Lessons for Idle Tongues (A Cambridge Fellows Mystery)

Lessons for Idle Tongues (A Cambridge Fellows Mystery), by Charlie Cochrane
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-271-4
eBook release: 
Jun 29, 2015
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-272-1
Print release: 
Jun 29, 2015
Word count: 
64,100
Page count: 
247
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Cambridge, 1910

Amateur detectives Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith seem to have nothing more taxing on their plate than locating a missing wooden cat and solving the dilemma of seating thirteen for dinner. But one of the guests brings a conundrum: a young woman has been found dead, and her boyfriend is convinced she was murdered. The trouble is, nobody else agrees.

Investigation reveals that several young people in the local area have died in strange circumstances, and rumours abound of poisonings at the hands of Lord Toothill, a local mysterious recluse. Toothill’s angry, gun-toting gamekeeper isn’t doing anything to quell suspicions, either.

But even with a gun to his head, Jonty can tell there’s more going on in this surprisingly treacherous village than meets the eye. And even Orlando’s vaunted logic is stymied by the baffling inconsistencies they uncover. Together, the Cambridge Fellows must pick their way through gossip and misdirection to discover the truth.

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Chapter One

The Stewarts’ home, London, 1910

“Thirteen for dinner. It’s desperately unlucky, Jonathan.” Mrs. Stewart pronounced the fact as though it were gospel truth that disaster must follow upon such a situation. “It can’t be countenanced.”

Jonty Stewart — expert on Shakespeare’s sonnets, distinguished fellow of St. Bride’s College, Cambridge, but apparently barely more than a seven-year-old boy as far as his mother was concerned — rolled his eyes. He was obviously already in trouble, given her use of the full version of his name.

“Thirteen’s certainly a cursed number,” Orlando Coppersmith agreed. As the most brilliant mathematician at the same august institution, he should have been in the best position to know, but he usually had no truck with associating luck — good or otherwise — with ordinal numbers.

Jonty rolled his eyes again. “You’ve changed your usual tune.”

Orlando drew himself up to his full, impressive height, his exceptionally handsome appearance complemented by the perfection of his dinner jacket. His abundant locks were, as usual, only just being kept under control. He’d always been a fine-looking creature, and at last he had begun to believe it, which added to the overall impression.

“If you’d let me finish,” he said, “I was about to say it was cursed in people’s minds, from full-blown triskaidekaphobia to simply not wanting to live in a house bearing the number.”

“I’d agree with that.” Mr. Stewart nodded enthusiastically. He was a splendidly handsome creature as well, even though his head bore barely a hair. Given the splendour of the costumes on show and the natural good looks of the four people wearing them, anybody peering through the window of the Stewarts’ drawing room might have labelled the tableau A typical representation of the cream of the new Georgian society, seen in its home.

But there was nothing typical about the Stewarts. Mr. Stewart was a lord but refused to use his title; Mrs. Stewart was the daughter of an earl but had been known — in her younger days — to lay out unwanted suitors with a right hander that wouldn’t have disgraced a prize fighter; and the youngest Stewart was not only a Cambridge fellow, but indulged in amateur sleuthing with his colleague.

And, of course, the least typical thing about them was that Jonty and Orlando were lovers, a situation of which the Stewarts were aware and seemed supremely unbothered.

It had become a matter of routine for Jonty and Orlando to spend part of the long vacation in the company of Jonty’s parents, usually en route to more exotic climes. This summer was no exception, the south of Italy being on the menu and a few days in London being a delightful hors d’oeuvre.

“I think it’s the superstition itself that brings bad luck, like it probably does on Friday the thirteenth,” Jonty said airily. “All those people looking over their shoulders, worrying about the slightest thing; it’s bound to make something daft happen, isn’t it? Maybe all the little mishaps which occur every day of the week get counted that particular Friday, in the same way they might be counted when someone’s walked under a ladder. And maybe exactly the same mishaps would be forgotten about if they happened on Tuesday the twenty-first, or after the person concerned had gone round the ladder in question.”

Mr. Stewart nodded. “Excellent point. Like so many things, it’s all in the mind. It must go back to the Last Supper, of course,” he continued.

At the theological reference, Jonty switched onto automatic mode, nodding and saying, “Oh, yes, I see,” and taking little notice. It tended to be the most effective strategy when being lectured. He’d had plenty of practice, during all those hours when Orlando was twittering on about vectors or random numbers or some such nonsense.

The Last Supper — yes, Jonty had always suspected there’d been more people milling about than reported in the gospels. And hadn’t Judas gone sneaking off at some point to leave just the twelve, which made the unlucky number aspect all a bit illogical? Whatever the reasoning behind it, the thing was just bloody stupid.

“I said, ‘Wouldn’t you agree, Jonathan?’”

“Absolutely.” Jonty nodded enthusiastically. He hadn’t actually heard his mother’s question, but — statistically, as Orlando would appreciate — there was a ninety percent chance that it was safest just to agree with whatever she had said.

“I was saying that I shouldn’t feel cross at Dr. Roberts’ having let us down at the last minute,” Mrs. Stewart continued, in a manner suggesting she was perfectly aware that her youngest son hadn’t been listening. “I’m sure he didn’t intend his appendix to explode, or whatever appendixes do to themselves to require being removed immediately.”

“Of course he didn’t.” Mr. Stewart, who had been having his annual check — ensuring the working of his engine, as he described it — at the time, had witnessed it all. “He was midconsultation when he just keeled over, face like a ghost. I thought he’d died.” Mr. Stewart had called for an ambulance, the physician in question clearly not being able to heal himself.

“I’ve sent him flowers” — Mrs. Stewart made a helpless gesture — “but they won’t be any use in rustling up a guest for tonight at the last moment. I suppose we’ll have to find somebody to draft in. I did wonder about Simon Bouverie, seeing as he’s in town.” Mrs. Stewart seemed to be deliberately avoiding her nearest and dearest’s gaze. “If he wouldn’t mind —”

“If he didn’t mind, then he damn well should.” Mr. Stewart rapped a tattoo with his knuckles on the chair arm.

“Language, Richard.”

“Sorry, Helena, but poor Simon gets a bad enough deal from this family. Ignored eleven-twelfths of the time and then expected to drop everything just to help us out.” Mr. Stewart turned to Orlando with a frown. “You won’t have met Simon, will you? He’s been abroad most of the time since you hove onto the horizon.”

“Richard, Orlando is not a battleship! He did not hove onto the horizon or any such nonsense.” She favoured Orlando with a charming smile, as a consequence not seeing Mr. Stewart rolling his eyes and grinning, which was just as well or he’d have had a full broadside. Mrs. Stewart could always be relied on to take her not-quite-son-in-law’s part against all comers, even in precedence to her husband’s and son’s. The smug little grin — quickly hidden — on Orlando’s face acknowledged how much pleasure he drew from that fact. Jonty didn’t begrudge him it, not really — he’d had precious little affection from his own family.

Mr. Stewart took up the account again. “Simon had the bad luck to be born to a wastrel of a father, Charlie Bouverie, a one-time friend of my uncle. He always hung about with us when we were younger. Nice lad. Officially he was Charlie’s ward, but then it turned out he was the natural son, born the wrong side of the blanket. Poor Simon became a bit of a . . . social embarrassment might be the best way to describe it. I mean, my family was very polite to him, of course, didn’t ban him from the house or anything, but there was always an air of being tainted by association. Or condescension, which is possibly worse.”

“Poor chap.” Orlando spoke with evident feeling. The Stewarts could have found him an embarrassment, or an object for pity, but he’d always been treated as Jonty’s equal. Mrs. Stewart circulating the story that he was her ward had, naturally, helped to keep up that standing with society as a whole. Had anybody discovered the truth about Orlando’s father’s bastardy and suicide, and then dared use that against him, the full might of the Stewart family would have come down upon them.

“Can we please get back to the matter of my dinner table and how I avoid disaster?” Mrs. Stewart wrung her handkerchief. “Is there nobody you could conjure up for me?”

“What about Dr. Peters?” Orlando said from the direction of the bookshelf, where he’d been greedily eyeing a book about the use of codes by Queen Elizabeth’s secret agents.

“Is he in town?” Mrs. Stewart’s distressed tone had disappeared, to be replaced with girlish enthusiasm. Dr. Peters, the master of St. Bride’s, was charming, handsome, and erudite. “Could you get him to come? He would be an ornament to any woman’s table.”

Not least because he was remarkably good-looking, Jonty thought, but wisely kept to himself. His mother had an elastic arm that could slap one of her offspring, irrespective of age, at about twenty yards. It was a shame that Ariadne, the master’s sister, wasn’t in the city; she would provide the erudition and charm without reducing Mrs. Stewart to drooling.

“He’s advising on an exhibition at the British Museum,” Orlando said. “I believe we should be able to contact him via the St. Bride’s porters’ lodge. Would you like me to try?”

“Please do, dear.” Mrs. Stewart beamed. “Avail yourself of all our facilities. Say there’s a lady who needs a white knight. Or a man on a white horse. Or something.”

Unfortunately, all the facilities at the disposal of St. Bride’s couldn’t actually connect Orlando with his quarry, although a message was left at his hotel to ring the Stewarts as a matter of urgency.

“What about the cat?” Mr. Stewart suddenly asked, in the sort of voice and with the sort of expression Archimedes must have used when he discovered his principle.

“What cat?” Orlando and Mrs. Stewart replied in unison.

“The cat they keep at the Dauphine Hotel. Great wooden monstrosity that gets wheeled out when there aren’t the required number of people at dinner and some superstitious soul wants to make the numbers up. He takes the fourteenth place.” Mr. Stewart looked suitably pleased with himself. “We could ask to borrow him.”

“Him? Are you sure he’s wooden and not some horrible moggy?” Orlando had no great love for feline creatures, or indeed for small furry animals of any sort. Apart from Jonty.

“He’s wooden all right,” Mr. Stewart assured him. “You can rap him on the head and check if you want. Would he work, Helena?”

“He certainly would. If you could ask, please, Richard.” Mrs. Stewart sounded and looked as she must have done when they were courting, all girlish enthusiasm and a dimpled smile. No wonder Jonty’s papa had been so smitten.

“I’ll get round there right now and talk to the manager. I’m sure he couldn’t resist an entreaty on behalf of a damsel in distress. Come on.” He gestured to his sometime fellow investigators. “You can add your most persuasive voices to the entreaty.”

“I’d love to, but I think I should stay here.” Orlando returned to his chair. “Just in case Dr. Peters returns our telephone call.”

“Excellent point, dear.” Mrs. Stewart reached across to pat his arm. “And you can keep me from fretting. I can always lay a fifteenth place if we end up with both Dr. Peters and the cat, but thirteen will not happen.”

***

Jonty hadn’t been in the Dauphine in years, but it didn’t seem to have changed that much. His father always averred that it was almost the same as when he used to take Jonty’s mother there — chaperoned, of course — in their courting days. The Stewarts still wandered over sometimes to have dinner, and not just for the sake of nostalgia.

“Mr. Stewart!” A tow-haired chap, maybe Jonty’s age, greeted them as they came through the revolving door. “A pleasure to see you, sir. Will you be gracing us with your presence at lunch?”

“No, alas, Mr. Chuter.” Mr. Stewart spoke to the man with the same easy respect with which he addressed anybody, from highest to lowest in the land. “Taking the nosebag at home today. You’ll not have met my youngest, Jonty . . .” He effected the introductions between his son and the deputy manager of the hotel with his usual practiced grace. “Is Mr. Wilmot available, by any chance?”

“Not at present, sir. Would I be able to help you?” Chuter looked disappointed at being passed over. He also eyed Jonty with a slight degree of trepidation, something that was becoming common now that the combination of Stewart and Coppersmith — not Coppersmith and Stewart, the cadence was all wrong with that combination — were gaining such public notoriety for their feats of amateur detection.

“I’m sure you would.” Mr. Stewart nodded sagely. “It’s about the cat. Montgomery.”

Chuter couldn’t have looked more relieved if he’d been in the thick of things at Mafeking when the siege was lifted. “Oh. Begging your pardon, gentlemen, but I assumed you were here on . . . detective business. I was concerned that one of our guests or — heaven forfend — one of the staff had blotted their copybook.”

“Nothing like that.” Mr. Stewart patted the man on the shoulder. “Although we’ll have blotted ours if we return home empty-handed. Montgomery’s services haven’t been booked for this evening, by any wonderful chance?”

“Not that I’m aware of, sir. Do you need him at your table?”

“I’m afraid I’m seeking more than that. We wondered, Helena and I, whether we could take him home and let him be our guest for dinner? We’d bring him back first thing tomorrow,” he added, maybe in case Chuter thought they’d never see the cat again.

“That should be quite in order.” Chuter smiled, inclined his head at Mr. Stewart’s profuse thanks, and summoned over a porter. “Launchbury, could you fetch Montgomery? He’s going to have an outing.”

“Well done, Papa.” Jonty tipped his head to one side, admiring, in an abstract sort of way, the neat cut of the porter’s trousers — or maybe the neat line of his backside. “Looks like your plan’s going to save the day. Maybe we have time for a snifter?”

“Oh, that sounds an excellent idea. Mr. Chuter, might we . . .” Mr. Stewart’s question died on his lips as Launchbury reappeared, looking alarmed and going at the fastest lick acceptable on the marble of the Dauphine’s entrance hall. He shattered all their plans on that same floor.

“He’s not there, Mr. Chuter. Montgomery.”

“Maybe he’s just been moved, or taken for cleaning,” Chuter said airily, although his wrinkled brow suggested concern.

“That’s what I’d have thought, sir, if it weren’t for —” Launchbury produced a piece of paper. “This was left where he should have been.”

Chuter unfolded the paper, looked even more alarmed, then handed it to Mr. Stewart.

Montgomery has gone on his holidays. He’ll be back once he’s helped light some fires.

“He’s been nicked!” Launchbury immediately corrected himself before Chuter could. “Purloined, I should say.”

“It certainly looks like it.” A gleam had appeared in Mr. Stewart’s eye that Jonty associated with the thrill of the chase.

“Mr. Stewart, Dr. Stewart,” Chuter said, addressing each man in turn. Jonty knew what was coming next. The deputy manager had At least we have the right men for the job on hand written all over his face. “I know such a matter would probably be beneath your notice, but would you consider helping us to find him? He’s an asset to the hotel and . . .” He spread his hands helplessly.

Jonty hid a smile, aware that Montgomery gave the Dauphine an advantage over other similar establishments, and that business might suffer due to his absence.

“He’s been taken on a previous occasion, I recall?” Mr. Stewart looked at the note again.

“Yes, it must be thirty years ago.” Chuter wrinkled his nose. “A rugby dinner. Blackheath. He was returned the next week looking slightly worse for wear but with money to cover French polishing. I just hope that bit about lighting fires isn’t literal.”

“I’m sure it isn’t.” Jonty felt less optimistic than his words suggested. “Not if he’s supposed to be coming back. We’d be delighted to help you find him, although I suggest it’s always best to start on your own doorstep. My colleague Dr. Coppersmith often loses things and then finds they’ve just been moved slightly, probably by him. He’s walked past them half a dozen times, taking no more notice than if they were part of the wallpaper pattern.” If the same could be said of Jonty, he’d keep that to himself for the moment. “I’ve no doubt that you will look everywhere, unlike Dr. Coppersmith, but it’s entirely possible Montgomery’s been moved by somebody to another location within the hotel. Note notwithstanding.”

“Good thinking, Dr. Stewart. We’ll scour the place for him and let you know if it turns out your services are not required.” Chuter nodded, then added ruefully, “He went halfway round the world the last time he was taken.”

“Let’s hope his wanderlust has been assuaged and he manages no farther than the home counties, then.” Mr. Stewart still eyed the note as though it should be telling him something but he couldn’t quite work out what. “The lads can’t manage to search the entire world before Michaelmas term.”

Chuter left them with the note in their custody, a poor substitute for the cat. He was clearly dreading having to report Montgomery’s disappearance, but at least he could also report securing the services of a distinguished pair of amateur detectives, should they be needed.

“The Dauphine will sorely miss that cat,” Jonty said, once they were alone.

“He went before. He’ll return. Whether with our assistance or without it.” Mr. Stewart had the voice of total confidence, even though the look he gave Jonty suggested he expected the game would soon be afoot.

“Let me tell Orlando about helping to find Montgomery.” Jonty cuffed his father’s elbow. “It’s been a while since he had a proper case to dig his teeth into, and he might get a bit upset at having another one that he feels is beneath his powers. Lost items pale into insignificance compared to murders or codes.”

“Point noted.” Mr. Stewart produced a sympathetic smile. “Maybe we could put his mind to this.” He held out the piece of paper.

“What’s bothering you about that note?”

“I don’t know. What is it I’ve heard you say? It’s like an insect buzzing about my head, that I can neither identify nor swat.” Mr. Stewart studied the piece of paper yet again. “It rings a bell — although whether that’s because I’ve seen the writing before, or the wording is familiar, or something else entirely, I couldn’t tell you. But it’s damned annoying.” The use of such a strong word, in public, illustrated the depth of his perplexity.

“That note won’t help you when we get home.” Jonty shuddered. “We’re still only thirteen. Should we go and drag somebody off the street so Mama doesn’t have to spend all evening waiting for somebody to drop dead? Or pray that Montgomery will return, maybe by magic, within the next thirty seconds?”

“We could pray for a miracle.” Mr. Stewart looked ashen. “What on earth are we going to tell her?”

***

They manfully resisted going for a drink at the bar, having come to the conclusion that it would delay them and this was the sort of crisis in which time was of the essence. More significantly, any alcohol would be sniffed on their breaths, and they’d both be sent to bed with no dinner, on a charge of dereliction of duty. Jonty tried to persuade his father that would solve all their problems in one fell swoop, given it would reduce the numbers around the dinner table to eleven, but the argument fell on deaf ears.

The journey home was the longest short walk Jonty could ever recall. Worse than having to go to see the master of St. Bride’s back in his undergraduate days about the incident involving milking a goat in the porters’ lodge. A gating couldn’t be as bad as facing his mother’s wrath.

They entered the house with trepidation, to find Mrs. Stewart with a beaming smile on her face, Orlando at her side, and a marvellous lack of concern at the nonappearance of a suitable wooden feline. The miracle had obviously happened, even if it hadn’t involved the return of the cat.

“No Montgomery, I see? Well, never mind. Your Dr. Peters has come up trumps.” Mrs. Stewart rubbed her hands gleefully.

“You’ve dragged him away from his hieroglyphics or cartouches or whatever he’s poking around with?” Jonty asked, much relieved. “I’m not surprised he —”

Whatever Jonty was or wasn’t surprised at was interrupted by Hopkins’s announcement of luncheon.

“I’ll tell you at the table.” Mrs. Stewart took Orlando’s arm and led him triumphantly into the dining room.

“Unfortunately Dr. Peters himself can’t grace us with his presence, as he has a dinner appointment already,” Mrs. Stewart said, once they were settled and lunch had been served. “But he has suggested an admirable replacement. His cousin’s boy — an Oxford man, like Orlando — who’s helping with this exhibition. The young man hadn’t been invited to the dinner, and Dr. Peters was feeling very guilty about not being able to entertain him adequately when he’s been working so hard. He was on the verge of having to get his sister to come down from Cambridge to look after him, so we were the answer to each other’s prayers.”

“I bet you were,” Jonty thought. Ariadne wouldn’t have been best pleased to be dragged away from her nematode worms or whatever she was annoying at the moment.

Mr. Stewart nodded enthusiastically over his omelette. “What’s his name?”

“Barritt. With an ‘i,’ not an ‘e.’” Mrs. Stewart delicately loaded her fork with salad. “I don’t know the family. But he’s said to be very keen to meet you.”

“I suppose Dr. Peters’s recommendation should be enough,” Mr. Stewart replied. “Even for — excuse me, Orlando — an Oxford man.”

Orlando smiled, fully aware that any aspersions cast on his university were just part of the ancient rivalry. “I can provide some further information. He’s just come down this year with a glowing first. Bright as a button, keen on cricket and Egyptian mummies, in that order.”

“Well put, dear.” Mrs. Stewart offered Orlando a dish of mushrooms. “The physical description we’re uncertain on, Richard. We could hardly ask Dr. Peters for a set of Bertillon measurements, could we? So we’ll have to assume that any young man who turns up at the right time and in appropriate dress will be young Barritt, rather than somebody collecting for the dogs’ home.”

“He sounds fascinating,” Mr. Stewart replied, eyeing the mushrooms, rather like a spaniel might, until his wife took pity on him.

“And if he isn’t, then we need never invite him again, need we?” Mrs. Stewart helped her husband to the chanterelles.

“Pragmatic as always, dear.” Mr. Stewart smiled.

“He’s keen to meet us, is he?” Jonty gave Orlando a quick glance and a wink. “That sounds very promising.”

“You scent the possibility of a case at every juncture.” The glint in Orlando’s eye showed he’d considered the possibility too. Shame he’d have to settle for something more mundane in the meantime.

***

The afternoon was supposed to be given over to a walk in the park, but a sudden shower of rain put paid to that. Orlando settled for a second best activity of sitting in the study and reading up a small tome on obscure forms of coding — but a certain large furry pest came in and interrupted his concentration, wittering on about small furry pests.

“We’ve been asked to investigate a missing cat?” Orlando rolled his eyes, then looked daggers at Jonty. “That’s what we’ve been reduced to? Missing pets. I suppose somebody will have misplaced their rabbit next and we’ll be expected to look down every hole in London to find it.”

“I do wish at times you’d listen. Properly. But I guess that’s what I deserve for waking you up to tell you something.”

“I was not asleep. I was in deep thought, working out if one of the codes in this book” — Orlando tapped the tome, as though it would bear witness to the truth of what he said — “was actually usable or whether it was stuff and nonsense.”

Jonty muttered something along the lines of, “There’s only one load of stuff and nonsense here,” before saying, with his usual devastating smile, “Forgive me for interrupting your contemplations.”

“You’re forgiven.” Orlando gave a gracious wave of his hand.

“This cat is not your average moggy. It’s Montgomery, from the Dauphine. I know how much you dislike the feline genera, but as it’s only made of ebony, could you please view it in a favourable light?”

“Oh. That cat.”

“Yes. Of unknown current whereabouts. And the good people at the Dauphine want the matter rectified.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Not an unusual situation; Jonty rarely seemed to show evidence of an orderly mind.

“That’s because I haven’t had the chance to tell you about our adventure at the hotel.” Jonty produced a neat and surprisingly logical account of the events. “So it’s a nice little puzzle, with just that note and Papa’s bee in his bonnet to go on.”

“It strikes me that if he can’t pin that bee down — don’t tease me about mixing my metaphors, this is neither the time nor the place — then we’d likely be on a wild-goose chase.”

“Quite a menagerie!” Jonty sprawled in a leather armchair with the sort of smile that set Orlando’s heart — and trousers — all aflutter. How could a man concentrate on matters investigational when matters carnal pressed (quite literally) for his attention? “Mama and Papa are very fond of the Dauphine. It would be a shame to let them — or the hotel — down. I wouldn’t ask such a thing if it wasn’t important to them.”

“No, no indeed.” Orlando would do anything within, or without, reason to oblige the Stewarts. Of course Jonty knew that and made use of it, the toad. “Do you think there might be more to this than meets the eye? That bit about lighting fires is interesting.”

“It is. I can’t promise hidden depths, but if something’s itching in Papa’s investigational cortex — if that makes any sense outside of my head — then we should give our very best to scratching it.”

“You do talk twaddle.” Very attractive twaddle, it had to be admitted, but twaddle nonetheless. “Why should anyone take the thing? I guess it’s just some sort of a prank.”

“There could be many other reasons,” Jonty said insouciantly, evidently well aware he was further baiting the trap. Orlando was happy to fall into it. “What if the cat was hollow, and something was hidden inside? It would be blooming heavy if the whole thing were solid wood. What if that something is so important that somebody needs it back before anybody else can find it?”

“It could be.” Orlando ignored the lack of evidence and gave conjecture free rein. “What if it’s actually worth a fortune and had been given to the hotel as a form of safe keeping until it could be reclaimed? Which it now has been, to light the darkness of those in poverty or something. Or what if it’s been used as a weapon, and has to be hidden so the discovery of said crime can be delayed? Lighting the fires of revenge?”

“Extraordinary.” Jonty shook his head. “So many theories. Not a scrap of evidence for any of them. No wonder your dunderhead students love you so much. You’re as bad as they are.”

“I will not honour that remark with an answer. I was merely suggesting reasons why anyone might purloin an article, not offering you solutions to this mystery. Anyway, you little swine, you’ve done what you wanted to do.” Orlando laid aside his stuffy expression in favour of a lascivious grin. “I should know you can play me like a violin. Well, I’m interested. Does that suit your purposes?”

“You always suit my purposes.” Jonty leaned closer and dropped his voice. “Is there any chance of going back to Cambridge right now and making use of that rather large and lonely bed I have in my room?”

“I will not honour that remark with an answer, either. Do your thoughts never veer above your trouser line? No, don’t answer that,” Orlando added, with a raised hand and a worried look. “I suppose it’s all the time you spend reading that smut Shakespeare churned out.”

“Shakespeare knew what he was about. Smut gets laughs. Smut gets patrons on seats or standing in the pit. Smut makes money, as do violence and fights and high drama. He knew his business, which was entertaining an audience.” Jonty sighed. “Sometimes what I do seems entirely pointless, analysing why the man wrote a certain scene or what it signifies, when its only significance was probably entirely mundane, like allowing a costume change for the principal characters.”

“It’s never pointless.” Orlando cuffed Jonty’s sleeve. “I know nothing about Shakespeare, but I’ll wager there were always two sets of thoughts going on in his head. It’s like solving a maths problem. There’s the problem itself — that’s the expedient bit, like him having to get people offstage so they can change the scenery, or having to write a play that will steal customers from their rivals — then there’s the bigger picture, the beauty of the numbers and their relationship. That’s the bigger, hidden meaning he’ll have woven into his words.”

“You never cease to amaze me. For somebody who says they know nothing of the Bard, you’ve made an eloquent case for his genius. I shall watch some of those scenes with a fresh eye.” Jonty rubbed his forehead, looking confused and heart-meltingly attractive. That settled the matter.

“I’ll help find the cat.”

“Thank you. I know it’s not a proper use of your brains, but it’s a start. Maybe it has been used to kill someone, and you’ll find a murder en route. You’d like that.”

Orlando would like that. While he always felt a stab of guilt at hoping a murder would land in their path, he couldn’t deny one would be very welcome. It was far too long since they’d had a proper case.

 

Chapter Two

Jonty was just coming down for dinner as the doorbell sounded. There was a particular point on the stairs where, he’d discovered as a boy, one could see who was waiting outside through the window in the hall, and he habitually stopped there to have a look. This time he immediately flew down the rest of the flight to open the door — much to Hopkins’s chagrin — and found his sister on the step waiting to be scooped into his arms.

Lavinia Broad had blossomed with motherhood, and her firstborn child, George, was the family’s favourite. And now she was blooming again, with a brother or sister for him due to arrive in the autumn. She entered the house like a great galleon, with her husband, Ralph, like a frigate in her wake.

“Hello, stinker.” His sister kissed him affectionately. “Are you behaving yourself?”

“Of course I am, spoilsport.” Jonty laughed, disentangling himself to shake hands with his brother-in-law. “Ralph! How’s my godson?”

“Thriving. We’d have brought him tonight, but he’s got a slight snuffle. Will you drop in and see him tomorrow?”

“We will, won’t we, Orlando?” Jonty said over his shoulder, as his lover descended the stairs.

“Of course.” Orlando came over to shake Ralph’s hand, then waited for Lavinia, who was being embraced by her father, to kiss his cheek.

“George has a favour to ask of you. Or would if he could speak,” she added, patting Orlando’s hand. “Would you stand godfather to his younger sibling? We can’t guarantee it’ll be a boy, but . . .”

“I would indeed,” Orlando said with the extreme stateliness that always indicated he was fighting to hide deep emotion.

“Splendid.” Lavinia slipped her arm through his to lead them to the drawing room to join the other guests.

“You’ve made his day,” Jonty whispered to Ralph as they followed. “He’s a bit low, as usual when we haven’t had a case for a while.” He was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell ringing again, and Hopkins almost sprinting to answer it. “I’ll tell you all, later. I wonder if that’s Mama’s knight in armour?”

It was, and Jonty knew that Barritt had been given the seal of approval before the chap even sat down. Mrs. Stewart — who’d always had a fond spot for handsome young men — was positively purring over him. Even Lavinia had stationed herself in prime position so that the man, when he’d got his glass of sherry, would be perched between the two ladies of the household.

He could see the appeal. Barritt was tall, willowy, elegant, with a charming smile and a slight lisp, which gave his deep voice a soft edge. Not that he was smitten, of course, but a man couldn’t help noticing these sorts of things.

Mrs. Stewart had invited various ladies in their capacity as board members of her charity for fallen women (or those whose mothers had fallen in the begetting of them), and these ladies soon began peppering Barritt from all directions. This meant the other gentlemen could get on with discussing weightier matters, like the best prospect for the cricket county championship.

Mrs. Stewart graciously allowed Barritt to take her in to dinner, which earned her at least one envious look from a woman old enough to know better, but that was a hostess’s privilege.

The topic of triskaidekaphobia and the cat inevitably came up over dinner; Mr. Stewart related the adventure at the Dauphine with relish, and all the ladies assured Barritt that they’d rather have him than an ebony moggy any day.

Barritt, clearly becoming a little unnerved by the gushing female attention he was getting, said, “The Dauphine is my parents’ favourite hotel when they get up to London. Lovely place. I’d forgotten about Montgomery.”

“You haven’t by any chance got him about your person? It would be wonderful to solve the case for them in under twenty-four hours.” The wine — or maybe the young man’s extreme good looks — seemed to be loosening Orlando’s tongue. Maybe, with any luck, it would be loosening his trousers later.

“Alas, no. His disappearance is recent, and I haven’t been in the place for months. Although,” Barritt added in the tone of voice that always set the investigational part of Jonty’s heart leaping, “some friends of mine were there quite recently. They might know something.”

“Not rugby players, perchance?” Jonty asked.

“No-o.” Barritt was evidently uncertain of the significance of the question. “No, it was my maiden aunt and her companion, neither of whom play the game, although some might say they have the build for it. I doubt they purloined him.”

“I should hope not.” Orlando grinned. “They didn’t notice any rugby players acting suspiciously?”

“Not that they said. Just a rather staid lot of chaps called the Company of Leg-breakers. No —” he raised his hand to allay the ladies’ fears “— not ruffians. Just cricketers. I could ask my aunt if she or her friend noticed anything amiss. Maiden aunts often notice things. Women in general do, I find.”

“Quite right. Lavinia’s the brightest among us,” Jonty sailed in on a tide of fraternal affection. “The things my sister knows about amphibians would put most of the dunderheads to shame.”

“What a lot of nonsense you talk.” Lavinia burned crimson, but she was clearly delighted. “I must apologise for my family, Mr. Barritt. They have the annoying habit of talking in riddles. When I was just a little girl, Ralph famously threw a frog at me. My annoying pest of a brother —” she squeezed Jonty’s hand and gave him another dazzling smile “— calls it love at first amphibian.”

“Eccentricity possibly runs in your family too.” Jonty nodded at Barritt, quickly adding, “Not that I’m thinking of Dr. Peters, but his sister is certainly a pearl without price.”

Barritt smiled, affection shining in his eyes. “We all say she takes after one of our dim and distant ancestors, who’s said to have taken her life in order to avoid marrying a man she didn’t want. Only it turned out she hadn’t died at all, just pretended to have.”

“How extraordinary.” Mr. Stewart shook his head.

“So she was free to marry somebody else? Maybe the man she had wanted to in the first place?” Orlando posed the question that many of the company must have had in mind.

“No.” Barritt shook his head. “That would be terribly obvious, I think.”

“But isn’t the obvious and the mundane what usually happens?” Jonty cut in, aware that Orlando had begun to heat up at Barritt’s offhand remark. “In our experience, it often is something terribly simple at the bottom of a problem, something so simple you pass over it. Occam’s Razor and all that.”

Barritt, flinching slightly under Jonty’s polite assault, inclined his head. “You’re quite right. I apologise. One must never discount something just because it is so evident. But truth, you’ll agree, can extend into areas where fiction — were it to replicate it — would be said to be far-fetched.”

“It can.” Orlando pressed on. “So what was so extraordinary about this case?”

“She didn’t marry anyone at all. She went off travelling across the world, where it was said she — I hope the ladies will excuse me if I’m totally frank — spent some time in the seraglio of an eastern potentate. She used the opportunity to free herself from all shackles, not just those of an undesirable suitor.”

“How monstrous!” Mrs. Stewart said, so belligerently they all jumped. “No, not the seraglio bit — that must have been between her conscience and God — but faking one’s own death in order to escape. Her poor family. They must have been heartbroken.”

“Perhaps they were the monstrous ones, Mama.” Lavinia gave Jonty a quick smile. “Not every child is blessed as we have been.”

“You’re quite right.” One of the other ladies, who’d clearly tired of Stewart family speak, proceeded to launch into a discussion of the good works the charity had done, which lasted until they’d left the table.

Once they’d all returned to the drawing room, Ralph, whose wheels were by now well-oiled, asked, “You don’t feel inclined to share any stories about Dr. Peters, do you? He’s always struck me as being about the most perfect man I know. Surely he has a dark secret or three?”

“Ralph, dear, your nose for scandal will get you into deep waters one day.” Lavinia struck her husband lightly on the arm. “Ignore him, Mr. Barritt. He’s just envious of your cousin’s brains and looks.”

“We all are, I’m afraid. Even his sister says —”

“He’ll be back, once he’s helped light some fires!”

Thirteen faces turned towards Mr. Stewart, all dumbstruck except for his wife’s.

“Dr. Peters will be home when he’s lit which fires, dear?” she asked.

“Not Dr. Peters.” Mr. Stewart wagged his finger. “Montgomery. That’s what the note said.”

“Yes. Indeed.” Now Jonty felt as perplexed as his mother had.

“Sorry. I’ll explain. Remember that thought buzzing in my head, Jonty? I’ve swatted it.”

“I think we’ll leave you to your sleuthing, Helena.” Lady Sheringham rose regally from her chair — much to her husband’s dismay, as he clearly wanted to hear the story — and the party members made for their carriages or to call for cabs. Lavinia looked tired, so all family talk centred on ensuring she took care of herself, with Mr. Stewart insisting his own driver take her and Ralph home.

By the time everyone was gone, it seemed like the business of sleuthing would have to be put off to the morrow, so Jonty was surprised to hear a knock at his bedroom door, followed by his father’s voice.

“Are you too tired to talk cats?”

“Never.” Jonty hastily slipped on a dressing gown over his underwear and opened the door. “Excuse the state of me.”

Mr. Stewart waved his hand. “Never mind about that when we need to get down to business. The missing cat.”

Jonty grabbed his father’s arm, pulling him into and along the corridor. “Don’t tell me yet. Orlando’s cross enough at being asked to solve a case beneath his dignity, but missing out on your revelation would infuriate him.”

Orlando already looked infuriated when he opened his door to their knock.

“Something up, old man?” Jonty asked, concerned.

Orlando ushered them in. “I’ve dropped a collar stud, and now I can’t find the bloo . . . blessed thing.”

Jonty immediately looked up, towards the top of the wardrobe.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Stewart shook his head. “That collar stud won’t have defied gravity.”

“Sorry, Papa. Force of habit. I’ll explain at some point, when other things aren’t so pressing. Let’s find that stud or Orlando will never be able to concentrate properly on what you have to say about the cat.”

Orlando’s eyes lit up. “No, leave the stud. What you have to say is clearly worthy of note if it can’t keep until morning, so maybe it will help fire my investigative powers.”

Mr. Stewart beamed. “I’ve worked out why the note was bothering me. Those words. ‘He’ll be back once he’s helped light some fires.’ Particularly the ‘lighting some fires’ bit. It was an expression an old pal of mine used when he was referring to putting people right on things: lighting the fires of knowledge. I know that seems tenuous, but there’s more to it.”

“And this friend is . . .” Orlando looked less bothered at the loss of the collar stud by the second.

“Edward Faversham. And it gets better than that. Young Barritt mentioned that cricket team, the Company of Leg-breakers, didn’t he?”

“Yes.” Orlando was positively straining at the leash to hear more.

“The Favershams were very big in cricket. His team were an offshoot of J.M. Barrie’s team. Faversham felt his lot didn’t take the game seriously enough.”

“Scandalous,” Jonty said, for once not being facetious. “There’s only one way to play cricket — or rugby — and that’s as if it’s the most important thing in the world.”

“Absolutely, my boy.” Mr. Stewart beamed again, with parental pride at the filial values being espoused.

“Is Faversham’s team the Company of Leg-breakers?”

“I think so.” Mr. Stewart nodded. “Although I wouldn’t swear to it in court. His team had an outlandish name, and they always used to have their dinners at the Dauphine. It’s a tentative connection, but . . .”

“Tentative but worth pursuing.” Orlando’s brow creased in thought. “Is your friend the sort to go purloining things? Like cats?”

“Not him. Not now, anyway.” Mr. Stewart shrugged. “But the younger members of the family have always been less restrained than their elders, as the generations have progressed. Rather like us,” he added, with a look of innocence that wouldn’t have fooled a blind man. He’d played many a high-spirited prank in his younger days.

“So we’ve got a lead. Any chance of making use of it before Jonty and I go off to Italy?” A much-anticipated holiday, in search of more of Orlando’s long-lost relatives — they couldn’t put it off for a wooden cat.

“Quite possibly.” Mr. Stewart’s great mind had obviously been at work on this. “I’ll drop into my club tomorrow and see if I can find out if the Company of Leg-breakers have a match this weekend. I’ll get us invited to watch it.”

“That sounds excellent. Then we can interrogate them.” Jonty rubbed his hands gleefully.

“And if there’s no match? Or nobody to invite us to it?” Orlando still habitually expected the worst.

“In the first case, then we’ll have to defer investigations until after your sojourn abroad. In the second, we just turn up,” Mr. Stewart said, with a smile and a shrug. “Between us, we’re bound to know somebody there.”

“Although how a wooden cat can scotch any rumours or —”

“What’s that?” cried his father.

“What’s what?”

“That thing under the bed.” Mr. Stewart may have needed glasses for reading this last thirty years, but he could tell a hawk from a pigeon at a hundred yards.

“Maybe it’s your —” Jonty bent down, reached under the bed, and produced a small object “— collar stud! Well done, Papa. You’re on top form today.”

“Make sure you tell your mother that. I’ll need all the goodwill I can muster.” Mr. Stewart edged towards the door. “The last time I was in the vicinity of Faversham and his cricket cronies, I became rather . . . um . . . tired and emotional. She won’t welcome me renewing the acquaintance.”

“Orlando will tell her it’s essential to the cause of investigation. She’ll deny him nothing.” Jonty made a theatrical flourish.

“And if I can’t charm her, we’ll ask young Barritt,” Orlando suggested, as Mr. Stewart took his leave.

“What a nice lad Barritt was. Class clearly runs in that family.” Jonty dallied by Orlando’s door, unsure whether to stay for a while or wend his weary way to his own bed. “I hope he finds himself a nice girl. Or a nice chap if that’s his preference. Somebody to make a home with or for.”

Orlando nodded, suddenly seeming to have lost his voice, or maybe to trust it not to betray his depth of emotion. He could have written a book on being alone, prior to Jonty sweeping into his life and turning everything upside down.

“A chap, I think.”

“I beg your pardon?” Orlando jolted out of his thoughts and, looking a bit confused, nearly dropped the stud again.

“For young Barritt. I think he’d prefer a nice chap to a nice girl.” Jonty, leaning against the doorpost in a deliberately seductive manner, smiled mysteriously.

“And on what do you base this statement?”

“On the fact that he was surrounded by women, if that’s not topsy-turvy. Having a whale of time talking to them but not being flirtatious.”

“They were none of them available, and all far too old for him. Even your Lavinia.” Orlando sniffed. “So what logic you have in your argument eludes me. I’ve never particularly liked women, for a start.”

“Ah.” Jonty slipped into the room and lowered his voice. “But you can’t escape the fact that he kept eyeing you up. Quite smitten, I’d have said.”

“Nonsense,” Orlando protested, although his self-satisfied smile — quickly hidden — showed it was secretly a pleasing thought.

“Well, maybe you’re right. Perhaps it was just your brains he wanted you for. Your investigative facilities,” he said, then waited for the import of the words to sink in.

“Oh. And what makes you think that?”

“This.” Jonty reached into his pocket and produced a piece of paper, which he let Orlando unfold and read. “He slipped it into my hand before he went. I assumed it was a billet-doux.”

Once you’ve completed your present investigation, I’d be very grateful if you’d consider letting me consult you. Cousin Ariadne says you’re the men for the job.

“Just as we’d suspected. I wonder what he wants.”

“I have no idea. So we’d better find that damned cat as soon as possible. This could be a proper case.”

Orlando smiled, even more smugly. “It could indeed.”

 

Chapter Three

Mr. Stewart had worked the oracle, as usual. By the time dinner was hull up on the horizon, he’d arranged for them all to watch the Company of Leg-breakers play at their home ground the very next day. It was the cherry on the top of what had already been an excellent cake of a day, Jonty and Orlando having spent the afternoon pushing little George in his pram around the park.

As Jonty had gleefully pointed out, if they’d been ladies’ men, they’d have been delighted that the pram had proved the ideal magnet to draw the fair sex. They’d been accosted every hundred yards or so by women of every age and station in life, who’d cooed over the child and made subtle — and in some cases blatant — enquiries about why two gentlemen had charge of him. Orlando suggested that next time they simply attach a notice to the pram, warning that they were in the middle of their godfatherly duties and were not to be prevented in the performance of them.

A day at the cricket, even in search of a wooden cat, promised to be just as pleasant, assuming they didn’t get molested by young ladies there.

Orlando had always believed the main appeal of this particular sport lay in its being such a wonderful example of mathematics in action, beginning with the elegant simplicity of the scoring system. A beautifully kept scorebook was one of the most lovely of manmade objects, as much a work of art as a Turner or Rembrandt. On the other end of the scale was the impenetrable mystery of why the ball turned in certain ways, in certain atmospheric conditions. One day maybe science would catch up with the game, and produce a complex but well-constructed equation that would predict the movement of the ball to off or leg, but for the moment, all was shrouded in obscurity and resembled little less than magic.

Once dressed for dinner, he wandered along to annoy Jonty. Given their exertions of the afternoon, the chances were he’d be snatching forty winks, and would be nicely flustered at having to rush to get ready. Unfortunately for the purposes of either annoyance or mockery, Jonty seemed well ahead of schedule on the dressing front.

“Now, about tomorrow,” he said as Orlando walked into his bedroom. “Just behave yourself when we get to the ground.”

“Of course I will.”

“Good.” Jonty grinned. “I don’t want any naughty things going on behind the pavilion. Even if it’s one of those that backs onto woodland and allows any amount of sin to take place there.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Really? Didn’t many a lad from deepest, darkest Kent lose his virginity behind the school cricket pavilion? Or some other equally convenient location? Ah, got it this time.” Jonty smiled at the elegant knot he’d produced in his tie. “Perfect.”

“Is that true or are you making it up? And why can’t you have the same sort of black tie as everyone else?” Maybe when Jonty took it off tonight, Orlando could accidentally cut the offensive object into fifty-seven pieces.

“Because that would be boring, light of my life. And would I do such a thing as to make up stories about what goes on where, just to gull you?” Jonty ploughed on before Orlando could enter into evidence the many times his lover had made game of him. “I suppose you, being a day boy, weren’t exposed to some of the less well-acknowledged aspects of school life. Willing participants, young lads picking their way along the path into manhood together and needing somewhere secluded to do it. Our school pavilion was exposed on all sides — I suspect that was deliberate to discourage goings-on, in which it succeeded.”

“So where did willing participants take themselves off to?” Orlando whispered.

“Ah. The preferred places were said to be the changing rooms of the swimming baths. They were allegedly the easiest to get into, the lock being simple to pick, but it suffered from not being very comfortable. And before you ask, I don’t know any of this from firsthand experience. I can’t help it if I overheard people discussing it.” Jonty tried to produce an expression of injured innocence.

“Your overhearing things will get you into deep trouble one day. You’ll misinterpret an expression of manly admiration between two chums as something more meaningful.”

Pfft. Do credit me with some sense. Plenty of friendships get made at school, as in other places. And some of them last for life, without any implication of — or interest in — unrequited desire. No matter what gossip might imply.”

“And some friendships begin with somebody stealing somebody else’s chair and grow into . . .” Orlando shrugged, lost for words.

“You daft old thing.” Jonty eased the door to and leaned in for a swift kiss, after cocking an ear for a servant’s approaching tread. “Alas, we have no equivalent of a cricket pavilion to hand, and the coach house is far too draughty. My room, tonight, might be a possibility?”

Normally they shared interconnecting rooms, but an invasion of wood-boring beetle in one of those bedrooms had meant a change of location.

“It might be, were it not for the fact that somebody in the house seems to be suffering from insomnia. I get woken by the sound of doors opening and shutting and all sorts of troublesome pottering around.”

“That’ll be Hopkins. Always been a martyr to his teeth, poor chap. Well, we can’t risk embarrassing him, so we’ll wait until Italy. There’s bound to be a place and time there.” Jonty stretched with evident pleasure. “Making love under Latin skies. We’ll be like Alexander and Hephaestion. I’ll be Alexander, of course, you being taller.”

“They were Greek, rather than Italian, as well you know.” Orlando returned the kiss, then reluctantly broke contact. “But I can accept ‘being Jonty also,’ as Hephaestion was ‘also Alexander,’ if that helps.”

“It does. Although —”

But Orlando’s enlightenment about the although had to be put aside as the gong sounded to call them down for their nosebags.

from The Way She Reads

The setting, the characters and the story seduced me from the first paragraph.

from Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words

Lessons in Idle Tongues is amazing, Charley Cochrane’s writing is deftly accomplished, the pace sprightly for a complicated mystery, and the whole story comes together just as it should and will leave you still wanting more.

from Delighted Reader

[T]his easy-paced mystery was utterly engaging and left me eager for the next installment. I would recommend this book/series to those who enjoy m/m historical mysteries or romantic suspense.

from V's Reads

I do enjoy these cozy-type mysteries. They are always well-written and have interesting insight, plus I adore the realistic historical settings and details.