I have mentioned before in passing mine and Raffles’ theft of the Ardagh Emeralds, and as I have said before, the theft of those precious jewels themselves is hardly worth recounting. But just as the events which succeeded, and indeed were set in motion by that particular theft, were worthy of a separate retelling, I feel similarly compelled to make note of one event which immediately preceded it; though this is not a story that shall ever, I expect, be publishable within my lifetime. One day, perhaps.
At risk of being further self-referential, I have also noted elsewhere in my writings that even before my imprisonment and all that which followed, I had long since sworn my dancing days to be over. At the time of writing the account in which I made mention of this, I had dearly wanted to elaborate upon that point, but my better judgement (and more pertinently the better judgement of my editor) convinced me to keep the allusion implicit. But as this record is not destined for the eyes of my editor, I feel at liberty to now be explicit about the evening which led to that vow, impulsively made, sincerely kept, and as yet still unbroken.
The autumn of 1891 was just about upon us when A.J. and I boarded the ferry to Ireland, and we were in excellent spirits. Raffles’ plan to take the Ardagh emeralds, and a fairly superlative haul beside, was as watertight as any plan could be, and would take place during a week of us staying in the stunningly picturesque Irish countryside. We—and of course when I say "we" I mean Raffles—had been invited to an excessively elaborate twenty-first birthday ball for the son of some obscenely wealthy up-and-comer, who was desperately keen on sports and just as keen to have his coming of age celebrations populated with as many well known faces as possible; including among them the face of the lady no longer in possession of the Ardagh emeralds. The indignity of being asked simply for one's celebrity (in Raffles' case, at least) was quite sufficient to leave even me with no moral compunctions in relation to our planned thefts; although in all honesty little should have been able to dampen my spirits just then, or my resolve to do just about anything Raffles might ask of me. For it is probably worth mentioning that at that time it was only a month since our already close friendship had taken a more definitely and openly intimate turn—openly, of course, between ourselves alone; though that alone was more than I had ever truly dared to hope for.
I had adored Raffles ever since I was thirteen years old; ever since my childhood he had remained the pinnacle, the paradigm, the high point against which no other person had ever been able to measure. And in the six months from that fateful night in March our childhood friendship matured as we spent our days, our weeks, our months in near constant companionship: in late nights filled with conversation; in breakfasts and lunches and dinners; in theatres and music halls; in strolls in the park, in days at cricket and nights—at other things you wot of. It did not take long before I found that my immature infatuation had blossomed into something far greater, though every bit as lasting: I had fallen in love with him. And, so I eventually discovered to my deepest surprise and most heartfelt joy, Raffles loved me, too.
Such was the state of affairs, then, as A. J. and I set off for Ireland. Though it was early autumn, the summer had been a late one, and it was upon golden sunshine and warm, sweet winds that we were carried over the short voyage across the Irish Sea. I can remember, and only wish I could do justice to now, the image of Raffles standing with his hands on the ferry's guard rail as he gazed out over the crashing waves and seemingly endless horizon with such a sparkle of life in his bright eyes, his black curls wild in the sea breeze and stark against the pale and cold sky as he turned to look at me with a smile bursting with untempered joy. My life had altered so dramatically in less than seven short months, and I found that for the first time in a long time I was truly happy.
This is not to imply, I hasten to say, that I was without worry. Though I enjoyed the rewards of the criminal lifestyle, and can't deny that in the moment there was something not entirely unpleasant in the thrill of breaking the law, the ever-looming spectres of both the Scotland Yard Policeman and my own moral quandaries haunted me always. Even my relationship with Raffles troubled me, as I found I was constantly watching myself when I was with him in case I gave away to the world the nature and the extent of my love for him. Raffles had no such trouble—no man could slip so seamlessly between masks as he—but I was never so controlled as he was, and so lived in perpetual fear that I should have us condemned by some stupid, thoughtless slip on my part. But still, even with all these anxieties considered, even with all these entirely justified and very real fears hanging over me like so many swords of Damocles, when he smiled at me, spirit and mischief and love glittering in his grey eyes, nothing else mattered. I wouldn't have traded one of his smiles for all the peace of mind in the world. Every one of his smiles gave me peace of mind.
We made quite the week of it, in Ireland. We had arrived in decent advance of the celebrations for which we were there, just as we had done at Milchester. This time our busman’s holiday was down to the fact that Raffles had gotten it into his head that he wanted to spend a few days as a romantic wandering itinerant, sending the bulk of our luggage on ahead of us and in the interim sleeping in pubs and inns at night and rambling the lush Irish countryside and exploring quaint towns and villages whilst the sun shone. Whilst I didn't quite share A.J.'s pre-Raphaelite-inspired enthusiasm for this plan, I was happy to go along with it. I was happy simply to be with him. In truth, I would have happily trailed after him into the deepest pit of Hell itself if he’d taken fancy that the view from Pandæmonium would make for a good landscape sketch. Still, by the time we finally descended upon the excesses of the birthday ball, I was more than ready for a taste of luxury—and that I certainly got.
The house itself—though the word seems grossly inadequate to describe such an estate—was vast, and decorated fashionably to the point of excess from bottom to top. I had wondered, when A.J. had first told me of the invite, how on earth our hosts should be able to accommodate so many people, for if they were prepared to offer rooms to such spurious acquaintances as Raffles and myself, it did suggest they were being somewhat profligate with their invitations. As such, I had been vaguely concerned I’d be relegated to sleeping in a cot bed in a dressing room. I needn’t have worried. Our hosts could have housed an army and still had space to spare! And after three nights sleeping in uncomfortable beds of questionable cleanliness—for Raffles’ had decided that rustic meant depressingly shabby, and rustic he would have—falling back onto feather pillows and pulling down-blankets up beneath my chin that first night felt like entering paradise itself.
Though if my room was heaven, the ball itself was worthy of one of the most glorified spots in the fourth circle of Hell. Excess was the byword, and never before or since have I ever witnessed such a shameless display of wealth. That ball would have put Nero to shame. If ever there were a whetstone to sharpen my incipient criminal instincts, that ball was it. I don’t wonder if part of A.J.’s thinking in taking me there at all was for precisely that reason. And it was not mere selfish envy which it inspired within me, but a better, nobler sensation, too, indignation at the sheer injustice in the world, that some could be so inordinately, unnecessarily, and undeservingly rich whilst others languished in poverty. Rest assured that by the time Raffles and I left that house, the distribution of wealth had decidedly altered. But it is not of our crimes that I intended to write—at least, not of our thefts, in any event—but of the ball itself, in all of its awe-inspiring and tiresome glamour.
I had just been handed a third glass of champagne when Raffles, pink-cheeked and slightly dishevelled, drifted back out from the throng and found his way to me. I had been watching him dance. I had of course seen him dance before, but I never tired of it, and each time was to me every bit as captivating as the first. I wasn’t surprised that he was a magnificent dancer, for I had long known that Raffles was magnificent at practically everything at which he tried his hand, but seeing his graceful movements in person was enthralling, to say the very least. On the dancefloor Raffles the athlete met A.J. the artist, and they glided together in perfect pace and union. My admiration of him as I gazed was matched only by my jealousy; with each successive beautiful woman whose waist supported his hand, whose fingers interlocked with his, I grew ever more bitter that I could not and would never be permitted the same privilege. I might love him in private in every way I wanted, but I could never do something so innocent as even dance with him in public. And surely soon enough Raffles would tire of a lover whom he needs must keep hidden, especially when legions of charming women were all but falling at his feet.
‘Not dancing, Bunny?’ Raffles asked with a grin and a toss of his curly head, sweeping up a champagne flute from a passing servant’s tray as he joined me.
‘I’ve done a few turns,’ I replied. ‘I’m not very good.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said, more kindly than honestly, ‘I saw you with—oh, who was it? The titian-haired girl?’
‘Rebecca something. I didn’t catch her surname.’
‘You cad, Bunny!’ Raffles teased in mock reprimand. ‘Dancing with a lady and not even knowing her name; I didn’t have you as that sort, my boy!’
‘Not for want of trying!’ I protested. ‘That woman couldn’t have been less interested in me than if I were a footman. In fact I’m sure she was glancing at that particularly Greek-God-like fellow taking coats at the door several times whilst I was trying to make conversation with her as we danced.’
‘Then Rebbeca Whatever-Her-Name-is clearly has no taste.’
‘Well,’ I added ruefully, ‘I probably didn’t help matters by treading on her foot.’
Raffles chuckled wickedly before pulling a face, half amused, half grimacing. ‘Oh dear.’
‘Apparently her shoes were very expensive…’
‘Foolish to wear expensive shoes dancing,’ Raffles said, loyally. ‘Everyone knows that.’
‘Doesn’t make it any less mortifying.’
‘Oh, don’t let it put you off though, Bunny! I thought you looked splendid during that minuet!’
‘Then you need spectacles.’
Raffles laughed at that, and pinched my arm, his merriness drawing a reluctant smile to my lips. I was feeling unreasonably put out about my dancing faux pas, plural. I had never been a good dancer, and had long lamented the fact. I tried, I really did, but I always got in a muddle with when to step, and in which direction, when to turn, when to stop—there was just too much to think about. And on top of that, you were expected to make pleasant, light conversation for half of the time you were at it! It was impossible!
'You think about it too much, Bunny, that's all,' said Raffles, reading me like a book. 'You know what you are supposed to do, but you question it instead of just moving. But that comes with practice, my boy.'
'How am I supposed to get practice when I never know anyone to dance with! Dancing is bad enough with a woman you know; it's ten times worse with a stranger.'
'Though at least with a stranger small talk is more readily and thoughtlessly available: Where are you from, who are you here with, did you have a beloved childhood pet, what do you think of Ireland—or Bath, or Yorkshire, or wherever it is one finds oneself. By the time you've gotten through all that the dance will be over, and you've not had to make one mention of the weather!'
'We don't all share your confidence, A.J.,' I reminded him. 'Or your good looks, or, popularity, or celebrity... The only people who agree to dance with me do so out of sheer desperation.'
'You do have odd opinions of yourself, Bunny. I know for a fact that at least three very eligible young ladies have you singled out by sight, hoping you will ask them. But if you aren't feeling up to facing ruthless debutantes—and I can hardly blame you for that—I’ve promised myself to Lady Evelyn Eastbreck for the quadrille, and I know her pal hasn’t a partner. You need four for a set, as you well know, and it'd be infinitely more pleasant to have you in with us than anyone else. What do you say?'
‘What do I say! I say there is no way in hell I can dance a quadrille, Raffles! I’ll get trampled!’
‘Don't be so dramatic; it's really not all that complicated so long as you don't overthink it. You must have danced many a quadrille in your spirited youth, Bunny, they are devilishly popular.'
‘Yes!’ I cried, 'I have! That’s how I know I’ll get trampled!’
‘Ye of little faith,’ Raffles laughed, 'if only in yourself. ‘You’ll be fine. And we’ll make up our own little foursome in any case, so it won’t matter so much as if you were with strangers. I won't trample you, I promise.'
‘You forget that other than you they will be strangers to me, A. J. Just because you know someone doesn't make them automatically friends of mine.'
Raffles waved away my reasonable protest with a dismissive shrug and a flick of his wrist. ‘Bunny, Frank is an excellent dancer; you’ll be in safe hands. No trampling, I promise. Except, perhaps, from you,’ he added with a wink.
‘Ah, Mrs Frances Dalton,’ Raffles clarified. ‘She’s American, but exceedingly charming in spite of the fact, so don’t hold it against her. You’ll like her Bunny, and she’ll take good care of you. Come along with me and I’ll introduce you.'’
‘I don’t know…’ I wavered.
Raffles paused then, and looked at me properly. I could almost feel his gaze as it sifted through my soul. ‘Is everything else all right, rabbit?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, albeit uncertainly. ‘Yes, of course. I’m just—overthinking things, as you said.’
Hesitant as I was, I admit that Raffles' use of his particular nickname for me was already taking its toll, making me soften and take heart in spite of my misgivings. It was always so difficult to stay in any sort of a bad mood when faced with Raffles Affectionate, and I had not been in too dark a mood that evening to begin with. I still didn’t particularly want to dance, but perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if I were at least dancing alongside him. Although then again, perhaps it might be worse... It was one thing showing myself a graceless fool before aloof, beautiful strangers; it was quite another demonstrating myself as such before the man who was, in my eyes, very nearly perfect. Especially when I would be dancing with a woman whom he himself proclaimed to be excellent. How could I fail to appear as anything but lesser in comparison? What if this acted as the catalyst for his inevitable realisation that he could do so much better than me?
‘Bunny,’ Raffles said, cutting into my apprehensions in his characteristically cynical tones, ‘you know I shan’t think any less of you for being a poor dancer, not even if you end up getting your feet tangled in the woman’s dress and sending her colliding into that horrible cherubic ice sculpture.'
‘That’s not an unlikely outcome,’ I muttered darkly, even as the impish sparkle in his eyes drew a smile unbidden to my lips. ‘Oh, come on, then,’ I relented. ‘And God help Lady Frances…’
‘She doesn’t need God’s help, Bunny,’ Raffles grinned, weaving his arm through mine and leading me out into the masses. ‘She is quite capable of taking care of herself. And it’s not “Lady” Frances Dalton; it’s “Mrs”—apparently... ’ Before I could ask for further details on that tantalisingly cryptic comment, Raffles was dragging me across the vast and crowded hall where conversation was impossible. We darted and weaved our way around countless bodies dressed in clothes worth more than I could earn in three years as a writer.
Lady Evelyn and Mrs Dalton were, as Raffles had promised, both charming, intelligent, charismatic women—and both, so I soon learned by practical demonstration, were top drawer dancers. Lady Evelyn’s grace mirrored Raffles’ own, and as they floated and whirled through the complicated steps of the abominable quadrille, I felt sure that all eyes must have been upon them. If, that was, all eyes weren’t on myself and Frances Dalton. For all of my trepidation, I fear I had still somehow managed to have been drastically over-confident in agreeing to dance a quadrille. It had been at least a year since I’d last attempted one, and I’d been shaky at best even then, when I had been in much better practice. Mrs Dalton soon apprehended the situation—although I wondered then and still wonder now whether Raffles had had a quick word with her before we took to the floor—and took me in hand with a cool masterfulness that could have rivalled Raffles’ own. Thanks to her I managed to make it through that godforsaken dance without making a complete ass of myself—or if not that, then at least without causing anyone any injury. But I was pirouetting on a knife's edge all the way through, and at one of the crossover points I very nearly turned in the wrong direction, and were it not for a laugh and a sharp word from Raffles as we passed one another, there would no doubt have been disastrous consequences.
But eventually the dance did end, as dances are wont to do, and the quadrille music faded. Yet another minuet began, and the ladies shimmered away. I breathed a sigh of sincere relief.
‘Wasn’t such a trial after all, eh, Bunny?’ Raffles said, rejoining me at the edge of the dancefloor. ‘You didn’t do too badly at all; slight wobble in the middle, but other than that—’
‘Don’t patronise me,’ I growled, running a finger beneath my collar, which was feeling increasingly tight. ‘I was courting disaster the whole time.’
‘Frances is a touch on the wild side, but I wouldn’t call her a disaster, Bunny,’ he laughed.
‘It’s not funny, Raffles. I made an idiot of myself! Good God, it is far too hot in here!’
‘You do look a bit pink,’ Raffles said, and I glared at him. ‘All right, no need to be like that, rabbit. I could do with a bit of fresh air myself; the gardens here are rather famous, you know. Fancy a moonlit stroll?’
‘Won’t it be too dark?’
‘No, they’ve got torches up. It’s all a touch Robinson Crusoe, but that isn’t without its charm.’
Raffles was quite right, the gardens were completely charming, far more so than the garish and over-luxuriated excesses of the ballroom proper. The moon was full, the stars were bright, and the gardens were immaculately kept, filled as they were with late-blossoming flowers and empty of tiresome people. Strains of music from the hall were carried out in snatches on the sweet-scented breeze of that golden Indian summer, and for a moment all of my worries, all of my doubts, all traces of apprehension fled, leaving only aching happiness in their stead as I walked arm in arm with Raffles through blooming bowers.
‘Feeling better?’ he asked, at length.
‘Out here, yes. It’s far too crowded in there. Far too hot.’
‘Dancing a quadrille won’t help with that,’ he murmured. ‘I’m sorry, Bunny; if you really didn’t want to dance, you shouldn’t have, you know. I didn’t mean to bully you into it.’
‘You didn’t,’ I replied, bumping my shoulder against his, endeared as ever by his quickness to apologise when he was concerned he had treated me unfairly; though in this case he truly hadn’t. ‘I always make the same mistake, and never learn from it; I simply cannot dance!’
‘Well, never mind about it,' he replied, giving my hand an affectionate squeeze. 'I'd rather be out here with you than inside dancing, anyway. These gardens are beautiful, aren't they? I'll have to come back out here in the morning with my sketchbook.'
‘I’m surprised at how many flowers are still out. I didn’t know so many bloomed into autumn.’
‘Ah!’ Raffles grinned, eyes lighting up, rivalling the stars. ‘You’d be surprised, Bunny. Quite a few plants flower in the autumn; and in any case, it has been such an off-kilter year weather-wise, I’m sure some of these are just confused summer-bloomers who missed their morning alarm call.’
‘What?’ I laughed. ‘Since when did you know anything about horticulture, A. J.?’
‘I, my dear rabbit, have been reading a book on floriography.’
‘Mostly for the pictures.’
‘The words too much of a challenge for you?’
‘Impudent!’ he said, pinching my arm. ‘No; you know I’ve been working on adding more detail to my landscapes, getting back into water colours rather than pen and ink? Well, as flowers have always been one of my many weaknesses—’
‘They have, Bunny, you are far too prejudiced in my favour, old chap. In any event, I thought I’d brush up on my plant anatomy, so picked up a book in that nice little village near Londonderry, you remember the one? And as it turned out, flowers really are rather interesting. I’ve already read the whole thing, cover to cover. Not just the pictures, either!’
‘Floriography,’ I said, frowning. ‘Isn’t that more to do with symbolism than, well, science or gardening or anything?’
‘Precisely, my educated rabbit. That’s why it was so interesting. All rather Ophelia; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies; that's for thoughts! ’
‘We just passed some pansies, didn’t we?’
‘Indeed we did; well spotted.’
‘You’re not the only one who knows something about flowers,’ I said, feeling a little thrill go through me as his eyes flashed playfully, meeting the challenge implied in my tone.
‘Is that so? Well, you are a poet after all, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. All right, then, Bunny,’ he said with a quirked grin, biting his tongue between his teeth in a most distracting manner, ‘you recognised the pansies quickly enough, and I have no doubt that you could have quoted Hamlet every bit as easily as I did — but what would it mean were the pansies specifically... blue ?’
‘Easy,’ I scoffed. ‘Blue pansies are for Trust. And pink are for Innocence , red for Passion , and white for—’ I hesitated. ‘White are for…’
‘Answer recklessly, Bunny,’ he prompted.
‘Let’s Take A Chance! Of course! But don’t help me, Raffles, I would have gotten it by myself. It’s no fun if you give me the answers.’
‘Oh, and now that competitive streak raises it’s feisty little head! All right,’ he said, unlinking arms from me and gesturing to a border planted with a patch of starry blue flowers. ‘Tell me about these, no assistance.’
‘They’re asters,’ I said confidently. ‘And they represent Patience and Daintiness.’
‘Well done,’ Raffles said, and couldn’t quite tell whether he was sincere or teasing, though he could well enough have been both. ‘We should steal some for Evelyn and Frances. Okay ... what about these pretty purple ones?'
‘Delphiniums. You can tell, because they look like dolphins — supposedly, anyway. Although honestly I only remember that because I don’t understand how they look like dolphins, and every time I see them I only remember how completely confused I've always been over their supposed resemblance to dolphins. Reminding me, circuitously, that they are in fact delphiniums.’
‘From the Greek, yes? I suppose if you squint,’ Raffles said, tilting his head. ‘No. I can’t see it either.’
‘I think delphiniums—like Ophelia’s rosemary—are for Remembrance. Right?’
‘I can’t remember,’ Raffles shrugged, moving on to the next flurry of blossoms, some impressively large red chrysanthemums. ‘And these?’
‘I Love You,’ I answered quickly. That was an easy one.
‘You can’t get out of answering by sweet-talking me, Bunny.’
‘..Oh, what wit you have, A. J.,’ I muttered through a chuckle and a playful shove, letting my hand linger on his chest just a little too long, standing just a little too close. This was precisely why I was so worried about being allowed in public with him; I had no self control. ‘That’s what the flower means. It is a symbol to tell someone you love them.’
‘Ah, my mistake,’ he said with a coy smirk that made me feel weak, before turning away and continuing on with his impromptu quizzing. Part of me wanted to make him shut up (through means to which am sure he would not have objected), but he was also quite right about my competitiveness. Being quizzed is always great fun when you know your stuff, which I did, and a large part of the appeal was in demonstrating to Raffles that whilst I may be incompetent as a dancer, I did have other useless skills which might be admired. ‘What about dahlias?’ he asked. ‘They are out devilishly late, aren’t they? It’s this warm autumn, Bunny, confusing things.’
‘But quite appropriate in this instance,’ I said, pleased with myself for the pithy comment I was about to make. ‘Dahlias are symbols of Lasting Commitment. Eternal Love. It’s quite fitting that they persist longer than they ought to, don’t you think? Dahlias outlasting the summer… You could definitely write a poem around that! ’
The corners of Raffles’ mouth flickered as he tried not to smile, forcing an elusive dimple into his cheek. ‘You are good at this, aren’t you? My clever little rabbit,’ he murmured, and suddenly the garden was beginning to feel as warm as the crowded ballroom.
‘Not really,’ I demurred. ‘I wrote an article on flower symbolism for The Gentlewoman a few weeks back, that’s the only reason I know all of this. It hardly counts.’
‘Why wouldn’t that count?’
‘I don’t know. It’s professional knowledge, not personal. It doesn’t feel quite such an achievement to know something simply because you were paid to learn it. I didn’t pick up a book and read it for love of the stuff, like you did.’
‘Bunny, you really ought to give yourself more credit, you know,’ Raffles said, the shadow of a sincere frown passing over his handsome face. ‘It really won’t do.’ And then his eyes lit up once more as he reached down to a tall-stemmed, wispy little pink flower. Pinching it between two fingers, he picked one from its stalk and handed it to me. ‘What about this? I’m not sure I know this one.’
I took the flower from Raffles, and stared at it with furrowed brow, before glancing back up at him. ‘I’m not sure you are supposed to pick them,’ I said, and he shrugged. ‘But this is—ah, what is it! It’s a rarer one, not like pansies or lilacs or roses or the other easy ones. This one’s more tricky—but I do know it. I’m sure I do...’ I clicked my tongue against my teeth and ran back mentally through the many flowers I’d spent days pouring over for an article which barely paid me five shillings. ‘Viscaria Silene,’ I said suddenly, earning a pleased smile from Raffles. ‘Or perhaps Viscaria Vulgaris. If I had to bet on it, I’d bet some sort of Viscaria.’
‘And?’ he said, prompting me to win full marks by also giving him the symbolism, taunting me as though he thought I didn’t know; as though he thought I didn’t know he knew.
I held the flower out to him, and as he took it replied with some audacity, ‘Will you dance with me?’
And for a moment A. J. hesitated, leaving both of us standing in the garden in the moonlight, holding the same pink flower, fingers brushing, staring at one another.
And then he grinned. ‘I say, Bunny, you’re a little forward this evening!’
‘Yes,’ I replied simply, taking a step toward him, pinning him with earnestness. ‘I am.’ The smile faded from Raffles’ face in the best possible way; his lips parting, his brow softening, his eyes searching. ‘I’ve always had myself down as a wallflower,’ I said, ‘But now I’m not so certain. And I can hear a waltz starting up, can’t you?’
He laughed at that, a breathy, light kind of a laugh which made my heart stutter in my chest. ‘You are impossible to refuse, do you know that? A dangerous quality in a friend, Bunny.; He bowed to me, then, and as he rose, held out his hand. ‘Do you mind if I lead?’
Extending one arm, I reached out and pressed my palm to his, my other hand upon his shoulder. His hand fell lightly upon my waist, gently pulling me closer to him. And as the music, just about audible from where we were standing, surrounded by flowers, and hedgerows, and bowers, and trees, came back around to the first beat, A.J. stepped toward me and I stepped back; to the side; toward him; to the side; back; a seamless, graceful, repeating sequence which felt as natural to me as walking; as writing; as breathing.
‘See,’ Raffles murmured, leaning down closer to me, his breath warm against my ear, ‘you’re a marvellous dancer, Bunny.’
‘With you I am,’ I whispered back, closing my eyes, allowing the rhythm of the music, the rhythm of our movement, to seep into me and take me over, as A.J. brought his cheek to rest against my head as we waltzed beneath the stars. ‘It doesn’t work with anyone else. I can’t lead, I can’t relax, I can’t— But with you… ’ I looked up into his sharp, perfect face, meeting his clear grey eyes, more dazzling than diamonds, brighter than stars. ‘I don’t ever want to dance with anyone but you, Raffles.’
‘I’m afraid that might leave your dance card rather empty at the next gala, rabbit,’ he said softly, near enough to me that I could feel the movement of air as he spoke, could smell the champagne and cigarette smoke on his breath.
‘I’d rather that,’ I bit back with quiet fire, the hypocrisy of it all burning within me, the unfairness of it all, ‘than being forced to lead some other woman, some stranger, some— I want to follow you . That’s where I belong, A. J. Here. This is who I am. I’m not going to be—someone else.’
‘You don’t have to be, Bunny.’
‘But I do,’ I persisted, the emotions that had been smouldering within me all evening, all week, ever since I’d finally told Raffles that I loved him, ever since I'd first realised, all were flaring up within me, impossible for me to contain. ‘It’s not fair! I— I love you, Raffles, but I’m not— I can’t show it. I should be able to dance with you whenever I want to, to hold your hand, to be with you before the world, but I can’t. I have to lead other dances with other women who I care nothing for, just because of— what? The way I was born? Where’s my choice in that?’
As I spoke, Raffles’ hand had drifted up from my waist to my shoulder, to my jaw, to my cheek, and somehow we were no longer waltzing, though the music played on.
'You're right,' he said, gazing down at me. 'It isn't fair, and it isn't easy. But no one ever said it would be, Bunny. And in my experience, the best things never are.’
'Doesn't it bother you?' I asked. 'Don't you ever wish— I don't know, wish things were different? Wish I wasn't— Wouldn't it be easier for you to—to marry some nice girl, and... There are so many that would have you, Raffles—half the women you danced with tonight are probably already in love with you. Are you never tempted by that? Don't you ever want that?'
'What? Do I want to marry a girl?' I winced.
'No. Do you not want a far, far easier life than you could ever have with me? I'd understand it if you did, Bunny, and I wouldn’t blame you for it.’
'A life without you isn't the easier one,' I said with muted ferocity. 'I'll take everything the world can throw at me, if I can do it at your side!'
'You sure about that?'
'Yes!' I insisted. 'Of course! I— It's grotesquely unfair, and the hypocrisy of it all is enraging, but—’ I looked up at him and sighed, the tension dropping from my shoulders as I did so, finding myself unable to remain angry, justified as it was. ‘...But I suppose I've already been unfairly lucky in knowing you at all, so I shouldn't complain, should I?'
A.J. smiled softly, sadly, tucking a strand of my hair behind my ear. ‘What have I ever done to deserve you?’
‘Something terrible, no doubt,’ I said, and he laughed.
‘No, Bunny: something magnificent.’
‘...Dance with me,’ I said, resting my head upon his shoulder, interlocking my fingers with his as we began to dance once more, as we stepped in time to our own rhythm, our own music, our own beat that nobody but the two of us could hear. ‘All I want in the whole world is to dance with you and only you, forever.'
‘You are a strange little rabbit,’ Raffles said into my hair, pressing a kiss to the side of my head. ‘I think after forever we might start to get a little tired of dancing, don't you?'
'I wouldn't. Not with you.'
'...Bunny Manders, I know I don't say it often enough, but— Is that a dog?'
‘What?’ I said lifting my head, following Raffles’ gaze and turning to look at a small and very fluffy little hound standing in a patch of gardenias. It barked at us. ‘What? Why is there a—’
‘Ah,’ said a voice which belonged to neither me nor Raffles. We sprang apart as though the other were made of red hot iron. The dog barked again. ‘I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to—’ more barking ‘—Oh, for God’s sake, Sapho, be quiet! ’
‘Lady Evelyn?’ Raffles said, his tone cautious, questioning, and hopeful.
‘Yes, it’s— it’s only me, please don't worry. I am awfully sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, I— the deuced dog ran off. She is so badly trained. We really oughtn’t to have brought her, but Frankie and I do hate to leave her at home when we’re invited places. It feels so cruel when little Saffie does so love seeing new places and meeting new people, but…’
To my surprise, I heard Raffles laugh; he almost sounded relieved. 'Nothing wrong with a little healthy rebellion, Lady Evelyn. Isn't that right, Sapho?' he said, crouching down, speaking gently to the fluffly little creature who trotted up to cautiously sniff his outstretched hand. 'There we go, hello, little lady,' he said as though he were addressing a child rather than a dog. 'Charmed to make your acquaintance, mademoiselle Sapho. Your maman has been telling me all about you, you know. Mostly good, don't worry. There we go, hello, hello, easy does it, no need to scramble...' Raffles carefully scooped up the tiny dog in his arms, flinching away with a grimacing grin as she tried to lick his face. 'Steady on, dear girl, we've only just been introduced! She's very forward, isn't she, Lady Evelyn?'
Lady Evelyn laughed. 'Takes after her mother.'
'Which one?' Raffles smirked. 'Lady Sapho, may I introduce you to my good friend, Bunny? Now—he is a rabbit, so you must promise not to chase him; he is easily spooked. Come and say hello, Bunny. Sapho, here, promises to be polite. Don't you, girl?'
Raffles may have been going full force at the cute act with the dog, but that made no difference to me. I was paralysed, frozen to the spot, my heart racing in my chest, blood pounding in my ears, fears flooding through my thoughts.
We had been seen.
'You have a friend for life there, Mr. Raffles,' Lady Evelyn smiled, moving closer, scratching her dog behind the ears. 'And another when I tell Frankie how taken Saffie is with you. The last man who tried to pick her up got bitten!'
'She clearly has good taste.'
'Clearly,' Lady Evelyn replied with a coy smile, before turning to me with an expression rather more sympathetic. 'Mr. Manders, I'm so sorry if we startled you. I didn't mean to come this far into the garden, but Saffie got off her leash, and— She really is a naughty little thing, but it's our fault for spoiling her so. Frank's even worse than me—I am quite certain that some people believe we have taken in some poor little orphan girl, sometimes, the way Frankie talks about her!'
I made no reply, finding myself quite unable to follow what exactly was going on. This woman had just stumbled across Raffles and I slow-dancing together, one step away from being locked in an embrace, and here she was talking about her damned dog!
'You see, Sapho is our dog, Mr. Manders. Mine and Frances's.'
'Lady Evelyn,' Raffles interrupted, 'you don't have to—'
She held up a hand; he deferentially shut up. 'She lives with us, both of us, in our estate, which we share. And so I understand, Mr. Manders, if you were startled by Sapho's barking, but please rest assured, you have no reason to remain startled now.'
The lady paused, watching me carefully as though waiting for some response I was unable in my confusion to give. Thankfully Raffles, as ever, came to my rescue.
'Lady Evelyn, do you have Sapho's leash? I fear she is tiring of my embrace; she is beginning to wriggle.
'Yes, of course; I'm sorry, Mr. Raffles. You've been wonderfully kind. One gentleman—though I hesitate to call him one—tried to kick my poor darling baby when she barked at him, once! Frances made sure he'd never do that again...'
'Did she sound him out?'
'Yes—and beat him with an umbrella until he retreated.'
'Remind me not to get on the wrong side of Mrs. Dalton...'
'Hah. Mrs. Dalton. Quite...' Lady Evelyn said her friend's name in a curious, amused tone, catching Raffles' eye with a glimmer, before taking her dog off of him and setting her back down on the ground. 'Well, I'd better get this little beastie back inside, hm, Saffie? Mummy will be worried about you, yes she will! You know, I'm half sure she would rather stay out here with you, Mr. Raffles; she's asking you to pick her back up! Saffie, you incorrigible flirt!'
'Perhaps she feels left out of the dancing,' Raffles laughed. All I could do was watch on in increasingly perplexed horror.
'You’ll have to add her to your dance card,' Lady Evelyn replied with a mischievous grin, glancing at me, ‘if it’s not already full.’
‘I’m afraid it might be,’ Raffles replied, all charm, causing the lady to soften and to sigh, her brow rising over wide, wistful, shining eyes. And then the mask descended once more, and Lady Evelyn returned to the stately, poised, elegant woman who had graced Raffles' arm on the dance floor.
'Well, I will bid good evening to you, Mr. Raffles, Mr. Manders.' Lady Evelyn graced us both with a sympathetic smile which lingered just a little too long. In silence Raffles and I watched her leave.
‘Lady Evelyn,’ Raffles said softly once the lady had departed, his hand once more falling upon my waist, 'is remarkably pretty, don't you think? She and her Frank make a startlingly attractive couple. I wonder whether they've ever modelled for a painting? They would make a splendid pair of Valkyries!'
‘What?’ I snapped, pulling away from him, turning to face him, as confused as I was aghast. ‘Raffles! What are we going to do?’
‘What do you mean? Do about what?’
I wrung my hands. ‘What do you mean, what do I mean? We were— she saw us, Raffles! We’re done for! I— You— We— She saw us! Dancing!'
‘You are a perfect rabbit at times, getting so shaken up over a little lap-dog like that!’ Raffles placed steadying hands upon my shoulders and looked me in the eye. ‘Calm down, Bunny. It’s fine. You’ve nothing to worry about, my boy, and neither have I.’
‘How can you say that!’ I cried, aware that I was now bordering upon the hysterical, but feeling fairly justified in doing so.
‘It was just Evelyn, Bunny. She’s hardly going to cause trouble.’
‘What? How can you possibly say that? You hardly know the woman!’
‘I know enough,’ Raffles said, giving me as condescending a look as ever he had. ‘And so would you, if you ever bothered to use the eyes in your head or the brains behind them. Bunny, must I really spell out the obvious? Lady Evelyn, though excessively beautiful, wealthy, and sought after, is at twenty-nine years old a sworn spinster. Lady Evelyn, furthermore, has lived for the past seven years in a farmhouse estate in Wales, with her commanding, intelligent, handsome intimate friend, "Mrs" Frances Dalton, thirty-three year old American heiress whose “husband” no one has ever met. And they live there, Bunny, with their dog, who is called Sapho. Need I continue?’
I stared at him for a handful of moments as realisation sunk in.
‘Oh,’ I said.
‘Yes, “oh”,’ said Raffles, shaking his head, as I ran my hand over my eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. ‘As I said, we’ve nothing at all to worry about, Bunny. Calm down, my dear chap. You do work yourself up!’
I let him pull me into his arms, then, and as I rested my head against his chest, I listened to his steady heartbeat through his shirt until my own stopped racing.
‘We got very lucky, just then.’
‘In one way, yes. It would have been luckier still had we simply not been seen,’ he sighed, and his frank admittance of that fact only spurred on my resolve.
‘We need to be more careful, A.J.’
‘Yes,’ he agreed, though neither of us moved to break our reckless embrace. Raffles kissed the top of my head.
‘I just wanted to dance with you,’ I whispered against his shoulder, half hoping he wouldn’t hear, and so, of course, he did.
'And you did dance with me, Bunny,' he replied, gently unfolding me from his arms, ruffling my hair as he used to when we were children. 'And we will again, back home, in the Albany, or in your rooms; any time you fancy a turn on the dancefloor, my dear fellow,’ he said with the flippancy characteristic of Raffles at his most vulnerable, ‘you just say the word and I’ll hum you a waltz and push back the sopha. It’ll be good practice for you, too; you'll soon be the most sought after dance partner amongst all of the party-going social set. What do you say to that?'
‘No,' was what I said to that, resolute in my disdain of an hypocritical society, stubborn and rebellious in my anger. 'No. I'm never dancing again, not at a ball or a party, not anywhere or with anyone other than you!’
'I mean it,' I persisted. 'I swear it: Until I can dance openly with you, A.J., I won’t do it. Unless I can dance with you, I won’t dance it at all! ...And anyway,' I added in slightly less fervid tones as Raffles’ expression, that intoxicating combination of sardonic, patient, and soft, worked it's calming magic upon me, 'I can't dance with anyone but you. I'm a disaster with anyone else. I need you to lead me through the steps.'
'If that's what makes you happy, Bunny,' Raffles said softly, reaching to take my hand in his, 'then you'll hear no protest from me. You are such a rabbit, rabbit.'
'I'm your rabbit,' I insisted. 'And you are my one and only dance partner from here on out. And if that means I never dance in public again—well, I never liked it much, anyway. And I will still take you up on that offer of filling your dance card in private,' I grinned.
'Consider it yours,’ he smiled back. 'But you won't get your nose out of joint if I don't swear off it elsewhere just the same, Bunny?' Raffles posed the question in a light enough manner, but not quite light enough to mask the glint of steel which ran beneath. Even if I had wanted to fight him on the point, I knew I'd never win. Thankfully I can in all honesty say that I had not the least desire to.
'I wouldn't expect it of you,' I shrugged. 'Though I'm not overly keen on seeing you with other women, I do love watching you dance, A.J. You're—well. Perfect, really, about covers it.'
'I rather enjoy watching you at it too, Bunny, even if you do insist you're terrible.'
At that very moment the band struck up once again, a bright, romantic, lilting melody which went straight to my head like champagne.
'I believe the final dance of the night is beginning, Bunny,' Raffles said. He glanced about the small, enclosed garden in which we stood, narrowing his sharp eyes and pressing his lips together, suddenly all alert attention. ‘Hm? I think—’
'...I think,' he said slowly, a smile creeping onto his lips as he turned from the garden back to me, '...we’re alone, now. There doesn't seem to be anyone around...'
'Oh?' I grinned, catching sight of that old glitter of mischief and mirth; that new glimmer of affection and love; that alchemical mixture which never failed to turn iron in my soul to gold in my heart. ‘And what of that?’
'What of that, the boy asks! I'll show you what of that... Bunny Manders,' said A.J. Raffles, stepping back and dipping into a bow over his extended hand, 'before you chuck it up for good, may I be so bold as to ask for the great honour and privilege of your last dance?'