. So we’re meeting her half way. But I plan to winkle out of her more than she’s going to get out of me.’
Pip looked curious. ‘And how are you going to do that, Leo?’
‘No real idea, but we do know more than she might imagine. I managed to startle Henry into giving himself away, so I’ll try the same tactic on her.’
Pip shook his head. ‘She won’t be a pushover.’
‘I rather think you’re right.’
They walked on in silence. They had taken a riverside path that crossed the stream of the Taveln by a wooden footbridge, from which they began to glimpse the white buildings of the abbey through the leafless trees. The evening angelus chimed faintly in the winter air, followed by a louder peal from the abbey tower as the nuns assembled for vespers.
The four companions paused a while. There was no point in arriving too early, for the abbess would only be available in the two hours between the last of the canonical hours and Compline. Leo and Kate walked on under the willows, which were already sprouting catkins as spring advanced. Pip and Martin stopped and moodily smoked for a few minutes, leaning on the bridge’s balustrade. Once finished, they threw the cigarette butts into the dark stream below, where a fish tried to take Martin’s.
‘That’ll be bad for its health,’ he remarked. ‘I really should give up tobacco.’
‘Me too. It’ll be terrible for my health if I’m still a smoker when I begin living with Kate. She’ll kill me.’
‘Looking forward to it?’
Pip cracked his very fetching grin. ‘Oh yes. Getting together at the moment is hard, what with her in a ladies’ college and me still living in a set in St Johns. The bulldogs keep a tough curfew, meaning there’s no chance of … y’know … in college. A fortnight ago we had to pretend to be a married couple and sign into a bed-and-breakfast place in Burford in order to get our oats. It had been so long we were fit to burst. But when we’re married, I’ll take a house in Jericho near you fellows and we can come round and pester you.
‘She can’t cook you know. It’s painful to see her try. On the other hand, I know for a fact that you and Leo can manage meat and two veg with ease, not to mention fish and chips, so we’ll be using Pusey Street as our restaurant when we’re not in hall.’
Martin laughed. ‘You’ll be very welcome, you know that. We’ve not seen enough of each other this year. When you two are married it’ll be so much easier. How is she taking to the idea of becoming Her Serene Highness, the princess of Murranberg and countess of Eisendorf?’
‘Oh, as level-headed as you might expect, though she was a bit disappointed there were no coronets and princely robes. She likes dressing up. Well, you remember her at the fancy dress ball they gave at the House: I mean, Zuleika Dobson!’ He chuckled at the memory.
‘And you were the Duke of Dorset. To the manner born, but Leo wasn’t happy when you took his Garter robes without asking. He thinks you might have committed high treason or something.’
‘Maxim laughed his head off.’
‘I wonder about the king sometimes. Oops! Looks like we’re on our way. Let's go, Pip.’
Leo and Kate had struck out across the meadows between the abbey and the river. Martin and Pip ran to catch up with them. They reached the precinct walls on the east side but failed to find an unlocked entrance, so they trekked round to the east and rang the bell at the main gate. A lay sister answered and showed them into the outer court below the abbey’s west front, where they noticed a large black Wendel saloon parked at one side, its bored chauffeur sitting on the running board and smoking. Pip nudged Martin. ‘Notice the colour of his uniform?’
‘Elphberg green. James is here.’
Leo had got the message. He looked nettled. ‘This complicates things. Ah well, in for a penny …’
They cooled their heels while the lay sister went to check with the abbess. She came out from the cloister shaking her head. ‘I’m sorry. The abbess said she could not be disturbed. Count Jakob is here from Hentzen. She regrets but must ask you to return on Monday.’
Leo was astonished. ‘That’s not possible! We return to England on Tuesday, and we really have little time tomorrow other than for family business.’
‘I’m sorry sir, but she was very insistent. The gentlemen said they might be hours yet.’
‘The men who came with the count.’
Pip suddenly said loudly, ‘I see. Well of course, that’s regrettable, but nothing can be done. Give the reverend mother our best wishes. We’ll ring later tonight if we can make alternative arrangements.’
The sister bowed, looking relieved, then ushered them out of the precinct through the medieval arch.
Once outside, Leo fumed. ‘For heaven’s sake …!’
‘Shh, Leo,’ said Kate. ‘Pip suspects something, don’t you dearest?’
‘I most certainly do. Can you imagine Mother Maria Nativitata missing Compline for James’s sake? Certainly not. There’s something bad going on. If she gave that message it was because she was forced to do so. I think she knew we’d be suspicious. It’s up to us, fellows! We need to get into the cloister, and soon. Any ideas? Martin, you’re the man who knows abbeys inside out. Well?’
Martin caught his breath. ‘Er … we tried the side towards the river, and there was nothing. There’s a mill on the north, maybe we can find a way in through it.’
Pip led off with a decisive, ‘This way!’
They followed a track which skirted the abbey’s wall, solidly built and over eighteen feet high in places. Some mural towers and the remains of battlements recalled a time when the abbey’s security depended on its fortifications.
They came to a place in the circuit where the walls grew lower. The channel of a wide stream wound out of the fields and ran along the base like a sort of moat. Abruptly it narrowed as it ran into a tunnel under a mill housing. They paused before a dilapidated door hanging loose on its hinges, which was easily forced by Pip’s stalwart shoulders. They pushed into the dusty dark beyond.
The stream made a lot of noise in its rush under the mill house and tumble over a sluice. They crossed a bridge just downstream of the stationary wheel and found themselves passing through an arch into a room within the abbey’s precincts. A window looked out on to a yard where sacks were stacked on a cart. The yard, otherwise empty, communicated with a lane that ran along the north side of the abbey church.
‘This way!’ Martin urged.
They followed him through a cobbled alley that pierced the abbey’s great buttresses until they came to a dead end at the transept of the church. Facing them was a small, open door at the foot of a spiral stair. Martin led them upwards.
‘Do you know where this goes, Marty?’ Leo hissed behind him.
‘I think so. It should take us up to the tribune passages which surround the church above the aisle vaults. I believe we can get from there into the cloister range, if I remember the layout of this church properly.’
They duly emerged on an upper gallery of the abbey, from which they could look down through clustered pillars into the north transept and across the tower space. Although the abbey was empty, echoing from the choir to their left came the striking of unseen crowbars and chisels on flagstones.
‘We’re too late!’ hissed Martin. ‘They’re digging up the shrine!’
He looked at Pip and Leo, who seemed as gripped by indecision as he was. ‘What do we do?’