It had been a little over one week since the night of Angus Baird's murder, when Raffles finally arrived back at my doorstep. I had barely seen him since that night, other than the all-too-brief evening he had spent appraising me of the very basic details of what he had done in the end with poor Jack Rutter. After that he had vanished. I had even gone so far as to let myself into his rooms when he hadn’t answered my knocks, but though I could have sworn I’d seen a light from beneath his door as I came up the stairs, I found the rooms completely empty of him. It is needless to say that as well as being myself still thoroughly shaken by the dark events which had transpired, I was also furious at Raffles for his disappearing act—and deeply worried about him.
But now, a little under one week after I had last seen him, there stood the man himself at my front door at ten o'clock in the morning and looking as fresh and as bright as ever he was, whilst I stood, bedraggled and half falling out of my hastily donned dressing gown, half asleep and just about on my feet before him.
‘Morning, Bunny!’ he said cheerily. ‘I’m not stopping; just wanted to see if you fancied a trip down to Devon this weekend?’
‘What?' It was far too early for this, and not merely in the day.
‘An old pal of mine from Cambridge asked me—she wasn’t at the University, you understand, but her brother was, and he was a good pal of mine, too. Anyway, she is hosting some ball at her place for Halloween, and she sent me an invite. Cracking place she’s got, Bunny; you can see the coast from the gardens, all the way out across the Braunton Burrows. They’re having a huge bonfire in the grounds like Queen Victoria did up at Balmoral. Promises to be a corker of an event, if you’re up for it!'
I blinked at him. ‘Where have you been, Raffles?’
‘Around and about,’ he answered; or, rather, he didn’t. ‘But what do you say, Bunny? I need to tell her by this afternoon at the very latest if we’re not going, so if you are going to give me an earful for laying low for a bit, can it wait until after I’ve replied to Rosaline?’
I sighed and let it go. I hadn’t been awake long enough to test either my wits or my mettle against A. J. Raffles, and even had I been, I doubt I would have come off the triumphant man. But I certainly would let him have his “earful” later, even if I let him off the hook for the moment.
‘Do I even know this woman?’ I asked, exasperated.
‘Why would a woman I don’t know invite me to her party?’
‘She didn’t. She invited me, and I asked if I could bring you.’
‘Raffles, you can’t keep inviting me to other people’s balls...’
‘I don't see why not. You’ll like Rosie, Bunny. She paints frescoes, and reads philosophy, and looks exactly as I’d always imagined Cleopatra to look. And she has a devilish good dress sense, you’ll appreciate that. What’s it to be then, Bunny? Yea or nay?’
‘Is this strictly social or did you have anything—else—in mind?’
‘I’ll pretend you didn’t ask that.’
‘I’m not implying you’d steal from your friend, but—are all the people who’ll be in attendance your friends? I just want to know what I would be agreeing to before I agree to it.’
‘Look, if you don’t want to come, say so straight and I’ll tell her we’re not going,’ said he, growing waspish.
It was evident I’d get no straight answers from Raffles that morning, even as he demanded them of me. But though he could easily deny me anything, I could deny him nothing, and so with a sigh I agreed to go with him to this Halloween party in Devon.
‘Good show, Bunny!’ Raffles smiled brightly when I reluctantly acquiesced. ‘I’ll let old Rosaline know you’re coming after all. It’s a costume ball, by the way—oh, don’t look so affronted, old chap, we won’t be expected to go overboard with it. Just a mask will do, at a push, and I know you’ve a few of those lying about the place.’
‘Right,’ I said, growing ever less enthralled by the prospect. ‘And when is it?’
‘We’ll go down tomorrow morning. It’s a substantial enough trek, so we’ll have to leave reasonably early. About ten or eleven.’
‘That’s rather short notice, A. J.! Couldn’t you have asked me sooner?’
‘Why? Do you have plans?’
‘Well, then!’ he said, clearly deeming the matter closed. ‘I’ll pick you up tomorrow. Pack for two nights; she’s invited us till Monday. I’ll see you tomorrow!’
And with that, before I could issue any further pointless protest or futile complaint, he was off down the stairs two at a time with a bounce in his step, and I was left to mull and to stew.
I couldn’t understand him. He was acting as though nothing had happened. Burglary was one thing—and a bad enough thing at that—but setting out to murder someone, only to stumble unwitting across their already murdered body, and then help the true murderer flee the country? To say that was “quite another thing” is such an understatement that it doesn’t warrant saying at all! And yet there was Raffles, as spirited and sanguine as ever an innocent man was! Needless to say that whilst I was not having second thoughts about our partnership—nor the more closely personal relationship which it had by that time so recently become—his attitude gave me pause for thought. That night, that terrible night, I had seen Raffles as I had never seen him before—and I am not speaking of the cold resolve I had read in his eyes before the fact, but the horror I had read in them after. I had seen Raffles shaken, and though I hated the sight of it, it had at least brought him down to my level. It had at least evidenced that which I’d always believed to be true; that beneath his cool, calm facade of composure and control, Raffles was just as human as the rest of us.
But now he was acting as though nothing had happened! Inviting me to Halloween parties at some obscure friend’s estate, springing down my steps more like a carefree schoolboy than a man who was an accessory after the fact to a brutal murder—! I knew that Raffles had nerves of granite; I knew he had a mind like a steel blade; I knew he was never one to dwell, or worry, or regret. But to be so utterly unaffected? I was beginning to wonder whether his heart and soul were as cold and as stony as his nerves and his mind. I was beginning, as I sat in my flat and worried at my lip, to wonder what manner of man I had fallen in with. What manner of man I had fallen in love with. I thought I knew him so well after only six and a half months, and yet somehow still I didn’t know him at all. With Raffles, you could only ever know that which he permitted you to know; who knew what else existed within that fathomless and immeasurable soul?
Raffles sent me a note the next morning asking me to meet him at Paddington shortly before lunch; and there I met not with the sprightly A. J. of the morning before, but with the Raffles I had long come to dread, all dark expressions and sharp silences. My attempts at conversation went unmet, and the long train journey down to Devon was such that it made me grateful I had thought to bring a book. And yet, once we arrived at the house—and it was a beautiful house, set in even more beautiful grounds, Raffles had been quite right on that front—all changed. Back once again was the chipper charmer of yesterday morning, all sunshine and smiles; and that shift unsettled me more than if he had remained darkly sombre.
‘Rosaline!’ he beamed as our hostess descended the stairs into the hallway amidst a flurry of servants, her thick, dark hair falling out of its updo, dishevelled but charmingly so, as she greeted Raffles with warmth. ‘Are we early?’
‘Arthur! I’m so glad you could make it after all! And yes, you are rather early, but that’s no matter, as long as you don’t mind the chaos... It’s not all starting until six o’clock, but you’re not the first ones here—do you have costumes? Oh, wonderful! Tessie will show you up to your rooms, but do feel free to treat the place as your own. We’re barely ever here these days, so it feels so much more like a public hall than a home, so do be nosy, if you like. But I’m embarrassed to say that it really is in a terrible state, I’ve no idea how we’ll get it all sorted by the time the masses descend—and of course Julius is nowhere to be found in it all—oh!’ Finally the lady’s eyes, a deep golden-brown set perfectly against the soft beige of her dress, fell upon me. She really was beautiful; I could see why Raffles so favoured her. ‘This must be the famous Bunny Manders? So pleased to make your acquaintance; sorry I’m in such a mess!’
‘Not at all,’ I smiled—for though I was in a dark mood thanks to Raffles, I was at least capable of being polite, and especially to such an admittedly charming woman. ‘Thank you for inviting me. And, yes, very pleased to meet you, too.’
‘Oh, no, thank you for coming, and for bringing the ever-elusive A. J. along with you! Do you know, he has only visited this place once since I got married? And that was four years ago! Now, abominably rude as it is, and please don’t judge me too harshly for it, but I really must be a terrible hostess and dash off. Right now I just know there are one hundred and one things waiting to fall into catastrophe, and I’m far too highly strung to trust my wonderful and entirely capable staff to go about their tasks without me over their shoulders. Tessie here will show you to your rooms upstairs, but do feel free to wander the gardens, or—well wherever. We have an excellent library. Must dash!’
And dash off she did, like a whirlwind incarnate, and I watched Raffles as he watched her leave. I opened my mouth to comment something unworthy before remembering the demure little “Tessie” standing beside us, waiting to show us upstairs, and so held my tongue.
At least until I could let it loose without an audience, anyway.
As soon as I felt the coast was likely clear, I crossed the hallway from the (very nice) room in which I had been deposited by the polite little ladies’ maid, and charged into the room I’d seen Raffles go into. I was just about ready to give him a piece of my mind—for I was still put out over him telling me to be quiet on the train—when, of course, he got in before me and threw me off track as only A. J. Raffles could.
‘Who’s that?’ he snapped, jerking his head up as I barged into the room to find him sitting on his bed with a hand pressed to his forehead. ‘Oh, Bunny. It’s you. Didn’t you ever learn to knock? Oh, well, no matter. Now you’re here, I’ve something for you.’
‘I realised that springing a costume ball of all things on you at the last minute wasn’t very cricket of me, so I found a costume for you and brought it along with me. You don’t have to use it if you are happy wearing a crepe mask and calling yourself a cat burglar, but I thought perhaps you’d rather not stand out by not standing out, as it were.’
I hesitated. Though I was still feeling as hurt as I was perplexed by his erratic behaviour over the past week, I had to admit that I had also been feeling no small measure of anxiety over not having a proper costume. I did hate going in for costumes, but Raffles was quite right in that wearing an evening suit when everyone else was dressed as Napoleon and Helen of Troy did make you feel uncomfortably self-conscious.
‘...What’s the costume?’
‘Come and have a look,’ Raffles said to me with a quiet smile, so different from the one he had given Rosaline, as he leaned across the bed, tugging his bag towards us and pulling out a pair of costumes.
My curiosity continued to win out over my anger, and I sat on the bed beside him to take a closer look at what he had, really rather thoughtfully, brought for me. ‘Pirates?’
‘Yes. Not the most creative of costumes, I know; I’d much rather have put together something clever. But I had precious little time and had to make do with what I could pull together from what I had.’
‘From the stuff in your studio, you mean?’
‘For the most part, yes. They’re not bad though, if unimaginative. Look, I’ve even got us stage cutlasses—we can be a matching set, Bunny: Captain Blackbeard and his Quartermaster!’ Raffles grinned as he spoke, pulling a big, black, fake beard from his bag. ‘I picked up this yesterday afternoon. I’ve always wanted a beard,’ he said, putting it on. ‘There. Does it suit me?’
‘Is that a no?’
‘It covers up too much of your face. I much prefer to see all of you,’ I said mawkishly, internally kicking myself for being once again so easily charmed by him when I wanted nothing more than to be judiciously indignant.
‘Ah, but there’s the crux, Bunny! There are times when one doesn’t want one’s face to be seen. A beard under those conditions might prove extremely useful.’
‘And I suppose you can’t really be Blackbeard clean shaven,’ I admitted.
‘Captain No-Beard! Doesn’t strike the same chord of fear, does it?’ he chuckled, and I couldn’t help but smile along with him, his unexplained sullenness on the long train journey being effectively driven from my mind now by his easy-going humor. At least I knew now that his silence had not been out of irritation with me—or that if it was, I had since been forgiven.
‘These really are great costumes, A. J.,’ I murmured as I continued inspecting them, and he inspected himself in the mirror wearing a tricorn hat, looking as dashing as anything. ‘Are they ex-theatre?’
‘Not sure,’ he replied absently. ‘Probably.’
‘Thank you for thinking of me.’
‘Thank you for coming down at all, Bunny,’ said he with a smile, though I thought I caught an undercurrent of melancholy in his tone. ‘I’m sorry not to have asked you about it earlier. I wasn’t planning on coming at all, but—’ he shrugged, and the bright, brittle smile once again replaced the soft, sad one. ‘Well, in any case, it’ll be one hell of a do, Bunny, my boy. Rosie and Jules throw infamously good parties. Enjoy yourself; I certainly intend to!’
The next few hours until the ball began passed uneventfully. Raffles disappeared off into the labyrinthine house without me, and after repeatedly getting in the way of hurried servants going about preparations, and receiving more than a few dark looks for my trouble, I retreated out into the gardens. Though it was October 31st and the weather was cold, it was a bright day, and dry, and the estates’ gardens were something to behold. Tree-lined avenues, ornamental ponds, a lake, and more flowers than I could name were all set against a backdrop of the rolling north Devonshire coast, the sea in the far distance glittering beneath the cold autumn sun. Parts of the garden were as overrun by bustling persons as the house, but I managed to find a few quiet spots through which I could wander with my thoughts, and passed the time of day with a mild-mannered and amiable old gardener until it was time to get changed into my costume.
Whilst my anger at A. J. had been somewhat dampened by his thoughtfulness earlier, those coals soon found themselves rekindled once again when, to my dismay, I could find hide nor hair of him once I was in my ridiculous damned costume and waiting to go down to the ball proper. I had expected him to meet me and accompany me down—not an unjustified expectation, I thought, seeing as I knew no one there but him. I hadn’t even met the master of the house! I paced the carpet of my elegantly furnished room for a good fifteen minutes in my black boots and breeches, worrying over the myriad opportunities for embarrassment if I should go down by myself, until eventually the far worse worry of someone else being sent up to retrieve me if my absence was noted drove me to grit my teeth and make my way down and into the throng.
I needn’t have worried; my presence or the lack of it made not a dent in that clamouring, heaving, ebullient mass of spirits littering the house and gardens. Despite the manic and multifarious preparations I had seen being laid over the afternoon, I had not quite realised just how immense an affair this Halloween Ball was to be. When Raffles had compared it to Queen Victoria’s famous Halloween party at Balmoral, he really wasn’t far off. People of all classes were in attendance, including, presumably, those who inhabited the farms and villages which made up the vast Tapeley Estate, along with the most fashionable sets of the upper classes from near and far. Rosaline and Julius Christy were evidently as popular as they were rich; and they certainly knew how to throw a party.
For a while I forgot myself in the surreal magic of it all. Angus Baird, Jack Rutter, the erratically alternating dark and dazzling moods of A. J. Raffles, even my own looming criminality which always hung over me like the sword of Damocles; it all faded to a background blur beneath the flicker of a thousand candles and the artistry of every type of costume you could imagine; clowns and witches, Napoleons and Marie Antoinettes, court jesters and Mephistopheleses, Titanias and Shepherdesses—! The hostess herself was resplendent in a costume representing Starlight, all black tulle set with golden stars, a string of pearls around her neck, a richley jewelled coronet, such as even I had necer seen the like of, set atop her shining black curls. Her husband, an excessively handsome and fine-figured man, was garbed in the guise of Sunlight, looking every bit a modern-day Apollo. Upon seeing them together, I felt a pang at the unexplained absence of my own matched pair—I was a Quartermaster drifting alone without his Captain at the helm.
Not that I could feel too unhappy for long; there was simply too much going on for that, overwhelming the senses and drowning out all thoughts, making it impossible to linger on any one for long. In every room a different parlour game: in this one apple-bobbing; in that one the spirit board; here charades; there fortune-telling; all lively, all ribald, and all with an intoxicating and irresistible dash of the profane. And speaking of intoxication, I soon was in the early grip of it, as the champagne flowed like water. The moment one glass was drained, another found its way into my hand as though by magic. In the garden there was dancing, and torches, and the biggest bonfire I had ever seen—and fireworks were promised for later in the evening. I felt as though I had stumbled through the looking glass; and after the week I’d had, I was only too glad to do so.
Through the chaos and noise I suddenly caught a snatch of a voice I would recognise out of a million, and, like a dog on a scent, I pushed my way through clusters of merrymakers to seek it out. Whether I was hunting Raffles down to chew him out over his neglect of me, or to hang off of his arm and every word in a scandalously obvious way, I still hadn’t yet decided; in my tipsy state I would be capable of managing both at the same time. But when I saw him, something in his tone, his appearance, his aura—for when if not on Halloween can a man unashamedly speak of auras?—set me on my guard, though if you had asked me why I would have been unable to explain it. Raffles when I found him was dazzling as he always was around people; but he was too dazzling. He seemed to me like nothing so much as a gaslight turned up too high, like paraffin splashed upon an already burning wick. He was surrounded by people, the sun blazing as the orbiting planets watched from afar, basking in his glittering light but unable to get close without getting burned.
The effect upon me was immediate as ice water poured upon a sleeper. I snapped out of my avoidant fever dream where all the world was a stage and all the people players; where Angus Baird stood up again at the end of the play; where Jack Rutter went home to his mother after taking his bows; where A. J. and I placed our stolen goods back in the prop box and received our pay and left together with light spirits and lighter hearts at the end of the show. I snapped awake and the world crashed into me; I snapped awake and saw A. J., some Lord of Misrule in his court, and I suddenly felt as though I didn’t know him at all. How vast could the chasm between us be if he could be so completely unfazed by all that we had been through barely even a week since? To laugh, and joke, and glitter, and fizz with such energy and force and without a care at all—! To have even suggested we come down here at all—what was he doing? What was I doing?
I snapped back to myself as a man pushed past me in a grotesque costume, forcing me to step back out of his way. I knocked into a servant carrying a tray of champagne flutes as I did, and sent the lot of them crashing to the ground. A. J.’s head whipped round at the sound, and, behind his beard, beneath his hat, I saw his clear eyes grow wide and his face blanche. For a moment I feared the sight of me had caused this horrified reaction—and then I truly took in the costume of the man who had barrelled past me. He was a soft-faced older gentleman with iron grey hair and a jolly expression, and he was wearing a grotesque costume of an axe murderer’s victim. A prop axe gave the impression of being buried in the top of his head, and fake blood matted his hair and stained in globulous drips down onto his pallid, powdered face; a pair of cracked spectacles completed the tragic picture.
I watched A. J. take a staggered step back, force a sparkling smile onto his paled lips, and make some gesture which evidently served to excuse himself before he turned tail and bolted. I followed him out into the gardens. He was faster than me, but I was determined, and soon caught up with him as he dropped onto a bench, far from the festivities, his head sunk into his hands.
‘A. J.?’ I said softly as I approached. He flinched at the sound.
‘Oh, Bunny,’ he said, looking up. ‘It’s you.’
‘Are you all right?’
‘What? Yes. Of course. I’m always all right. It’s just—too hot in there, don’t you think? I needed some air.’
‘Me too,’ I said, and sat down beside him.
‘I’m getting too old for this sort of thing,’ he murmured, glancing at me from the corner of his eye, a smile hiding in the corner of his lips. ‘Would you think me an intolerable bore if I told you that right now I could wish for nothing better than to be back in my rooms at the Albany with a good book, a blazing fire, and a cup of coffee?’
‘If you are, then I am too,’ I replied with a smile which he returned, albeit sadly, before turning back to look out at the view which sprawled before us through the moonlight.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ he said after lighting two Sullivans, one for me and one for him, and taking a few meditative puffs.
‘That’s all sand dunes out across the other side of the river, you know? Miles and miles of ‘em, and all part of the Tapeley Estate. It seems almost sacrilegious for them, for this, to be owned by anyone.’
‘The Braunton Burrows, aren’t they? I was talking to a groundskeeper about them earlier, when I wanted to get out of the way of the house.’
‘I can’t remember half of what he said, other than that the Burrows are one of the most extensive sand dune systems in the country, and that they got their name because of how many rabbits live there. Not the most thrilling of anecdotes, I’m afraid.’
‘You would remember that,’ said Raffles, shaking his head with an affection I could see even through the darkness. ‘Rabbits do seem to thrive there, though. Adders, too, and buzzards, and all sorts of rare plants. You hit on the right word there, Bunny; the place really is remarkable. Not so good for people, though. Not the wisest place to wander.’
‘No?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he answered.
Raffles took a drag of his cigarette before replying. ‘...The dunes are treacherous things, Bunny. Beautiful and promising, but treacherous. One moment you are on firm ground, or you believe yourself to be, and the next you find the very earth slipping away beneath your feet, and all you can hope to do is outrun it, or fall.’
For a handful of moments we sat in silence as Raffles smoked and I thought upon his words.
‘When do you stop running?’ I asked after a short while.
‘I don’t know,’ he answered with a shrug. ‘When you reach the same place you would have reached had you fallen, I suppose. When you hit the bottom.’
‘Then why run at all?’
‘If you run,’ he said slowly, carefully, distantly, ‘you at least know that you didn’t fall; you can at least say that you sped toward your fate with your eyes open and of your own free will. And, perhaps, if you’re lucky, you can climb back out the other side.’
I gazed out across the dark and distant horizon, where beyond the ken of the naked eye I could see in my mind the dunes of the Braunton Burrows picked out in silver moonlight and abyssal shadows as they ran on toward the endless sea, dark and light in complement, defining one another.
‘I’ve missed you this week, Raffles.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
Through the midnight chill, a moonbeam spilled it’s light across the shadows of A. J. Raffles; shadows never visible in the bright sunlight when we were all so blinded by the glitter of the sun, but just then so clear to me that I wondered how I had ever missed them. In that garden, in the moonlight, in the quiet of the night, I realised that I knew full well what manner of man I had fallen in with; what manner of man I had fallen in love with.
The red circle of light at the end of Raffles’ cigarette flared for a brief moment in the darkness, before he stubbed it out and shivered against the cold of the night.
‘If these outfits are anything like what the true pirates of yesteryear wore, Bunny,’ he said, taking a deep lungful of the crisp air, the woodsmoke from the nearby bonfire intermingling with that of our Sullivans, ‘then there’s little wonder why they spent all their time cracking the Caribbean.’
‘Quite right!' I agreed. 'It is bloody freezing!'
Raffles chuckled at me, tilting his curly, hatted head. ‘Do you want to go back in, rabbit?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I think I’d rather stay here a little while longer, if it’s all the same to you.’
‘It’s not all the same, Bunny,’ he said with a soft smile. ‘It’s better.’
And as we sat with our backs to the light, as we looked out at the darkness before us in silence, at the stars in their heavens, at the towns as they slept, at the shifting sands of a world treacherous and remarkable, I took his hand in mine.
When we run, we run together.