QUARTET FOR NEW YEAR
A sequel to Christmas Past And Present.
Raffles and Bunny spend New Year with Charleston and Urquhart.
An established relationship story.
Written: December 2013. Word count: 25,075.
NEW YEAR'S EVE
It was early afternoon and I was lying on the sofa with my head in Raffles's lap as he read poetry to me. Quite why he had decided to do such a thing, I did not know; however, given how much I love listening to Raffles's voice, I had made no objection.
It was, as so many things were, an echo back to our school days when more than once he had encouraged me to lay down on his sofa with my head in his lap whilst he read to me. I never reminded him I was actually capable of reading for myself; why would I? Even then I loved his voice; thus I had made no objection to the fact that, in the eyes of some people, it could be seen as him treating me as a very young boy.
We had lunched somewhat earlier than usual as we were going to dine and spend the evening with Charleston and Ollie; we due to arrive at their house at seven o'clock. Lying with my head in his lap, listening to Raffles read to me was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Especially as, as he read to me, his fingers stroked my head and played with my hair as he tangled it around his fingers. Once again it was a reminder of our school days when he had been quite incapable of keeping his hands out of my hair.
I shifted a little making myself even more comfortable and closed my eyes for a moment or two and just listened to him read to me. After a short time I opened my eyes again, glanced up at him and then turned my attention to the ring he had placed on my finger on Christmas Day. As I so often did, I admired the way it shone in the lamp light. It really had been the most perfect gift on the most perfect day.
Although I removed it whenever we left our rooms, unless all we were doing was planning on a walk where it would be hidden by my gloves, I hadn't decided whether or not I would remove it before we left to go to Charleston and Ollie's. After all, I had been wearing it when they had arrived at our rooms on Christmas Day afternoon, so it seemed a little foolish to remove it before going to their home.
I resolved to ask Raffles for his opinion - he always knew far more about such things than I did. I was really looking forward to spending the evening with Charleston and Ollie, and I knew Raffles was too. Raffles had told me quite how delighted he was that Charleston was once again back in London and very happy he had found someone who cared for him; someone who made him happy.
I too was happy that my school day best friend was now involved with such a good man and they certainly did seem to make one another very happy. I wondered if we might learn a little more of quite how they had met and become reacquainted tonight. Charleston had told us a little on Christmas Day, but I resolved, if at all possible, to spend some time alone with Ollie and see if he might expand on the story, if only a little.
Raffles came to the end of the particular poem he was reading and gently tugged on my hair to tilt my head back a little further into his lap. I gazed up at him and he smiled at me before he bent his head and kissed me lightly for a moment or two. After which he brushed my hair from my forehead and reached for the cigarette box; he lit two Sullivans and passed one to me before he once more picked the book back up and again began to read. He hadn't got very far into the poem when the sound of the telephone ringing interrupted him.
"I wonder who that might be?" I said, already sitting up so that Raffles could get up and go and answer it.
"I'm sure we shall find out very soon, my rabbit." Raffles smiled at me and with his cigarette still in his hand he went off into the hall to answer the phone. He closed the door behind him and I was glad; the cool air from the hallway had burst into the room when he had opened the door, thus the hitherto perfectly warm sitting room now felt a little chilled. I got up, went over to the fire and threw a little more coal onto it and stood warming my hands for a moment or two.
I was still warming my hands when Raffles returned from the hall. Once again a burst of frigid air accompanied him into the sitting room and I was glad I was still by the fire. He slipped his arms around me from behind me and pulled me back against his body as he lowered his head and nuzzled my hair. I made a soft noise of pleasure and pressed back against him just a little as I turned my head so he could kiss my cheek.
"That was Charlie," he said, his lips cool on my cheek.
I was surprised; why was Charleston ringing us given we would be seeing him in a few hours. I wondered if he and Ollie had changed their minds and decided they would rather spend New Year's Eve alone. I turned in Raffles's embrace and slipped my arms around his neck. "Have they changed their minds? Are we not to spend the evening with them after all?"
Raffles laughed softly and lightly kissed my nose. "Ah, my dear rabbit, you really haven't changed in so many ways. You are always ready to think the worst, are you not? Why would you think Charlie and Urquhart had changed their minds?"
I shrugged. "I wondered if maybe they didn't want our com- If they'd rather be alone," I corrected swiftly.
Raffles laughed again and this time put his mouth on mine. "Dear Bunny," he murmured, kissing me once again. I made a soft noise and parted my mouth for him; however, to my surprise he didn't accept the invitation and as I tried to move a little nearer to him he held me firmly where I was.
I took my mouth from his, frowned and looked up at him. "Raffles?"
"No, my rabbit, I have not tired of you. It is just that actually Charlie rang to tell us that it is now snowing rather heavily and he and Urquhart fear if we wait until later to leave here, we might not actually be able to get to their home. Thus, they are suggested we join them as soon as we can rather than waiting until later, and that we pack a bag and spend the next day or two or so with them. Would you like that?"
Given how broadly I was smiling he really didn't need to ask me the question. However, I answered him. "Oh, yes, please, Raffles. I would like that very much indeed - would you?" I added swiftly.
He smiled his indulgent smile and nodded. "Yes, my rabbit. I too would like it very much indeed. So let us go and pack." He brushed his lips over mine and took my hand and moved towards the dining room.
"Do you not need to ring Charleston back?"
"Forgive me, Bunny, however, I rather expected you to be pleased as I was. Thus, I accepted Charlie's invitation, telling him that if you did in fact surprise me by saying you did not wish to do as he suggested, then I would ring him back. I do hope you don't mind."
"Of course I don't, Raffles!" I cried.
Once in the bedroom we swiftly packed a bag each and Raffles left me to pay a visit to the bathroom whilst he went down to the street to hail a cab.
When he returned I had taken both bags to the hall, put my overcoat on and had put the fire-guard in front of the fire and had swept the coal and wood about, tempering it somewhat. Nonetheless, it did not surprise me when Raffles went back into the sitting room to glance at the fire himself; just to assure himself it would be safe to leave it to die down completely.
He had put his overcoat, hat, scarf and gloves on before venturing out into the street, thus it was he who picked up both bags whilst I grabbed my hat and put my scarf and gloves on. Raffles locked the door behind us and still carrying both bags led the way down the stairs.
We paused outside the door to Parker's office and Raffles knocked once before opening the door. Parker stood up. "Good afternoon Mr. Raffles, Mr. Manders. Are you going out?"
"Good afternoon, Parker. Yes, we are. We are actually going to be away for a few days."
"Oh, that's nice, sir."
"Yes, old school friends of ours invited us to spend New Year's Eve with them, but in light of how heavy the snow has become, they suggested we went earlier than planned and extended our stay to a day or two or so."
"I hope you all have a very nice time, sirs." He looked from Raffles to me.
"Thank you, Parker." Raffles smiled.
"Yes, thank you, Parker."
"I hope you have a quiet evening," Raffles said. "And a somewhat early Happy New Year to you." He held out his hand and Parker took it and shook it.
"Thank you, Mr. Raffles. And a Happy New Year to you and Mr. Manders."
I held out my hand and Parker took it. "Happy New Year, Parker," I said and smiled.
He smiled back at me. "Well, enjoy yourselves, gentlemen."
"We shall, Parker, and you make sure you keep warm," Raffles said, his tone a little firm.
"Oh, I will, Mr. Raffles, don't you go worrying about me."
Raffles smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and led me out of the door and out into what had swiftly become a very white world. The cab and horse were both snow covered, as was the driver. The pavements were covered in deep snow and as I saw quite how quickly the marks made by cabs on the roads were being covered up, I realised that had we waited until later, the chances of us getting to Charleston and Ollie's home would have been very remote indeed.
The snow had also frozen in places, thus Raffles offered his hand to me as I climbed into the cab. I was grateful for it as when I took one foot from the ground, I felt the other slip just a little and I believe had it not been for the fact Raffles had my hand in his, I might well have fallen into the snow. Once I had sat down, Raffles passed the bags to me and climbed into the cab; he had barely closed the door behind him before the cab driver set off.
Raffles sat close to me, indeed he was pressed right against me and I was grateful for the extra small amount of warmth which emanated from him. "I do believe, my rabbit, had we left it any longer we really would not have been able to get to Charlie's. As it was I had to promise the driver twice the normal fare."
"Are the roads really that bad?"
"I believe they are."
A moment later his words were confirmed as we felt the cab slide to one side; I gripped Raffles's arm tightly and held my breath. However, Raffles clearly had an eye for a good driver, as a second after the cab had started to slide, the driver righted things and we were once more safely on our way.
My heart rate had increased a little and I let out a sigh of relief. "Should we consider turning back?"
Raffles shook his head. "No, my rabbit. We'll be fine; the horse is a steady one and the driver more than competent - as he has just proven. Besides, I thought you were looking forward to spending New Year with Charlie and Urquhart."
"I am. However, I would also rather like to remain alive."
Raffles laughed softly. "You're worrying unnecessarily, Bunny. We will be quite safe."
"I hope you're correct." Suddenly I sneezed and took my glove off in order to make it easier to extract my handkerchief from my pocket. Once I had blown my nose and put my handkerchief back into my pocket, I glanced at my hand and saw that I still wore the ring Raffles had placed upon my finger. I realised I had forgotten to ask his advice as to whether I should remove it before we went to Charleston and Ollie's home. "Oh," I said softly.
"My rabbit?" I held my hand up and he glanced at it. "Is something the matter, Bunny?"
"I'm still wearing my ring."
Raffles smiled. "Yes, I can see that. Is that a problem?"
"I don't know, is it? I was going to ask you whether I should take it off before we left our rooms. However, with Charleston ringing and our plans changing so quickly, I quite forgot."
Raffles shrugged. "I do not believe you need to concern yourself, my rabbit. After all, you were wearing it when Charlie and Urquhart dropped by on Christmas Day; thus, if anything I think they would be surprised if you were not wearing it. However, it you are at all worried, give it to me and I'll keep it safe for you." He held out his hand.
"You really don't mind?"
"Of course I don't. However, I am not you. Do you wish to take it off?"
I shook my head. In truth, I never liked taking it off. "No."
"Well, then," he said, taking out his cigarette case and offering it to me. Clearly in his mind the matter was resolved.
I took a cigarette and lit it from the match he struck and held and settled down, still pressed against him as the driver did indeed prove himself to be very competent as he navigated his way through the heavy and fast falling snow to Charleston's home.
The driver brought the cab to a halt and even before Raffles could open the door, he had climbed down and opened the door for us. "'Ere you are, guv," he said, taking the bags from Raffles's hands. "'Ope you're not planning on going anywhere else today."
"No, we are not." Raffles got out of the cab, turned and offered his hand to me. "Do take care, Bunny, it is really rather slippery.
At that moment a young man dressed in a footman's uniform and an overcoat appeared. "Mr. Raffles?"
Raffles turned to him. "Yes, that is correct. I'm Mr. Raffles, this is Mr. Manders. Dr. Charleston and Mr. Urquhart are expecting us."
"Yes, sir. Shall I take your bags, sir?"
Raffles nodded. "Thank you," he said, as the cab driver handed the bags to the footman. "Do take them into the house," Raffles said, "it's freezing out here. Mr. Manders and I will be along shortly."
"Thank you, Mr. Raffles," the young footman said, and taking care he turned and headed back towards the house, a bag in each hand.
"Thank you," Raffles said, turning to the cab driver and smiling. He put his hand into his pocket and pulled out what I saw was four sovereigns and handed them over.
The cab driver held out his hand and started as Raffles dropped the coins into his hand. "You sure, guv?" he asked, staring at Raffles in shocked surprise.
Raffles nodded. "Yes. You managed to get us here safely in what really are the worst conditions I can remember seeing. I doubt you'll be venturing far now, will you?"
The man shook his head. "No, sir. Time to go 'ome for the night."
"Indeed. Find yourself a nice public house and have a drink or two on Mr. Manders and me."
The man looked at the sovereigns again almost as if he was expecting them to have suddenly changed into shillings. "I will, sir. Thank you. 'Appy New Year to you both."
"Happy New Year," Raffles said.
"Happy New Year," I echoed, resisting the urge to stamp my feet. I realised my arm was through Raffles's and wasn't quite sure when I had taken his arm; then I remembered. As he had let go of my hand, after helping me down from the cab, Raffles had tucked my arm through his. I was grateful for the support as even standing up I was aware that conditions were treacherous.
The driver got back up onto his seat and shook the reins and the horse started to move, placing its feet rather carefully. Raffles tucked my arm a little more securely through his and covered my hand with his other hand and for the first time I looked at Charleston's house.
I was rather taken aback by quite how large it was - it was larger than Raffles's childhood home had been. "Being a doctor must be pay very well," I said, as I stared at the somewhat imposing building. I spoke without thinking, and as I heard the words I felt my cheeks flush and I began to murmur an apology.
However, Raffles cut across me. "It was Charlie's childhood home," he said. For a moment I thought there was something slightly strange in his tone, but as I was concentrating on remaining on my feet, even though Raffles was holding me firmly, my feet still kept threatening to slip, I really didn't pay that much attention to it.
"Are his parents dead?"
"Yes." This time there was definitely something strange in his tone. I risked turning my head slightly and glancing at him and to my surprise his expression was a little hard.
He turned to me and the hardness fled and he smiled at me as he always does. "It's nothing, my rabbit," he said, "now let us just concentrate on getting up the steps safely and inside. It really is freezing out here."
I wasn't going to object. My cheeks burnt from the frigid wind and every time a snowflake hit them I felt as if I had had a pin stuck in me, and despite the warm gloves I had put on, I could barely feel my hands. I had also lost sensation in my feet some time ago - which didn't help me in remaining upright. "Yes, Raffles."
"That's my good boy," he murmured, and began to lead me up the steps.
We reached the top, thankfully without any major event and Raffles wiped his feet and took off his hat as he led me inside to where the butler was waiting. I honestly did not blame him for not standing outside to wait for us.
"Tyburn!" Raffles cried, shaking my arm from his and holding out his hand. "It is good to see you again."
After a fleeting second, Tyburn took Raffles's proffered hand and solemnly shook it. "Good afternoon, Mr. Raffles. It is a pleasure to see you again, sir."
Raffles turned to me. "Tyburn was a footman here when Charlie was a boy; I saw him quite often." He turned back to Tyburn and smiled. "Charlie didn't tell me you had returned to work for him," he said.
"That's because I wanted to surprise you, A. J." We both turned around to see Charleston striding across the hall towards us. "Hello, A. J.," he said, as he reached Raffles. He put both hands on Raffles's arms and pulled him towards him a little. "It's good to see you. I confess Oliver and I began to fear we had left it too late to ring you, and that you wouldn’t get here after all."
Raffles put his arms around Charleston and smiled. "Hello, Charlie. I confess, although don't tell Bunny, I too feared that. However, we found an excellent cab driver who did indeed manage to negotiate the dreadful conditions and deliver us to you safely."
"That's good." After holding Raffles for another moment or two, Charleston moved away and came to me. "Hello, Manders," he said, putting both his hands on my shoulders and squeezing them, before he tugged me a little towards him. "It's jolly good to see you too."
I let myself be tugged towards Charleston and even put my hands on his waist. "It's good to see you too, Charleston; thank you for inviting us."
"It's our pleasure." Charleston let go of me and Tyburn stepped forward and waited as Raffles and I removed our overcoats, scarves and gloves and handed them, along with our hats, to him.
At that moment the young footman reappeared. "Shall I take Mr. Raffles's and Mr. Manders's bags to their room, Dr. Charleston?"
Charleston hesitated for a second and glanced at Raffles who looked back at him; I expected them to have one of their silent conversations. However, almost as quickly as he had looked at Raffles, Charleston looked away. "Leave them for now, Grady," he said firmly.
"Very well, sir." I caught a hint of surprise in Grady's voice, but like the clearly excellent servant he was, he said nothing else.
"Shall I arrange tea for you, Dr. Charleston?" Tyburn asked. "Or, given quite how cold I believe Mr. Raffles and Mr. Manders to be, would you prefer some mulled wine?"
Charleston glanced at Raffles and this time even I could understand the question he asked. Raffles smiled and shrugged. "Mulled wine, I believe, please, Tyburn; after all it is New Year's Eve."
Tyburn nodded. "Very good, sir. Where shall I serve it?"
"The small sitting room, I think. It's far warmer in there." Tyburn inclined his head and with Grady slightly behind him walked away.
"Come along," Charleston said, turning on his heel, "let us go and get warm. We have a jolly good fire burning."
"That, Charlie, sounds like the best thing I have heard in quite some time."
We all laughed and Charleston led us towards one of the many closed doors. He opened it and ushered Raffles and me inside before him. The room was, as he had said, lovely and warm and I felt myself actually beginning to thaw out as we went into the room.
Charleston closed the door and strode over to the fire and tossed a few more pieces of coal onto it. "Oliver will be here in a moment," he said, "he's just washing his hands." I happened to be looking at Raffles as Charleston spoke and saw him raise an eyebrow. "A. J.!" Charleston exclaimed, and a faint hint of colour touched his cheeks. "You are quite incorrigible."
Raffles stared at Charlie. "I said nothing, Charlie."
"No. You didn't need to. As a matter of fact Oliver has been mixing powders - that is why he is washing his hands."
As I stood and watched them interact I realised that unlike on many occasions when Raffles interacted with other people, I didn't not feel in the least bit excluded. It was true that neither of them spoke nor looked at me, but I felt fully included. It was probably due to our time spent at school together when Raffles and Charleston would often talk together in my presence; even then I had never felt excluded, even if they conversed for several minutes or more without acknowledging me.
Finally, Charleston moved away from the fire and took a cigarette box from the table and came back to where we stood, still warming ourselves by the splendid fire. "Do have a Sullivan, Manders," he said somewhat pointedly.
"Thank you, Charleston." I took one and smiled.
For a moment Charleston just stared at Raffles before they both laughed and Charleston held the cigarette box out to Raffles, who took one, took out his matches and lit all three cigarettes.
A short time later, the door opened again and Ollie hastened in. "Harry!" he cried, hurrying over to me and taking my hand between both of his. "It's so good to see you again. Edward and I were both delighted when Raffles agreed to our suggestion."
I shook Ollie's hand and smiled at him. "It's good to see you again, Ollie. Raffles and I were delighted to accept your invitation; we really were."
"We'll have a splendid time." Ollie smiled and finally let go of my hand and turned to Raffles. "Hello, Raffles. It's good to see you."
I noticed Ollie was a little more reserved with Raffles, which didn't surprise me; I knew I was with Charleston. It was only natural given it was only the second time we had seen one another since Raffles and Charleston had said goodbye to Ollie and me over fifteen years ago.
However, Raffles, as Charleston had been with me, had no such reserve. It was he who took Ollie's hand between both of his and held it tightly as he smiled at Ollie. "It really is good to see you too, Urquhart."
During the exchange of greetings, Charleston had taken and lit another cigarette and once Raffles had let go of Ollie's hand, he handed the cigarette to Ollie. "Thank you. Is Tyburn bringing tea?"
"Even better; he's bringing mulled wine."
"Oh, that is better. I'm sure you'll both like it. Apparently it was an old recipe handed down from Tyburn's, great-grandmother, wasn't it, Edward?"
"Great-great," Charleston said and smiled.
"Ah, yes, that's it. It's far better than anything I have ever tasted before."
We stood around the fire, smoking Sullivans and talking for another five minutes or so before Tyburn reappeared carrying a tray with four glasses and a jug.
"Put it down on that table, please, Tyburn," Charleston said, turning around.
"Certainly, sir." Tyburn made his way to the table Charleston had indicated. "Shall I pour it for you, Dr. Charleston?"
"I believe I can manage that, thank you, Tyburn." Charleston smiled and Tyburn nodded. After placing the tray just so, he turned and left the room as silently as he had arrived. With Charleston leading the way we all went over to the table where Charleston poured the wine into the glasses and handed them around.
"To - friendship," he said quietly, holding up his glass and looking at each of us in turn.
"To friendship," Raffles, Ollie and I repeated, each of us looking at the others in turn.
"Now let us sit down and get comfortable."
"This really is excellent wine, Charlie."
Charleston smiled. "I shall tell Tyburn you approve; he'll be rather pleased - even if he doesn't actually say so."
Raffles laughed softly. "I remember. He really was a terribly earnest young footman, was he not?"
Charleston nodded. "And very kind," he said softly, as he stared at Raffles who met and held the gaze as he nodded.
I glanced at Ollie who was watching Charleston and Raffles; there was a somewhat strange look on his face. He must have seen me looking at him as he turned from his appraisal and smiled at me. "It is good mulled wine, is it not, Harry."
"Yes, very good. Very good indeed. I confess it never has been a favourite of mine, however, this is excellent."
"In that case, Harry, do allow me to offer you a little more." Charleston and Raffles appeared to have finished their silent conversation and I smiled my thanks as he poured some more of the very fine mulled wine into my glass and then into Raffles's and Ollie's before pouring a little more into his own glass.
We sat and drank and smoked and talked for about twenty minutes before Tyburn made a silent arrival; he was carrying another jug of the mulled wine.
"Thank you, Tyburn."
Tyburn nodded. "I have taken the liberty of lighting the fire in the billiard room, Doctor."
I saw Raffles smile and he looked at Charleston. "Do you still have the billiard table, Charlie?"
Charleston smiled and nodded. "Yes, A. J. To be honest I haven't had time to even think about what to get rid of, let alone do anything about it. Why, do you wish to play?"
"If you'd like to Charlie, then yes, I would; I would like it very much."
Charleston rolled his eyes in an exaggerated way. "The things I do for you, A. J.," he said, standing up. "Very well, come along. Let us see by how many points you can beat me this time."
Raffles laughed and stood up. "You beat me once."
"Yes, I did. However, we both know that was only because you had to play left-handedly having sprained your right wrist rather badly." Raffles smiled. "Oliver, Harry - do you wish to join us?"
I glanced at Ollie. I was quite happy to remain where we were and talk to Ollie. However, if Ollie wished to go with Charleston and Raffles, then of course I would be more than happy to go along - even though I played billiards as well as I played any kind of sport or game.
"If you don't mind, Edward, I would rather like to stay and catch up some more with Harry. You and Raffles go and enjoy your game - at least you'll have someone who can actually play to play with. If that is all right with you, of course, Harry? If you would rather go and play or even just watch then -"
"No, Ollie. I would be quite happy to stay here with you. It has been quite some time; I would really rather enjoy catching up with you."
"That's settled then," Charleston said. "Tyburn, please be so kind as to bring another jug of the wine through to the billiard room."
"Certainly sir - and I shall also bring you some clean glasses."
Charleston opened his mouth, no doubt to say Raffles and he could take the ones they had been drinking from with them, but instantly closed it again. "Thank you, Tyburn." Tyburn nodded and then cleared his throat; the way he cleared it made it perfectly clear to all of us that he hadn't needed to do so. "Is there something you wish to say, Tyburn?"
Tyburn looked at Charleston. "It is just that the maid is about to lay and light the fires in the bedrooms, Dr. Charleston, and I was wondering if you had decided upon rooms for Mr. Raffles and Mr. Manders?"
To my surprise Ollie stood up and he and Charleston stared at one another, before Charleston glanced swiftly at Raffles and then at me. I found that with Raffles, Charleston and now Ollie all standing it felt somewhat strange to still be seated, so I too rose to my feet.
Tyburn stood quietly for a moment before saying, "I shall take the wine and glasses to the billiard room, Doctor, and then return for your answer."
"That's a splendid idea, Tyburn." Tyburn inclined his head slightly and left the room as silently as he arrived.
Once more Charleston and Ollie stared at one another and I glanced at Raffles who gave a small shrug which indicated he didn't know what the problem, if indeed there was a problem, was either.
Finally, Raffles took out his cigarette case and offered it around. "Is there some problem, Charlie?" he asked, as he held the match for Charleston to light his cigarette.
"Well, the thing is, A. J., it's just that . . . Look, are you and Harry happy to share a bedroom or would you prefer one each?" Charleston spoke the words somewhat more quickly than he normally spoke.
Raffles glanced at me and raised an eyebrow. I merely looked back at him, passing the decision making back to him. He rolled his eyes a little and then looked back at Charleston. "Well, Charlie, I assure you that Bunny and I would be more than happy to share a room. However, what about . . ."
"The servants?" Raffles nodded. Charleston widened his eyes and even laughed softly as he put his hand on Raffles's arm. "A. J.," he said, his tone fond and rather as if he was talking to a child - or at least someone much younger than he. "Do you actually believe Oliver and I sneak around?"
Raffles widened his eyes and then laughed softly. "I'm sorry, Charlie. I wasn't - No, of course I don't believe that. It's just -"
"When Oliver and I returned to England and I made arrangements to open up the house again, I knew we would need a few servants. I was about to go and see an agency when Tyburn arrived and asked if I would consider him for the position of butler. I was delighted, of course I was. He may have only been a footman when I last saw him, but he was, as you must remember, A. J., an excellent footman."
Raffles nodded. "I do remember and he was indeed an excellent footman."
Charleston gave him a slightly distracted smile and continued with his tale. "Thus, I happily told him the position was his. Naturally, I also explained that another gentleman would be living with me and left him in no doubt as to quite what the relationship Oliver and I shared. It would not have been fair on anyone not to have done so. I asked him if he still wished to take up the position and he was genuinely - genuinely - surprised that I would think he might not wish to do so. It was he who in effect found and employed the rest of the servants and I assure you, all of them are aware of quite what their masters are to one another. Oliver does have a bedroom, one never knows when someone just might drop in; however, it is rather a waste of the time and effort the maid takes each week to change, wash and iron perfectly clean sheets. Thus, as long as you and Manders are happy, rest assured the servants will not be in any way troubled or aghast at you sharing a room. So shall I tell Tyburn to take both of your bags to one room and to tell the maid to lay and light the fire in that room alone?"
Raffles glanced at me again and this time I nodded. "Yes, please, Charlie," he said.
"Good. Now come along and beat me at billiards." And with that Charleston actually put his arm through Raffles's and they walked across the room. Just as they reached the door it opened. "Ah, Tyburn, there you are. Please tell Mary to lay and light the fire in the blue bedroom and have Grady take Mr. Raffles's and Mr. Manders's bags there."
Tyburn inclined his head slightly. "Certainly, Dr. Charleston. Your wine and glasses are in the billiard room."
"I do hope you both enjoy your game, gentlemen."
Charleston laughed. "I have no doubt we will - even though we all know who'll win. Come along, A. J.," and with that he, Raffles and Tyburn all left the room.
Once again I noticed Ollie was watching Raffles and Charleston; once again his expression was a little - well, to be perfectly honest, I wasn't certain what it was. I touched his arm and he turned to me. "Oh, do forgive me, Harry, I was - It doesn't matter. So do tell me quite how you and Raffles became reacquainted."
I told him the basic story, leaving out of course any details of our burgling. When I mentioned the deaths of my parents, Ollie squeezed my hand and said how sorry he was to hear of my loss.
He asked me when my next books of verses would be published and after feeling my cheeks grow a little warm, I told him about how I had been invited to write a novel. He was delighted and told me that he and Charleston would look forward to reading my first book, adding he hoped they didn't have too long to wait for it to be published. He added that he was quite certain it would be the first of many.
"Thank you, Ollie," I said. "I confess I am really looking forward to writing it. I'm not sure it will be worthy, but -"
"Of course it will be, Harry. You write excellent verses - you always did - and neither Edward nor I have any doubt that you'll write a fine novel. Raffles believes it too, doesn't he?"
I nodded. "Yes, he does. But -"
"And your publisher would hardly suggest you write a novel if he didn't believe in your abilities now, would he?"
I shrugged and smiled. "No, Ollie, I imagine he would not." I took another sip of the by now rather cool mulled wine and was pleasantly surprised to find that whilst it wasn't as good as it had been when it had been hotter, it was still rather nice.
I put the glass down and looked at Ollie. "Well?" I said.
"I've told you my story, are you not gong to tell me yours? About you and Charleston," I added.
He looked a little flustered and even glanced away from me. "There's nothing really to tell, Harry. It is as Edward told you and Raffles on Christmas Day; I went to Greece; I was in need of a doctor and someone suggested as I was an Englishman I might prefer an English doctor; thus I was sent to Edward and . . ."
I believe we had both had just enough to drink (not to mention the fact that now Raffles and Charleston had left us it was rather, in one way, like being back at school when we had shared things and talked together) to make us both less reserved than we might usually be.
Ollie smiled and offered me the cigarette box. "Oh, very well. Why not?" He struck a match and held it for me to light my cigarette before lighting his own and dropping the spent match into the ashtray. "I started work in a pharmacy upon leaving school. The chemist for whom I worked was a good man and a kind one; he said I had aptitude for the profession and taught me well and helped me get the necessary qualifications in order to become a chemist myself."
"It certainly sounds an interesting profession."
"It is, very much so. Well, one day I . . . I made a mistake, Harry. Oh, no one was hurt; indeed I discovered the mistake even before the powders had been given to anyone. However, it . . . It scared me. What if I hadn't discovered it? What if . . . What if I had been responsible for someone's death?"
I put my hand on his arm. "That must have been very frightening," I said quietly.
He nodded. "It was. I lost confidence in myself, even though the man for whom I worked said it was something every chemist had done and that I shouldn't worry so. However, I did and I decided I needed to take some time away from the pharmacy to see . . . Well, to see if I could regain my confidence. The man for whom I worked, as I said was very kind, and told me to take as long as I needed and that my job, or at least a job, would always be available should I want it."
"He really does sound like a kind man. Was he pleased to see you back in London?"
Ollie was silent for a moment before sighing and saying quietly, "He died whilst I was away."
I instantly felt guilty, even though I knew there was no way I could have known and that it had been a perfectly natural question to ask. "I'm sorry, Ollie."
He smiled at me. "Still the same Harry," he said lightly. I raised an eyebrow. "You're still apologising for something that is not your fault." I was about to tell him that wasn't why I had said I was sorry, but I saw in his gaze that he knew what I had meant, he just preferred to lighten the moment.
Thus I smiled and nodded. "Raffles tells me that quite often."
"I'm sure he does. Well, I had a little money, well more than a little. My uncle had set up a kind of trust fund for me which came available to me upon turning eighteen. I had never touched any of it and thus, given I did not actually need to work for a while, I decided to leave England and travel a little."
"It was rather brave of you, to go alone," I said, quite certain I wouldn't have dared to do such an adventurous thing.
He smiled. "It didn't seem that way, at least not when I was making the arrangements. However, once I left England and arrived in Greece - the history has always fascinated me - and realised that not only was the culture quite different, but also the language and weather and everything really, I realised quite how adventurous it was. It wasn’t that the people weren't nice and kind and generous - they were; it wasn't even that I found it difficult to communicate, amazingly we managed, plus quite a few spoke at least a little English. You may remember that I found Greek incredibly difficult to learn whilst we were at school and I had forgotten virtually everything I had learnt by the time I reached Greece. Oh, I still remembered the odd phrase or word, but none of them seemed very useful. As I said, it wasn't really any of those things it was just that it was all so different. Look, I haven't ever even told Edward this, but I very nearly packed my bags and caught the next ship home within two days of arriving."
I was rather touched that he would tell me something he hadn't even told Charleston. "Why didn't you?"
Ollie was silent for a moment or two and when he spoke his words were somewhat surprising. "You may find this hard to believe, Harry, but I don't really know - even today, I don't know what made me stay. I just know something did. And as the days turned into weeks, I became far more relaxed and happier and was so pleased I hadn't given in and returned to England." He paused and took a sip from his glass and frowned slightly. "Would you like some more hot mulled wine, Harry?"
I hesitated for no more than a second before smiling and saying, "Yes, please, Ollie."
He smiled at me. "Oh, good, because so would I." He stood up and went over to the fireplace and touched what I assumed to be the bell. He seemed quite at ease, and I idly wondered quite whether I would be as at ease summoning servants as he was doing.
Tyburn arrived shortly afterwards and he was carrying a tray with another jug of heated mulled wine and two clean glasses. Ollie smiled; "Thank you, Tyburn."
"It is my pleasure, Mr. Urquhart." He put the tray down onto the table, picked up the other tray, nodded to both of us and left - once again as silently as he arrived.
"Does he always anticipate what you might want?"
Ollie smiled. "More often than not, yes. I confess I found it rather strange at first - actually, I still do. However, Edward seemed quite used to it, so I tried not to worry that somehow Tyburn was able to spy on us and overhear us."
I smiled and took the glass of heated mulled wine he held out for me. "Thank you. So you were glad you remained in Greece." I sipped the fine wine and enjoyed the warmth of it as it slid down my throat.
He nodded. "Oh, yes. And I soon had reason to be even more pleased." His cheeks flushed just a little and I half feared he might end his story there. However, he took a deep swallow of the wine, moved a little nearer to me, glanced around him and said, his tone somewhat lower, "You see it was only a day or so later that Edward and I became reacquainted."
I truly felt thirteen again as I leant a little nearer to him and stared at him; after all this was the bit in which I was really interested. "What happened? I know Charleston said you had need of a doctor."
Ollie nodded. "Yes. I did. It was a foolish thing, I wasn't paying attention to where I was putting my feet, I was far more interested in the architecture of the local area and I'm afraid I stumbled and fell. I had been on a hill at the time and I was unable to regain my balance and I landed in a somewhat ungainly way at the bottom. I was actually rather lucky, I believe, because when I sat up I realised the only thing that hurt me was my right wrist; it hurt very badly indeed, it was bleeding and I feared I may have broken it."
"That must have been rather frightening."
Ollie nodded. "It was, it was more so because the village I was in was a rather poor village and I truly feared no one would be able to speak English and - Oh, dear, I am a little ashamed to say this, but I feared the villagers would take me to the local doctor and well . . . I had no idea if he was actually a trained doctor."
"I'm sure you were less afeared than I would have been."
Ollie smiled. "Actually, Harry, I believe for once I was more afeared than you would have been. Anyway I heard one of the children say 'English Doktor' - at least that’s what I hoped they he was saying. The next moment I was helped by two of the men up the hill, bundled into a cart and driven quite some way. It was a very hard journey; I hadn't hurt myself badly apart from my hand and wrist, but I was bruised all over and the cart seemed to hit every hole in the road or every stone."
"That must have been very unpleasant."
Ollie nodded. "I truly believe that had I felt confident enough in my Greek, that I would have asked the man to simply take me to the nearest doctor. However, I did not feel confident and he seemed unable to speak any English. Thus, I endured the journey until finally he stopped, helped me down, pointed to a nearby building said 'English Doktor' and before I could say anything or even give him a coin or two, he was back in his cart and was driving off."
"Leaving you all alone?"
"Yes. Not only that, but all alone in a town I had yet to visit. I felt I had no choice but to go into the building he had indicated, even though by that time - I think due to the sun, my hat had fallen off when I had slipped and the men had not thought to pick it up for me, the heat and the journey - my mind had started to make up all kinds of possibilities. I believe you would have been proud of them." He smiled at me.
"Because, my dear Harry, they were as close as I will ever get to the kind of ideas you must get for you book."
I felt my cheeks become a little warm and covered the moment up by taking out my cigarette case and offering it to Ollie, who took one and in turn poured a little more wine into our glasses. "Mother always told me I had an over-active imagination - Raffles too," I added.
Ollie smiled. "Well, I decided I couldn't stand the blazing sun any longer, by that time I was desperate for a drink of water as well as," he paused for a moment and said, "the facilities. Thus, I dared to venture into the building the man had indicated and there I came face to face with Edward. He recognised me immediately and in one look, I believe, ascertained exactly what I needed."
"He, like Raffles, was always good at that." I smiled as I remembered our school days.
"Yes, they were always very good. Once I had availed myself of his facilities and drank a glass of water, he gave me a thorough examination and gently lectured me about being out in such heat without a hat."
I laughed, locked gazes with him and together we said, "Just like at school." It was quite true; more than once Charleston or Raffles, and at times both of them, had gently told Ollie or I off for not having our straw hats on when the sun was shining - even going so far as to insist one of us returned to the house to fetch them.
"I had been correct, nothing was broken or damaged, apart from my wrist which was severely sprained and would, Edward told me, trouble me for quite some time and he believed I would, at least for the first few days, find it very difficult to use it at all. I did not doubt his word and not just because he was Edward, but because I had barely been able to use it when I had washed my hands. Edward enquired where I was staying and with whom I had gone to Greece. I found myself telling him everything."
Ollie nodded. "Yes, everything. It just seemed right to do so; I felt - Oh, I don't know, Harry, I felt he would understand."
"And did he?"
"Oh, yes. He told me that there wasn't a doctor or chemist alive (or dead) or yet to be born, who hadn't or wouldn't kill or at least harm a patient, and if everyone of them gave up when they made a mistake, well there wouldn't be any doctors or chemists left. It was strange because it was to an extent everything the man for whom I had worked had told me and yet -"
"You found it easier to believe Charleston?"
Ollie nodded. "Yes. Anyway, Edward learnt I had gone to Greece alone and that I had no one at the hotel in which I was staying who might assist me with things. Thus, he invited me to go and stay with him for a few days until my wrist was usable."
"And you agreed?"
Ollie bit his lower lip, drained his glass, looked away from me and then looked back and me and nodded. "Yes, and I never left. We've been together ever since."
"Four years in Greece and then a few months here in London." His eyes were bright now and he was smiling, the look on his face reminded me of the look I believed was on my face when I looked at or spoke about Raffles. He caught my hand, "May I tell you something, Harry?" he said. "It's something I believe will surprise you."
"Of course, Ollie. You can tell me anything, surely you know that." I was intrigued.
"Well, you see," he paused, and as he had done earlier, looked around him, before putting his head much closer to mine and whispering, "It was I who kissed Edward."
"Ollie!" He was quite correct; it did indeed surprise me; it surprised me considerably. Again, I believed were it not for the drink and the fact that this was actually the first time we had been alone since we had left the school, thus it was almost like being back at school, that he wouldn't have been quite so open with me, quite so forthcoming.
Ollie flushed a little and shrugged. "It just felt . . . Well, right - I'm sure you know what I mean."
I nodded. "Yes, Ollie, I do."
"I don't know who was the more surprised, Edward or I. However, let me just say this: I did not spend the night in the room he had given me."
To my horror I heard myself actually giggle - just as I had done at times when I had been thirteen. To my greater horror I couldn't stop, and to my relief Ollie began to join in and soon we were holding onto one another and the giggles of two thirteen year old boys turned into the laughter of two young men.
We laughed for quite some time and I realised that as much as I loved and adored Raffles, as much as I loved the time we spent together, as close as our friendship was, I was actually really enjoying my time with Ollie. Maybe it was just that we were of an age, had been far more similar as school boys than Raffles and I had been, and to my mind still were more similar (just as Raffles and Charleston were) but I realised I was happy in a way I had never been when Raffles hadn't been by my side. And in one way I was actually happier than some of the times I had spent with Raffles.
As I thought that I felt a surge of guilt race through me and then I pushed it away as I told myself not to be a foolish rabbit and that Raffles would actually be quite happy and quite untroubled by the fact. "Oh, Ollie," I said, taking out my handkerchief and wiping my eyes. "I am so very glad you and Charleston returned to England, and so pleased you both visited Raffles and me on Christmas Day - and even more delighted that you and Charleston invited us to join you for New Year."
"Are you, Harry? Are you really?" Ollie's laughter had faded, and the look I had seen on his face a couple of times when he had looked at Charleston and Raffles now flashed across his face.
I put my hand on his arm. "Of course I am, Ollie. Why are you not?"
"Of course I am. Truly, Harry, believe me when I say I really am very, very glad to be home again and to have regained our friendship - and I hope the four of us spend a great deal of time together. I also hope you and I can spend some time together, alone," he added.
"I would like that, Ollie. So what is amiss?" I asked gently.
He sighed and glanced away from me. "It's foolish."
"Maybe so, but this is me, Ollie, me remember. You can tell me anything - and I won't tell anyone, not even Raffles, you know that. I never told about . . . Well, I'm sure you remember."
Ollie flushed even more and nodded. "Yes, Harry, I do. And had it not been for you - Well . . . You really were the best friend a boy could have had."
Now it was my turn to flush. "As were you," I said quietly. "So tell me."
He sighed again. "It's just . . . Harry, may I ask you something? I mean will you give me an honest answer?"
"Of course, Ollie."
"I mean a really honest answer - even if you believe it will hurt me. Do you give me your word, Harry?"
I hesitated for just a second; the idea of saying something to Ollie that might hurt him really did not appeal to me, not at all. However, he clearly wished me to do so, and I felt if I refused it might spoil our time together somewhat. Thus, I nodded and said quietly, "Yes, Ollie, I give you my word."
Ollie took a breath and said softly, "Do you think Edward is still in love with Raffles?" He had locked gazes with me before he had begun to speak and went on staring at me.
I swallowed and moistened my lips. He had asked me to, he had made me promise I would, give him an honest answer. However, I did not believe myself to be lying when I shook my head and said firmly, "No, Ollie. He loves Raffles, just as Raffles loves him, and he always will - they always will love one another. But, no, Charleston isn't still in love with Raffles."
Ollie finally blinked, swallowed and said, "Are you certain?"
Actually, I wasn't; at least not one hundred percent. You see loving Raffles as I did, being in love with him as I was, I truly believed that once someone fell in love with him, that that person would never fall completely out of love with him. I did believe a very small part of Charleston was in love with Raffles and always would be.
However, given how easily I could be wrong and almost certainly was - Charleston and I were quite, quite different people - I nodded and said firmly, again not lying, "Yes. Yes, Ollie, I am quite, quite certain. Why do you ask?"
He once more glanced away from me for a moment before taking another cigarette from the box lighting it and hurrying to pass the box to me. "It's just - Well, they are both . . . Well, so . . . And . . . They still communicate with one another without words; they've known one another since they were seven. They . . . I sometimes feel inadequate."
"I know how you feel," I said quickly.
"Yes, Ollie, of course I do."
"And yet you don't worry that Raffles might still love Edward in that way? That he might -"
"Leave me?" Ollie nodded. "No. No, Ollie, I don't. I'm not sure I can put it into words, but I . . . Charleston loves you, Ollie. Really he does, it's obvious."
I smiled. "Yes. Very obvious. He and Raffles will always have a part of one another that you and I will never have - just in a way that we'll always have something with one another that they won't share - but it's you he wants to be with, not Raffles."
Ollie sighed softly. "I know you're right, Harry. And yet -"
"Part of you still can't believe that a man like Charleston could want, would want . . ." I didn't need to finish my words as I could see Ollie understood. "Me too," I said quietly.
Ollie smiled and took my hand. "Thank you, Harry."
I smiled back at him and squeezed his hand. We sat in silence for a moment or two before I said, "What's it like living here? In Charleston's childhood home, I mean?"
Ollie looked at me. "That's something else," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm not sure I should tell you. However, given I am certain Raffles knows, it seems unfair for you to be the only one of us who doesn't know."
"You don't have to tell me."
"No, I want to. You see I was looking around one day whilst Edward was out - I believe it was the day he and Raffles had lunch. Edward encouraged me to do so," he added quickly. "Well, I came across a door which was locked. And, oh dear, I found myself asking Tyburn if he knew what was behind it."
"And did he?"
Ollie nodded. "Yes. Apparently there is a set of rooms that whilst being part of the house and connected to the house, also has a separate entrance. I'm sure Tyburn knew more, but he wouldn't say and well . . ."
"You haven't asked Charleston what they are?"
"No. I know from a thing or two Edward has said that his childhood wasn't - Wasn’t the happiest. But . . ."
I found myself remembering the look on Raffles's face and the somewhat harsh tone in his voice when he had spoke of Charleston's childhood. "Raffles does know something," I heard myself say.
Ollie sighed. "I'm sure he does. I wish -"
"Look, Ollie, if you want to know, you should ask. Charleston."
"Oh, Harry, I couldn't."
"Yes, you could, Ollie. And equally you should ask him if he is still in love with Raffles."
"Oh, Harry, I -"
"He loves you, Ollie. You should let him know of how you feel. Ask Edward, I'm sure he'll tell you."
"What exactly is it you wish to ask me, Oliver?"
Ollie and I both gasped and stood up quickly. In doing so I managed to not only knock against the table and overturn the jug of wine, but also squeeze the glass I was holding so tightly that it broke and I dropped it to the floor where it shattered.
Raffles and Charleston hurried over to where Ollie and I stood staring in shock at them - I wondered quite how much they had heard. It was Charleston who took my hand and looked at it, whilst Raffles dropped to his heels, pulled out his handkerchief and began to mop up the wine before stating to carefully pick up the broken glass.
Ollie took one look at my hand, it was cut very slightly, before turning and hurrying out of the room. "I'll fetch your bag, Edward," he said.
"I . . . I . . . I am sorry, Charleston," I said, as he examined my hand carefully. "I'm so very sorry."
Charleston shook his head as he looked from my hand to my face. "And for what exactly are you apologising, Harry? Spilling the wine and breaking a glass or for referring to me as 'Edward'."
Raffles glided to his feet and took his other handkerchief out (he still after all these years tended to carry two) and wiped his hands together. "Knowing Bunny all those things and several more," he said. "Are you all right, my rabbit?" He added, coming to my side and putting his arm around me.
"Yes, thank you, Raffles, it's only a small cut, is it not, Charleston." I placed a little more emphasis on his name than I normally did.
"Yes, it is. However, when Oliver returns with my bag, I will clean it, put some ointment on it and cover it with a light dressing. You can take it off later, but I'd rather it was covered for now."
"As for your apologies; I assure you they are not necessary. Thanks to A. J.'s swift moves, the wine was contained on the table and even if it had not been, the rug would have cleaned. Glasses break - it's the nature of the material from which they are made. As for referring to me by my Christian name which, if I know my Harry Manders as I believe I know my Harry Manders, that is the thing for which you were apologising most of all, I assure you it troubles me not. If you wish to call me Edward please do so - I truly would not mind."
I felt my eyes widen. "Wouldn't you?"
He smiled and shook his head. "No, Harry. I wouldn't. Why would you think I would - well, other than it not being the 'thing' gentlemen do?"
I glanced at Raffles who gave me an encouraging smile. "It's just that . . . Well, it seems . . . Somewhat disrespectful," I finally said.
Charleston shook his head as he looked down at me with a fond look. "Oh, Harry," he said, squeezing my shoulder. "You know we are not at school now."
"I know we're not, but -"
At that moment Ollie hurried back in. "Here's your bag, Edward, and Tyburn will send Grady to clear up the glass and wine in a moment or two. I didn't tell him, Harry," he said swiftly, looking at me. "He just seemed . . . Well, to know." He glanced at Charleston.
"Tyburn always knew everything, Urquhart," Raffle said, "even when he was just a lowly footman, did he not, Charlie?"
Charleston smiled. "Yes, he did. Now you sit down, Harry. A. J., please move the other table over here; Oliver, put my bag down on the table once A. J. has moved it." As one we all moved to obey.
When Grady appeared with a dustpan and brush, Charleston was still fussing over my hand, checking it yet again for any minute piece of glass which may have become embedded in the cut or anywhere on the hand. Raffles had taken out his cigarette case and offered it to Ollie, who had accepted, and was standing by me, his hand resting lightly on my shoulder. He showed far less concern than he had ever shown before when I had been injured or hurt myself - and I put that down to his complete trust in Charleston.
Raffles had actually picked all the large pieces of glass up and put them on the table. Thus, Grady bent to brush the floor thoroughly, bending down to peer carefully as he took a slightly damp cloth from over his arm and wiped that across the floor to gather up any minuscule fragments of glass which might have avoided the brush. He swept the larger pieces into the dustpan and hurried out of the room. He was back almost instantly with two more clothes which he used to wash and dry the table after he had moved it a little away from where Raffles, Charleston, Ollie and I were gathered.
"I'll come back later and polish the table properly, Dr. Charleston, if that's all right with you, sir?"
Charleston glanced up from my hand; he seemed almost surprised to see Grady in the room - his full attention had been on my hand even though it was a very minor cut, well graze. I didn't for one moment believe his concentration had been simply because of who he was; I was certain he was this thorough and attentive to and with all of his patients.
"That will be fine, thank you, Grady." It was actually Ollie who answered.
Grady nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Urquhart." And taking the cloths with him, he left us alone - he wasn't quite as quiet as Tyburn, but then I doubted anyone could be.
"There," Charleston declared some five if not ten minutes later, "I believe that will suffice. Keep it on until you bathe, Harry, and then if you need to put it back on -"
"I can do so," Raffle said quickly. "You do recall I have dressed one of two cuts in my time, do you not?"
Charleston smiled at Raffles and I suddenly realised just as Raffles had his own smile for me and Charleston had his own smile for Ollie, Charleston's smile when he smiled at Raffles wasn't like any other smile I had ever seen him bestow on anyone. And as I consciously watched Raffles smile back at him, I realised the same was true for him. I wondered idly if Ollie and I had smiles for one another that were different from smiles we gave to anyone else. I resolved to maybe ask Raffles about it later.
"Well," Charleston said, sitting down and offering the cigarette box to me; I took one, as did Charleston and Raffles stuck a match. "I didn't expect to put my doctoring skills to use today." He smiled as he spoke and looked at me in a way that actually made me feel reassured and didn't cause me to blush.
"Did you win, Raffles?" Ollie asked; kindly detracting attention from me.
Charleston laughed. "Of course he did."
"It was a close game."
Charleston smiled. "It was a good game. I enjoyed it, thank you, A. J."
"I enjoyed it too."
"Maybe we could all play later," Ollie said.
Suddenly the idea appealed to me very much, even though I was completely hopeless at the game. "We should," I said quickly. "We could play in pairs; I'm sure you're better than I am, Ollie, thus it would -" I fell silent and bit my lip.
"Even things up a little?" Charleston asked softly, I swallowed and opened my mouth to once again apologise. "It's a jolly good idea. We'll play after dinner - unless Harry's hand is hurting too much, in which case we can leave it until tomorrow or even the day after. Now," he said, turning to look at Ollie, "do let me show you to your room."
"I do remember which the blue bedroom is, Charlie."
"Yes, I'm sure you do, A. J., but humour me, please. I am trying to be a good host here."
We all laughed.
Some twenty minutes later, Raffles and I were in the blue bedroom and Charleston told us which bathroom we could use - assuring us there was plenty of hot water and that he and Ollie had a bathroom of their own.
We agreed to meet back downstairs by seven o'clock for a drink before we dined. We were going to dine slightly earlier than usual as Charleston and Ollie had given permission to their servants to attend a nearby servants' party.
"I'm surprised Fleming carried on his father's tradition," Raffles said, when Charleston told him. "It doesn't seem like him. Mr. Fleming organised, well he didn't do that actual organising, but he provided the funds and location, a party for his servants and those of nearby houses every year on New Year's Eve," he said to Ollie and me.
"That was nice of him."
"Yes, it was. I am surprised though his son wished to carry it on."
"He didn't." Raffles glanced at Charleston. "Old Mr. Fleming left a condition in his will which basically left his son no choice but to keep the parties going, otherwise he would forfeit a considerable amount of the family fortune as well as the family home. Fleming won't be there. He goes away before Christmas and doesn't return until the second week of the New Year. He hates the idea that he has to pay for servants to actually enjoy themselves, and not just his servants but those from the immediate area. He even took the will to another two if not three firms of solicitors to see if there was any way around the condition. But the old man knew what he was doing."
"He never did like his son," Raffles said.
"Did anyone?" Charleston's words and his tone surprised me; as a boy he had always been the one to try to find something good in every boy, even those who simply, at least in the eyes of every other boy, had no worthwhile traits.
For a moment silence fell as Raffles and Charleston locked gazes and stared at one another in silence. I glanced at Ollie and he looked at me and we both smiled. I believed, I hoped, that after our talk Ollie did feel more reassured about Charleston's feeling for Raffles.
"Well," Charleston said, breaking the gaze and putting his hand Ollie's shoulder. "Oliver and I shall leave you both to bathe and change before dinner. Do go down as soon as you wish to - and if we aren't there, please help yourself to a drink. On second thoughts," he added, his tone a little wry, "ring for Tyburn and ask him to bring you a drink. Please," he added and all four of us laughed.
"I'll be certain to do that, Charlie. Until later then."
"Indeed." And with Charleston's hand still on Ollie's shoulder, they left our room.
Raffles closed the door behind them and the next moment I was in his arms and his mouth was parting mine.
I completely lost track of for how long we kissed; I just knew when we finally parted and Raffles smoothed my hair down, which had become messed from his fingers, my mouth felt a little sore and my lips swollen. I gazed at Raffles and saw his mouth looked just as mine felt.
He stroked my cheek with his fingertip as he gazed at me and then said, his tone oddly formal, "I do love you, my dear Bunny."
"I know you do, Raffles. Just as I love you."
"Yes, but sometimes I think I do not tell you often enough." I felt my cheeks flush and they grew even warmer as he stroked them with his fingertip again and murmured, "So pretty; so very pretty."
"You don't have to tell me," I said, "I know."
"Ah, but you do still like to hear it, do you not? No, don't look away from me, my rabbit. That's better." Given he had my chin in his hand, I really had no choice but to look at him. "Just answer my question, Bunny." He spoke softly, but he also use the tone which I never disobeyed.
"Yes," I said quietly, trying and failing to again lower my head.
"In that case I shall resolve to tell you more often. Now shall we bathe, shave and change? We do not want to keep Charlie and Urquhart waiting, do we?"
"I don't think we will," I said, taking off my coat.
Raffles raised an eyebrow. "And why might that be, my rabbit?"
I hesitated for a moment and thought back to the conversation I had had with Ollie. He hadn't actually asked me not to tell Raffles, I had merely said I wouldn't if he didn't wish me to do so and as he hadn't done so surely I was at liberty to tell Raffles - especially as I knew Raffles would ensure Ollie didn't know I had told him.
I also thought of what Ollie had said about not wanting me to be the only one who didn't know about the set of rooms behind the locked door. I was quite certain Ollie would by now have asked Charleston what he had asked me, if only because given Charleston had heard me suggest Ollie ask him and he would ask Ollie what I had meant.
"Well," I said, "you see, Ollie asked me if -" And I told Raffles what Ollie had asked me and what I had said to him.
As I talked Raffles took out his cigarette case, lit two Sullivans and handed one to me as he leant against the chest of drawers and stared at me. "And tell me, my rabbit, did you believe what you told Oliver?"
"Um . . . Well, yes. Well, not entirely. You see . . . Well, Raffles, it's like this. Now I'm sure you'll think me a foolish rabbit and silly and romantic and - Well, whatever else. But I don't think anyone who has fallen in love with you can ever fall completely out of love with you. So, whilst I am certain, really quite certain that Charleston loves Ollie and is in love with him, well -"
"You believe there's a small part of him, even if he isn't consciously aware of it, which will always be in love with me?"
I blinked. I shouldn't be surprised that Raffles knew what I was thinking, but given I had had those thoughts when Raffles wasn't in the same room as me, I actually was a little surprised. "Yes," I said softly. "But you'd never tell Ollie that, would you?"
He shook his head and smiled at me. "Of course I wouldn't my rabbit. Ah," he said, "so when Charlie and I came into the room and heard you suggest to Urquhart that he ask Charlie something, that was what you had in mind?"
I nodded. "Yes. And I'm sure he will because - Well . . . I'm sure that -"
"Charlie will 'make' him?" I nodded. "You are quite correct, Bunny. He will. Yes, I do see what you mean; I agree we won't keep them waiting. Nonetheless, I still believe we should bathe, shave and dress, do you not?"
"Yes, Raffles." I put my cigarette out, took my watch from my waistcoat pocket and put it on the chest of drawers along with my cuff-links and began to unbutton my waistcoat. "Raffles?" I said, as he removed his coat, watch and cuff-links."
"May I ask you something?"
"Of course you may, Bunny. Surely by now you do not need to ask if you might do so."
I shrugged. "This is a little different and you might feel - Well, you might feel you are not able to tell me, that it wouldn't be right to tell me."
Raffles took his waistcoat off and put it onto a chair as he undid his collar and began to unbutton his shirt. "You intrigue me, Bunny."
I swallowed, removed my waistcoat and began to unbutton my shirt. "Well, you see, Ollie told me that he'd - That there was a locked door in the house, and that when he asked Tyburn if he knew what was behind it - Charleston was out, Ollie thinks it might have been the day he lunched with you. Charleston had told Ollie to look around," I added quickly.
"I'm sure he did, Bunny." Raffles had removed his shirt but was now paused with his hands about to unbutton his trousers. "And did Tyburn tell Urquhart what was behind the door?" Raffles's tone seemed, as it had done earlier in the day, slightly strange and once more his expression seemed a little hard.
I swallowed; I feared I had overstepped the mark of what was permissible and what was not. "I'm sorry, Raffles," I managed.
The hard look vanished and he frowned a little as he came towards me and took my arms in his. "And for what exactly is my rabbit apologising this time?"
I swallowed again. "Well, for . . . It's none of my business, Raffles. Can we please forget I mentioned it?"
For a moment he glanced away from me, looking over him shoulder in the direction in which I knew Charleston and Ollie's room to be. He seemed to be considering what to say or even do next. After a moment he turned back to me. "I presume Tyburn told Urquhart there was a set of rooms behind the locked door which whilst they connect to the house, also had their own separate entrance?"
I nodded slowly. "Yes."
"Has Charlie told Urquhart about them?"
I shook my head. "No. Ollie didn't like to ask him. But I do believe he might well ask Charleston about them today; again I believe I suggested he did."
"I'm sure Charlie wouldn't mind if I . . . Sit down for a moment, my rabbit." He led me to the bed and pushed me down. "You see, Bunny, Charlie's mother died giving birth to him."
"Oh, poor Charleston."
"Indeed. And you see, his father - Well, his father blamed him and never forgave him."
I stared at Raffles. "Never?" I whispered.
Raffles shook his head. "No. I believe - I want to believe his father might have, just before he died, finally accepted his son. However, we will never know as he died before he could do so, if indeed he intended to do so. I'm sorry; I'm starting at the end."
"You don't have to tell me."
He smiled at me. "Now that I've started, I think I should finish." I gave him a small smile. "Naturally Charlie had a childhood nurse, just as you did, just as I did, and just as we, and other children such as we, did he in effect lived in the nursery until he was a young boy."
I nodded. "Of course."
"Except, during those years his father barely if ever saw or spoke to his son. And once Charlie no longer needed a nurse his father arranged for several rooms to be turned into a set of rooms for Charlie with the separate entrance into the house and an additonal door between the house and what became Charlie's rooms."
I stared at Raffles; I was barely able to believe him. "Raffles? But . . . Why? Did he dislike Charleston so much? How could he do that to his son? I know his wife died in childbirth, but . . . Poor Charleston. Did he live completely alone?"
"No, not completely. I don't believe even his father could have been quite that cruel. He had a succession of - I'm not entirely certain what they were. Guardians? Tutors? Companions? Whatever. The person, usually someone different ever year, sometimes several different people during the year, came to the house during the school holidays to keep Charlie company and of course, when he was younger, to in effect look after him. The person then left when Charlie returned to school. Once he turned twelve, I believe it was, his father decided he didn't even need that amount of company and thus, for weeks at a time, Charlie barely saw anyone other than the servants. When he turned fifteen, his father made a point going away during all of the school holidays."
I stared at Raffles; the story made the fact that Charleston was such a fine man, a caring, compassionate one and had been a very fine boy, all the more amazing. "How could he?" I said again.
Raffles shrugged. "I do not know, my rabbit, and neither did my parents. Charlie spent some of each holiday at my home and I spent time here - which is why I know Tyburn and know the house so well. Actually, when I visited, Charlie's father did at least allow Charlie to dine with him; I think he realised that what he could do to his son, he could hardly do to a visitor. Plus, for some reason he actually liked me; he was very fond of me. His fondness of me and the fact he paid me attention used to make me feel guilty, even though Charlie told me not to."
"That must have been very difficult for you and for Charleston."
He shrugged. "By the time we both turned fourteen, I believe it was far harder for me; Charlie seemed to have simply accepted it. We rarely, if ever, spoke of it - and no one else but me and my parents knew about his situation. Well, Dobson knew, of course, that Charlie's mother had died, but that is all. Matron, who of course also knew about the death of Charlie's mother, suspected something wasn't quite right. However, whilst she would listen to any boy who wished to confide in her and encourage them at times to do so, she would never pressure a boy. Thus, when Charlie very politely made it clear he didn't wish to talk about this, she let it be; even though I knew she wished he would tell her. When he was asked by anyone why his parents never came to the school, Charlie simply said they were abroad."
"No one ever asked more?"
Raffles smiled at me. "You may not know it to look at him and you may not even believe me, but in spite of his caring nature and quiet demeanour, Charlie can, when he wishes to, be very forceful indeed. Let me just say this, my rabbit, no boy asked more than once. And no, I'm not saying Charlie ever became physical with them, he never hurt them he just - Well, he just left them in no doubt that the subject was not one to be pursued."
I swallowed hard and tried to imagine what it must have been like for Charleston. I even felt a little guilty myself for all the times I had wished that my father would hug me, something he had stopped dong when I had turned eleven (unlike Raffles's father) or that he wouldn't seem quite so frustrated with me at times; quite so disappointed in me. Despite those things, I never once doubted my father loved me. But Charleston . . .
"You said you believed his father might have been about to make an overture to Charleston?"
Raffles nodded. "Yes, I did. It was during out last term at university. Out of the blue I received a letter from Mr. Charleston in which he not only asked how Charlie was doing at university, but if he was on the eleven and if he would be playing in the annual match between Oxford and Cambridge."
"He wrote to you?"
"Yes, Bunny. He did."
"But you and Charleston weren't at the same university."
Raffles smiled. "Yes, my rabbit, I seem to remember that." I flushed slightly and he put his arm around me. "I'm sorry, Bunny, I should not tease you so. Will you forgive me?"
"That's my good boy. Yes, it is true that Charlie and I weren't at the same university, but we did keep in touch and we still spent at least some time during the hols together. I was surprised when I received Mr. Charleston's letter, but also hopeful that he might finally accept he had a son as well as the fact that it wasn't Charlie's fault his mother had died. I wrote back to him, answering his questions and telling him when and where the match would be played. And he wrote back and thanked me. I didn't dare to ask him if he was going to attend, but something told me he had planned to - why else would he write to ask?"
"A week or so before the match there was a fatal accident involving two hansom cabs. Mr. Charleston was in one of them."
Raffles nodded. "Yes. And it may surprise you to learn that Charlie actually grieved for his father. I'm not sure I would have, that I could have, done that. Indeed, for myself I was - oh, this will sound dreadful, my rabbit, however - glad he was dead. He did not deserve a son like Charlie."
"I don't think it sounds dreadful, Raffles."
"I tried not to let my feelings show, least I upset Charlie even more - and I believe I managed it quite well. His father may not have shown any affection to or for Charlie, but in the end he at least did something for him. Now whether that was out of some kind of affection he was unable to show or simply because it was 'correct', I do not know. However, everything he owned passed to Charlie upon his death - including this house; plus, a considerable amount of money and investments. Charlie is actually rather wealthy. Let me put it this way, Bunny, Charlie does not need to work. He does so because he loves his profession; he enjoys caring for people, helping them and healing them. And, now we really must bathe, shave and dress."
With those words Raffles stood up, pulled me to my feet, kissed me quickly and lightly before removing the remainder of his clothes and putting on his dressing room. He waited for me to complete my undressing before leading me out of the room and into the bathroom, which we shared. He shaved as I bathed and then I shaved whilst he bathed. We didn't talk about what he had told me - but I certainly thought about it.
Once we had dressed and Raffles had tied, as he always does, my bowtie, we decided to go downstairs. I believe Raffles felt quite at home and so, assuming Charleston and Ollie hadn't yet left their bedroom (certainly I hadn't heard a door opening) Raffles would be quite happy even though his hosts weren't there. I would not have dared to do such a thing; I would have waited in my bedroom until I was certain my hosts were downstairs.
"Are you sure, Raffles?" I said, as he opened the bedroom door.
"Of course, Bunny. Do no forget Charlie told us we were quite a liberty to go downstairs and have a drink."
"Very well, but don't forget you must ring for Tyburn."
Raffles smiled at me. "Of course I won't, my rabbit.
He didn't need to because a moment after we reached the bottom of the stairs, Tyburn appeared with a bottle of champagne in an ice-bucket and two glasses. "If you don't think it is forward of me, Mr. Raffles, I suggest you and Mr. Manders return to the small sitting room to await Dr. Charleston and Mr. Urquhart. It is a much more pleasant room, warmer too, than the main sitting room."
"That sounds like an excellent idea to me, Tyburn. I can still remember quite how cold, even with a roaring fire, the main sitting room used to get."
Tyburn led the way, standing to one side to let us precede him into the room. I noticed the table Grady had moved and the one Raffles had moved had been returned to their original places, and the cushions on the sofa and chairs replaced into their perfect positions.
Tyburn put the tray down onto the table and looked at Raffles. "Will champagne be acceptable for you and Mr. Manders, Mr. Raffles? Or would you like me to fetch you something else?"
"Oh, I think champagne will suit us both perfectly, do you not, Bunny?"
"Oh, yes, Raffles."
Tyburn smiled politely, opened the bottle expertly, poured champagne into the two glasses, replaced the bottle in the ice-bucket and handed Raffles and me a glass each. He fetched the cigarette box from the mantelpiece and placed it carefully along with a matches and an ashtray on the table.
"If you require anything else, Mr. Raffles, please do not hesitate to ring." I wasn't certain, but I thought Tyburn may have put a very slight emphasis on the word 'ring'.
Raffles, however, merely smiled at Tyburn and nodded. "I shall certainly do that, thank you, Tyburn."
Just for a second Tyburn hesitated and I thought he was going to say something else; from the look on Raffles's face, I believe he thought the same. However, instead Tyburn merely inclined his head and glided off across to the door; once again he left the room silently.
Raffles and I sat and drank champagne, it was extremely good and very easy to drink, smoked Sullivans and talked from time to time until, about twenty minutes later, the door opened. I knew instantly it wasn't Tyburn returning, as it was opened quite noisily.
Charleston, Ollie at his side, hurried into the room. "Oh, do please forgive us, A. J., Harry. We have kept you waiting."
We had both stood up when they had come into the room and I now stared at them. To my mind they both looked a little flushed and as if they had dressed somewhat more quickly than they normally did. Charleston, like Raffles, always had a kind of elegance about him which I had always envied. He wore clothing in a way I had never seen another man (other than Raffles) wear and was always clean, neat and tidy.
However, although he was clean, I could see his hair was still slightly damp, he didn't seem quite as elegant or neat and tidy as he normally was. Ollie was rebuttoning his waistcoat with one hand and pushing his hair back with the other.
Raffles stared at them both and quite, quite deliberately raised an eyebrow in a knowing way as he looked them up and down. His attention caused Ollie to colour quite considerably and even Charleston to flush slightly.
"Of course Bunny will forgive you, Charlie and you too, Urquhart; indeed he will forgive you unconditionally." As one Charleston, Ollie and I all turned to look at Raffles; Ollie looked worried, I was surprised; even Charleston seemed a trifle taken aback. Raffles continued to speak. "And I too will forgive you - at least for most things. However, what I cannot and will not forgive, my dear Charlie, is the appalling way you have tied your bowtie. Indeed, I have never seen you tie it quite so poorly - you are setting poor Oliver here a very bad example."
And with Charleston rendered quite, quite speechless and unable even to move, Raffles strode over to him, undid his bowtie and swiftly retied it. "There; that's better," he said, taking a step back, before adjusting it just a little. "Now, Urquhart." And before Ollie could reply or move or even look at me, Raffles was in front of him and seconds later Ollie's tie was also retied and Raffles declared himself happy.
Charleston was still staring at Raffles; apart from offering his apologies upon entering the room, he hadn't spoken. However, now he finally seemed to pull himself out of his frozen state and he smiled and even laughed softly before saying, his tone very formal, "Thank you, A. J. I am so glad Oliver and I are now dressed to your satisfaction." His eyes twinkled with mirth and it wasn't long before all four of us were laughing.
Even before we had ceased to laugh and Charleston was reaching for the cigarette box, Tyburn once more appeared with another tray on which stood another bottle of champagne and two more glasses. "Shall I pour for you, Dr. Charleston?"
"No, thank you, Tyburn. I'll do it."
"Very good, sir. Dinner will be ready in twenty minutes, if that is still to your liking, sir?"
"Yes, that will be perfectly acceptable, thank you, Tyburn."
"Very good, sir. Gentlemen." He glanced at us all and once again did his silent exiting trick.
Dinner was excellent; Charleston and Ollie clearly had a very good cook. The champagne flowed, maybe a little too well, but it was New Year's Eve, and the conversation was highly enjoyable.
At the end of the meal Tyburn arrived with port and cigars and enquired if Charleston had changed his mind and wished him to remain behind to take care of us. Charleston assured him that we could all manage quite well, that both Raffles and he were rather good at pouring wine and even refuelling fires and that Tyburn should go with the other servants and enjoy the party and dance.
We did indeed play billiards; Charleston and Ollie were against Raffles and me. As I had thought Ollie was a little better than me, and we all knew Raffles was a better player than Charleston. Even though we had never been together, apart from the afternoon and evening spent at the Albany, since our school days we were all very relaxed with one another- the champagne was still flowing very well.
Indeed we were so relaxed that on far more than one occasion Charleston insisted upon helping Ollie with his stance and the way he held the cue and Raffles did the same to me. We were still in the billiard room, I confess I had quite lost track of the score (if indeed it was still being kept) at midnight and I wasn't in the least surprised when Charleston took Ollie into his arms for a moment or two and brushed his lips over Ollie's; Raffles followed his example and embraced and kissed me and we wished one another a Happy New Year. After which Raffles and Charleston embraced and exchanged New Year's greetings, as did Ollie and I, and finally Raffles embraced Ollie and Charleston embraced me. It was all very enjoyable - in fact it was probably one of the most enjoyable (outside of being alone with Raffles) times I had ever spent.
After the game had finished (I do believe even Raffles had quite forgotten to keep score) we returned to the small sitting room. Charleston had his arm through Ollie's and Raffles's arm was around my shoulder.
When we reached the room, Charleston put some more coal onto the fire and shuffled it around with the poker before suggesting that Raffles and he move the other sofa to replace the two arm chairs which stood on one side of the table. Thus, we settled down, Charleston and Ollie on one of the sofas. Raffles and I on the other - neither Raffles nor Charleston troubled or even attempted to keep their hands off of me or Ollie. And I believe I spoke for Ollie as well as myself when I said neither of us minded.
At one point Ollie excused himself to go to the lavatory and after a quick look at Charleston, Raffles glided to his feet, murmured something I didn't quite catch and left the room.
Charleston looked at me and said quietly, "Thank you, Harry." I blinked for a moment before he added, "Both for what you said to Oliver when he asked you what he asked you, and for telling him to ask me quite how I felt about him."
"Oh," I said, somewhat irritated by the fact my cheeks had become a little warm. "That's all right, Charleston. I just wanted . . . Well, you know."
"I do know, Harry. And in case you are wondering I did also tell him about the set of rooms behind the locked door."
"Oh" I said as my cheeks became a little warmer.
"Do I presume A. J. told you about them?" I bit my lip and looked at him. His tone was gentle, his expression his usual calm, kind one. However, for a moment I didn't know what to say. Then he spoke again. "I should have said that I hope A. J. told you about them."
I felt a sense of relief pass through me. "Well, yes, he did. And - Charleston, I -"
He leant across and put his hand on my knee and squeezed it. "I know, Harry," he said softly. "Thank you."
We said nothing else because at that moment Ollie and Raffles returned and we settled back down to drink more champagne, smoke Sullivans and talk.
By the time we decided to say goodnight, I was certainly very sleepy, very relaxed and more than a little glad of Raffles's arm to hold onto. From a glance at Ollie, I saw he was in the same state as me, if no more so. Indeed, I'm sure he was holding Charleston's arm just a little tighter than I was holding Raffles.
We said goodnight outside our rooms and Raffles led me into ours. He closed the door and came over to me and gathered me into an embrace. "Well, now, how is my rabbit."
"Sleepy." I rested my head against his shoulder.
"Not too sleepy, I hope."
I sighed. "I'm not sure, Raffles. I'm really not sure I'm capable of doing anything."
"In that case you do not need to do anything at all; just leave it to me. If you could manage to stay awake, it would be good for my ego, but other than that . . ." He kissed me gently for a minute or two before lifting his head. "Now I suggest we visit the bathroom now in order to brush our teeth and take advantage of the facilities; that way you won't have to get up later. What say my rabbit?"
I smiled up at him and nodded.
"Come along then." And putting his arm around my shoulders, he led me out of the bedroom and into the bathroom. I could see a faint light shining beneath the door to Charleston and Ollie's room and I smiled.
We spent a few minutes in the bathroom before Raffles, with his arm once more around my shoulders, led me back to the bedroom. This time he not only closed the door behind us, he also locked it and stood with his back to for a moment just gazing at me. I gazed back at him, quite aware of what my face was telling him and also quite aware my expression was more than a little love struck.
He smiled and came across the room to me and once more took me into his arms and lightly kissed me. "Now, Bunny, all you have to do is to stand there and let me undress you and then you can get into bed whilst I undress and then you may place yourself entirely in my hands."
Even though I was very sleepy indeed and would have been quite happy to undress, get into bed, kiss Raffles goodnight and go straight to sleep, the idea of Raffles's hands and mouth on me appealed very much indeed - but then it always did. "Yes, Raffles," I murmured, when I realised he was waiting for me to reply.
He smiled and looked very happy. "That's my good rabbit. Now that's it just stand there and . . ." He fell silent as he began to undress me, starting with my dining coat, which he placed carefully onto the chair and going on until only my drawers remained. Although he had stared quite obviously at me as he removed each item of clothing, apart from pausing from time to time to drop light kisses onto my cheeks and lips, he didn't touch or kiss me.
Now, however, as I stood before him in just my cotton drawers, he put his hands on my shoulders and slowly, so tantalisingly slowly, brushed his fingertips all the way down my arms, which were hanging loosely against my body, until he reached my hips. He was barely touching me but what I thought, given quite how much champagne I had consumed, could not actually happen, began to happen and I felt myself begin to harden just a little under the combination of his touch and the look he was giving me.
He continued to very lightly and slowly move his fingertips over my hips, my stomach and finally down until he was barely touching my growing hardness. He flirted with it, his fingertips touching and then moving away, before returning to touch lightly and then once again move away. It was incredibly sensual and I wanted more; however, I also wanted to lie down.
"Please may I lie down?"
He smiled, lightly kissed my lips as he once more brushed his fingertips over my hardness and nodded. "If that is what my rabbit desires, that is what he will have."
I smiled at him and let him guide me backwards to the bed where he very gently pushed me down onto the perfectly balanced mattress. He kept a firm grip on my hand so that my decline was rather elegant rather than me just slumping or falling, which is what I feared I might have done had he not been holding my hand.
"Slide up the bed a little, Bunny," he said, gently encouraging me to do so. I did as he bid until my head came to rest on the beautifully soft pillow and my feet were no longer hanging over the edge of the bed. I shifted about a little just to get myself perfectly comfortable and blinked sleepily up at him as he smiled down at me, a look of what I could only describe as adoration on his face.
He knelt on the bed next to me and once more let the tips of his fingers touch me. This time he stroked my cheekbones and traced my nose and outlined my lips before bending over me to lightly brush his lips over mine. He then let his fingertips travel straight down my body until they came to rest on my lower body.
His gaze locked with mine, he expertly and without fumbling once, undid the buttons of my drawers. I expected him to pull them straight off of me or at least to take me out. However, he did neither, instead for a moment or two he once more returned to stroking me with the very tips of his fingers. Once again the touch was both tantalising and sensual and against my will I tried to push my growing hardness up into his hand, wanting more than just his fingertips on me. However, as soon as I moved, he ceased touching me and moved his hand away.
"Don't pout, Bunny," he said with a light laugh. "This is my game, thus they are my rules. Now lift yourself up just a little. That's my good boy," he added as I obligingly lifted my lower body off the bed thus allowing him to pull my drawers down, which he tossed onto the floor. He sat back on his heels and gazed down at me, his eyes focussing on one part of my body which twitched a little under the steady stare.
My mouth felt dry and my entire body seemed to tingle and was alive in a way I couldn't actually describe. After doing nothing other than gaze down at me as I hardened a little more for a minute or two, he bent his head and slowly and lightly licked, using only the tip of his tongue, the length of my hardness several times as I made a noise which was far more of a whimper than a moan and again pushed upwards, wanting, needing more. However, just as he had done earlier, rather than lick me less lightly or even take me into his mouth, he moved his head away, sat up and licked his lips.
"Raffles," I reached for him.
However, in his ever elegant way he moved back from me, stood up and took a few steps away from the bed. To my eyes it all happened in one simply move - one I know I would never be able to make. He then glided to the bottom of the bed, which made it much easier for me to watch him as he began to undress. He didn't rush but nor did he take too long about removing his clothes, I watched, barely blinking as his skin became revealed to me.
As he removed each item of clothing he paused for a second or two or three and touched the part of skin he had revealed with the tips of his fingers. His gave was locked with mine and each time he paused to briefly touch himself I made a soft noise of pleasure and desire as my skin tingled and my hardness increased a little.
Finally, all he had left was his drawers and as he had done to me, the devil had the nerve to run his fingers over himself, touching his rather, given I had not touched him and we had only kissed briefly, impressive hardness. At the sight of him touching himself and doing thus without even the slightest hint of embarrassment, my desire to do the same enflamed so much that under his gaze I moved a definitely shaking hand and brushed my fingertips over myself.
Now it was he who made a faint noise as he stared at what I was doing. For my part I let my gaze travel from his drawers, which did nothing at all to hide his now very clear desire, to his face. His cheeks were slightly flushed, his lips parted just a little and his gaze was ablaze with love and desire as he stared at me.
After a moment or two of brushing my fingertips over myself, I slid my hand away and once more let it come to rest on the bed. As pleasant as touching myself, especially given Raffles's reaction, had been it was not my hand I wanted on my body; it was his.
I licked my lips, only aware when he made a clear moan and hardened just a little more that he had looked away from my lower body up to my face, and said softly, "Do hurry up and remove your drawers, Raffles, and join me in bed."
He smiled. Brushed himself lightly once more before he did as I bid, letting his arousal gain freedom as he pushed his drawers down and stepped out of them. Once more my attention was focussed completely on his lower body. It didn't matter that I saw him naked more than once a day and saw him aroused on an almost daily basis, I never tired of seeing him, of knowing that it was I whom he desired; I whose touch or kiss or look had done that to him. Knowing that it was I whom he loved, I whom he adored, I whom he enjoyed making love to and with.
He obligingly stood quite still at the bottom of the bed just letting me gaze at him, before he moved towards the bed, joined me, lay down and gathered me into his arms and began to kiss me. The kiss was light, loving and sensual, but not passionate in the way it often was; it required me to do little other than lay there and kiss him back as lightly and lovingly as he kissed me.
Once he had kissed me until we were both in desperate need of oxygen, he settled me back down on my back whilst he moved onto his side and began to make love to me. Once more he touched my skin with the very tips of his fingers, nothing more. Not an inch of my body was left untouched by his fingertips and the tip of his tongue as he licked and lightly touched his way over me. More than once I cried out softly, more than once I arched my back, wanting more, desperate for more, but also knowing how wonderful the touches were. I didn't even try to touch him or kiss him or return the love he was giving me. He had told me he would do everything, all I had to do was to let him and I was more than happy to obey.
"Oh, Raffles," I murmured, as he again licked my hardness with the tip of his tongue. "Oh, my dear Raffles."
He stopped for a moment and gazed at me. "Is my rabbit enjoying this?"
I nodded. "Oh, yes. It's so very . . . Wonderful," I managed, aware it was not the word I wanted. "And," I added, knowing even as I was about to speak my cheeks would flush just a little, "it also seems more than a little daring, illicit even."
He frowned slightly and looked at me. "Daring? Illicit? How so, Bunny?"
"Well, we are in someone else's home, are we not? We've never . . ." And indeed we hadn't. Apart from the odd chaste kiss or so each day, whenever we were staying in someone else's home we did nothing at all.
He laughed softly. "And you like that feeling do you, my rabbit?"
My cheeks warmed just a little more. "I do rather, Raffles."
He paused in his gentle touching and licking in order to move up the bed and lightly kiss me. "I really do love you, Bunny." I beamed at him and then felt my cheeks become even warmer as he said, "I am really so incredibly luck to have you in my life."
I swallowed hard and blinked several times as I simply gazed at him, letting him see quite how deeply and devotedly in love with him I was; how I would always be. "Raffles," I murmured, saying so much in one word.
He kissed me again before he returned to his light and barely there touching and licking. I closed my eyes for a moment and simply enjoyed the sensations of the touches and licks, as I made myself just a little more comfortable. Then I gasped and my eyes opened as I felt him finally take me into his mouth. However, rather than suck me as he usually did, it was much slower, more sensual as at times he barely touched my now complete hardness.
"Oh, Raffles," I gasped as I felt my release build up. "Oh, Raffles, I love you so." As I felt my release get to the point where even he could not prevent it from happening I murmured, "Kiss me, oh, please, Raffles, please kiss me."
I second later his hand was around me, just holding me, not actually stroking me and his mouth was on mine kissing me gently, lovingly, sensually. I gasped his name into his mouth as even without him moving more than just his fingertips over me, my body finally made his hand wet and sticky and I shuddered with sheer joy.
I believe I might have fallen asleep for a short time because when I opened my eyes it was to find him propped up on one elbow, gazing down at me; the fingers of one hand once more lightly touching my cheek. "Raffles?"
"Hush now, my rabbit, just close your eyes again and go back to sleep." He moved a little nearer to me and brushed his lips over mine, before brushing them over my cheeks, my nose, my chin and my forehead.
I would have been more than happy to do as he bid, but as he had moved to kiss me I had felt evidence that whilst my body had got the release it had craved, he was still as hard as he had been when he had joined me in the bed.
Somewhat sleepily and in a rather uncoordinated way, I moved my hand and fumbling in a way I hadn't done since he had taken me to his bed for the first time, I managed to get my hand around him and began to move it - or try to move it. To my dismay and faint annoyance I found I simply could not persuade it to do as I wished it to do, all I could do was to hold him and move my fingers just a little.
"Raffles?" I blinked as I gazed at him, willing him to understand and to suggest something.
He kissed me lightly. "It really does not matter, Bunny. This was about you, not about me. I am more than content to simply go to sleep."
"But I want to . . ."
"Do you? Do you really, my rabbit?"
"Yes. It's just that I'm so very sleepy. I'm sorry, Raffles, it's not fair of -"
His kiss silenced me. "You have nothing for which you need to apologise, Bunny. Nothing at all. Do you really wish to give me pleasure or is it simply that you believe you should?"
"I want to, I just . . . Please, Raffles."
He smiled, kissed me again and moved a little adjusting his position until I could feel him press against my hand. "Very well, my rabbit. Now all you have to do is to go on holding me as you are, if you could tighten your grip just a little it would be - Ah, yes, that's perfect, Bunny. Now you truly need to do nothing more. Just hold me and I'll -" He began to move his body so that his hardness slid up and down in my hand - it was indeed as if I was stroking him.
He kept moving as he was for a minute or two as my hand grew slick and I knew his release was imminent. "Ah, yes, that does feel good. Oh, my rabbit, that feels very good indeed. Oh, Bunny, I believe I'm - Bunny!" He gasped my name far louder than he normally did (loud enough I believed that it might have travelled to where Charleston and Ollie were bedded, but oddly enough I wasn't actually troubled by the thought) as my hand became very wet and sticky and he sank down by my side and put his arm over me.
I lay there unmoving, my hand still holding him lightly; it was he who gently pulled my hand from his body before he kissed me gently. "Thank you, my rabbit," he said, "that was - Well, I hope you got as much pleasure from it as I did."
"Oh, yes, Raffles. I did. Thank you." I blinked sleepily at him and let my eyes close.
I felt him kiss each closed lid before his lips brushed over mine for a final time. "That's it, my dear little rabbit; it really is time to go to sleep now." I felt him move slightly and turn the bedside lamps off before he gathered me into his arms; I was about to fall asleep when something came to me and I knew I had to ask him.
"I thought my rabbit was asleep."
"I nearly am. But there's something I want to ask you."
"Can it not wait until the morning, Bunny? Or I should say later in the morning."
I shook my head. "No. Well, I'd rather not wait."
"Very well; ask away, my rabbit"
"If I were dead," I felt him grip me a little tighter and heard him make a soft noise. I hastened on. "And Ollie was dead, do you think you and Charleston would . . . You know: get together?"
He was silent for a moment and I truly believed he was not going to answer me. Then he sighed softly and said very quietly and with more than a hint of pain in his voice, "Actually, my rabbit, I do believe we would, yes."
"Bunny?" His surprise was clear.
"It's just that if I were dead, I wouldn't want you to be alone and unhappy. But nor would I want you to be with - Well, I would want you to be with someone who would love you and care for you and someone I liked. And Charleston loves and cares for you and I like him a great deal. So that's all right."
"Except. Oh, Raffles?" I nearly sat up.
He however held me, keeping me where I was. "Yes, Bunny?"
"But what if Ollie wasn't dead? What if it was just me? What -"
"Bunny!" He spoke just a little firmly; it was the tone he used to use from time to time when I had been his fag and he was being a foolish rabbit.
"Stop talking like that. You are not going to die. I simply will not permit it. Now, go to sleep there's my good rabbit."
"But, Raf-" His mouth on mine silenced me and he continued to kiss me gently, soothingly, lovingly until I slipped into a deep sleep, held in his protective, very possessive embrace.
LATER THAT DAY
It was rather late by the time Raffles and I had bathed, shaved, dressed and gone downstairs. The ever knowing Tyburn was waiting for us at the bottom of stairs and had informed us that Charleston and Ollie were in the dining room.
As we made our way to the room I idly wondered if Charleston and Ollie had awoken before Raffles and I by chance, or if Charleston had been determined to make amends for the previous evening and had thus ensured he and Ollie were downstairs before Raffles and me. Not that I believed for a moment that Charleston and Ollie had to 'make amends'. However, Charleston is Charleston and during our school days his sense of what was right and what was wrong was even greater than Raffles's had been. Thus, he would believe a host should be present before his guests appeared.
We found Charleston and Ollie sitting together at one and of the table, a coffee pot and a rack of toast in front of them, along with a butter dish and a dish of what I presumed to be marmalade. They both stood up as Raffles ushered me into the room and followed me in.
"Good morning, A. J. Good morning, Harry. I trust you both slept well."
Raffles smiled. "Yes, thank you, Charlie. And I trust you and Urquhart slept well too."
I was looking at Ollie as Charleston spoke and I felt sure I saw a very faint hint of colour touch his cheeks. He also, to my mind, looked just a little tired and I found myself wondering if he and Charleston had actually slept at all.
Meanwhile Charleston was answering Raffles. "Yes, thank you. A. J., we did." He smiled and then looked at me.
"The bed is jolly comfortable," I heard myself say.
Charleston smiled and said, "Somewhat different from when we were all at school."
"Most certainly," I agreed.
"What would you and Raffles like for breakfast, Harry?"
I glanced at Raffles and in effect handed the answering of the question over to him.
He sighed, somewhat exaggeratedly and turned to Charleston. "Tell me, Charlie, does Oliver here still at times believe he is still your fag and thus must do as you wish him to do?" He spoke lightly and had a hint of a laugh in his voice.
Charleston actually laughed aloud as he said, "Yes, A. J., I'm rather afraid he does. And given the way Harry looked at you just now, I suspect it is the same with him, is it not?"
Raffles smiled. "Yes."
I looked at Ollie and we both smiled at one another. I certainly wasn't offended - why should the truth offend? - and I knew Ollie wasn't either. It was quite, quite true; I certainly was still, at parts, in awe of Raffles and did from time to time slip back into my fag days, thus, it didn't surprise me in the slightest to discover that Ollie was exactly the same when it came to Charleston.
"Should we be offended, Harry?" Ollie asked; he had a twinkle in his eyes.
"I don't know, Ollie, what do you think?"
As one Raffles and Charleston turned to stare at us and I believe I saw a faint hint of concern on both faces as they tried to ascertain if we were offended or just happy to play along with them.
Ollie appeared to consider my question for a moment before he shrugged and said, "No, I do not believe we should be. After all," he added and then voiced what I had thought, "why should one be offended by the truth?"
"Why indeed, Ollie?"
"That's settled then. Now, Harry, what would you like for breakfast? Edward and I had a slice of toast and coffee. Given it won't be long until lunch time, we didn't really want anything else. However, if you or Raffles would like something cooked you only have to -"
He broke off as, accompanied by Tyburn, Grady came into the room carrying a tray on which rested a pot of what I assumed to be coffee and another rack of toast."
I moved closer to Ollie, leant by head towards him and murmured, "I do believe the estimable Tyburn has made the decision for us. And," I added swiftly, least I cause Ollie to worry, "that really is all I want and I'm sure that's all Raffles wants too."
"Is there anything else you require, Doctor?" Tyburn asked as Grady put the tray down and began to move the items from it onto the table."
"No, thank you, Tyburn. I do believe this will suffice." Although Charleston spoke to Tyburn, he glanced at Raffles and raised an eyebrow. I watched as Raffles answered the unspoken question, with a tiny nod.
"Very good, sir. Enjoy your breakfast, gentlemen." And with that, sweeping Grady up as he went by him, Tyburn went out of the room and once again silently closed the door behind him.
Charleston and Ollie sat back down and Raffles and I joined them. Charleston poured coffee into cups for Raffles and me and then added more coffee to his and Ollie's cup. Raffles took half a slice of toast and added butter and marmalade and I did the same.
"This is excellent marmalade, Charlie."
"I'm glad you like it, A. J., I do remember how particular you are about marmalade. You never did care for the kind Father's cook made, did you?"
Raffles smiled. "I ate it."
"Yes, but then your parents had raised you to be a terribly polite boy, had they not?" Raffles smiled. "However, I always knew it wasn't quite to you liking - and I confess when I tasted the marmalade your parents' cook made, I could quite understand why." And then to my surprise, Charleston put down the piece of toast he had been eating and touched Raffles's hand. "I always enjoyed staying with you and your family, A. J."
Raffles wiped his mouth, put down his napkin and touched Charleston's hand. "And as you know my parents and Alice always enjoyed you coming to stay."
"I miss them." Charleston spoke softly.
"I know you do, Charlie. As do I." For a moment Raffles and Charleston just stared at one another as Ollie and I glanced at one another. The atmosphere had become, understandably, more than a little solemn. It seemed that Raffles noticed it as he suddenly said, his tone lighter, "Although what you would have done had Alice still been here, I do not know."
Charleston frowned for a moment, before blushing slightly and saying, "That was years ago, A. J. She was just a little girl; I'm quite certain she would have forgotten."
"Oh, I don't know, Charlie, once we Raffles love, we do tend to hold onto those whom we love."
I felt a sense of warmth flow though me as Raffles glanced swiftly at me. However, given the intensity that still existed between Raffles and Charleston, I also knew Raffles was once again letting Charleston know quite how glad he was that Charleston was back in England, back in London, and the two old school friends had become reunited.
Ollie looked slightly confused and Charleston noticing it said, laughing lightly, "Alice declared when she was - how old was she, A. J.?"
"The first time I believe it was when she was five; the last time when she was ten."
"Ah, yes. Well, Alice declared she was going to marry me when she grew up."
"That could have been interesting," Ollie said, his tone (I was pleased to hear) was heavy with amusement, and the look he was giving Charleston made me almost blush myself.
"Of course," Raffles said, as he returned to eating his toast. "She did go through a phase when the only boy she thought of was Bunny."
"Me!" I dropped my knife. They all laughed and as Raffles bent to retrieve my knife, I joined in. "Yes, my rabbit. You. It was the Christmas I took you home with me - I'm sure you remember?"
"Of course I do, Raffles. But I didn't . . ."
Raffle smiled and patted my hand. "I did not wish to worry you, Bunny, especially given I knew how fickle my dear little sister could be at times. Thus, I felt certain her affections would return to Charlie here. However, I assure you she spoke of you quite often and mentioned you in her letters to me each week."
We all smiled and laughed a little and then Charleston said, his tone quite different, it was really rather serious, "A. J.?" He spoke softly and again he touched Raffle's hand.
Raffles turned to look at him and I watched them have one of their silent conversations. The atmosphere became a lot less relaxed, in fact it became rather tense and very solemn, before Raffles covered Charleston's hand with his and said quietly and very formally, "I know, Charlie."
Ollie suddenly turned to me and said, "If you'd be interested, Harry, I could show you my laboratory after luncheon. I tend to make most of my medicines here rather than at the practice, as Edward and I both think it's safer. Plus, it is easier to work if one is undisturbed - well, relatively undisturbed," he added, glancing at Charleston who had finally looked away from Raffles.
"I would like that very much, Ollie!" And I would; I really would.
Raffles emptied his coffee cup and said quietly, "If the invitation extends to
me as well, Oliver, I would also be interested." He smiled. I was somewhat
bemused to hear Raffles address Oliver, or refer to him, by his Christian name
for the third, if not fourth time, and idly wondered if he was going to make a
habit of so doing.
"'Would you? Would you really, Raffles?" Ollie looked and sounded quite delighted.
"Yes, I really would." Charleston smiled fondly at Ollie. Raffles put down his cup, wiped his mouth with his napkin, glanced at Charleston and said, "What time has the estimable Tyburn decided we shall take luncheon, Charlie?"
Charleston took out his watch and looked at it. "In an hour and twenty minutes," he said - not disputing the fact that Tyburn had decided upon the correct time for us to luncheon. "Why do you ask, A. J.?"
"Well, Raffles glanced at Ollie and me before looking back at Charleston. "Given it is no longer actually snowing, but given how it is still lying rather deeply, I was wondering if . . ." He fell silent and just looked at Charleston. "Your garden is secluded so we won't make fools of ourselves."
Charleston beamed. "I think that's an excellent idea, A. J.! But did you and Harry bring any suitable shoes and clothing."
"Ah. Well, not -"
"Not that it matters. I'm sure Oliver and I have things that will fit you. You and I were always just about the same size and I cannot believe things have changed that much. Plus, I do still have some of," he paused for a moment before saying softly, "Father's things. We'll find something. I really would enjoy that, A. J."
"Good." Raffle said and stood up. Charleston joined him and after glancing swiftly at one another, Ollie and I arose too.
"Raffles?" I said, after Ollie gently nudged me.
"Yes, my dear Bunny? Oh, of course. I am sorry. Charlie and I did not explain."
"Raffles! You and Charleston didn't actually say anything." All four of us laughed. "And whilst I believe I speak for Ollie as well as myself when I say I'm sure we shall be quite happy to go along with whatever you and Charleston had in mind. However, it would -"
Out of the corner of my eyes I could see Ollie was nodding. And it was actually Ollie who said, "Be rather nice to know exactly what it is we are going to go along with."
To my surprise (and to Ollie's) Raffles and Charleston looked at one another and both began to laugh. I turned to Ollie who just shook his head and raised an eyebrow before we both looked at Raffles and Charleston. "I'm sorry, my rabbit," Raffles said, wiping his eyes. "It is just that you and Urquhart in effect accused Charlie and me of communicating with one another without actual words, did you not?" I nodded and saw that Ollie was doing the same. "Well," Raffles continued, after another glance at Charleston, "you and Oliver may not be aware of it, but you do something similar."
"Bunny, Urquhart finished your sentence for you."
I glanced at Ollie who blinked and then smiled as he, "Raffles is correct, Harry, we did."
"Oh," I said and then added, in what I thought was a moment of brilliance. "Well, at least we said something."
"Actually, Harry," Charleston said, taking out his cigarette case and offering it to us. "I hate to be the one to tell you; however, A. J. and I did say a few words."
I glanced at Raffles who gave me a shrug and a nod, before looking at Ollie who shuffled his feet a little but also nodded.
I sighed dramatically. "Nonetheless, I believe we are getting off of the point."
"Which is what exactly, my rabbit?"
"What it is you and Charleston have decided we shall do."
"A snowball fight." I widened my eyes and stared at Raffles. "Oh, do come along, Bunny. You enjoyed it when you, Alice and I played the Christmas you stayed with us, did you not?"
I had actually forgotten that, but now that he reminded me I realised I had enjoyed it - even if at five years younger than me I believed Alice had a better aim and was certainly better at throwing than I was. "Yes, Raffles, I did. But . . . Well, we were -"
I fell silent as Raffles put his arm around me. "Oh, my dear little rabbit. Gentlemen are permitted to have fun too, you know. You'd like to have a snowball fight, would you not, Oliver?"
Ollie beamed and said, "Actually, Raffles. I would like that very much."
"Good." Raffles beamed.
"In fact, very good. Let us go and find some suitable overcoats, scarves, gloves and footwear for you and A. J."
We all went out into the hall where within a second or two Tyburn appeared. "I have taken the liberty, Dr. Charleston of finding some suitable boots for Mr. Raffles and Mr. Manders as well as overcoats, gloves and scarves. I have also found an old overcoat from your youth, which I believe will fit Mr. Urquhart. They are all in the small hall which leads to the backdoor. And I have instructed cook to delay luncheon for half an hour - I am sure you will all like some mulled wine to warm you up once you come back inside - and I have told Mary to light the fires in the small sitting room and the billiard room." He looked at Charleston in his ever respectful way.
For once even Charleston seemed a little taken aback. "Um, thank you, Tyburn. That is very - Very thoughtful of you. I - we - appreciate it. Um . . ." He fell silent.
Tyburn inclined his head. "It is my pleasure, Dr. Charleston. I do hope you gentlemen all enjoy yourselves."
"I'm sure we shall, Tyburn."
And we did. Indeed we had a marvellous time - even if, just as had happened when we had been school boys, both I and Ollie fell over far more often than either Raffles or Charleston did. In fact, neither of them completely lost their balance at all; I decided to put it down to all their years spent playing cricket.
We spent about fifty minutes outside until I believe all of us started to feel more chilled than was quite possibly good for us. Although I do believe that had it not been for Charleston slipping into doctoring mode as he helped Ollie to his feet for the fourth time and touched his cheek, and insisted we return indoors and warm up, we probably would have remained outside for a little longer.
Tyburn and Grady were waiting for us when still laughing, with Ollie holding onto Charleston and me holding onto Raffles, we went back inside. They had towels which they handed to us before they helped us off with our overcoats and took the scarves and gloves we handed to them.
"I shall take the mulled wine to the small sitting room, Doctor," Tyburn said, once he was certain we were all well, and were being good gentlemen and dutifully changing out boots for our shoes and had rubbed our hands and faces and hair.
"Thank you, Tyburn."
Luncheon was as good as the previous night's dinner had been and once we had finished, after sitting for a while smoking Sullivans and sipping brandy, Charleston suggested we all go to Ollie's laboratory.
As he showed us various pieces of equipment and talked to us about how he mixed his potions and medicines, I saw a different Ollie from the boy with whom I had spent five years at school. His love for his profession was quite, quite clear, as was his enthusiasm. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him, looking at the things he showed us and asking questions, and I know Raffles did as well.
After his initial almost hesitance and shyness, Ollie clearly enjoyed talking to us and showing off his skills. I really admired him and once again I was so glad that Raffles and I would burgle no more, and that we would now be completely honest men.
After we had spent some time in Ollie's laboratory we returned to the small sitting room where Ollie and Charleston asked for details about my planned book. I felt a little hesitant; what did a mere book matter when they were both such worthy men? When they both saved lives? However, Charleston gently, but firmly, insisted.
Thus, after a short time of stammering over my words with Raffles watching me, a gentle, affectionate smile on his lips, I told them all about my plans for my book - well for what I hoped would become a series of books. And I believed them when they both insisted they really hoped it would become a series, and told me how much they were looking forward to reading the first one.
After that we once more played billiards, with Raffles and Charleston insisting on Ollie and me playing against one another. Again, we all enjoyed ourselves - even me, who was almost as bad a billiard player as I was a cricket player. Actually, for myself (and I think for Ollie too) the best part was when we insisted on Raffles and Charleston playing alone whilst we stood and watched them.
As I stood next to Ollie, both of us smoking Sullivans and watching Raffles and Charleston, I realised that, just as they had done when they had been boys when they weren’t playing a proper, important match, both Raffles and Charleston had tempered their billiard playing when playing with Ollie and me. Thus watching them both playing to their full abilities was extremely enjoyable.
Dinner was of course excellent; as was the company. Thus, once again it was well into the early hours of the morning before we all parted outside our bedrooms bidding one another good night, before retiring into our own rooms. The time spent before we slept was also highly enjoyable.
TWO DAYS LATER
"Are you quite sure you wish to return to the Albany, A. J.? You and Harry are more than welcome to stay with us, isn't that so, Oliver"?
"Oh, yes, Edward, quite so. Really, Harry," Ollie added, looking at me.
"That's kind of you, Charlie, Urquhart. However, I believe you said you really did have to reopen your practice on the morrow."
Charleston and Ollie looked at one another. "Well, yes, we really should. However, that does not mean you have to leave. You are more than welcome to remain here; we have really enjoyed having you to say."
"We really have," Ollie echoed.
Raffles smiled. "Thank you and I know I speak for Bunny as well as myself when I say we have thoroughly enjoyed our time here with you." I nodded and smiled. "However, what do you suggest we do whilst you are at work?"
"What do you normally do during the day, A. J.?" Raffle didn't reply as such, instead he shrugged a little. Charleston hurried on. "I've been meaning to ask you, A. J., what are you going to do once Harry begins his book?"
Raffles stared at Charleston. "To be honest, Charlie, I hadn't really thought about it. I imagine I will . . ."
"What do you suggest I do? I'm not like you or Oliver or even Bunny. I don't have a particular talent or," he added swiftly, "desire for a career as such. I can find plenty to keep me occupied. You need not worry, Charlie."
"I wasn't worrying, A. J., I was just -" He stopped abruptly. "You're right; it is none of my business."
"That is not what I said - nor what I meant."
Charleston sighed and reached out his hand to Raffles. "I know. Forgive me, A. J., I just . . . Forgive me, please?"
Raffles took Charleston's hand. "I assure you, my dear Charlie, there is nothing for which I need to forgive you. You are quite correct; given I shall not have Bunny at my beck and call," Charleston smiled, "I should find something to do during the day."
"Maybe you could - Harry?"
I started slightly. "Yes, Charleston?" I was a little surprised by quite how interested Charleston was in what Raffles might do whilst I wrote. Indeed, it was more than mere interest; it was almost as though he was concerned that Raffles might find himself somewhat bored. Just for a moment, I wondered if Charleston had somehow known of quite what Raffles had done to alleviate his boredom. However, I told myself he could not know; it was just a natural, normal interest in and for a close friend.
"Will your books have any kind of illustration in them?"
I blinked. "I honestly do not know, why?"
Charleston looked from me to Raffles and back again. "Has A. J. never told you that one of his talents is drawing?"
I blinked. "Actually, no."
"Charlie, just because I drew a little when we were boys, does not mean -" Raffles fell silent and then smiled gently and said with a hint of humour in his voice, "Yes, Charlie, I will try."
"Good. I also happen to know that," he named a sporting magazine, "are looking for new illustrators. It wouldn't be a permanent position nor a full time one. However . . ."
Raffles rolled his eyes and laughed. "As I said, Charlie, I will try. I can promise nothing more than that. Not all talents one has when one is a boy, lasts into adulthood."
I was looking at Raffles as he spoke and I got the impression that despite his words he was actually giving serious consideration to the prospect. We hadn't talked about what he might do whilst I wrote. Yes, he could spend time reading, but it wouldn't fill his whole day and whilst I was certain I would not need to write for every hour of every day, I would not be free to do all the things we used to do. The prospect of Raffles doing something that meant he, like I, would for the most part be in our rooms certainly appealed to me. I for one was quite, quite certain that any talent Raffles had had as a boy he would still have.
"Good. So you have nothing you and Harry actually have to return to the Albany for? Something which you can only do there?"
Ollie was looking at Charleston and smiling. Raffles looked at me and I raised an eyebrow and shook my head. I had no idea what Charleston might mean. "No, Charlie. If you put it like that, then we do not."
"You see, A. J., Harry," Charleston paused for a moment and then put his hand on Ollie's. "Oliver and I have had an idea."
Raffles looked at Charleston, as did I. "And that idea is, Charlie?"
Charleston looked at Ollie who nodded and gave him an encouraging smile. "Well, you see, A. J., Harry," he turned from Raffles to me and smiled. "As I said, Oliver and I have really enjoyed having you here to stay and we were wondering . . . Well, that is, we thought . . . What we were wondering is if you would like to come and live here."
Raffles glanced at me but looked straight back at Charleston. "For how long, Charlie"?
"Permanently. Look, A. J., you know how large this house is - it really is far too large for two people, especially when . . . Well, I'm sure you know what I mean."
Raffles glanced at me again. "I don't know what to say, Charlie. I mean it's very kind of you -"
"Do let me explain completely, A. J., and I know that you and Harry will, of course, need to talk about it. It isn't something you can decide here and now; it isn't something you should decide here and now. All I, all we," he looked at Ollie and smiled, "ask is that you at least give us your word that you will consider it."
Raffles glanced at me for a third time and I nodded. "Yes, of course we will, Charlie," he said, looking back at Charleston.
"Oh, good. We are pleased, are we not, Oliver?"
"Yes, Edward, we are. Very pleased. Now do finish explaining our plan to Raffles and Harry."
"Oh, yes. Well, we thought we could make a few alterations; they would involve using the set of rooms which used to be mine and adding a few more to them. And we would also make a second set of rooms, which would also be part of the house, but have their own entrance. That way you and Harry could have a set of rooms as could Oliver and I, and the rest of the rooms in the house, for example the billiard room and the sitting rooms and dining room, would be shared. We could see as much or as little of one another as we wanted to. We could dine in our own rooms or together in the dining room. In many ways it would be like having sets of rooms at somewhere like the Albany, but in a place that also had a general dining room and other such rooms."
"What about Tyburn and the other servants, do you not think he will object? Would it not be more work for them?"
"Tyburn has always liked you, you know that. And I really don't believe it would be that much more work for them - not even if you and Harry dined alone every evening and Oliver and I did the same. And some evenings we, either all of us, or just two of us, will be out anyway. And given that the rooms are all dusted and cleaned anyway, whether or not they are occupied, what difference will it actually make? And I'm sure it would be better for the rooms to be occupied than to be empty and cold. I actually think Tyburn would approve - he really does like you, A. J. - and I'm quite certain he believes it is time the rooms which used to be mine were . . ."
Finally Charleston fell silent and looked at Raffles. "Well, what do you think?"
"That you and Oliver wasted far too much time thinking and talking when you could have been doing other things," Raffles said lightly, his eyes twinkling.
"A. J.!" Charleston exclaimed, but even as he spoke he was beginning to laugh, as was Ollie (who I confess had coloured slightly) and me. "Seriously though?" he said more quietly, when we finally stopped laughing.
"Seriously though, Charlie, are you and Urquhart quite sure?"
"Yes, Raffles, we are." Ollie answered swiftly, even before Charleston had a chance to open his mouth. Ollie then looked at me. "We really have enjoyed having you both staying with us, Harry. And it does seem to make perfect sense. We would all be together but also separate."
I actually really liked the idea; I liked it very much. As much as I loved the Albany, and it would always be a special place for me given it was where Raffles and I became reacquainted; I had spent many happy hours there. However, with us officially ceasing to be cracksmen, it was in many ways a new part of our lives, and maybe it was time to start that new life somewhere other than the Albany.
"I see my rabbit rather likes the idea," Raffle said quietly, and I realised he had been studying me as I had been thinking.
I stared at him. However, I could not read his expression so I didn't really know what he thought. I believed he had no major objections; however, I couldn't be certain. As I held his gaze I gathered up all the courage he had, over the years, told me I possessed and dared to answer him honestly, before I knew for certain his thoughts. "Actually, Raffles. I do," I said. "However, I know -"
"You need time to talk about it."
Raffles smiled. "We do, Charlie, and not least because we had to agree to a much longer than usual lease when we took over the set of rooms we currently occupy. There are very few sets of rooms with two bedrooms and they are in high demand."
"How long was the lease?"
"Eighteen months; which means the rooms are ours until September of this year."
"Which allows plenty of time for you and Harry to talk and think and decide what you wish to do; then if it is the decision Oliver and I hope it will be, we will have time to have the work done here. And then -" Charleston fell silent. "I'm sorry," he said, touching Raffles's hand. "I'm getting a little ahead of myself, am I not?"
Raffles smiled and for a moment he and Charleston stared at one another and I believe they had one of their silent conversations. I turned to Ollie and smiled and he smiled back at me; the slight uncertainty I had seen on his face when we had first arrived on New Year's Eve had gone and he seemed quite happy - indeed he seemed considerably more than happy.
Raffles looked away from Charleston and turned to me. "Well, my rabbit, how would you like to stay here for another day or two?"
"I would like that very much indeed, Raffles!"
Raffles, Charleston and Ollie all smiled.
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