Book Excerpt From Not From The Stars: book 1 of the 4 part historical novel series HIS MAJESTY'S THEATRE
London, Winter 1889
“Jerry, thank heaven!” Tommy Quinn screamed with joy and raced at full speed. His hard leather heels clattered over uneven cobbles as he rushed toward Jeremy O'Connell. From a distance, Jeremy's tall slender frame, sleek brown hair, pale skin, and large brown eyes looked stunningly beautiful. The day before, the twenty-five- year-old actor had accepted a tour with famous actor-manager Henry Irving. Tommy was heartbroken and threatened to kill himself. Now, he hurled himself into Jeremy's arms.
Horrified, Jeremy pushed him away. “Not in the street, silly fool. We’ll be arrested.” Guiltily looking in all directions and seeing no one, Jeremy sighed with relief and smiled at his adorable companion. Tommy Quinn was twenty-four. His short, athletic body, large gray eyes, thick brown hair, and mischievous smile, were set off by one crooked tooth.
Jeremy shrugged. “Irving’s offer is very tempting. The money is good and the roles first-rate. The problem is, he recreates old productions. I could be forced to parrot his last actor, and not allowed an original thought. I am better off staying here.”
“You’ve got Henry The Fifth.”
“Oh yes, Mr. Tyler used Hal as a bribe. He is making me play cloying Claudio as penance.”
Unable to resist Tommy’s sweet eyes, Jeremy gave him a playful hug, glanced over his shoulder, and saw a terrifying flash of navy-blue. A uniformed Bobby marched towards them, swinging his nightstick. They sprang apart. The Bobby winked an eye and swaggered by.
Jeremy shuddered. “That was too close.”
One freezing predawn, Tommy, Neil, and Jeremy stumbled out of a private club onto a dimly lit street. Shivering with cold, laughing drunk, their breath thick as frozen smoke, they burst into a raucous:
“Hail, hail, the gang’s all here! What the hell do we care? What the hell do we care...?”
Two tired Bobbies turned a corner and slowly walked toward them. Before Jeremy could warn Tommy, he pressed Neil against the wall and kissed him on the mouth. The Bobbies doubled their speed.
“Oi, there! Wha’s this, then?” Tommy and Neil lurched apart, suddenly sober, and terrified. The Bobbies placed themselves on either side, blocking their escape. “All right, you lot. Magistrate will deal with you in the morning.” They pulled manacles from their belts, cuffed Tommy, then Neil.
Before Jeremy knew what was happening, one of the Bobbies swung him around and slammed iron cuffs onto his wrists. Wincing with pain, he stared at Tommy struggling to get loose, and Neil collapsed onto the pavement, crying.
The second Bobby sneered with disgust and pulled Neil to his feet. “Bloody pervert. Hope the magistrate locks you up for a long time. The streets are cleaner without you scum.”
Tommy stooped low, watching for a chance to bolt. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Wai’ a minute.” The first Bobbie pushed his nightstick under Jeremy’s chin, and forced his face into the harsh beam of a streetlight. “I know you.”
Tommy yelled, “We’re actors, damn it. You know all of us.”
The Bobby stared. “Why, it’s Mr. O’Connell, righ’? Watcha doin’ with these pieces of filth then, when y’ go’ that pretty little wife waitin’ at ‘ome, eh?” He lowered his nightstick and raised an eyebrow.
Jeremy stood frozen with fear. His wrists and shoulders throbbed and his chin stung. The Bobby looked to his partner, gave a wink, and unlocked Jeremy’s handcuffs. He heaved a sigh of relief, rubbed his chafed wrists, and waited for them to release Tommy and Neil.
Instead, the Bobby nudged him with his nightstick. “Go ‘ome to yer missus. From now on though, mind the company y’ keep.”
Tommy’s face was defiant. Neil pleaded for help, but Jeremy could do nothing for either one. He hesitated just a moment longer, then ran for his life.
Tommy lurched after him and the Bobby grabbed his arms, wrenching them upwards. “None o’ that now.”
Jeremy reached a dark alley, hid from view, and looked back. Other club patrons had gathered around.
“Nothin’ to see ‘ere. Be about yer business.” The Bobbies pulled Tommy and Neil through the crowd. “Come on you lot.”
After the crowd dispersed, tabloid journalist Archibald Perry stood alone in the alley. A grim smile spread his disgustingly rouged lips. Jeremy’s knees gave way and he slumped back against a cold brick wall. Tonight, for the first time in weeks, Archie smiled.
Katherine woke when the door to the flat opened, slammed shut, and locked. “Jerry? What are you doing? ...Jerry?”
Frozen with fear, he stood pressed against the back of the door. A match sputtered and flamed as she lit a candle at her bedside.
“What’s happened? Are you injured?” She hurried to him.
He gasped for breath. “Tommy and Neil were arrested. Damn Tommy! I cautioned him a hundred times. We were drunk. He kissed Neil right in front of two coppers.”
“Oh, no. What will happen to them?”
“Maximum sentence for gross indecency is two years at hard labor. Thank God they were only kissing. They should get off with much less. Upper-class men aren’t fit enough to survive two years...” He broke into quiet sobs.
Katherine stayed calm. “Are you in danger?”
He shook his head. “One of the coppers knew me. He thinks I’m married.” He clung to her, holding on for dear life. Remembering all the times she embraced him and he barely tolerated her, he felt ashamed to need her so completely.
Calm and controlled, she brewed him a cup of strong, very sweet tea, made him undress, and get into bed. She held him until he fell asleep.
Five hours later, disguised as a skivvy, Katherine sat with other pitiable men and women enjoying free warmth and entertainment in the gallery of the Court of Petty Sessions. She raced home and told him about the trial.
Two white-wigged, black-robed magistrates listened, as two exhausted Bobbies described Tommy and Neil performing an indecent act on a public street. Tommy pleaded guilty. Neil pleaded not guilty, insisting that Tommy assaulted him. Tommy did not react to the accusation, so Katherine guessed the two had planned Neil’s defense. The Bobbies could not swear that Neil was lying, and he was released with a caution.
Without a look back, Neil sped from the courtroom, and London. A day later, he sent a letter saying he was sailing for Boston.
The magistrates conferred for only a minute before turning back to Tommy. One spoke. “Thomas Quinn, we esteem yours to be a light offense with grave cause for concern. Indecent behavior in any degree must be regarded as a threat to the entire moral structure of the empire. As such, we remand you to Reading Gaol for a term of five months at hard labor.”
Katherine slid from the courtroom and hurried home.
All that day Jeremy stayed in the flat. Katherine bought the morning and midday papers, but there was nothing about Tommy or Neil. He waited until the last possible moment, then stuck close to Katherine, and hurried to the theatre. As they approached the Strand, a paperboy shouted, “‘Actor Jailed!’ Get cher paper here.”
The next corner was Norfolk Street. A different paper boy waved his sheet. “‘Actor Jeremy O’Connell -- friend of Tommy Quinn: Prince Hal or Prince Pouf?’... Buy a paper, mister?” Jeremy’s face went gray. He lowered his head and plowed on.
Almost at Howard Street, they heard, “‘Scandal at the Strand Theatre!’” A woman bought the paper. “Yes, madam, ‘ere y’ are.”
Jeremy clutched Katherine’s hand, and raced for the stage-door. A heckler recognized him. “Bloody pouf! You should be in jail with yer mates!”
A woman called, “Hiding behind a woman’s skirt, are y’? Is that the kind o’ man y’ are?”
Katherine froze. Jeremy put a protective arm around her, glanced back, and saw Archibald Perry hand each of the hecklers a coin.
The next few days, Jeremy stuck to Katherine like glue. Dreadfully guilty that he was walking free, while terrified he would be found out and pitched into jail with Tommy, he played the ideal husband, staying home every night.
A heavy door clanged open and a warder read a list of names. As Tommy’s name was called, Jeremy stood and nearly lost his balance. Clenching his jaw, willing his heart to slow, he treated this like any other performance. Tommy needed him to be strong. He followed the queue into a long, narrow room. A dozen men in poorly fitting prison uniforms were shackled to long tables. The other visitors raced to their husbands, sons, or fathers. Some burst into tears.
It took Jeremy a moment to make out Tommy at the end of the row. His face was gray. Eyes half-closed, elbows leaning heavily on the table, he looked exhausted, filthy, and dangerously thin. His cheeks were so hollow; his crooked tooth looked slightly sinister. His usually fluffy hair was combed back, held solid by its own grease. Razor nicks spotted his face. Jeremy did not suppose prisoners were allowed to handle razors. Someone else must have shaved him.
Jeremy forced a pleasant smile and sauntered down the row. Tommy’s smile was joyous. He tried to stand, heaved at his shackles, then jerked back onto the hard bench. Jeremy sat in a sturdy chair on the other side of the table, pretending not to notice that Tommy’s nails were chipped and filthy.
Tommy had been under the code of silence, and unable to speak for a month. His voice was a hoarse whisper. “Thanks for coming. Do I look horrible? There aren’t any mirrors.”
Jeremy lied. “You look fine.”
“They’re killing me.”
Jeremy bent forward. “You are not dying. You will be out of here and I will take care of you.”
“You can’t. You can’t be anywhere near me. You shouldn’t even visit. We were lucky with that copper, but...,”
“I’ll get you a room. Just as soon as you’re well again, we’ll see about...,”
“Damn it, Jerry. Go home to that revolting girl and leave me alone. I’m ruined. I’ll never work again.”
Jeremy’s heart skipped a beat, but he hoped his face showed nothing. “You are a fine actor. Of course you will work again.”
“Not in Victoria’s empire.”
“All right then... In someone else’s empire.” Tommy scowled, and Jeremy hesitated before whispering, “Tell me what it’s like.”
Tommy shook his head, rubbed his eyes, and looked at his fingers. “Filthy.
Everything’s filthy and cold. For two weeks, I wore a stinking cloth hood, with holes for eyes, and marched to nowhere, round-and-round a circular yard. There were a hundred men, all in hoods. Every day, marching -- through cold -- drenching rain -- six-hours-a-day. Now, I’m on the treadmill, climbing stairs to nowhere, six-hours-a- day. If I slow, the warders beat me with a truncheon. You can’t see my legs and back, but they’re all over bruises. My shoes don’t fit, so my feet are scabbed and calloused. I used to have such pretty feet.”
He sobbed softly. “I sleep on a board with a thin blanket. Sometimes my arms and legs go numb with cold. We get watery cocoa and stale bread for breakfast, soup or a slice of fatty meat is dinner, and a spoonful of suet and potatoes is tea. They march us into chapel every morning and twice on Sundays, but we’re not allowed to speak or read anything. Some warders sneak out letters for other prisoners, but none of them like me.” He rocked pitifully. “I’m so hungry.” Tears rolled down his cheeks. “Worst is the code of silence. Some days I want to scream. If I even speak, it’ll be solitary confinement and the crank.”
The entire 4 book series is Published by Endeavour Media, London and available on Amazon.com www.amazon.com/dp/B074VCVWSF