Mamma has always had a love for other people’s possessions. I well recall how mamma often sat, eyes closed, crocheting in her lap, and when asked what she was thinking, would smile and say, Tonafuratu.
There are advantages and disadvantages to being a younger son. The greatest disadvantage is that I shall never be King, while some say the greatest advantage is that I shall never be King, and thus am free to live a life unbounded by the strictures of court.
Be that as it may, I was unprepared for mamma’s request.
“Arthur,” she said, putting down her crocheting, “we wish you to see Herr Bismarck, whom we have reason to believe is in Berlin, for the purpose of asking if he will sell us the beautiful and enchanting island of Tonafuratu.”
“Yes, mamma,” I said dutifully.
“You shall be accompanied by the Honorable Mr. Charles Henchworth, of the Foreign Office. You shall be guided by him in all things.”
I said yes mamma again, packed my bags, and left for Berlin.
On the cross-channel boat, I said, “Charles, why does mamma want Tonafuratu? Surely the navy doesn’t need it for a coaling station. I’ve looked at the map, and Tonafuratu is just a speck on the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, far removed from everything, totally isolated.”
Charles was considerably older than I, and far wiser. He considered my words with a judiciousness quite worthy of the Foreign Office, and after a pause, with studied voice replied, “Your mother, sir, has fastened upon an idyllic fantasy, an island of contented beauty, far removed from the daily crises of our European world, an idyllic fantasy she retreats to when the task of being Queen quite overwhelms her.”
“I had no idea she was ever overwhelmed. She has always seemed quite placid to me.”
“In everything but the French she is placidity itself,” Henchworth said gravely.
“Ah, yes, the French. But tell me, is this island of Tonafuratu as idyllic as she believes?”
“Alas, no. Tonafuratu is volcanic in origin, the tip of a mountain sticking up rather insolently out of the sea, of no earthly use to anyone. Early in the century the island was visited by an American whaler, driven off course by storm, which touched down in search of water. Unfortunately, the whaler had smallpox aboard, to which the natives had no defense. Many years later the island was visited again, this time by a German warship. The huts were empty, the fields overgrown, the island overrun with feral pigs.”
“There were no inhabitants?”
“Scattered bones only. The German captain declared the island for the Kaiser, and quickly sailed away.”
“How horrible. Does mamma know this?”
“I don’t believe so. None dare tell her, so entranced is she with the very name. One admits Tonafuratu has a very musical sound.”
The French railway system leaves much to be desired, and the interminable journey was spent in small talk. Mr. Henchworth was not a traveling companion I would have chosen, especially shut up in a lurching, smoke filled French railway carriage. Inevitably, though, we reached the border and changed cars for Potsdam, where Charles intended we spend the night, before continuing on to Berlin in the morning.
“You will find the Hoffsinger Haus quite comfortable,” Henchworth assured me. “I have been there many times, and Frau Hoffsinger is hospitality itself.”
My late father, Prince Albert, was from Saxe-Coburg, so naturally I spoke German as a child, and was proud of my ability to do so. What I didn’t realize was that I spoke with a decided Saxe-Coburg accent, an accent deemed comical to Prussian ears, so that when I walked into the inn that evening, smiled at the proprietress and said, “Guten Abend,” she giggled.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” the proprietress said, with some effort changing the giggle to a smile, “I am Frau Hoffsinger. Welcome to Hoffsinger Haus.”
“We thank you,” Charles said amiably in unaccented German. “We shall require a light supper, a nice Riesling, perhaps a confection. I believe our rooms are ready?”
“Of course,” Frau Hoffsinger said. “Hans!”
An elderly German emerged from the shadow, knuckled his forehead, and took our bags. We followed, and after dressing, I found Charles in the common room, sitting at table, a glass of schnapps before him, chatting with Frau Hoffsinger. I joined them, and Frau Hoffsinger said, “Magdalena will have your supper in a few moments, sir. Will you accept a glass of schnapps, compliments of Hoffsinger Haus?”
I said I would, and there appeared before me the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Hair the color of newly minted, finely spun gold, eyes as blue and as deep as a Devon summer sky.
“Supper at last,” Charles said languidly, but I could not take my eyes off Magdalena.
“Guten Abend,” I smiled.
“Guten Abend, sir,” Magdalena curtsied, giggling prettily. She left, my eyes following every swaying motion of her lovely hips.
“She is not for you, my lad,” Henchworth said kindly. “You are a prince of the blood, and she but a serving wench. A most uncommonly beautiful serving wench, it is true, but a serving wench nonetheless. You must think of your wife and children. Have some of this delightful rabbit, and perhaps a glass of wine.”
“A man cannot think of rabbit at a time like this,” I protested, “nor of wife and children. Besides, I don’t yet have wife and children.”
“Not yet, of course, but your life is laid out for you. A royal marriage, royal children, royal grandchildren even, should things go well. There is talk of Princess Luise Margarete of Prussia.”
“I’ve seen her,” I said, making a face. “She compares unfavorably to our serving wench. Besides, she giggles at my accent.”
“Prussians are like that. The Prussians and French are crosses we English bear. Nonetheless, they are both useful at times, so bear them we must.”
“And our appointment with Herr Bismarck?”
“Tomorrow, at three.”
Frau Hoffsinger walked by, giving Henchworth a knowing glance. He excused himself and followed her through a door, leaving me alone with my thoughts of Magdalena.
“Will there be anything else, sir?” she asked, in a voice that could only have belonged to a particularly angelic angel.
My throat tightening, I could only mumble, “Nein, danke,” drawing another small giggle.
“Surely my accent is not all that amusing,” I said with mock severity, for I wanted only to hear her voice again, wanted only for her not to leave, desperately wanted her to stay, to sit, to talk.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” she stammered prettily, flushing a delightful shade of pink that would have put the loveliest of roses to shame. “Will that be all, sir?”
I retired to my room, glad of the dark corridor in which to hide my thoughts of Magdalena, not at all surprised to hear the laughing voice of Frau Hoffsinger from behind the door to Henchworth’s room.
Preparing for bed, I heard a knock at the door. I answered, and was astonished to find a still blushing Magdalena.
“May I turn down your bed, sir?” she asked, averting her eyes.
The rising sun turned the windows a dullish shade of gray. I wakened to confusion and wondrous memory, the steadily breathing form of the beautiful Magdalena beside me. I touched her gently, and she leapt awake, crying, “My God! It is morning! I must ready for breakfast!” She hurried into her clothes and ran from the room, taking my pounding heart with her.
The meeting with Chancellor Bismarck went very well. We quickly agreed on a price, and the papers were just as quickly drawn up. I had the feeling Bismarck thought us naïve, bumpkins perhaps, willing to pay good money for a piece of worthless real estate, and he was eager to complete the deal before we realized the error of our ways. We parted company with smiles and handshakes all around, the Chancellor permitting himself a small giggle at my Auf Wiedersehen.
“And now to home, with mission accomplished,” I congratulated myself as we left the Chancellery.
“Nay, lad,” Henchworth said calmly. “I have commissioned a landscape, by a well-known artist, of our new possession, which you shall present to your mother, and in which she will no doubt be delighted.”
“I gather there will be no feral pigs in the painting?”
“In the artist’s eye, Tonafuratu will be as idyllic as any island ever was, or ever could be.”
“Mother will be pleased.”
“Which should ever be our intent. In the meantime, perhaps a day or two stay at the comfortable Haus Hoffsinger may be in order.”
“Speaking of idyllic places,” I murmured, head spinning at the thought of Magdalena.
The ladies of Haus Hoffsinger were exceedingly generous of their time, and the days passed quickly, though pleasantly. The painting arrived, to my ultimate disappointment, and we set off for home. We arrived in London, weary but sated, proud of our accomplishments.
Mamma was as pleased as could be. She walked slowly around the easel, admiring her island. “Such a beautiful scene, dear Arthur,” she said gaily.
It was indeed a beautiful scene. In the foreground, a strong, handsome fisherman mended his nets, while youngsters frolicked on the white sandy beach. Behind them, palm trees leaned precariously, seemingly protectively, above a beautiful young mother suckling a child.
“And who is the artist, Charles?” mamma asked, squinting at the signature.
“A Dutchman, Madame, or perhaps a Fleming. I know him only as Vincent. I understand he has been to the south seas, or perhaps that was the other fellow. In any event, the chap paints islands remarkably well.”
“Indeed,” mamma said, gazing lovingly at the painting, “he paints very well for someone not English.” She turned to me and said, “Thank you, Arthur. You are a dutiful son. Tonafuratu is indeed a jewel of empire, a place of refuge, where the cares of the crown may be laid aside when the French become more unspeakable than usual, when the Prussians become more brutish than usual. Thank you, my son. Thank you, Charles. You may convey our gratitude to the Foreign Office.”
We bowed our way out, closing the heavy wooden doors behind us.
“We have done a service for England, lad,” Henchworth said gravely. “A place of refuge from the cares of the crown indeed. Your mother has much to worry her, my boy. The sun never sets and all that. Yes, when the French behave more unbearably than usual, or the wogs act up, or even cotton futures sag, all are grist for the worry mill, and when those worries grow too large even for a woman as large as your mother, why she will have a place of retreat, an idyllic island all her own, a perfect paradise.”
“We should all have our idyllic islands, Charles.”
We parted. I left the palace hurriedly, eager to get to my own idyllic island. On the street I hailed a hansom, the slow clip clop of the hooves driving me mad with frustration at the slowness of uncaring beasts of burden. The cab stopped in front of an unassuming door in an unassuming street. I leapt from the cab and flung open the door. “Ich bin hier!” I cried.