Part 2 seems to have disappeared from where it originally was, so I'm reposting both bits here!
Johnny Stewart is the great nephew of Jonty Stewart. His four part story will be related by Mrs Cochrane, official biographer to the Stewart family, over the course of this year’s Cambridge Fellows series blog tour.
Roger Henley looked out at the Thames, from his mother’s hotel suite. This was going to be a wearing evening and they hadn’t even got round to the dinner guests arriving, let alone sitting down. His godmother had burst her appendix, so a last minute replacement had to be found—probably in the form of cousin Mary—but worse still, Sophia was going to be here.
He’d be the one who’d have to take Sophia in on his arm, have to put up with her flirting all evening and, worse still, also have to contend with his mother’s insinuations about what a nice couple they’d make. She’d got brother Henry engaged to be married within a few months and therefore the possibility of grandchildren pretty well sewn up, so why make such a palaver with him?
And Johnny Stewart would be there. The evening had the potential to be disastrous.
“Are you even listening, Roger?” His mother’s voice cut into his thoughts.
“Of course,” he lied.
“And do you agree?” She fixed him with a gimlet gaze. What would he be letting himself in for if he just said “Yes”? It wasn’t worth the risk.
“Sorry, mother, you were right. I wasn’t paying attention.” He needed to defuse the potential explosion. “There was a rather pretty girl out on the embankment and I got a bit distracted.”
“Ah.” His mother’s tone softened. “All I said was that I suspect that in regard to your reference to your godmother’s medical condition, the word is appendices and not appendixes but we’ll let that go. Was she as pretty as Sophia?”
Roger narrowly avoided asking, “who?”, but he’d always been good at thinking on his feet and managed, “How can I answer that without getting myself into trouble with one or other of you? Would ‘equally pretty’ do?”
“A diplomatic answer, dear.” She sighed. “If only your cousin Mary were as pretty.”
I span round to answer her, then decided I preferred the view of the Thames to the view of a condescending maternal face.
“I hope Mary meets a duke one day, one who falls head over heels in love so she then makes a more brilliant marriage for herself than any other female in the family.”
“Since when have you appointed yourself as Mary’s knight in armour?” Roger’s mother’s voice was cool and languid, the one she adopted when she wanted to let his temper blow itself out.
“Since I was old enough to realise how rotten the family is to her. God preserve all spinsters and save them from the machinations of their married relatives.” Roger span on his heels. “This tie needs straightening.”
He ran into his maternal aunt on the way to finding a mirror, which was blessing in that she sorted it for him and kept him out of his mother’s way until he could calm down.
“I hear Johnny Stewart will be here tonight. I’ll enjoy sitting next to him. There.” Aunt Jacinta added the finishing touch to the bow.
“Better you than me. Johnny’s the most insufferable person it’s ever been my misfortune to come across.” Roger ran his hands through his hair.
“You must dislike him intensely,” his aunt said, drily, “to employ that particular gesture. You always used to do it as a lad when you came to stay and we presented you with something you didn’t want to eat. Or asked you a question you didn’t want to answer.”
He felt a bloody embarrassing flush rising up his neck; why did Aunt Jacinta always see straight through him? Did she know exactly what was going on inside his mind to make him so defensive?
Johnny bloody Stewart. Why had he got to keep coming back and making life so difficult?
Roger tried to rally. “Anyone would run their hands through their hair—or tear great clumps of it out—if they had to deal with him for any length of time. He was bad enough at school and hasn’t improved with maturity.”
“That sounds like you then, dear. Peas in a pod.” Aunt Jacinta fixed him with a smile like an auger. She might look one hundred and forty in her bombazine and lace, but that look, and the machinations of the mind behind it, could strike fear in any man.
“Just don’t vex him, would you, dear? If he’s hardly your favourite person, at least be polite.”
“I will do my utmost.” He swallowed hard. Normally, medical students would be beneath his mother’s notice, but this one being the great-grandson of a lord made a difference and she’d been delighted to invite him in the absences of Roger’s godfather, who was at his now hopefully appendix-less wife’s bedside.
How could Roger ever explain about Johnny? There were two insurmountable obstacles—finding the right words to make anyone else understand the feelings he’d had for Johnny since he first caught sight of him as a spotty youth of sixteen and having to deal with her inevitably negative reaction if he did get his point across. He supposed he was too old—and the matter too serious—to just get away with being taken over her knee, whacked, sent to his room and then allowed to come down half an hour later if he showed the right amount of contrition.
Not even Aunt Jacinta could be as understanding about things as to allow that.
Disgrace, disorder, his mother’s tears, his father’s horsewhip? Not that his father would actually resort to the whip, no matter how often he talked about using it on miscreants, although the outcome would be just about the same. Cut off without a penny and none of the Henleys ever talking to him again. And while that idea might be an attractive one in the case of Uncle Frederick, the general aspect didn’t appeal.
Try as he might, Roger couldn’t think of any way to sweeten the pill, whatever words he could use to describe how he felt.
There was this chap at school, Stewart, J.O. Year below me; came to the school when I was seventeen. I liked the look of him from the start; he had an air about him, power restrained and all that. He matured and filled out a bit faster than more of the spotty oiks of his age. Lost most of the spots, too. Cocky little sod, though. Opinionated.
“Yes, aunt?” His mind came back from school days to the present, and two females, his mother having appeared, trying to usher him out of the suite.
“Daydreaming again. His worst fault,” she said, bundling him through the door.
Roger reminded himself that if that remained her opinion of what was his worst fault, then all in the garden was still rosy.
Johnny was already in the foyer, chatting to Sophia. His dark blond hair was under control, for once, while his blue eyes seemed to dance with pleasure at the arrival of his hostess. Roger thought his heart was going to lunge straight through his rib cage.
“Mrs. Henley!” He bowed over her hand. “Thank you so much for inviting me as locum tenens.”
“Thank you for stepping in.” Mrs. Henley was clearly delighted. “Cousin Mary will be delighted to meet you.”
Johnny looked at Roger, one eyebrow raised. “I didn’t know you had a cousin, Roger. Where have you been hiding her?”
“Away from rogues like you. Sophia,” Roger said, heading off any comment Johnny was going to make, “you look lovely.”
“Thank you. It’s just an old thing.” She smoothed her dress, one which was clearly anything but old.
“Johnny,” Mrs. Henley waved her hands airily, “would you be a sweetheart and take in Aunt Jacinta when we progress to dinner?”
“It would be my pleasure.” It sounded like it would be the highlight of Johnny’s evening. Roger wasn’t sure if his discomfort was irritation at his oiliness or simple jealousy. Why couldn’t he be on Johnny’s arm?
“I was sorry to hear about Mr. Henley’s accident,” he continued. “He’s quite right to rest that leg up for a while. Sorry he’s missing all the fun, though. Was the matinee good?”
“Excellent thank you,” Mrs. Henley purred, blossoming under the attention. Roger noted that every woman in the party had slowly drifted into Johnny’s vicinity, like bees after honey. Or wasps after jam. “Malcolm won’t be sorry he missed that part. He’s never one for the theatre, or for coming up to town in general.”
“Do you think he hurt his leg deliberately to get out of it? Shall I horsewhip him for you?” Maybe only Johnny could have said that and got away with it. Roger had met his great uncle, Jonty—when he was up at Cambridge—and the man was the same. Able to charm the birds from the trees.
“Only if he doesn’t enjoy the birthday dinner I have planned when we get home. And this is for me, of course. My friends. Old and new.” Mother looked graciously around her guests then took Detective Superintendent Matthew Firestone—her godfather’s—arm. “I’m so pleased you could all come. Shall we go through? They’ve laid on some cocktails for us.”
“Oh, lovely,” Sophia said, slipping her arm through Roger’s. Johnny smirked at him, the swine, and they processed towards the private dining room.
The table looked lovely, but the cocktails looked even lovelier, if they’d help Roger cope with the twin trials of Sophia’s doe eyes and Johnny’s…everything. Roger had given up any hope of the bloke fancying him, but the chap could at least be civil. Mary had arrived and Mrs. Henley was asking how her journey from Loughton had been, with none of the gratitude on display she’d shown to Johnny.
“My mother pushes that poor girl from pillar to post.” Roger hissed at Matthew, wondering how many cocktails he could consume and still manage to get all his sibilants out. He managed to detach himself temporarily from Sophia on the pretext of circulating and was half way through his perambulations when the manager slipped into the room, making a beeline for Matthew. He appeared to be delivering some sort of intriguing message, given the expression on Matthew’s but before Roger could manoeuvre himself into hearing range, his mother nabbed him.
“Roger. Why did I never meet this delightful young man when you were at school together?”
“I didn’t realise it was de rigeur for me to bring everyone back for tea” Roger didn’t want to talk about Johnny Stewart, not when the half heard words being spoken over his shoulder were so much more interesting.
“I wish he had invited me. Did you have apple cake?” Johnny directed the questions at Roger’s mother, which at least saved him trying not to say, “I couldn’t trust myself enough to invite you.”
“I wish Roger had. It would have made a change from some of the spotty specimens he dragged along.”
Roger bridled. How ridiculous, his own mother flirting with a man young enough to be her son! He rolled his eyes, but the protest he wanted to make got cut off, as Matthew cuffed him on the shoulder.
“Sorry to interrupt. Got a question for you. Did Ivor Gregg seem quite himself at the matinee?”
Roger frowned. “Quite himself? I think so. In good voice, as ever.”
“He was marvellous,” Mrs. Henley said, girlishly.
“Why do you ask?” And why had Matthew adopted his professional, rather than avuncular, tones?
“Because he’s disappeared. Not turned up for the evening performance, and can’t be found in any of his usual haunts. Totally out of character.”
“Perhaps he’s had an accident?” Mrs. Henley flapped her hands.
“Perhaps, although the management say they’ve rung round all the likely hospitals where he’d be if he had.” Matthew shrugged.
Aunt Jacinta had joined the group. “That doesn’t strike me as being the sort of case you’d be called in on, Matthew.”
“It wouldn’t be, normally. But he’s had threats made to him.” Matthew bowed over his goddaughter’s hand. “I’m afraid I have to take my leave, my dear.”
“Phew.” Johnny whistled. “The thick plottens.”
The Adventures of Johnny Stewart Part 2
Ivor Gregg wasn’t in any of the local hospitals, or so Matthew’s highly efficient second in command reported back to him as he rang in to Scotland Yard. Johnny Stewart hadn’t actually heard all the conversation but a man of intelligence could put something together from the half he possessed, rather like vertebrate palaeontologists could construct a whole creature from just a few bones. Not that he’d acquired this particular talent from any scientist—his great uncle Jonty had learned the skill as soon as his partner Orlando Coppersmith decided that the telephone was an instrument to be trusted and employed, and he’d given Johnny some useful tips.
Johnny didn’t exactly offer his help to Matthew Firestone, that might be a touch premature at present, but was hovering in the background trying to look indispensable. He’d dragged Roger with him, the old surly face having “ummed” and “ahhed” and only agreed when Sophia had insisted he didn’t go and play detectives.
“What makes you think you can find him? The police have all the resources, not us,” Roger hissed in his ear.
“Who says I was thinking I could find him?”
“Your smug looking face and the greyhound look in your eyes says. Say.” Roger frowned. “And why else would you be hanging around here?”
Jonny neatly avoided answering the question. “Ivor Gregg has to be somewhere and there has to have been a sort trail that could be followed, between his leaving the theatre and arriving there, wherever ‘there’ is. QED he can be found.”
“I’d forgotten your logical streak.” The words didn’t sound complimentary. “Typical zoologist. But maybe you’re wrong this time. What if he’s been whisked away by whoever made the threats and is even now on his way up the Thames in a fast boat. Or lying at the bottom of said river with a weight tied to his ankles? Or put in a furnace and burned, so all that remains is some ashes? And those have been scattered to the wind?”
“Must you always explode my favourite theories?” Johnny frowned. “You’re so bloody defeatist. No sense of adventure or romance.”
“Who needs adventure or romance?”
Johnny wished he could control the flush he could feel forming behind his ears, trying by willpower alone to make it stop there and not spread to his face. Who needed romance? Anybody with an ounce of fire in their soul.
“I—” Johnny was interrupted by Matthew.
“Sorry to butt in, lads. Just wanted to say that you can return to your dinner. I’ve set the wheels in motion and now I’ll have to go and check that they’re grinding small enough.”
“If there’s anything we can do…”
“Taking after your great uncle, are we, young Jonathan?” Matthew slapped his shoulder. “You’d better leave this to the experts.” He backed off a step or two then stopped. “Actually…”
“Yes?” Roger and Johnny spoke in unison, then looked at each other aghast at having done so.
“If you could talk to the people backstage at the theatre, that would be very useful. They’re being less than frank with us, my Inspector says. I believe you have some connections there?”
“I do.” Johnny wasn’t going to specify exactly what those connections were. He looked at Roger who—seemingly reluctantly—nodded. “We’re your men.”
Johnny led the way to the theatre, trying to play down any qualms at what might confront him there. They had no trouble getting past the doorman, this being a route that Johnny had taken on many occasions, so all that had to do was wait backstage and not get themselves under anyone’s feet.
“Hello, dear.” A deep but slightly camp voice sounded in Johnny’s ear, making him start.
“Rupert.” He whispered, turning round. “Just the man I want to see.”
“Lucky me.” Rupert, who had a boyish charm despite being ten years older than his cheeky expression suggested, grinned delightedly. “I’ve got ten minutes before I’m on again, come to the dressing room.”
The transition from dark to light as they stepped into the room made Johnny blink, and Roger looked slightly stupefied, if not a touch disgusted.
“You have done well for yourself,” Rupert said, eyeing Roger up and down.
Johnny laughed and waved his hand airily. “Alas, we’re not here for chit chat. It’s about Ivor Gregg.” Best to get down to business before Roger could ask what doing well for himself might refer to.
“He’s done a bunk, dear.” Rupert casually lit a cigarette.
“We know. We’re trying to help find him. Maybe people will be a little more willing to talk to us than to the police.”
“You’re better looking than the police, certainly. But what more can we say?” Rupert flicked some ash into a glass ashtray. “I don’t know where he’s got himself off to any more than anyone else does.”
Roger was clearly tired of just being part of a dumb show. “He had threatening letters.”
“He speaks!” Rupert cried, delightedly. “And yes, he did. The company are aware of the fact but not the content.”
“So what is it you’re keeping back from the police? Because we’re aware of that fact, if not the content.”
“He’s clever with it. Why have you never brought him round the back before?”
“Just answer the question,” Johnny said wearily, aware that Roger looked fit to burst with anger.
“Ah, well, you see, Ivor is rather too fond of certain things. Certain illegal things. We wouldn’t want to besmirch his good name.”
Roger pounced again. “What sort of illegal things?”
“Oh, not what you’re thinking of, dearie. Not errand boys and cottages or anything like that.”
“Drugs, then?” Johnny asked, before Roger could ask something like “What does an errand boy delivering a telegram to a nice cottage with roses round the door have to do with anything?”
“No. Gambling. The tables. And he’s not very good at it, or not very lucky, or goes to places where they stack the odds, or whatever’s caused his huge losing streak.” Rupert leaned forward, confidentially. “I didn’t say any of this, of course.”
“Of course you didn’t. Nor did you tell me where these dens of iniquity are.” Johnny smiled his most alluring smile, which produced the desired effect, Rupert reaching for a pen and paper to jot down a name and address. Shame the alluring smile didn’t ever seem to work on Roger, who was looking dyspeptic, as usual.
They left the theatre, address in hand, stopping on the pavement to decide their next step.
“What did he mean by ‘you’ve done well for yourself’?” Roger, still scowling, looked up and down the road, as though the answer might be written on the side of a taxi cab.
“Oh, he was just being saucy. Actors usually are. You learn to ignore it.” Johnny kept his voice airy.
“And what did he mean by cottages?”
“Actors’ slang.” Johnny rapidly changed the subject. “What next? Fancy going round here?” He waved the piece of paper.
“That’s Matthew’s job. Or one of his merry men.”
“Are the police that merry?” Johnny asked, immediately regretting it as Roger gave him a dirty look. Why did life have to be quite so complicated?
He remembered the first time they’d met, in Cambridge, when Roger had been visiting a mutual friend at Johnny’s college, St. Bride’s. They’d almost collided on the stairs up to some of the garret rooms, and he’d not been exactly polite to Roger, but then he’d been taken entirely by surprise by what a handsome chap he was.
“Haven’t you got anything useful to do, rather than hanging around here getting in people’s way?” he’d said, then swept past, as an apology followed him down the stairs and made him stop.
“Sorry.” There was no real contrition in Roger’s voice, just the touch of aggression Johnny had come to realise was typical of him. Or at least typical in Johnny’s company; other people seemed to get away lightly. “I wasn’t aware I was hanging around.” He’d turned on his heels and gone, whistling a jaunty tune.
Johnny thought about following, to confront the man and ask why he’d been so rude. That would have involved having to look into those deep brown eyes once more, trying hard not to look at the lines of the mouth or the curve of his chin, the pronounced cheekbones that gave the man’s face such grace. Too much looking at such a face was going to lead to sordid thoughts and sullied actions, exploration alone in bed with only thoughts as a companion and a lip bitten hard to stave off shouting out.
“Haven’t you got your own bloody college to infect?” He’d shouted up the stairs, as a departing thrust. As a reproof it was harsh, but it was covering up all the mixed emotions that were swimming through Johnny’s brain.
Those emotions hadn’t got much better over the next few weeks, when their paths seemed determined to cross. It was bad enough catching sight of Roger—he’d learned by now, with careful questioning, that was his name—out at rugby practice or wandering off to some lecture but to have him loitering about St. Bride’s with his pal, looking stupidly gorgeous, was too much.
Roger’s voice, very much in the present day, cut into Johnny’s thoughts. “I said, are you going to give Matthew that address or not?”
“Yes. Only not yet. What if Rupert’s got it wrong? We should make sure we’re passing on reliable information. We don’t want the police going on a wild goose chase.” He hadn’t actually intended to say that, or be quite so forceful, but those memories had befuddled his brain.
“So what are you proposing? Going to that club ourselves?”
“Why not? I can think of a million reasons why not. The top of the list being that if Ivor Gregg’s gone missing, we don’t want to end up missing as well.”
It was a valid point but Johnny wasn’t in any mood to be sensible. “If you’re scared you can hurry back to your beloved Sophia. I’m sure she’ll be delighted to have you back at her side.”
They stood, staring at each other in silence for what seemed an age.
“I’m not scared, just level-headed. And I’m coming with you. Somebody has to make sure you don’t get your head kicked in.”
Johnny swallowed hard. For all these years he’d been suppressing his attraction to Roger, certain that any hope was in vain, that the chap would marry one of the succession of fillies Mrs. Henley lined up for him. Was he now reading something into that reply which hadn’t been there? Surely the decision to go with him rather than return to the dinner couldn’t be based on taking pleasure in his company? Roger had always appeared to make it plain he despised him.
“You’re off again.” Roger’s voice cut once more into Johnny’s thoughts.
“I’m just thinking of our entry strategy.” Lucky he could think quickly. “We can’t use Ivor’s name, for obvious reasons. I’ve got an idea, though. Rupert was a touch too quick at providing a name and address for the club. I bet he’s been there. We can legitimately say we’re his friends.”
“And have to hope he hasn’t blotted his copybook there.”
“He won’t.” Johnny just stopped himself saying that Rupert had blotted his copybook in many a club, only not the sort of establishment they were going to. “Looks like you’ll have to make time for adventure, then. Maybe you’ll even find romance,” he added, boldly.
Roger turned towards the road, looking to hail a cab. “I never think of romance.”
“More fool you.” Johnny couldn’t think of anything but romance at times like this, with Roger so close, so full of life and energy, and seemingly ready to take on some escapade together.
“Better a fool than a broken heart.” And with that enigmatic pronouncement, Roger’s arm shot out, a cab drew up, and the game was afoot.