In The Service Of Princes


Freddie and Bessie dismounted on the drive outside the bishop of Bielstadt’s palace, then Bessie lifted the little prince down from Freddie’s horse. The front door opened and Princess Osra appeared.

‘Granny! Granny!’ shouted the boy and ran up the steps to be picked up and hugged, clinging round her neck.

Freddie held back while the reunion was going on. Sebastienne too waited on the gravel. ‘You’re quite good with children,’ Freddie remarked.

‘Not as good as you, Freddie,’ she laughed. ‘But my appeal is limited to the more confident and adventurous sort of child. I’m not sure why.’

‘Oh, I can think of a couple of reasons.’

‘What can you mean, sir?’ Bessie raised an eyebrow.

‘Not a lot, it’s just that I think you’d alarm the less forward child. Children pick up on characters with a dangerous edge. There are things I’d like to know about that edge of yours. How in God’s name do you transform yourself so thoroughly into other people, if indeed God has anything to do with it? There’s nothing all that mysterious about the way you masquerade as your twin brother so convincingly. But Colonel Tedorovic ...?’

Sebastienne shrugged. ‘I could say you were just seeing things that weren’t there, Freddie. Maybe you were under the influence of some psychic miasma? Perhaps an exotic hallucinogen has been introduced into your system. Ask Prince Henry. He’ll tell you such things exist. I think the true answer might tax your capacity for belief. But I’ll leave it to Princess Osra to explain, or not as it suits her.’

‘So she knows of your ... gift. I thought as much.’

Sebastienne shot him an inscrutable look. ‘My gift? If you thought I was strange ...! We’ll see if your idea of what is strange will be the same after your meeting with the princess, won’t we.’

It was more than an hour before Freddie was summoned to meet Princess Osra, whom he found in the bishop’s study. Little Prince Staszek was playing on the floor at her feet. He had been changed into a less formal suit: a lace-collared white shirt under a loose jacket and trousers of blue silk. He also had a pile of toy Prussian soldiers in front of him. It seemed the princess had come to Bielstadt equipped for the reunion and expecting her grandson to be delivered to her by Sebastienne Wollherz. Freddie made his bow and took a seat at her direction. He was quite touched when the little boy brought over some of his toy soldiers to be introduced to him, smiling broadly when the boy told him that one of them was his friend Bessie. Staszek stayed at Freddie’s knee as the princess began her explanations.

‘So now Mr Winslow, let me first thank you for the part you’ve played in communicating between the warring parties in the duchy. It has been invaluable. I add my personal thanks for your kindness to my grandson on his rather fraught journey from the Schloss Malbisse. Your part is now done, and you’re expected at Burwald by my nephew. But first no doubt you have questions, and you have earned the right to answers.’

Freddie was too consumed with curiosity to hold back before this formidable lady. ‘I do, your royal highness. I’d long been aware of the ability Sebastienne Wollherz has to counterfeit a male appearance and I understand how she can do it, but what I saw on the road to the schloss was beyond rational explanation. What’s more, Sebastienne tells me that you are fully aware of her gifts and she employs them in your interest and with your knowledge.’

The princess nodded. ‘I did say you will have answers, though to do that fully would take far more time than I have available. So let me say the Rothenian lands are not like other parts of this world, a fact you probably have begun to appreciate without my help. Foreigners of perception and intelligence who enter sooner or later come to realise this. It’s not to say that people here don’t have the usual foibles, passions and weaknesses of humanity. Take my tragically marred son, for instance; as corrupt a man as any land has produced. It need not have been so. Had he been allowed to grow up within the two Rothenian realms, he would not have been so wicked and debased as he has become. There is a power in this land which affects all who live in it, and usually for the good.

‘But more than this, that power has in the past three generations moved to take a more active part in the affairs of kingdom and duchy. There was a time when it was passive and its guardians were charged only to watch over it and prevent the overly curious from approaching it. But over the past century it has awakened, for reasons that are not easy to discern. But my understanding is that its guardians are now called upon to do more than watch and wait, and the powers they can call on are truly formidable.’

Freddie’s mind was racing. Without much care for decorum, he broke in on Princess Osra’s explanations. ‘You’re a guardian!’

She did not seem to mind, but after a pause and a considering look, continued. ‘As I said, outsiders of any sensitivity are often more aware of this land’s strangeness than its natives. This is especially true of men and women of a certain persuasion, and you are a man who loves other men, is that not so?’

Freddie’s face flared red and he found himself unable to reply.

The princess smiled and continued. ‘Your attachment to the younger baron Wollherz is of course known to me, and I do not disapprove of it. Rather the opposite. It was bound to happen I think. The family Wollherz is deeply involved in the strangeness of Rothenia. And you’re aware of that too, aren’t you.’

Freddie gathered himself. ‘Yes ma’am. I know the twins encountered a power in their childhood which transformed them, they told me as much.’

‘Did they tell you the source of that power?’

‘No ma’am, only that they were taken to a realm they called “Fäerie” and met there a boy they called Wilchin.’

The princess nodded. ‘I have only recently come to realise that magical boy was no less than the late count of St-Germain, who was once Willem or Willekin Antonin, their great-grandfather.’

Freddie gasped. ‘So he really was a magician who remained youthful far beyond his mortal span! Does Bessie know this?’

The princess frowned. ‘I think so, at least she knows a part of it.’

‘Wait!’ cried Freddie. ‘She and the old man were together in Munich last year. But she just shrugged it off. She said he was an old family friend.’

‘And so he was, but rather older than the world realised. On succeeding to my position as a guardian I had access to the registers of my predecessors, and one of them, the late abbess of Medeln, Sophia Charlotte, the sister of King Rudolf II and my great-aunt, records something of Wilchin’s story. He was one of a group of boys who were gathered together late in the last century as agents of a ... well, I’m not sure what to call the being, though it was a great power from beyond the circles of the world who had entered into it in pursuit of its own purposes. Another of the boys was Karl Wollherz, of whom you must have heard.’

‘Certainly. Ah then! Sebastienne’s father told me the story of the death of Willem Antonin, supposedly of plague in Wallachia in 1738. It was Karl Wollherz who went to Constanta to investigate the death. But he cannot have done any such thing. He just went there to cover up the truth. There was no death, and Willem Antonin went on to live a second life as the mysterious count of St-Germain. So that explains the epitaph in the Frauenkirche Friedhof.’

‘Really? I haven’t seen it. It sounds like it may be worth a visit. On Willem Antonin’s true death in 1772 Sebastienne Wollherz came into an unusual legacy, the great powers of trickery and persuasion which that mysterious power had gifted him eight decades ago were transferred by him to her. Which is of course why she could effortlessly fool the occupants of the Schloss Malbisse, walk out unhindered with the heir of Glottenburg and bring my little Staszek home to me and of course to his mother, who will be here to be reunited with him within the week. He will never return to his father.’

Freddie sat quiet for a while, as all this sank in and Princess Osra awaited his response. As she did, she took from the front of her dress the silver brooch shaped like a death’s head Freddie had previously noticed.

‘So there are powers interested in these lands,’ he eventually said. ‘One of them is in your care and it is in the abbey of Medeln.’

‘Correctly concluded my dear Freddie, if I may call you that,’ the princess replied with a warm smile.

‘But the other power is nothing to do with you, the power that entered into the world and recruited the boys Karl and Wilchin ... and others?’

‘Yes indeed. A third was the young Andreas Wittig von Bernenstein, General Field Marshal of Ruritania and the hero of the battle of Basovizza in 1693, where he captured the famous Ottoman general, the Prince Mehmed, scourge of the Adriatic in his day. The fourth of them was also later a distinguished man, no less than Boromeo von Tarlenheim, the baron Olmusch, father of Oskar Jonas, the present baron and count, whom you know. That strange being put a mark of greatness on all four of those boys.’

Freddie reflected further. There was that name again, Jonas. It turned up a lot in the family trees of leading Rothenian families, and it was the name the little prince Staszek gave to his imaginary friend.

‘This other power. Has it a name? Where does it come from? What are its purposes?’

‘Now there I can’t offer much illumination,’ said Princess Osra. ‘It has been known by many names down the ages, so the Abbess Sophia Charlotte tells us, but she would not record them or speculate, in part I think because she was deeply fearful at its involvement in human affairs. It does manifest itself in a material form and when it does, it is as a boy child. That is all I know. No doubt the late Willem Antonin could have told us more, but he is now in another realm. All I can say in the end is that being’s involvement in human affairs and appearance in the Rothenian lands have led me and my immediate predecessors to conclude that we are now called upon to take a more active part in what happens in Great Rothenia.’

‘And I understand that is what you are doing, ma’am,’ said Freddie. ‘But these are high matters, so why are you telling me of them?’

‘There are several reasons, Freddie. When I came into my charge I also came into a measure of power. It tells me you too have a mark of greatness on you. Why that should be I do not know. But it is not by any accident that you have found your way to Ruritania and the service of my family, though by whose plan that is, I have no idea ... as yet. Then there was the suspicion that your sharp mind has already put together some ideas of your own which will be of use to me, and so it has proved. I’ve learned some significant new information from you. But finally there is this. I promised you answers, and you have had them. But I didn’t promise that you will retain or remember them.’


Freddie Winslow relaxed into the plush seats of Prince Henry’s carriage. It bowled smoothly along the post road from Hentzau to Kesarstein, rather more smoothly than it had along the Burwald to Hentzau road. The prince sitting opposite him remarked on the change.

‘It would much improve the commerce of Ruritania if my father’s ministers would get around to investing in road improvement, especially towards Glottenburg. The subsidised post roads mostly run to the west, towards the German lands. My great-grandfather invested in them for military purposes. The logic was that invading armies were most likely to come from that direction, so troops needed to be moved towards Bavaria and Saxony at speed. And King Henry enthusiastically endorsed that view in his day.

‘But as far as travel to the north and the east is concerned little has been done other than the laying of the military road to Rechtenberg. Transport in those directions has used our navigable rivers for centuries. I’ll admit that there is some advantage to this since there is little expense in their maintenance, and they do have some potential for bulk transport. Weirs and locks have extended the navigable reaches of the Arndt far above Hentzau these days. But my father got badly burned in a speculative scheme to dig a canal connecting the Arndt and the Radeln across the Orbeczenwald. The elevation meant the lock system proved too expensive and arduous and its syndicate collapsed, taking a lot of Elphberg money with it.

‘No, in this modern age levelled and maintained roads will be the thing. Something like your English turnpikes would answer our need very well.’

Freddie thought about it. ‘Well sir, in theory that would be true. But the companies that are licensed to run them don’t have a good reputation for competence, honesty or maintenance. The Norwich to Walsham Turnpike raised its rates in the harvest season three years ago, leading to a rash of gate-burning incidents and a riot at Walsham market. The militia had to be called out to guard the toll houses.’

The prince thought about it. ‘Appropriate regulation would need to be introduced obviously. When we get back to Strelsau, I’d like you to start putting together materials on the subject. In fact, since I propose to make an extended visit to England from Martinmas to Hilarymas, that will be one of your tasks when we’re there. I’m thinking of taking a house in London for the season. I believe Lord Burlesdon will be in Norfolk over the Christmas period. So you may be able to spend the holiday with your family, and at my expense too! This will not be an incognito visit, so you had best notify Lord Windlesham’s mission of my travel plans.’

The news perked up Freddie considerably. He had felt oddly out of things since the conclusion of the Glottenburg business. He had been busy for his master through the first weeks of September during the negotiated abdication and subsequent exile of the former Duke John Casimir II. Prince Henry had represented King Rudolf at the installation of the child Duke Willem Stanislas VI under the regency of his grandmother, the Princess Osra Madeleine. The regency now ruled the duchy from a completed wing of the Casimirhof, while the rebuilding of the city of Glottenburg was under way.

One of the first edicts of the Princess Regent had been the foundation of a Rothenian University of Glottenburg to be situated in the ancient ducal palace in the city, now lying devastated and empty. The assets confiscated by John Casimir from the Jesuits and other teaching orders were assigned to the university as its endowment, while the blameless monastic houses he had closed down and plundered were restored. The efficiency and integrity of the new regency had rapidly earned it popularity across the duchy. The chancellor was now Oskar Jonas, yet another baron of Olmusch to occupy the post that his uncle and great-grandfather had held before him.

The political changes meant that Sebastienne Wollherz would not be returning to Strelsau. In an unusual move she had been appointed as a ducal chamberlain and member of the privy council of the Princess Regent.

‘That’s a blow for women’s rights, Bessie!’ Freddie had pronounced during their last meeting, walking with her brother in the enormous gardens of the Casimirhof. ‘What’s your ministerial responsibility going to be?’

Bastian, walking arm-in-arm with his sister, grinned across at Freddie. ‘You barely have to guess, Freddie. It’ll be one where she can dress up in uniform. How’re you finding the linkboys of Glottenburg, Bessie?’

‘The pair of you are tiresome,’ she scornfully responded. ‘No, perhaps juvenile is a better insult. I won’t discuss matters of state with you. You’re agents of a foreign power.’

‘Espionage! It’s espionage, isn’t it!’ Freddie laughed.

‘You surely don’t expect me to reply to that.’

‘That’s hardly a denial,’ Bastian cried in triumph. ‘What about the linkboys?’

‘Barely any time for that. So you two will have to do for the moment.’

They occupied the same bed that night, and sleep only came after several exotic couplings. Freddie eventually found himself with the wild privilege of taking Sebastienne from the front while her brother satisfied himself in her rear, thus answering his curiosity as to how far the siblings would go sexually. He and Bastian climaxed simultaneously inside her as they kissed frantically across her shoulder, though their climaxes were restrained compared to hers. For some reason or other, Freddie found himself perfectly confident that he would not impregnate her, though he could not for the life of him work out why he was so sure of that.


At Hallowe’en Freddie had the delight of welcoming Frank Potts to Strelsau, and put him up in his lodgings on the Alt Markt.

‘So why’re you here, Frank?’ Freddie asked, as his landlady provided his friend with the tea he asked for.

‘Oh, just spying. You’re a short cut to the information Lord Burlesdon’s sent me to find out.’

‘The sort of information that can’t be written down? Don’t be confident I’ll tell you. Do I understand from this that Lord Windlesham has been as useless as usual at communicating the intelligence from Strelsau to His Britannic Majesty’s diplomatic service? But that good man Egremont in Glottenburg is a better source in any case.’

‘I’m heading on there after a few days of your hospitality, never fear old fellow. Now let’s get dressed up warmly. I’m told that a black cloak is customary for those out late on this night.’

Freddie complimented Frank on his knowledge of the local customs. ‘All the cemeteries and churchyards will be lit up. Bonfires and hot wine are to be found in the city squares till midnight, when there are fireworks over the Altstadt. They used to fire them off the top of the towers of St Waclaw’s abbey till they set light to the north-west one and nearly burned the church down. These days they go up from the city walls. Beware packs of children demanding pfennigs or gingerbread. It’s licenced banditry. Fail to contribute and they pelt you with eggs.’

The next day, yawning and a little hung over, Freddie showed Frank over the Palais du Bâtard and its incomparable library. They sat around with Waclaw Kara for a while. It was the customary coffee break the prince’s secretaries took in midmorning.

‘Tea again, Frank?’ Freddie asked.

‘I’m not sure coffee is that good for me. It makes me “jittery” as we say in English.’

Nervös?’ suggested Waclaw. ‘From what I read tea makes the English in your colonies “jittery” too.’

‘What’s that?’ Freddie asked.

‘You’re getting out of things here in Strelsau,’ Frank observed. ‘You must miss the news packets Whitehall sends the embassy.’

‘Not really,’ Freddie said. ‘What’s up?’

‘The East India Company’s profits and the dividends in which our Lord Burlesdon is so concerned are melting away, so it’s got our Parliament to remove duties on sale of its tea and the company markets it directly throughout the empire. It’s not gone down too well in the American colonies, where the Company is squeezing out local importers. There’s been smuggling and all sorts of protest. The whole nature of the justice of parliament’s dealings in the colonies is bringing them to the boil. The resulting brew is likely to be a bitter one, so old Mossinger tells me.’

‘Our tea here is distilled from Dutch leaf,’ commented Waclaw. ‘I find it too scented and insipid for my taste. Still, my dear mother tells me it helps her migraines.’

When Waclaw went back to his work, Frank asked for the Munich embassy news. ‘Oh we manage,’ he replied, ‘though his lordship hasn’t replaced you, which means I have no one to lord it over even though I’m now described as “fourth secretary” and paid more. I think he added your salary to mine. Lord Burlesdon’s been quite a hit with the elector you know. Since he’s a Catholic, Max Joseph has been able to make him a knight of his order of St George, so his lordship now has a cross and ribbon to wear over his neckcloth. Ironic really, as he was denied the order of the Bath in England for the very same reason. Oh, and here’s a thing. His lordship is paying court to a lady!’

‘Really? Now that is news. Who is she?’

‘Quite a noble lady, the daughter of the Graf von Ortenburg, not an heiress but a great beauty in her early twenties. He’s definitely smitten. She’s serious too. I happen to know she’s found an English tutor.’

‘How will that go down in Whitehall I wonder?’ mused Freddie.

‘I should think it’ll barely register with them. They may even approve. His lordship has managed to fall for a woman of the only noble family in Bavaria which is stubbornly Lutheran. I have a feeling the marriage may occur next year, though nothing’s been announced formally.’

‘I must mention that in my next letter home to Burlesdon. Though the Lord alone knows how a mixed marriage can be carried out in our parish church.’

‘Hah! That at least can be remedied. I happen to know George Dunbar has the ability to carry out the marriage in the Munich embassy, as long as the required witnesses are present. So no need to go to England to tie the knot. And of course the lady’s family will be able to attend.’


‘So lieber Jimmy, marriage? This is letting the side down you know.’ Prince Henry and James Burlesdon were walking the coverts around the park of Burlesdon Hall. It was three days before Christmas 1773.

‘We knew it was going to happen one day. How else could there be a sixth earl? What about you, Heinz? You have a house now, though Frank Potts tells me it’s more like a library with bedrooms.’

‘I scoff. My marriage when it happens will be arranged by the Council of State, my choice in the timing and the wife is limited. I’ve not met Christina von Ortenburg, though she has a reputation as a woman of wit and considerable beauty. No doubt your people are putting up a portrait of the lady in the withdrawing room as we walk here.’

‘Portraits were exchanged on our engagement, as it happens. Aunt Osra sent a very nice letter, which also conveyed our father’s approval of the match. Not necessary of course, but still it was welcome. Cubbit is having a fine old time with the marriage contract. It’s had to be written in Latin since German was beyond him and English beyond the Ortenburg lawyer. Fortunately the settlement’s financial, so at least the complications of land law were avoided.’

‘Do the Ortenburgs know about your parentage?’

‘Nothing’s been said, but I imagine the gossip that I’m a son of King Rudolf won’t have passed them by. The county of Passau shares a mountain ridge with the kingdom of Ruritania, so it may have entered into their calculations that the marriage could lead to better relations with one of their neighbours.’

‘And where’s the union to be?’

‘Dr Dunbar will officiate in a small ceremony in the drawing room of the Munich embassy. However, the elector has asked to be represented as a friend and neighbour to the Ortenburgs. I’m hoping you’ll be there both as my best man and as family.’

‘I would not miss it, mein lieber Bruder.’ The prince paused. ‘A little business now, Jimmy. Father has asked me to bring up the Bavarian question with you. So let’s get it out of the way before the Christmas festivities begin.’

‘Business, eh? Not much to say is there? Max Joseph is never going to produce an heir now, so we just have to keep an eye on his health.’

‘Yes, and on what’s going on at Mannheim. His heir’s the elector Palatine, and sooner or later he’ll be elector of Bavaria too. Father’s agents in Mannheim, who include the French actress who’s Karl Theodor’s current mistress, have winkled out that he doesn’t want Bavaria at all, and would be happy to exchange his claim for another imperial province, if a deal could be made.’

James pondered silently for a dozen yards as they walked. ‘So father’s bothered that the emperor will make a bid to secure Bavaria in exchange for giving Karl Theodor some other fief when he comes into his inheritance?’ he eventually asked.

‘Exactly, which would mean he’d have the Habsburgs on three sides of Ruritania. It would be bound to change the relationship with Vienna, and probably for the worse.’

‘I see his difficulty. So is he moving into the anti-Habsburg camp? That’ll be a new thing. It’ll mean allying with Prussia. King Frederick will be delighted.’

Prince Henry shook his head. ‘Nothing so dramatic. He’s pinning his hopes on getting the Diet to refuse the exchange. So he needs the Elector of Hanover’s support.’

‘No point talking to me, Heinz. It has to go through Windlesham in Strelsau. But I tell you what, I’ll be seeing Rochford after Christmas. The best I can do is report this as intelligence from Mannheim.’

‘It’s a start, Jimmy. Now that’s out of the way we can get on with the holidays. I hear the Hunt will be meeting at the hall tomorrow.’

‘What? Oh, young Winslow will have told you. I can lend you a hunter and a red jacket. You’ve never joined it before. How was it you described the foxhunt? “The unmentionable in pursuit of the uneatable”?’

The prince chuckled. ‘Rather a good line if I say so myself. Worthy of a greater wit than mine. No, I’ll see you off but that’s all. Freddie on the other hand is very eager to risk his neck at all those hedges Mr Cubbit has planted over the former common land. He’ll die a martyr to agricultural progress. I hope that will comfort him.’


The Christmas meeting of the hunt and the riding of the Bursledon coverts was not one that was destined to go down in its annals as one of its great meets. Young Charlie Winslow rode to hounds with his brother for the first time, but was not destined to be blooded that day. The pack only started one vixen which shook the hunt off after a run of only a quarter of a mile towards Walsham Common. Also it rained relentlessly. Much to Charlie’s amusement, his brother took a tumble when his mount refused to leap an unexpected, newly-cut ditch. He came up thickly coated in mud. Prince Henry met the returning riders at the front of Burlesdon Hall, and he too could not resist a smile at the state of his secretary.

‘Not hurt are you, Freddie?’ the prince asked.

‘No, sir.’

‘The ditch was two feet deep in mud, your highness!’ laughed young Charlie. ‘Like diving into a sticky brown and wet feather bed!’

‘Note the sympathy from my dear brother,’ Freddie growled.

‘Perhaps when you’ve cleaned yourself up at the rectory you can wait on me at the Hall. A matter has come up that needs discussion.’

When Freddie returned to the Hall in a more respectable state he found the earl doing his best to make up for the disappointment of the day with lavish entertainment of the huntsmen, drying themselves off before several roaring fires. He found Prince Henry as usual in the library, at a desk piled with writing materials. He took an indicated chair.

‘Freddie, some startling news reached me late yesterday evening. John Casimir, the former duke of Glottenburg, is dead, may his soul rest in peace.’

‘Indeed, sir. How did it happen?’

‘You’ll remember that after his abdication he and his current mistress retired to Württemberg to enjoy the lavish financial settlement that had been granted him. Duke Karl Eugen, his old mentor in villainy, gave him the château called Schloss Favorite in the park of Ludwigsburg as a temporary residence. I believe you know it.’

‘Yes sir, we visited it last year on the earl’s German progress.’

‘You’ll also have looked over the vast folly of Ludwigsburg itself, no doubt. There is within it a striking and ill-omened chamber called the Mirror Cabinet. Ill-omened because in 1737 Duke Karl Alexander, father of the present duke, was found dead within it in a pool of blood, though it is said no wound was found on his body. He died as his city of Stuttgart erupted in rebellion over his misgovernment. And to make the parallels all the more poignant, John Casimir’s body was found there ten days ago, also in a pool of blood though again with no wound on his body.’

‘Good heavens! Is murder suspected?’

‘Murder or suicide. My father the king is recalling me to Ruritania, but first I am to go to Ludwigsburg to investigate the death. The body is being kept for me to view before it is coffined and moved back to Glottenburg for the burial. Now, don’t think for a moment that I expect you to accompany me. I’ll be off at Stefansfest. You can join me in Strelsau in a couple of weeks as we had planned.’


Freddie was still musing on the news from Germany as he sat in the rectory pew in Burlesdon church for the Christmas morning service. It was the first time he had attended a service since he had left Munich, where he had loyally frequented George Dunbar’s weekly Anglican liturgies in a room hired by the embassy. George had managed to collect quite a large congregation in the end, including a number of Munich’s large Huguenot community. He preached in German rather than English, which was a further recommendation to outsiders.

Christmas at home was quite a welcoming occasion for Freddie, bringing back so many memories, and none more so than the church. That Christmas morning it was as usual decked in boughs of evergreen and wreaths of holly, and took him back to the Christmases of his childhood.

St Lawrence Burlesdon was a fine church, one of the greater churches of East Anglia, built in fifteenth-century Perpendicular, with windows of a spectacular size which flooded the large church with light. The garlanded box pews and galleries were full that morning, and the singing was appropriately joyous. The large Hall pew in the south transept was of course empty, but Freddie reflected that next year it would be occupied by a Protestant countess of Burlesdon, a subject which had his mother very excited. He was however unable to satisfy her curiosity about the future Lady Burlesdon, other than she was reputed to be a very beautiful woman.

The Revd Winslow was a preacher in the old style, which meant that when he mounted his pulpit the hourglass in front of his lectern would be turned at least once by the parish clerk before he finished. Not that what he preached was by any means tedious, and his son and the more educated of his parishioners valued the learning on display. But the children in the gallery reserved for the parish day school were soon abstracted or dozing. Freddie had a good view of their suffering, as the rectory pew was to the right of the pulpit and facing the south aisle gallery, where the children and the parish choir sat. Only one child seemed to be intent, a servant boy in a red livery coat. Freddie trawled his memory and seemed to recall that the servants of the Rassendyll Arms wore red.

The service ended and families trooped off through the churchyard after shaking the rector’s hand at the south door. Freddie kicked his heels waiting for his father at the lychgate, also offering Christmas wishes to the parishioners as they passed. One of the last to leave the church was the boy in red, who skipped happily down the path with a couple of other children with whom he was laughing and joking. When he reached Freddie he waved goodbye to the other children and grinned up at the man. He was a remarkably handsome specimen, with thick dark hair and eyes of a most striking blue. He may have been ten years of age. His livery coat was old-fashioned, cut in the fashion of the last century.

‘Hello!’ he said.

‘Merry Christmas, youngster,’ Freddie replied with a smile. ‘Do I know you?’

‘No,’ came the reply. ‘But I think you’ve heard of me.’

‘Are you at the Rassendyll Arms?’ Freddie asked.

The boy looked puzzled, and then shrugged. ‘No. What I meant is that we have a friend in common. Little Staszek. I’m Jonas.’