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Like a star on a foggy morning

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He was silent as we sat together in the cooling gallery at the Turkish baths. He gazed out of the window and disregarded my remarks on the food, the weather and the prospects for the coming cricket season, unmoved as he had apparently been all the morning. That ought, I suppose, to have been my first warning. There had been in his reaction to my tale none of the wondering admiration, nor the indignant frustration at how much I had kept from him, with which he usually received such narratives; but at the time I paid no attention. I knew he was ashamed of what he had done, of course, but I thought that leaving those things in the tower and then presenting me with the empty jewel-cases had been enough for him; and hadn’t he said it was a hysterical and mean thing to do? Thus, the estimation of my own insensitive moral faculties.

It was not until a few days afterwards that I really began to appreciate the state of affairs. I had disposed of the things in the usual way, and gone to Bunny’s rooms when I knew he would be out to drop off his share of the proceeds; I was determined that he should have these, but thought by this point that a little delicacy in getting them to him would not go amiss. The next day I was interrupted at my morning paper by a knock at the door, and found my rabbit standing there with a rather tragically determined expression on his face and the wad of banknotes in his hand. These he flung down on the table as I led him through to the outer room, and said, ‘No, Raffles, I absolutely will not take any of this money. You may keep it—your part in the thing was as admirable as it generally is, but mine was entirely the reverse, and I cannot take the profits of it for myself.’

There was in his voice a note which I had not often heard before. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Bunny,’ I said, trying to keep my own tone soft. ‘You earned it fairly enough. Why, without you I’d never have thought of visiting the place, and never have got these things at all. Whatever you may have done later on, you were as essential as you always are to the enterprise as a whole.’

‘I didn’t mean leaving the things behind.’ I had known that already; my attempt at deflection had been useless. ‘What you say is perfectly true, and it only reflects further upon my baseness. I ought never to have thought of going there in the first place. It was a villainous thing, and—’ Here I moved forward and laid my hand upon his shoulder, and was about to interrupt, but he continued resolutely, ‘And I’d rather not argue the point endlessly, Raffles, so please leave it here’—he gestured at the money upon my side-table—‘and let that be the end of it.’

I looked at him, not moving my hand; the muscles of his shoulder were tense beneath my fingers. I saw now what a mistake it had been to let him so much alone over these last few days. He had clearly spent the time working himself up into one of those awful tangles of guilt and misery that he would get into when faced with any sort of moral scruple, and such reflections are never so powerful as when there is nothing to answer them but one’s own thoughts, that will only spiral again towards the abyss. Of course, I had undone such tangles for him often enough before, and could attempt to do so now; but I was beginning to understand that something was different this time, and so I only said, ‘Very well. I think you’re being silly, but I shan’t try to argue you out of it. Leave the money here; I shall give it to some worthy charitable cause, since I’m not going to keep it for myself. Bunny!’

He had half-turned as if to leave. At this he looked back at me, and the sight pulled at my heart terribly. ‘Yes?’

‘Stay a little while longer.’

He did hesitate, but said, ‘I—have to be somewhere.’

I doubted that, but only drew him closer to me and kissed him. He relaxed a little against me, and there was a wistful, longing look in his eyes when I pulled away; but of the lovely little smile he always used to give when he kissed me, there was nothing.

*

My poor Bunny had much to forgive me for over the years—both the general of drawing him into this lawless life and keeping him there, and far too many particular instances of which I could go into some detail. He forgave me, every time. This last ill-fated adventure, however, brought on as it had been by his own plans, confronted him with the need to forgive himself, and that he could not do even this once.

That was the worst of it, I reflected after he had left. We had argued none too few times before, of course; but on those occasions I would admit that perhaps it had not been quite essential to keep so much of my plans from him, or he would admit that some secrecy or deception on my part had indeed been vital to our success, and within a few days all would be back to normal. No such reconciliation was possible now; in the silent war which he was fighting I was not the enemy. I could only look on and hope that he would come back to me.

Still I thought that the thing would blow over, given enough time. Mindful as I was of the need for some sensitivity, it was without a thought of my friend’s scruples having advanced further than the affair of his family’s old house that I went round to Mount Street a few days later. We had been successful enough, in the mercenary respect at least, on that occasion; yet I was already looking around for possibilities towards the next, and, having found one, I went to tell Bunny of what I intended and invite him to accompany me once again.

I will not dwell on what was said. I was, I dare say, very shameless in my use of all those tactics I had been used to deploy in such persuasions as this (little as he generally needed), going so far as to allude to the precarious state in which his refusal of a few days earlier had left his finances, as compared to my own. He did not, at least, bar the door against me or demand that I leave him. He listened to me without a murmur, and the expression of his face was a peculiar mixture of sadness with something else that I could not quite read. He looked as though he would very much have liked to give in to me, but would not; as though, in fact, my words and manner were having all the effect they usually had, but this was no longer enough.

I left very dejected, feeling that things were somehow coming apart in a way I could not understand.

*

For the days that followed I stayed away. I suppose I still thought he would come around after all, or that after enough time I might make another attempt to persuade him. Despite such self-delusions, however, there was a sort of inevitability about the letter, which I knew as soon as I received it.

It arrived on the morning of the fifth day after our last meeting. My friend’s usual admirable literary style was a trifle unsteady, but the words were assured enough. I read the letter standing before the cold fireplace at the Albany, and then sat down on the sofa and read it again, more slowly.

He did not blame me (he wrote), but he must not see me again. Recent events had begun a mental current which had been going on for several days now, and which had led him to recognise the wrongs of certain things—the impossibility of continuing as he had been—in a way he thought he had not before. He intended to give up entirely his life of crime (the word entirely was underlined, and I understood rather grimly what that meant), and wanted simply to get away from the whole thing. To this end he was leaving town and taking up lodgings elsewhere.

He ended by apologising to me once more, in touching phrases which I shall not repeat; and that was it. Where he was going he did not say, and there was no address given in the letter. I could, I dare say, have found it out for myself had I taken the trouble; probably, he knew this.

I went round to Mount Street one more time, knowing perfectly well what I would find—or, rather, who I would not find, and did not—and returned to my own rooms feeling utterly lost.

*

Time passed. April turned to May, and lilacs bloomed in the gardens of Kensington and St John’s Wood. I cannot say in any great detail what I did with my time; it does not very much signify, for regardless of anything else my thoughts would keep returning to the one great central thing. Perhaps I had not realised before then quite what a hold he had on me. I realised it then.

I had been, rather half-heartedly, developing my idea for a possibility of adventure, as I might have put it had there been anyone to whom I could have done so. The target was chosen; I knew just what prize I meant to go after, and how I would go about winning it. I had actually got to the point of venturing out one warm evening to reconnoitre the house, and it was on my way back to the Albany that I realised (or admitted to myself) how worthless the whole effort was. Oh, I could have gone through with the thing, I dare say, had I been determined enough; but without his eagerness at the thrill of adventure, his hand in mine as we crept along the side of the building, his warm admiring gaze as I explained too late what I had done, I had no heart for it. I returned to my rooms and tore up the notes I had written.

In this way, more time passed. I did not go out much into society. I suppose I attempted to occupy my time with some of those books I was always meaning to read, but must have paid little attention to them—I cannot recall anything of them now. It had to be old books, for the newspapers in those weeks were a poor distraction for one in my particular predicament. When, out of what I suppose was a sort of morbid curiosity, I could not keep my eyes from the latest account of the poor devil’s trials, I would return to my earlier suspicion that such things as this might not be entirely unconnected with my friend’s actions. Oh, it would not be the fear of discovery and punishment, not in him; but he would worry so, and those moral scruples were never entirely about the more innocent crime.

In any case, I knew that the trials would be discussed in all the fashionable circles of London, and it only increased my reluctance to go into society. If the timing of my withdrawal aroused any suspicion of myself, I was never aware of it.

At one point I considered going into the country—I had an open invitation from my good sister to stay with her and her family whenever I might want a change of scene—but decided that being miserable there would not be any substantial improvement on being miserable in town, and stopped where I was.

The usual summer invitations to play cricket tempted me out of my retirement a little, but did nothing to improve my mood. Altogether, I look back on those weeks as one of the least worthwhile periods of my life.

*

The letter arrived in the first week of June. It was addressed from Thames Ditton, and I thought idly that that was just where he would go for the sort of retirement for which he wished: a little place up the river, quiet and lovely as himself, where he could live in peace. And he did sound peaceful, if a little constrained. I gathered that his new law-abiding life was not going as well or as smoothly as it might be.

There was no bitterness in the tone of his words, but he told me that he did not plan to return to town, and the implications for what else he did not intend to return to were clear. He said again that he did not blame me for anything. The letter was headed with the address of his lodgings, and he ended by telling me that I might come to see him there if I wished to do so.

At this point, I was not sure that I did.

*

Even such a black mood as mine was could not last forever. The letter, little as it had led to so far, had improved things somewhat; but a new interest now emerged from quite another quarter. Judging it safe to pick up the newspapers again, I at once found myself plunged into the drama of the Pacific island pearl, of which much has been written elsewhere. Dull as I had been these past weeks, my instincts were not entirely blunted, and this was as if calculated to pique my interest.

Lying on the sofa at the Albany, my windows open to the still summer air, I devoured the account in the Chronicle of the pearl’s storied history, and continued with unabated fascination to other stories recounting the late actions of the Pacific monarch and the plans of the European.

I concocted various ideas based upon these readings: speculations natural for one of my inclinations and professional habits, and largely idle. I had no serious plans at that time. A few days later, however, picking up the paper for further news of the pearl, I was amused by the sight of a clever little satirical poem upon the subject—and, a moment after that, rather more than amused, for although the verse bore no name there could be no doubt from whose hand it had originated.

Perhaps my late lack of resolve had not been entirely honest; or perhaps it had been slowly eroding for some time. In any case, on seeing that verse it was all over. I must go and see him, once at least.

*

The day was as bright and peaceful as I had imagined it. The sunlight glinted on the river and hung in the warm air above it; the waterside gardens were green and blooming. I thought vaguely that I would not dislike living in a place like this myself, if ever I had reason to want to leave town. Boats drifted lazily down the river; the rippling laughter of a party of smartly-dressed ladies grappling with the oars of their vessel followed me down the path as I found my way to the address on the letter.

I had sent no word to announce my visit, and I surprised him at his writing as the landlady ushered me into the little upper room. He appeared to have been working hard: a neat pile of scribbled pages covered one end of the desk, and a copy of the paper in which I had read that poem occupied a prominent position on a side table. All this I observed later on, however; on first entering the room my whole attention was reserved for one object only.

He crossed the room and took my hand without a word.

‘Well,’ I said at last, ‘and how have you been out here, all this time?’

His expression, which until now had been more or less inscrutable, brightened into a little, wistful smile. ‘Oh, I have been managing,’ he said. ‘Come and sit down,’ he added, and led me over to the sofa. I sat and regarded him thoughtfully.

‘You seem to be enjoying your usual success on the cricket field,’ he said, glancing towards the paper on the side table. ‘I’ve been following the reports of it. They make entertaining reading.’

‘And I fancy I have found a little success of yours, my dear rabbit,’ I said. ‘Was not that verse upon the Emperor’s pearl…?’ The endearment was perhaps a risk; but at this he smiled outright, and owned that the poem had indeed been his work.

‘But you must tell me what has been happening while I’ve been out here,’ he said. ‘You were playing at Lord A—’s place in Bedfordshire last week, weren’t you—was the place as formidable as I’ve heard it is?’

I told him all about it; and we talked on in this fashion for a while, skirting around those deeper waters which I thought better left undisturbed for the present, but discussing all manner of lighter and happier things. For a while it was almost like the old days, or nights, at the Albany.

‘I suppose you’ll want to get back to town soon,’ he said at length, transparently regretful. ‘Doubtless you’re as busy as usual, unless—’

‘I can stay here for the rest of the day, if you want me,’ I said, a little too quickly.

He looked at me steadily for a few moments, and then said slowly, ‘In that case, I should like to invite you to come out on the river. You must try going out in a boat while you’re here—it’s delightful, and today is a perfect day for it.’

I smiled, and fancied he returned the look a little. ‘I should like nothing better, Bunny.’