The telegram that reached me that morning in May surprised me when I thought little remained left on this good firmament that could rattle me to my foundation. I had not yet washed but thought to get a start upon my work before the heat crawled into the attic where I resided and made my position all but untenable.
“See Mr. Maturin's advertisement Daily Mail might suit you earnestly beg try will speak if necessary— —”
I note it down in precisely the same manner that it came into my lap, yet I cannot hope to convey the feelings it stirred up within me when I sighted the initials listed at the end of the missive. They belonged to the closest in blood I had to kin, but when I had called upon him hoping for an outpouring of charity, or at least sympathy, he had spoken in such a ferocious tone that I could make no mistake of his position on the matter.
To hear venomous words poured forth when I sought a balm instead was troublesome enough, but to receive this telegram went a step too far. I knew him to have an inclination toward philanthropy, when he chose to don such a cap, but I imagined the sort of things he would say on my behalf! Making my sins—dire as they were—all the worse while leaning back in a seat, clucking his tongue over a cooling cup of tea and bemoaning that, while there are bad seeds in any lot, sometimes one must be benevolent and overlook such bad behaviour.
I wriggled and stewed over this imagined conversation and half a dozen more that went in much the same vein, sometimes envisioning that this Mr. Maturin would join in tallying up my defects and flaws. It overwhelmed me, and I seized toward my pen to fire off a response that would let him understand that, while I had most certainly fallen on ill luck through my own misdeeds, it did not afford him the right to look down his nose at me.
When I snatched the paper up, however, my anger turned to ashes. It seemed unlikely to me that he sent the message altruistically after the cruel things that he uttered to me, but if he had, my letter would be utterly boorish in response.
I recalled then my duty to the press, and I once more picked up my pen, losing myself to the current article I wrote on prison life. It was one of a series, and I hoped that perhaps my light shining upon the mistreatment of those who dwelt within the stone walls might lead to some improvements for the wretches.
The telegram? I wished I could have the satisfaction of feeding it into a crackling fire, but I made do with my hands instead, tearing it into a few jagged, large pieces before allowing it to join the wasted writing unsuitable of not only my talents but of printing in any 'paper.
I cashed my check, and my curiosity compelled me to purchase an issue of the Daily Mail and thus part with 6p that I could ill-afford. The advertisement that my lofty relative drove my attention toward seemed almost to be tailored exclusively with me in mind. I cannot now recall the precise details, but do remember the phrases “male nurse and constant attendant” as well as “liberal salary to University or public-school man”.
What sort of man would apply to such a position? Who else would have sunk as low as I that they would need to stoop down to such a task? I could not fathom that there were many who would do so, and yet the idea of returning to my dismal burrow was an idea so loathsome to me that I found myself travelling to Earl's Court.
They would have turned me away at the door—my clothing was pitiful and my countenance worse still—but I did not arrive to avail myself of the offered occupation. Instead, I went merely to look at the neighbourhood and ponder over whether I had not been wrong in shunning my reluctant benefactor's assistance.
Along the way, I had seen myself living there and helping the old boy, lugging him along the tarry-wood pavement, passing women in soft kid-gloves and men wearing shining, velvety beaver-hats. How good it would have been, to pretend for a moment that I could equal such company.
Arrival dashed a pot of cold water on any such notions; the invalid in question had money, perhaps, but only enough to claw himself into the lower echelon of the neighbourhood. There were no balconies to be sighted, the porter was out of livery, and the ill man in question lived three floors up with only the stairs to carry him! It painted a very dismal picture indeed, and the physician's plate near to the ground level's windows filled me with pity as to his small practice.
A fellow exited the flat as I stood outside it, and he brushed past me in a state of obvious dejection. I called to him, wondering if he had come to see about the advertisement, and his quick, dark eye glanced me over in the work of a moment. I knew well enough that he deemed me as less worthy than he, and even though I ought hardly fault him in doing so, anger sparked quickly within me at his casual, wordless dismissal.
“You are here for...the position of nurse?” I asked, and he scoffed, shaking his head.
“No use even trying. They sent out a man before me, and the doctor took one look and had me following right after him.”
My downtrodden acquaintance jammed his hands glumly in his jacket pockets, stalking quickly down the pavement in order to put the entire business behind him, and I vacillated for a moment, realising that it had been foolish to come out at all when I had no intention of applying. I knew it best to walk back home—though my feet would surely complain later in doing so—and I turned to begin the lonely trek when I stilled after taking only a step or two forward.
Whenever I had engaged in misdeeds with poor old Raffles, I had never hoped to be as quick or as alert as he. Certainly at times he could be a perfect ass, and muddle something up entirely, but in other occasions he acted in what I would deem a stroke of madness, only to later realise he had performed his role precisely as he should have done to ensure our safety and, more importantly, our freedom.
When worry stole over me—that we were followed, perhaps, or that our victims had never actually left their flats—he tsked gently and allayed my fears, tutting that he always knew when he was being watched. Of course he did not, yet I always chose to believe him.
At that moment as I stood beneath the flat, I bore something of the presentiment that Raffles swore he possessed, and so I glanced instinctively upward to peer into a dirty window that overlooked the street.
A pale face stared intently down at me, and when I tilted my gaze to meet his, he disappeared quickly, a flurry of motion as the curtain fell back into place and obscured both him and his room from view. My heart had leapt almost into my throat, thudding fiercely, and I touched a hand to my chest as though it might help to soothe the throbbing muscle.
Nothing to fear—a fellow is allowed to look out should he wish it, and an invalid ought to be able to do so all the more for his condition.
But was it fear that clenched me? Had the unexpected sight of a white face staring startled me to such a degree?
I did not think so, and as I dug my fingers into the front of my waistcoat, I puzzled over the feeling I could not readily explain.
The room in which I lived was close, jammed in with as many occupants as could fit in the beds packed next to each other. There were five of us altogether, although it seemed a great deal more on the rare occasion we were all in at the same time. I ought to have enjoyed the night as it permitted me a measure of solitude; two of those that bunked with me worked as waiters, and the remaining couple counted themselves amongst the ranks of a station clerk and a knoller respectively. The heat of the summer months closed my throat in such a cramped environment, however, and I took myself to the streets to find some relief.
The neighbourhood in which I resided populated itself with the dregs of society, and the few that I met cast a jaundiced eye on me; doubtless I offered them the same look in passing. I did not make it far before despair reared its head; if I strayed into other districts, my shabby appearance and the time of the evening might catch the sharp eye of a constable ready to make a name for himself. I did not wish—I could not tolerate such a thing, and so I swivelled with a sigh and headed in the direction from whence I came.
My turn came swiftly, decisively, without much thought on my end, and I had not realised that someone tailed close at my heels until I collided bodily with the man. He stuttered back, more out of surprise than from the collision itself, but my legs seemed to cease working.
I let out a yelp and might have tumbled out into the street entirely had the fellow not steadied me with careful hands that lingered upon my arms. “Thank-you; I didn't know that you...” I began, but faltered, heart missing a thump or two as I looked him directly in the face.
The street lamp's glow was unreliable from its stance a few paces from where I stood, and the gentleman's collar drew up while his face tilted down, shadowed and obscured by the late hour. Yet it seemed to me that his eyes were blue—such a keen colour of blue that I could not help the name that came to me from the depths of a watery grave, a name I had not thought I might ever have chance to utter aloud again.
“Raffles...?” It slipped from my lips, fervent as a prayer, but even as I gave voice to it, I knew it nothing more than the wish of a desperate and lonely man.
No flicker of recognition showed in his eyes, and he withdrew his hands, mumbling what might have constituted a gruff apology as he skirted past me languorously and dipped around the corner.
I remained there for a few long, torturous minutes, stricken by the entire event. For a moment—for a brief, dismal moment!—I had believed that my poor friend stood with me on the pavement. How I wished—oh, how I wished that it might have been true! But as the stranger departed, I noted the shock of white hair that peeked from beneath his cap—bright enough even in the dim light afforded to me—and thus remembered the terrible truth.
It pained me; when they released me from gaol, I had spotted Raffles in each stranger upon every corner. I heard him in a quick laugh, saw him in bright, merry eyes, and felt him in every lazy smile.
I thought that I had overcome it, but apparently I succeeded only in fooling myself, and as I touched upon my arms where the fellow had gripped me, my hands trembled.
Instead of finishing my work early the next morning, I gave myself over instead to a bout of idleness, regretting it when I discovered the sun set without my acknowledgement, leaving me to try hastily to catch up on what I should already have written.
The night grew long around me, and my eyelids weighted with it until I paused briefly to catch a second wind, turning down the lights to aid me in the attempt. This, of course, only served to cradle me into slumber, and I woke abruptly some time later, papers sticking wildly to my face as I tried to recall what it was I had been doing.
Why I roused myself at all was soon made apparent—I was not the only one in the room. I thought for an instant that Thomas—one of the young waiters—returned, but he would not be in the flat at such an hour unless management had released him from their staff.
The shadowy form stalked first to the bed nearest the window, and with a jolt of fear I noted that it gaped wide; I had opened it mid-way for whatever cool air might be available, but an unwelcome hand had leveraged it to provide additional space. The dim figure hummed thoughtfully, and I shrank back, hoping the darkness would cloak me even as I carefully—carefully!—tilted over in my bed and reached beneath it.
The stint in gaol had done much to instil within me a mistrust of my fellow man, and I knew well enough the desperation one might sink to when attempting to lift possessions from another. It was with this thought in mind that I had procured a little truncheon not unlike those that the good constable kept at his belt, and when I closed my hand upon it, I felt a small sense of security in the idea that this would-be burglar could not best me so easily.
Biting down on my lip and holding my breath, I rose from my bed without a whisper of noise, thankful that it chose not to squeak or groan at my departure as it usually did. The intruder neared the gas; if he lit it, there would be nowhere that I could hide, and while I wagered I could hold my own with the element of surprise, I doubted that I would best any man without it.
I raised my arm and swung the weapon down in a vicious arc, but something gave me away at the last moment and with an oath of surprise he ducked, narrowly missing a good clubbing. I tottered from the momentum but quickly brought the nightstick up, hoping that my eyes might be better adjusted to the darkness than his own.
Alas, he found my wrist and grasped it tightly, fingers digging into my flesh, and when I raised my left hand, ready to fight with it instead, he seemed to anticipate this and stayed it in the same manner. I squawked in protest—as though it might do me good—and struggled to free myself, wriggling and twisting until he spoke.
“You wish to knock the brains from my skull? Not quite the greeting I—I had anticipated, but you can surprise a body now and again, Bunny.”
“Who are you?” I asked, voice shaking, but—I knew. I knew, and his fingers went limp before releasing me altogether.
“Forgotten me so easily?” he teased, voice light, but when I lit the lamp to look at him, he did not smile and avoided my gaze, choosing to glance around himself as though there would be anything in the room that ought to hold his interest more than me.
“Raffles! But...it can't be!” I cried, and he sat down on my own bed with an air of someone who had suddenly expended all the energy left to him.
Perhaps he thought that I would join him—that I ought join him—but I could not. The man before me seemed as unlike Raffles as any common cur I might meet upon the street. He had apparently aged tremendously in the time we spent forced apart; he looked twenty years older than himself, and wrinkles gathered at the customary places. His mouth, however, I would know anywhere, and the corners curved upward briefly as he spoke again.
“Do you have any Sullivans on you? I tell you I have been spoiling for one for some time.”
“I'm afraid I don't,” I replied stiffly. When Raffles plunged into the sea, I had given up more than a few things that reminded me too painfully of the man that I lost. A cigarette from that brand made me think of nothing else but Raffles, and I could not bear to hold one between my fingers and remember that he was no longer with me.
“A pity, but it can't be helped. I suppose it is better this way,” he groused, sounding as though it was decidedly not an improvement, and when I met his gaze, the old, mischievous light dwelt within his eyes, which glinted like steel. “Hardly recognised me, eh? Think I look much older?”
I hesitated. “It is your hair that does it,” I admitted, and he reached up, twisting and untwisting a curl about his finger thoughtfully.
“That is a story I might tell you later, if you fancy it. But—here! Join me,” he said, and he patted the spot next to himself. “Join me, and I will tell you about how I came to be here at all.”
I listened to him tell his tale of woe, of how he swam and made it to Italy, and how he hunkered down there before finally—eventually—returning to England. That he had returned six weeks ago prickled me, but I said nothing, allowing him to wind down his story instead. He informed me that he was the Mr. Maturin of the 'paper, and that set me on my feet again.
“You!! But—how could he have known...?”
Raffles guessed at who I meant, and smiled lazily, leaning back with his arms behind his head as though he owned my bed. “How could he have known? Why, good heavens, Bunny—he didn't, of course! The telegram came from my own hand, though I am glad to know that my mimicry of his mannerisms are alike enough that they fooled my little rabbit.”
I was cross at him, and getting crosser still with every revelation. He was alive! There was no joy better than that! That did not, however, erase my irritation, and I folded my arms to my chest, unswayed by his affectionate term as I stared down at him stretched out upon my covers.
He screwed open one eye to read the room and, feeling a chill from me, sat up once more. “You realise that I had to do it, don't you, Bunny?”
“I do not,” I said coolly.
“Should I step back into the city as myself, I wager I would find derbies clapped around my wrists before I had time to walk twenty-odd paces. I leapt overboard, you remember—I leapt overboard, and that was the last anyone has heard from me. It is better to stay that way; I prefer not to lie in gaol if I can manage it, and I'm only sorry that you had to do so.”
“Is your doctor in on the scheme?” I wondered, finding myself curious despite my better wishes to remain aloof in my annoyance.
“Not in the manner you think, but he is a learned man. He believes me to be a hypochondriac, and will allow me my game if it means guineas in his pocket. Theobald will marry on the back of my many and varied ailments, and I doubt he would do anything to endanger such a patient.”
A question pressed on my mind, and I gave voice to it as I once more sat next to Raffles. “But how on earth did you find me?”
“It was a fine piece of work. I recognised you by the articles you wrote; although you did not give a name, I should know your fist instantly.”
The thought that he might find me so easily amidst all the published papers and articles pleased me, but my curiosity remained. “How did you find me though—my address, I mean?”
“I called upon your editor at night; I daren't go out save for this hour lest I walk straight into Theobald's arms. I told him a tragic yarn, begging him that he might help you connect with me, the last remaining soul you call kin, and swore your name was not your own. If he did not believe me, I would give him my name. It didn't come to that, and when at last I had your address in my pocket, I danced down the steps.”
“No, last week,” he answered easily, and some of my good will evaporated in the face of his response.
“You have been here so long—nearly two months—and I have thought you dead this whole time,” I anticipated he might flinch at my words, but he did not react at all, instead staring thoughtfully in front of himself as though I had not spoken at all. “Why couldn't you come to me sooner?”
“I have told you why; it is not safe—”
“I would have for you!” I cried, and Raffles blinked. He blinked again, and when he turned to me, his eyes were soft.
“Yes. I know that,” he said, and then he laughed quietly. “I can see you moving heaven and earth if you were able.”
He brushed his hand out, cupping my cheek, and a part of me relented to him as it always did. Raffles always could conquer me in the end, almost without trying, and yet—and yet I could not easily revert to the past, as though nothing at all had happened.
I leaned away from him, pressing his arm down, and an almost imperceptible flicker of dismay crossed his face and lodged in his bright eyes, although his cheery expression did not falter a whit. “Well...things have not gone quite as I might have liked,” he murmured, and I started to speak, to reassure him, but realised he and I thought of two different topics. “I had anticipated you would respond to the advertisement—you were there, Bunny! Why the devil didn't you come up? Did you lose your pluck?”
I frowned, wondering how he might have known that I had gone at all, and then sudden realisation fell upon me. “You—you were the face in the window!” I cried, and the look that he gave me was so akin to those of the past when I had said something colossally foolish that I wilted beneath it.
“Yes, Bunny, I was the face in the window,” he sighed. “I tailored the advertisement for you precisely! You would come up, I would decide you the best of a lacking lot, and then we could move a cot for you into my room. You would be at my hand, and we could continue from there. Now, however...”
I winced. “What do we do?”
Raffles shrugged dismissively. “I did not find anyone suitable, obviously. Visit us tomorrow morning at an early—but respectable—hour. I suspect Mr. Maturin will decide that you are just the ticket.”
“But the advertisement was for yesterday. Won't Theobald be suspicious that I've come calling so late?”
“Possibly; he is not eager for competition as it stands, but I insist on it, so he's willing to bend a fraction to my will. I haven't really given him much of an option otherwise. Just tell him that you had a death in the family—sister—and you would have come for the position but for your little personal bereavement. Make sure to clap some black on you, and if he forces the issue, I will bark at him so he regrets it.”
I agreed to this with some reservations, but I left them unsaid as Raffles glanced at me with a calculating eye.
“You can come with me that evening as well. Have you duds for a dinner at Kellner's at eleven?”
I snorted bitterly at his question. “Of course I don't. They're with my only forgiving relative.”
“And how much would you need to square up and see you with bag and baggage on my doorstep?”
I thought on it for a moment. “Ten pounds, I believe.”
He had it out before I finished speaking, and pressed it into my hand with a light touch, fingers drawing along my palm before he reluctantly pulled away from me. “Make certain, too, to fetch me a stall at the Lyceum and bring the ticket with you.”
Raffles rose, and I matched him, curious what prompted him to do so. He darted a glance toward the door, and I made out noises from below that denoted the two waiters had returned from their shift.
“You will do this, won't you? You won't turn away a second time?” he asked as he moved swiftly to the window, and while he teased, a note of seriousness strayed into his tone.
“No, I—surely you realise I would have dashed up those steps two—three!—at a time had I known it to be you inside!” I insisted, and he laughed as loudly as he dared, stretching his hand out to touch once more to my cheek.
He hesitated this time, however, and folded his fingers back into a fist before patting me awkwardly instead upon the shoulder. “Good man, Bunny. Dependable in the last—that's when it matters most. Tomorrow, then.”
He disappeared without a sound, and though I wished to watch him slip down the wall and into the safety of the street, I relented as my acquaintances entered the room. I could not risk them joining me at the window, and I turned from it entirely, meeting their cheerful greeting with one of my own.
As I sat down on my bed, my mind whirred over the inconceivable—Raffles had been here!
Raffles was alive!
Raffles secured the position for me without much trouble at all; this Theobald was wholly resistant to sharing his golden goose with anyone else, certainly including myself, but he was made to acquiesce with some sharp words from his invalid patient.
I was less than thrilled when Raffles gave over my stall at the Lyceum to the physician, but could say nothing at all when Theobald left us. We did not remain long in the quarters, and Raffles surprised me on the landing when he led the way up the flight of stairs rather than down, compelling me to mount two floors and eventually come out upon the roof with him at half-past ten.
He spoke to me in a hushed tone beneath a blanket of stars, explaining that there were two entrances to the mansions, and we might pass by the porter should we take the wrong stairs to arrive and exit. It was, no doubt, the way that he had been able to affect his night-time ambulation, and I drifted behind him close enough to be his second shadow.
For nearly half an hour after-ward, we rode in a hansom. There was a great deal I wished to say to him; I wanted to hear more of what he had done without me, but in the same instant I did not, for my mind conjured all sorts of scenarios that wounded the soul and blackened my heart.
He took no notice on my relative silence, continuing a stream of chatter as though we were stepping out together as we always had, as though no time at all separated us. He babbled about the state of the fixtures in the clubs that we passed, the gauche statue of Strathnairn newly pressed up, and of restaurants we often frequented but could do so no longer given his self-imposed ostracisation.
“I've put on a Yankee's coat, Bunny, and you'd do well to follow suit,” he said to me as we took the steps in Kellner's, and I stared at his broad shoulders, baffled as to what the devil he wanted me to do.
I started at the sight of the table, laid out as it was for three. “But there's too many here!” I said, and when he replied, I realised what he meant a moment earlier.
“A-yep. The lady plum couldn't make it, but if I'm to pay, I'm fixin' to eat the lot of it,” he responded with an exhalation as he settled into a seat, and I frowned as I took one at the right of his hand.
I leaned closer to whisper to him, and he blinked at my sliding nearer but said nothing, allowing me to murmur in a low voice that only he would hear. “I've never been to America, AJ!” I cried, and he waved dismissively at me.
“It's no matter—neither have I!”
“And it shows!” I said, drawing back and ignoring the sharp scowl that speaking my mind earned me.
He did not dwell long in his agitation—no man could with the feast set before us. The hard times I suffered in gaol had only sharpened my appreciation for the finer things in life—the things which were forbidden to me—and so my mouth watered while my eyes must have glimmered at the fine cuisine and impeccable vintage that Raffles selected for us.
I could feel his gaze on me, and met his somewhat hesitant smile. “Bunny—my Bunny—here's to us both!” he declared as he raised a glass in a toast, and when I touched mine to his, my heart fluttered happily in my chest.
We might have supped sawdust and downed dishwater instead and it would not have made any difference to me; to have him with me once more meant the world. I worked up the nerve to tell him so, to pour out my woe at having done my best after his disappearance for naught, but the waiter re-emerged with the Château Margaux as well as a card resting upon a silver tray.
“Show him up,” Raffles said into his glass, slouching back in his seat even as my previous good humour evaporated, replaced with a cold tinge of foreboding.
“Who is this?” I cried, flicking the card back onto the table, and at the note of fear in my voice Raffles straightened, carefully setting down his wine and gripping me by the hand.
“Bunny, stand by me. Stand by me, Bunny—if there's a row!” he commanded, and while his mischievous tone hearkened back to our games of old, it was his thumb running lightly against the length of my knuckles that did far more to keep me seated at his side.
The fellow entered shortly after, by which time Raffles had sunk back into his languid posture, giving a brief nod to the man who dressed in the sort of attire that marked him a regular occupant of such a restaurant. “Good evening, gentlemen,” he said with a bright smile, at ease with both us and the surroundings.
“Go on'n take a chair then,” Raffles gestured to the free seat before directing his thumb at me. “I reckon you don't know this'n here—he's Ezra B. Martin, fresh from Shy-cah-go. Mr. Martin's my new brother-in-law, soon as I kin get the old gal down the aisle. 'N Ezra? This's Mr. Robinson, manager of the Sparks & Company, the fellers down there on Regent Street with them jewels.”
I was not altogether certain that Raffles's accent was as winning as he believed it to be, but I knew precisely what he would have to say to me should I perform worse than he. I gave what I hoped was a polite—but completely silent—dip of the head as acknowledgement of the introduction.
Raffles spun a quick story about the missing fiancée—abstaining from our gathering on account of resting for a trip to 'Parrus' come early morning—and stretched out his hand in order to flash a diamond ring I had not seen before. It came from his own shop, and he engaged pleasantly with Raffles as to speculation on the price. Raffles encouraged me to join but I could not, preferring to keep a tight grip on my voice so as not to ruin whatever plot he had concocted at which he currently played.
The jeweller was drawn out as a candle lures in a moth; Raffles positively needed, don'tcha see, to drop all sorts of trinkets and bracelets upon my darling sister. No other vendor could produce a quality that would suit her; no, our Mr. Robinson was the only one that possessed anything that could come close to being up to snuff.
The jewels and gems which slipped one after the other from the jeweller's bag glinted and shone beneath the light, and the sight of such luxury made me a trifle vertiginous. I could not estimate the idea Raffles had formulated without me, but months spent in the misery of gaol heightened my natural wariness—should it come to violence, I would fight like a hell-cat.
Raffles and I were meant to choose for the bride-to-be, we who knew her best. A ring for her, a necklet for her—it seemed to me that anything that presented itself was soon determined to be appropriate. I thought I ought to finally say something, and I mused that she would fancy a diamond star. The price—it being £116—came too rich for my blood, and Raffles kicked me fiercely under the table when I admitted it aloud.
I could not see how we could pay for the lot; each piece stood a hundred pounds or more, and I had lost most of my belongings to a pawnbroker. “I'm sure yer well aware that I'm good for it,” I dimly heard Raffles saying, “Only the remittance ain't come from Noo Yawk just yet.”
Visions of dancing pound notes slipped from the jeweller's eyes, and he finally balked for the first time during our meeting. “I hardly know you! I don't even have the name of the place you are staying!”
Raffles played his part admirably, quick to soothe the fellow, quicker still to both reassure and flatter the man with compliments to his personal character and to that of the shop in which he worked. I could see Raffles's charm worked well, and yet there was deserved reluctance lingering in Mr. Robinson. It would suit my companion if his idea unravelled in his hands; that he thought he could walk away with hardly paying any coin was a special kind of madness.
“I've thought'a mailin' out the currency straight from Parrus, but how can I trust you'd keep up yer end and give up what we chose here to-night?” Raffles wondered, and the jeweller went rigid at the affront.
Raffles laughed, gave a sort of apology that smoothed down some ruffled feathers, and stubbed out the cigarette he had taken up in the midst of our dealings. While the tradesman and I had cigars, Raffles stuck adamantly to the cigarette, and he turned the case over and over in his hands before whistling lightly.
“Here, now! I've struck on just the thing, so I have!” Raffles cried, and he dumped the contents of the tin out, tapping the edge of it three times on the table before denoting his plan in a quick, excited rush.
Mr. Robinson could pack the jewellery in wool and stick it carefully into Raffles proffered box. The box would be sealed with wax and string, and the jeweller could remove both case and contents with him, keeping it safely on his person until our payment duly reached him. Once done, he would ship the container to us, seal intact.
The man vacillated on the issue even as Raffles insisted I ring for a waiter to fetch us sealing-wax and string, but in the end he agreed. Still, the expression he bore on his countenance was one of a man ill, although a sniff of the fine wine at our table soon brought him to steadier ground.
With the food long since eaten and our business apparently concluded, I drifted to impatience, and I heaved a great sigh of relief when Raffles broke up our gathering with feigned unwillingness. I beat him down the steps, and, though I tried to tempt him into conversation on more than a few points, he met me each time with a laconic word or utter quiet until I ceased in the attempt and stared out the window instead, more than a little wounded at the snub.
I said nothing as we drifted along the roof like slick wraiths, and I kept my peace until we secreted ourselves in Raffles's digs. Hardly had I taken a step but I felt his hands on my shoulders, a warm comfort the importance of which I did not appreciate until I lost just such a touch all those months ago.
“You rabbit!” he declared. “Why couldn't you wait till we got home?”
Home. The word echoed pleasantly in my mind, but I pressed ever onward. “Why? I have been lost this entire evening, that is why! What was the meaning in all that?”
“Because I needed your face,” he said simply, and I shook my head at how easily he had fallen into the old ways. “I needed that innocence, lest he guess at what we played.”
“What was it exactly that we played?”
Raffles joined me on the bed, removing the cigarette case from his pocket. It was neither tied nor sealed, and burst open when he slapped it, its contents cascading out onto the blanket as he grinned at me. “Duplicate boxes, you see. I had the one waiting; it really is a clever little trick, and devilishly simple if you can do it right. I will have to use you to get rid of it, of course.”
I simply nodded and felt his cool eyes on me. I knew he expected—wanted—me to pick up the star or the ring and marvel at its craftsmanship and his ingenuity, but I stared at the small pile instead.
“Not impressed? Well, it was the best I could do with such limited means,” he said, more to himself than to me as he fanned his hand through the jewellery.
“Don't be absurd,” I sighed. “The ring alone is worth more than—than—well, than quite a few stories that have come from my pen. But...”
He watched and waited for me to continue, and when I did not, prompted me to do so, slinging the necklet round and round his finger with a casual air I knew to be false. “But?”
“You didn't need me there—not really. My face? You said it yourself in the hansom that I oughtn't lean forward lest they see me and think of you. If it was such a worry to you, why would you risk dining out with me, where anyone could have watched us coming and going? Why would you wish me to me be there when you lifted this jewellery?” I plucked up the star, waving it beneath his nose. “When he realises they're gone and it was a duo that tricked him out of it, no amount of accents will stop the gossip; you must realise that! So why on earth—”
“Why on earth indeed,” he interrupted me, tone sharp. Sharper than he wanted, for he ran a hand through his prematurely whitened hair, glancing away and dropping the necklet. “It should be obvious.”
“Well it isn't! Not to me!” I cried, and the steel of his eyes pierced me where I sat.
“These past few days, I have taken untold risks. To send out for you at all in an advertisement was foolish—to look for you when you did not answer me as I anticipated? Lunacy. I have money here and there—don't ask me how or why, Bunny; perhaps I'll let you know later,” he said, anticipating my question before I could voice it. “I looked to our Mr. Robinson as an additional income to assist you.”
I set the star carefully with the other jewellery, slightly embarrassed at that point.
“The dinner, I—I thought you would enjoy it. The gaol, and then that dilapidated mess you're stuck in now...I figured it had been some time since you took a table at Kellner's. I remembered you chattered about it the last time we went together...”
Raffles settled his hands in his lap. “When I set foot in London, I hadn't considered the possibility that gaol would have made an honest man of you,” he said, and his voice grew quieter. “I hadn't considered the possibility that you might have outgrown your use for me.”
A horror seized me at his softly delivered words—I stood on the precipice of losing him just as he returned!
“Raffles! You've—I've—it's—” Speech could not come to me in any semblance of sense, and he puckered his brow, trying to decipher the jumbled muddle I delivered to him. My words faltered—stumbled—and inevitably collapsed, leaving me to bury my face in my hands as I burst into tears.
This must have been the very last reaction Raffles sought from me, and he let out a noise of surprise, hands fluttering toward me but stopping short, uncertain of what precisely he ought to do, and I spoke haltingly into the flesh of my palms.
“You're back—back here—when...when I never thought I'd see you again,” I said, and I glanced up at him. I could not read his perfectly blank expression, and I scrubbed at my tears. “I never let myself cry, you know. It felt as though if I did, I would be admitting that you were dead. If I didn't grieve for you, not properly, you could still be out there somewhere. Even if you weren't with me, at least you'd be alive.”
“Oh, Bunny...” He folded me easily to his chest, allowing me to mess the front of his nice shirt in my sorrow, continuing gently, “My poor rabbit.”
To anyone who might have viewed the scene, it would have looked as though Raffles stoically indulged me in my belated grief, allowing me to weep myself better. They did not have his hands clinging tightly into their back, however, nor could they feel him tremble for a moment as I did.
He offered me a handkerchief when I turned to hiccoughs, and I held it desperately, as though he would vanish suddenly should I drop the square of cloth. “I wished that you had been there with me,” Raffles said finally, breaking our silence. “It was akin to Paradise, and I can think of no one better with which to share it than you, Bunny.”
I sniffled, looking up at him, and he brushed his thumb lightly against my cheek. I did not pull away from Raffles this time; in fact, I did much the opposite, falling into him as though I had missed the top step on a set of stairs. Clasping my arms about his neck, I kissed him, and he rested his hands on my hips, tugging me nearer.
It was as if I meant to give him a kiss for each day that separated us, and Raffles soon seemed to suss out my intention, dipping his forehead to touch my own with a rumble of laughter. “You can't have missed me this much, Bunny.”
“More than you can imagine,” I said earnestly, feeling a few of his silken curls press into my skin.
“I suspect you will have to show me,” he responded playfully, his palm flat on my chest.
When he pushed me down into his invalid bed, returning my kiss with one of his own as the moonlight streamed in across the covers, playing across the face I loved so well, I truly felt at home.