With a ruffle of drums, the cadet band struck up with O God our Help in Ages Past. Six hundred boys took a deep breath and, with a surprising amount of gusto in the circumstances, launched into the traditional hymn.
The sky above the school was leaden grey. A thin, cold wind sifted across the playing fields, stirring the surplice of the chaplain. Martin Tofts, standing in the front rank, contemplated the long line of medals pinned to the chaplain's black scarf. Then he looked along the ranks of the teachers, trying to find one with more ribbons than the chaplain. Only Mr Perry, the commandant of the OTC in his captain's uniform, could better that.
Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure ...
Martin suddenly became acutely aware of standing next to one of the Kraut Twins. This did not usually happen. The Krauts were Catholics and, along with the other score of their persuasion and the school's two Jews, did not normally attend chapel. But this was Armistice Day and a Sunday. The whole school was parading out-of-doors at the new war memorial.
The Kraut was having real trouble remembering the words, though the tune seemed no problem to him. Perhaps it was a Hun hymn too. The Krauts, while not actually German but east European - as everyone knew - had been caught talking Kraut to each other. They were not twins either, or even brothers, though they were much the same age and shared the English surname, Underwood.
The Krauts had arrived in Medwardine School the same September as Martin had, and were together with him in the third form.
Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame ...
The Kraut stumbled over the words. 'What on earth does that mean, Tofts?' he hissed.
Might he be amused? Martin thought that was tasteless of him. He was a visitor to the country and should respect its more solemn rituals. Martin ignored him.
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.
When the hymn finished, the chaplain began his homily. It was not easy to follow in the open air, which swallowed the words as they bounced back from the gable end of New Building. But Martin caught the sentiments about 'heroic sacrifice of boys of this school', 'greater love hath no man', 'the war to end wars' and 'the peace of Europe'.
The chaplain went on long enough for Martin to feel cold, despite his belted Burberry and woollen gloves. A boy behind him sneezed damply on his neck. The third form wore short trousers, so the remorseless wind reddened and chafed Martin's knees. When he looked at the towering Portland-stone cross with a bronze sword at its centre, and at the six-score names inscribed on the pedestal, he was all too acutely aware that on a similar stone, not far from Mons, was the name of A.J.M. TOFTS Capt. RE., his father. His sick feeling of loss chilled him more than the November wind.
The cadet bugler stood forward and sounded the Last Post with some considerable beauty and feeling. The clock on New Building clanged out the eleventh hour and two minutes of silence followed. As usual, Martin was possessed by an urge to shout or cough in the silence, and as usual he resisted it. The words of commemoration were spoken and the reveille sounded.
The second master stood forward to order, 'School! Attention!' There was a shuffle and a stamp as the boys stood tall. 'School! Left face!' The boys turned to face along the tarmac road that ran down the front of New Building. 'School! Dismissed!'
The ranks broke up and the boys began ambling in the direction of their houses. Martin found himself with the Krauts.
'So, this "or Earth received its frame", what does it mean, Tofts?' asked Little Kraut, or Underwood, L., as the school knew him.
'I really don't know, Underwood.'
'Call me Leo.'
'I'd rather not.'
'Steady on, Tofts,' warned Big Kraut, otherwise known as Underwood, P.
'I didn't think much of your sniggering your way through the service. You'd expect your sort of people would be grateful for what our army did in the war. My father died fighting the Germans. I'd have liked some time to feel sorry for him.' Though Martin knew the words were pompous, they still came out, and with them a hot resentment.
Little Kraut had gone red, but it was the bigger one who stopped Martin with a hand in the chest. 'Our sort of people? I think you mean to make a reflection on our homeland of Rothenia. Tell me, is it your father you feel sorry for, Tofts, or yourself?'
'How dare ...!'
'When you have some time, take a closer look at that monument behind us. You'll see on there the name of Paul Underwood, Lieutenant, East Suffolk Yeomanry. That was my father, who died at Passchendaele. "We people" may have more in common with you than you suppose. Come on, Leo, let's leave this rude little boy to himself.'
Martin stood shocked as the other two left him without a backward glance. This was not right. He blushed. He was a polite lad, his mother had always told him so. He tried to justify to himself what he had said to Leo Underwood, but found he couldn't. He wished he had a comrade in school to whom he could unburden himself, yet that relief too was denied him. He had no real friends.
As he was standing in the stream of boys, a hand swatted the back of his head. 'Pull yourself together, Tofts.' It was one of the Temple prefects, Aidan Westenra. 'I want you up in my room instanter. My walking-out shoes need polishing, so get to it. I'll need them in an hour.'
Martin mumbled his compliance. He had been selected as one of the house fags. Westenra, fortunately, was not too demanding or sadistic. Martin was really lucky, judging from the way the third form talked in hushed tones of the imaginative tyranny exercised by the prefects of Longley House.
* * *
Martin Tofts hated to be in the wrong. So far as he could remember, he never had been before, other than in small childish ways. But now he had been deliberately rude to two people, and his conscience would not allow it. The fact that they were the Kraut Twins was not enough to let him off the hook.
All the time he was applying polish to Westenra's shoes, he was worrying what they must think of him. When he had finished and delivered the shoes to their owner, the prefect smiled at Martin, told him he had done a good job and offered him a liquorice stick.
'Yes, young Tofts?'
'Can I have your advice?'
'Certainly, though I have to warn you it's pretty much useless on most things.'
'Those Kraut Twins.'
'I don't know what got into me, but I was very rude to the smaller one.'
'Yes, and he was trying to be friendly, I think. I feel pretty dreadful about it.'
'I can imagine. All I can say, sunbeam, is that you had best go and say sorry. That's what you're supposed to do, isn't it?'
'Yes. Thank you. I just wonder if he won't see me as more of an ass than he thought I was before.'
'Perhaps. But I don't think so. I imagine he'd think such pettiness was beneath him.'
'Never mind. Go and say your piece, Tofts. Offer him a gift. Although it may be late in Michaelmas term, you surely must have something still in your tuck.'
'Mmm. I will, thank you, Westenra.'
'Don't mention it. Now, it's time to go into town and see what the young ladies there think of your shoe-polishing skills.'
Being in the middle sixth, Aidan Westenra had the privilege of leaving the school grounds. He and some of his friends liked to make a promenade along Medwardine High Street to impress the local girls. With the wisdom of thirteen, Martin thought it very silly, but concluded he might feel rather different one day.
He left Westenra's room and trudged up the stairs of Temple House to the topmost dormitories, where he slept. The Krauts were in one of the western dorms, while Martin was in the east. He got a small case out from under his bed, from which he reluctantly pulled his last bar of Fry's chocolate.
Other boys were huddling round the small coal fire, coaxing some warmth back into their bodies. Feeling some trepidation, Martin crossed the corridor and looked in the open door of West 31 where the Krauts slept in adjoining beds. They weren't there. Without much hope he tried the third-form prep room, which boys avoided in winter because it had no fireplace.
But there were Big Kraut and Little Kraut together, reading a letter. They looked up, with what Martin was upset to see was a hostile glare in both sets of blue eyes.
The larger one snapped curtly, 'Yes?'
Martin hesitated. 'I want to say sorry. I was terribly rude to you, and I never am. I don't know what got into me.' He held out the chocolate. 'Will you take this please as my way of begging your pardon?'
Now the Krauts were looking astonished, which made Martin feel even worse. Tears came into his eyes. 'I'll go, then.'
He was turning when Leo's hand grabbed his sleeve. 'No, do not go. Stay a minute. Come and sit down.'
'Do you mind?'
Big Kraut laughed. 'No we don't.' He shot off a few phrases in a foreign language at the other, and Leo sat Martin between them.
'Here. Thank you for the chocolate. We will break it into three. Oh look! How odd. Five boys' faces pressed into the chocolate. Why is this?'
'They have different expressions. This one is "Desperation". Rather like I feel.'
Leo laughed. 'Well, let us forget those faces and say hello. You know who I am. This is my cousin, Philip.'
'My grandfather is Pip's great uncle.'
'Family trees always confuse me. But how come two Rothenian boys have English names?'
Pip answered this time. 'I am only half Rothenian. My father was English and worked in Strelzen - that's the capital - before the war. He met my mother, they married and had me and Sissi. She's eleven. Leo is a mixture: English, German and Rothenian. His mother was an Underwood. She's dead now, so he lives with his grandfather when he is at home in Rothenia. Leo uses his mother's family name.'
'Oh, why not his ...'
Leo broke in, 'Mmm ... this is nice chocolate. Do you know, I've not had any since I arrived here in England. Rothenian chocolate is so bitter. This is smooth and sweet. That settles it, I shall not go home.'
He had a really comical expression on his face and, as boys do, it soon had all three of them convulsed for little apparent reason, tears of laughter in their eyes. At that moment, as they were taking shuddering breaths to recover from their paroxysm, they somehow knew they had become firm friends.
Now it was Leo's turn to ask questions. 'My grandfather and Pip's father and a lot of other Underwoods came to this school. So why did you end up here, Martin?'
'My uncle, who is archdeacon of Berkshire, got a full scholarship for me from the Sons of the Clergy.'
'Sons of the Clergy?'
'It's a charity that educates clergy children. Mama isn't especially well off.' Somehow, Martin didn't mind telling these boys his woes. He wondered why. He also wondered what his uncle would say to his being chummy with two Catholics.
Pip looked mischievous. 'Do you want to know a secret?'
Leo hissed, 'Don't! You said you wouldn't!'
'Leo's real name is ...'
'Don't you dare!'
'I hate you, Pip.'
'No you don't.'
'I suppose not. You will not tell, will you, Martin?'
'Never. I like Leo very much.'
He smiled into Leo's trusting face, realising in a moment of epiphany that he did like this sensitive boy very much indeed, and had done since first glimpsing him.
* * *
The rest of the term passed quite happily for Martin Tofts, now he had real friends. 'Tofts and the Kraut Twins' were pretty much inseparable. Philip was their natural leader, well-built and taller than the average thirteen-year-old. He was also physically co-ordinated. He took well to rugby and football and was in the under-fourteen rugger team that defeated Repton School in the last week of term.
Leo, although less outgoing, was charming and certainly highly intelligent. Martin was awed to discover he took his Latin and Greek lessons with the top fifth-form group.
'How are you so clever?' he asked Leo, who was on his bed reading an edition of the Symmachian fragments.
'I had outstanding tutors back home, including a real professor, who is Pip's uncle Welf. He's the only man who can read Etruscan. It's not that I'm clever, I just had a very good start. I'm not so smart in maths and English, am I?'
'You sound more English now.' Leo's accent was by then practically Medwardine standard, with only the occasional guttural to betray he was not a native English-speaker.
'That's what grandfather hoped when he sent me here. He said I needed to get a proper acquaintance with - what did he call it? Oh yes, the English idiom.'
'Your grandfather sounds nice.'
'He's a wonderful man: kind and brave and good. Everybody who knows him loves him. I was so lucky I had him to take me in after ... after mother died.'
'And your father?'
'He was killed in the troubles after the war. He was in the German army.'
'So you're an orphan.'
'Not while grandfather lives.'
'Are you going back to him when the term ends?'
'No. I have cousins in England, and I'll be staying down in Surrey with one of them. Didn't I say? He married Pip's mother, so Pip and I are sort of cousins-in-law too. We'll have Christmas together, that's so wonderful. Grandfather will be coming over from Rothenia.'
Martin thought of his own likely Christmas. Comparing it with the fun his friends would be having, he felt a little saddened. But his mother needed him, and that was important. He observed, 'It's a complicated family you have, Leo.'
'You don't know the half of it.'
One last event in the final week of term puzzled Martin. He and Leo were walking the gravel path under the chapel walls, looking down at the half-frozen Mere below the terrace and wondering if they could throw stones through the ice. A tall, red-headed sixth former from Longley House came up behind them. When he paused, Leo greeted him cautiously. 'Oh hello, Rassendyll.'
Martin was astonished. A third former no more addressed a sixth former than a beggar would dare address a prince. Not only that, but Martin knew this particular sixth former was Lord Burlesdon, one of the school's small élite coterie of out-and-out aristocrats. His mother had been quite excited that Martin would be in the same school as a peer of the realm and two heirs to viscounties.
The earl gave Leo a cool look. 'How's your grandfather ... er, Underwood, or what should I call you?'
'He was well when I left Pietersberh, thank you. And how is your mother?'
'Prime. Where are you spending Christmas?'
'Surrey. With your uncle.'
'Very good. Give him my regards. By the way, who's this?' He looked directly at Martin, who blushed.
'This is my friend.'
'Friend, eh? How much of a friend?' He gave a snorting laugh, and walked off.
Martin stared at Leo. 'Your family is well connected. What did he mean, "What do I call you"?'
'Oh, nothing. We're cousins and our two sides of the family don't get on too well. In fact, it has got violent in the past.' Leo abruptly cut off any further discussion by running down the bank, picking up a stick and sending it spinning across the ice that had crusted the lake.
The incident stayed with Martin, though something stopped him from pursuing it with either of the Underwoods. Maybe it was because he expected them to evade any direct questions. Or maybe it was because Martin had a natural delicacy and tact which would not intrude curiosity when it was plainly unwelcome.
On the last day of term, the boys were awoken by the bell at seven as usual. The morning ritual for the third form in Temple House was always the same. Yawning, they lined up in their pyjamas in the washroom. The matron, who had an earnest Victorian faith in regular bowel movements, insisted they begin their day with an unavoidable spoonful of a nauseating paraffin mixture called Agarol. It had almost instant effects on young bowels.
Martin dashed into a vacant stall and emptied himself. He had got used to the humiliation. Leo too was philosophical. He was in the next stall and gave Martin a (literally) running commentary on his own progress. Martin came out in tears of laughter.
The ritual continued at the sinks. As he finished and left, each boy was required to recite to the nurse on duty: I have washed my face and brushed my teeth and hair. I have not wet my hairbrush or soaped my sponge. I will not play in my dormitory before breakfast and I will put a handkerchief in my pocket.
Martin dressed quickly and walked across to the main school building, where he took a bowl of porridge from the servery and joined the Underwoods on the third-form table.
Milsom, a stout boy from Tait House, leaned over and advised them, 'Trouble back in Krautland, chaps.'
Philip rolled his eyes. 'We're not Krauts, Fatso. I thought everyone knew that.'
'Oh ... is it Poland, then?'
'No, Fatso, it's Rothenia we're from.'
'Is that part of Krautland?'
'No. Geography is not your strong point, is it Milsom? Now, what's this about trouble?'
'Oh, I was reading the Times in the library - you know, I don't do Physical Training - and it was on about the government falling, money being worthless, and revolutions in Munich. I just thought if you were Krauts you'd be a bit bothered about your people, that's all.'
Leo nodded. 'Thank you for your concern, Milsom. But our homeland is a very different place.' He glanced at Philip with a troubled look, however. 'Even so, I worry about Thuringia.'
Martin leaped in. 'Thuringia?'
Leo and Pip again looked cautious. Pip answered, 'It's in Germany. Leo has relations there, his father's family.'
After breakfast, Martin helped the Underwoods carry their trunks down to the entrance of Temple House. A large Daimler arrived for them at eleven, the paintwork and driver's livery in identical olive green. The driver got out, bowed low and addressed the Rothenian boys in a volley of their native language, before bowing again and loading the trunks. The two Underwoods looked at each other. 'You've got to do it, Leo,' Philip insisted.
'Not here, then.'
'The prep room.'
'What are you two on about?'
Leo smiled. 'There's a fine custom in our land of giving a blessing to our friends when we leave them. Pip thinks it's proper that I give you the pozechnen, and I agree ...' he glanced at Martin shyly, '... if it's alright with you.'
Martin was taken aback a little, but he nodded. They ran up the stairs to the top floor. Martin stood in front of Leo as he was told to. Taking Martin's face between his warm hands, Leo looked the other lad straight in the eyes and said some words in Rothenian. Then he pressed his lips to Martin's forehead. Leo's scent filled Martin's nose, a smell of boy, breakfast and clean clothes. Martin found himself drinking it in deeply.
Leo whispered, 'The kiss is part of it. I hope you don't mind.'
Martin looked him straight back, feeling flustered and stirred in a new way for him. Something had just passed between him and Leo, something important, although he didn't quite know what. He breathed, 'I don't mind at all.'
They broke off and in a boyish mood-change, ran off together down the stairs to the front door. The Underwoods clambered in the back of their car, waving at Martin through the back window as they drove off past New Building on the long journey to Surrey. But Martin stayed on the cold drive for a long time after they had disappeared, for he realised he had experienced a moment which marked some sort of change in his life.
Eventually, he walked moodily in the same direction the car had taken, along the many-gabled frontage of New Building. After passing the war memorial, he turned into the Old School, which he knew was the original Medwardine, the town grammar school set up by the ministers of King Edward VI with part of the profits from the despoliation of the church in England. At the heart of the Old School was a timber hall which now served as the library. Finding it still open, he mooched around the reference shelves. He liked the building, with its wonderful smell of seasoned timber and beeswax.
The cover of a red brick of a book caught Martin's attention: Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, 1922. He lumped it over to a table and opened it with some interest. This was a book for him. All the dukedoms, marquisates, earldoms and peerages of the United Kingdom were laid out for his perusal, each headed by the elaborate heraldry of the head of the house.
Martin went straight for BURLESDON, where he found:
James Maxim Mountstuart Elphberg-Rassendyll, 11th Earl of Burlesdon, Viscount Lowestoft and Baron Rassendyll in the peerage of England; Count of Hentzau in the peerage of Rothenia. B. 14 January 1907. Principal Seat. Burlesdon House, co. Norfolk. Other residences. Burlesdon House, 305 Park Lane, London; Schloss Hentzau, Rothenia. Educ. Palmer's Preparatory School, London SW; currently, Edward VI School, Medwardine, co. Salop.
Martin's passion and talent for investigation were suddenly aroused. Leo and Pip were spending Christmas with Lord Burlesdon's uncle, who was Leo's cousin and Pip's stepfather. That could mean he was the younger brother of Lord Burlesdon's father. Martin traced down the page to find the entry for the 9th earl, and there it was:
Robert Rudolf Henry Elphberg-Rassendyll, 9th Earl of Burlesdon. B. 1859. D. 6 August 1902. M. Katherine Maria Julia, countess Kàlnoky. B. 1861. Issue. (1) Robert Julius Henry, 10th Earl, see below. (2) Hon. Maxim Stefan Elphberg-Rassendyll. B. 1886. Count of Hentzau, 1909. King of Rothenia, 1910. Abd. 1919. M. Helga Maria Underwood, née v. Tarlenheim z. Templerstadt. Queen of Rothenia. Residence. Belsager Priory, co. Surrey. No issue.
Martin stared at the entry. There was no doubt of it. His friends were staying with their relative who was the former king of Rothenia, and the king must be Pip's stepfather. But what about Leo? The incident of the blessing seemed to prove that, of the two boys, Leo had the greater status. Unfortunately, here Debrett's could not help him. He pored over the entry for UNDERWOOD of HADDESLEY in the baronetage section, but could not work out who might be Leo's grandfather - unless, perhaps, one of the many cadet branches of what looked like a prolific family.
More and more curious and determined, Martin went to get the relevant volume of Encyclopedia Britannica for Rothenia. There he found a long article which he settled down to read. Eventually he got to Recent History, where he learned of the civil war which established Maxim Elphberg as king, and the tumultuous events which led to the setting up of a republic in 1919. The word 'Thuringia' caught his attention. He knew Leo had relatives there, and the king of Rothenia whom Maxim ousted had been a Thuringian.
Heart racing, Martin found the volume for Thuringia. He skimmed through the details of economy and history till he reached Ruling Family. The dukes of Thuringia had been kings of Ruritania (or Rothenia) from 1880 to 1910. They had maintained themselves in Thuringia till 1918 and the fall of the Hohenzollern Empire. The last ruling duke, Albert V, had been assassinated by a revolutionary while riding in a park in 1919. The current claimant was HRH Leopold Wilhelm Ernst Albert, duke of Thuringia and Ranstadt, prince of Rothenia and Thuringia.
It was Leo Underwood.