first sight

But friendship at first sight? This also
Catches fiercely at the surprised heart
So that the cheek blanches and then blushes.
- Robert Graves, ‘First Sight’


* * *

He certainly wasn’t listening outside the door. That would have been the action of a sneak, and while Harry Manders had been called a lot of things since he had started here at the beginning of term, he was determined that ‘sneak’ was never going to be one of them. He had seen the line of warm light from the open fire and the gas lamps under the door – the draught always blew in fierce and freezing, and when Harry was in the study he always made sure to stuff sheets of old newspaper into the gap, but Raffles never bothered, and teased him for the old-maidish habit – and had smelled the scent of slightly burned crumpets and hot butter, and heard the ring of laughter, and paused with his hand about to knock.

He recognised the voices easily enough – Raffles, low and amused and distinguished, and Tomlinson, the star bat of the First XI, who had taken a half-century against Marlborough last year and was up for the Prize exam too; and the warm Scots burr must be Lethbridge, which meant the fourth was surely Asher, both of them tall and fair and dextrous.

He’d been intending to go in and ask Raffles if he had any jobs he wanted doing – any tuck bought, any letters posted, any papers to be tidied, any verse comp. to be done.

(It wasn’t just in the hope that he could spend a little time with his idol. Not just so he could sit on the hearthrug, polishing his shoes until they shone like mirrors, and sometimes steal glances at him as he worked at the desk, with the firelight catching his dark curls and the line of his profile, until he seemed like one of the distant mediaeval knights in the pictures which adorned the walls – and then look away, hastily, before Raffles could catch him. It was all a world away from the scuffling and the rags in the Lower School common room. It couldn’t be because of that, because Raffles was the idol of practically everyone else in the lower forms too, and if they all took it into their heads to go and pay calls on him, he’d never be able to get into his study for all the junior boys in there.

(Sometimes he wondered why Raffles had picked him to be his fag. Everyone in his year wanted to spend time with the great A.J., even if it could only be by dusting his study and fetching his bread and milk at teatime. But for some reason, he’d chosen little Harry Manders, silly Harry Manders, Harry Manders who couldn’t throw or catch or run or add or conjugate Latin verbs, who probably shouldn’t have got into the school at all, except that his uncle was on the board of governors.

(He knew it was quite impossible for Raffles to want to spend time with him, because he was young, and small for his age, and pale, and weak, and couldn’t catch for toffee. So he polished Raffles’ bat, and dusted his pictures, and stole shy glances at him in the firelight.)

He couldn’t very well go in when Tomlinson and Lethbridge and Asher were there, though. And that’s why he was hesitating outside the door – about to creep away, certainly not listening at keyholes. Which made it doubly awkward when the door opened suddenly and he was brought nose to waistcoat with one of the older boys.

“Gracious, what have we got here?” said Tomlinson, falling back a pace and catching Harry by the scruff of his neck when it looked like he might be considering making a bolt for it. He hauled him bodily over the threshold. “You seem to have an eavesdropper, A.J.”

“Oh, do let him go, Tommy,” Raffles said in his dry, amused voice. “If you were fishing you’d throw a tiddler back, wouldn’t you?”

“The new bugs seem to get smaller every year,” said Asher, with gloomy relish. “I must be getting old.”

Raffles turned his bright blue eyes on the younger boy, and spoke to him almost gently. “Did you want anything, Manders?”

“I just wanted to ask if – if you wanted me for anything,” said Harry, in a voice that shook ever so slightly, even though he was trying so hard to sound steady and grown-up. And he hated that it was so high-pitched compared with the sixth-formers.

“His name’s not Manders, is it?” said Tomlinson in mock confusion, letting go of Harry’s neck and dropping into an armchair.

“I’m sure I’ve heard him being called something else,” said Asher, returning his friend’s grin.

“What is it the other boys call you, Manders?” asked Tomlinson, steepling his hands and looking at the younger boy over the top of them, eyes sparkling.

“Bunny,” said Harry, very quietly.

“Of course!” said Tomlinson, with a whoop of laughter. “Because you went over like a shot rabbit in your first rugger practice – “

“ – and because every time the ball comes near you, you run as hard as you can in the other direction – “

Harry felt his cheeks flaming, but he kept his chin as high as he could. He could feel his eyes stealing beseechingly over to Raffles, but Raffles was absorbed in scribbling out algebra at his desk, and didn’t notice him in the slightest. When he spoke, his voice was preoccupied, uncaring.

“All right, you chaps. Leave the poor kid alone. He may not be able to throw or catch or run for toffee, but at least he can keep a pair of shoes decently polished, which is more than you’ve ever managed, Ash.”

Asher grinned, and chucked a cushion at his captain, who ducked it without looking. “You’d better improve that Yorker by the start of Trinity, or you’ll be off the team,” he said. Then he glanced up, and Harry caught his breath as he was pinned by those searching eyes. “Thanks for looking in, Manders, but I won’t need you again this evening.”

There was a faint weight in the last two words, imperceptible to anyone but the two of them, but it made his heard speed up in the knowledge of their shared secret. Those trips into town after light’s out, Bunny’s night-time vigils by the window, with the coil of rope hidden under his sheets and his ears burning from straining after the sound of approaching masters. That was something Raffles didn’t share with Tomlinson, or Asher, or Lethbridge, or any other of the strong, handsome boys on the cricket team. That was a secret between the two of them alone, and Harry gloated over it like a miser over his hoard.

He flushed a little again, but with pleasure this time, and nodded. “Right. Good night, Raffles.”

And he could have gone away happy – gone away in blissful anticipation to rush through his prep before their meeting that night – if he hadn’t paused outside Raffles’ door for a second time, and heard Lethbridge say in his kindly Scots way, “You shouldn’t encourage him, you know. It’s not fair.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on, A.J.,” drawled Tomlinson. “The kid has a frightful pash on you, you must have noticed.”

Harry put his fingers in his ears, and ran.

* * *

“I say, Manders, are you all right?”

Raffles paused and looked closely at him while checking the knot which tied the rope to the leg of Harry’s bed, the one nearest the window. The moonlight was so bright they didn’t need the candle Harry had ready – ‘Which is good for my shins and my spats, as I shan’t run the risk of stumbling over one of those ghastly urns again on the terrace, but possibly bad for my chances of escaping the attention of old Nab. Still, one can’t have it every way…’ – and it set Raffles’ pale skin and black hair into a pattern of perfect contrasts.

“I’m fine,” Harry whispered, and glanced around the dorm, full of sleeping boys, and out into the moonlit quad. “Look, Raffles, it really isn’t safe just to leave the rope hanging like that, you really ought to go – “

Raffles laughed soundlessly. “All right, you timid rabbit, I’m going.” He stepped up onto the window-sill, and slipped out through the narrow window, lithe as an eel. Then he paused again, silhouetted against the moonlight. “Listen, Manders,” he whispered, a shade awkwardly. “I know I’m not your house-master, and you don’t have to tell me anything. All the same – I know you were standing outside my door this evening. I could see the way your feet cut off the light coming from the corridor – “

“I wasn’t eavesdropping!” Harry protested hotly, before clapping his hand over his mouth as one of the other boys shifted in his sleep.

“I know you weren’t, fat-head,” Raffles replied. “But still – if you heard what Tommy was saying – “

“It’s not true,” Harry breathed, feeling his heart skip. This was why he had been lying in the dark, still and quiet, while his stomach churned and his eyes prickled, and sleep wouldn’t have come even if he’d wanted it. “Honestly, Raffles, it’s not – “

“Look, I wouldn’t care either way – “ said Raffles carelessly.

“I don’t!” Harry hissed.

Raffles paused. “All right. I just wanted to apologise. It’s jolly bad form to pass remarks about a fellow behind his back, and I told Lethbridge and Tommy as much. That’s all.”

He had dropped out of sight before ever Harry had begun to understand what he had said, shinning down the rope like a monkey. Harry leaned out of the window in time to see him flit away across the corner of the moonlit courtyard, and vanish into the deep shadows near the gate.

It was definitely the cold night air making his eyes water. He was certain of it.

He pulled the hanging rope up, untied it from the leg of his heavy iron bedstead, pulled the window closed, and crawled into bed. He stowed the coil of rope under his pillow, keeping his hand clenched around it.

He had recited in his head the whole of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, ‘Daffodils’, ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’, as much of the ‘Ancient Mariner’ as he could remember (which wasn’t much) and counted perhaps five-hundred breaths before he heard the treacherous creak of the floorboards in the corridor outside. For a moment his eyes went very wide, and then as the door began to open he squeezed them shut, leaving the merest slit to peer through, past a thick fringe of lashes. The gleam of a candle entered first, followed by a tall, gaunt figure with a thick black beard. He walked stealthily over to Raffles’ bed, and turned back the unoccupied sheets with what looked very much like a grim smile. Then he padded over towards Harry’s bed.

His heart was pounding so hard he felt certain Nab would be able to hear it, the night was so still. He could feel the hard loops of rope pressing against his cheek from beneath the pillow.

Nab stopped at the window, and raised his hand to the fastening, giving a little grunt of satisfaction when he found the catch undone. Then he pushed it open and looked out, into the moonlight.

Harry’s mind was racing. Any minute now Raffles might come back. Even if by some miracle Nab didn’t see him approaching, he could hardly fail to hear their prearranged signal, and it would let him know that there was an accomplice in the room. There would be a search, the rope would be found, Raffles would be caught, and then rustication for him, and oh! For poor Raffles – expulsion in ignominy, at the height of his powers and popularity, and with any chance of going up to the ‘Varsity dashed. He would never play at Lords – maybe never play cricket again –

If Raffles had been there, he would have known what to do. But he was out there in the town, alone, and never guessing what danger he was strolling into –

Harry waited until Nab had taken a seat and blown out his candle – reflecting bitterly on what a rotten trick it was, to a lay a trap for someone and then sit there in the dark like a spider in its web, waiting for the trap to be sprung – before reaching, as slowly and silently as possible, for the note-paper and pencil that lay on his bedside table, a relic from his weekly letters home. He smuggled them under his sheets, and then, trying desperately not to let the paper crumple noisily, wrote on it the two words ‘NAB HERE.’

The most nerve-wracking part was when he had to screw the paper up into a moderate-sized ball, so it would fly decently, and he had never in his life been as grateful for anything as he was for Fotheringay Minor’s snores at that moment. He peeped out from under the blankets to check Nab wasn’t looking at him, and then chucked the pencil hard into the far corner of the room.

Nab’s head snapped round like a hound catching a scent, and the moment he turned his attention from the window, Harry lobbed the ball of paper out through the open casement. It was perhaps the best ball he had ever bowled.

He didn’t know if it would land somewhere in the moonlight or in the shadows, didn’t know if Raffles would be on the look-out for anything wrong. But he couldn’t think of anything else to do, except lie in the half-darkness, shaking with suppressed nerves, and waiting for the axe to fall.

When the fire-bell began to toll, he nearly jumped out of his skin.

The other boys fell out of bed one by one, grumbling and giggling, while Nab stood up with a frown like thunder.

“All right, boys, go down to the hall while I check the dorms,” he shouted. “In silence if you please, Richards!”

The boys filed out, still whispering and laughing. Harry grabbed his dressing-gown from the foot of the bed, throwing its navy-blue folds over the coil of rope and gathering them both up in his arms as he scuttled from the room. A momentary flash of inspiration made him pause and pick up Raffles’ own pale-blue gown, draping it over his arm in a vain attempt to stop it tangling his legs and tripping him up.

The bell, which hung in a belltower attached to the side of the House and was rung from the outside, could only have been sounded by Raffles, seizing the moment with that instinctive, cool daring which was so much the hallmark of his performance on the cricket pitch. It had been the perfect way to create confusion, and to distract Nab with the great milling crowd of boys making their way down through the house. But that didn’t solve the problem of how on earth Raffles was to get back inside the locked and bolted house. There were perhaps three minutes’ grace before they would both be missed, and the game would be up.

Where would Raffles be waiting to enter? Where?

Then there flashed through his mind an odd, cast-away remark of Raffles’, while Harry was carrying his books over to the prefects’ common room in the oldest part of the House. As they had passed the display case of the House’s silver and trophies, Raffles had said, in an off-hand tone, “They really should replace these old window catches. It wouldn’t take any burglar worth his salt ten minutes to break in here and make off with the silver. Why, I’ve got a good mind to try it myself one day, just to give them a fright.”

Harry was running before the scene had finished playing out in his mind. By the time he reached it, out of breath and panting, the passage was empty of other boys, and he flung the window open with violent haste.

“Manders! Is that you?”

“Raffles!”

“I’m stuck out here! Get that rope and let it down to me, quick!”

He was already tying the rope to the central stone mullion, testing the knot with feverish haste. “Here it goes!” he called out, letting the end drop.

“Sterling work!” Raffles called up, and Harry saw the rope strain as it took the weight.

“I say, it’s frightfully narrow at the top here!” Harry hissed in consternation.

“Good thing – I’m fairly narrow – myself, then!” he heard Raffles grunt. The moment the pale, elegant hand appeared over the ledge of ancient stone, Harry grabbed it with both of his own, and heaved with all his strength.

Raffles came through the window with scrambling haste, landing in a heap on the floor with Manders half underneath him. “By Jove, that was close,” he panted. “I believe I’ve skinned both elbows.” He got to his feet, brushing down his trousers, before untying the rope.

Harry scrambled up. “Raffles, we have to hurry! The fire bell went at least three minutes ago, they’ll notice we’re not in hall!”

“Do calm down, old chap,” Raffles said, imperturbably. “It takes them a good five minutes to round up all the stragglers from Back Dorm, we’ve got plenty of time.”

“Raffles, please - “

“The bigger problem is what to do about my togs,” Raffles went on, stripping off his uncharacteristically loud checked jacket and stroking the creases out. “This isn’t exactly standard school uniform.”

“I brought your dressing-gown,” said Harry, handing it over.

Raffles’ face lit with a wonderful slow grin. “You cunning little beggar.”

Harry flushed, and dipped his head.

“But we ought to cut along if we’re not going to be missed,” said Raffles, pulling his gown on over his outside clothes. His shoes, socks, jacket and the neatly coiled rope were all secreted away in a nearby cupboard, full of groundsmen’s equipment and wet-weather gear, and they both slipped down to the hall and took their places just as the last of the stragglers arrived.

Harry thought that Raffles shouted his ‘adsum!’ in response to his name with unnecessary gusto, which made him wince, especially when Nab fixed Raffles with his cold, suspicious eyes.

“You weren’t in your dorm just before the alarm sounded,” he commented.

“I had to use the facilities, sir,” Raffles replied, lightly. Harry could feel the sweat prickling on the palms of his hands, but even he couldn’t see any sign of nerves in Raffles’ steady gaze.

“You took a long time.”

“I’m sorry, sir, did I keep you waiting?” said Raffles, voice dripping with sincere regret.

There were a few sniggers from others in the hall.

“The window of your dorm was unfastened.”

“Yes, sir. We’ve often had difficulties with the catch in this cold weather. Perhaps you could mention it to the handyman?”

For a moment, Harry thought he could detect the merest hint of a sparkle in the master’s dark eyes.

“No sign of any fire, sir,” said one of the junior masters, entering the hall. “And no sign of anyone around the building.”

“Was the door still bolted when you went out?”

“Yes, sir.”

Nab sighed. “Then it must have been one of the boys from the other houses playing a prank. I shall speak to the other house masters in the morning.” He raised his voice. “All right, boys, straight back to your dorms and to bed. I will be coming round in half an hour to check you are all asleep.”

“By God, Bunny, I’ve been through one tight squeeze this evening, but I’m not at all sure that one wasn’t worse!” Raffles murmured, as they made their way out of the hall and towards the stairs. “Old Nab has an eye that could crack a nut at ten paces. If he’d noticed that my dressing-gown was still at the end of my bed when you all left the room, the game would have been up. I rather fancied that he’d spied me as I left, but I convinced myself I had imagined it. More fool me.”

“But Raffles, weren’t you taking a frightful risk in ringing the bell?” breathed Bunny. “Why didn’t you just climb in through another window?”

“What, and then walk into our dorm with my civvies and my outdoor boots on, and expect Nab to believe that I always got togged up to visit the lavatory at midnight? No, there was nothing for it but to try to get him out of that room by hook or by crook, and that meant the bell.”

“But how on earth did you think you were going to get in, with the whole place in uproar? What did you think you were going to wear?”

Raffles turned to him, with one of his wonderful smiles. “I only thought that I knew my rabbit. And I was right.”

Bunny was positive that his fiery blush must have been visible even in the faint candlelight in the darkened corridor.

“You don’t mind if I call you that, do you?” asked Raffles as he walked on. “I know it’s not perhaps the most flattering of nicknames, but – well, it rather seems to have stuck now.”

“I don’t mind you calling me it at all,” said Bunny, gruffly.

“Capital. Now, I must just go and collect the odds and ends from that cupboard, and we shall be home free at last.”

“But – Raffles, can’t you leave them until tomorrow? We’ve pushed our luck enough this evening – “

“Leave them for the first Tom, Dick or Nabby who pokes their nose in there to find? I think not. You’re welcome to push off back to the dorm if you like, but I want to close play first.”

“I – I shall come with you, of course,” said Bunny, stoutly, as they passed the flight of stairs which led to their room, and along the older oak-panelled corridor. Bunny lit the stub of candle from his pocket with a match provided by Raffles, though it didn’t serve to banish the gloom as much as accent it.

“That was pretty smart work with the paper,” said Raffles, pushing open the cupboard door and peering in. “I take it Nab was hovering over the window like an old vulture?”

“He was,” said Bunny, walking in after Raffles and pulling the door to, in case any prowling masters should walk that way. “I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I was terrified you were going to call up any moment, and then the game really would have been up.”

“I jolly nearly did,” replied Raffles, as he picked up the rope and his shoes and socks. “I had my hand to my mouth all ready to call when your little missile all but fell on my head. We must think up a better system than my just shouting for you to lower the rope – perhaps setting a definite time for it. That way if anything happens, the very fact that the rope isn’t lowered will be enough to warn me that something’s up.”

Bunny wrinkled his nose as Raffles retrieved and lovingly brushed off his jacket. “Raffles, why on earth do you insist on wearing that horrible thing?”

“Don’t you like it? I think it’s rather distinguished. Still, you must admit, it’s so far away from our usual clothes that it serves as a perfect disguise.”

“I suppose so – “

“I’m thinking of taking the thing a step further next time – “

“Next time? Oh now Raffles, really - “

“Why on earth not, Bunny? I’ll just have to be more careful when walking under old Nab’s window, that’s all. But yes, I’ve been thinking about the possibilities of a false beard. No one would imagine that a gentleman with a full ginger beard was actually – “ He broke off, abruptly, and stood silent and poised, until another heavy footfall broke the stillness. “Out with that candle, Bunny!” he hissed. “I’d know the Nipper’s fairy footsteps anywhere!”

They stood still for a long minute in what seemed pitch-blackness, listening, straining their ears. The Head Boy, Nipper Nasmyth, had made few friends by his zeal for the upholding of school rules and regulations, and would hardly be likely to let them go with a warning – especially if they were found with the incriminating rope and clothing.

“He’s coming this way!” Bunny whispered.

“He’s checking every door on the corridor, blast him,” Raffles murmured. “Into the back corner, Bunny, and quick about it. He’ll only have a candle, and I very much doubt he’ll go poking around, so we must make things as difficult for him as possible.”

“But Raffles – your dressing-gown! He can’t fail to see that!”

“I know that, you idiot!” hissed Raffles, grabbing Bunny by the wrist and pulling him into the corner furthest from the door. The darkness was stygian, with just a hint of illumination showing the line of the door, and Bunny was seized with terror that they would upset one of the piles of paint-tins or yard-rules and set the whole place in uproar. But Raffles seemed to have the night-eyes of an owl, and they met no obstacles.

Bunny could just make out Raffles’ pale outline as he pressed himself into the corner. “Put this on,” he whispered, grabbing a battered felt hat from a shelf and handing it to Bunny. “It’ll hide those goldielocks of yours. Now get in front of me.”

“But Raffles - “

“Be quiet, Bunny! And do your best impression of a coat, or we’re both sunk!”

He felt Raffles arms about his waist, under the dark stuff of his dressing-gown and next to the striped-cotton pyjamas. They pulled him in closer as Raffles crouched down a little, so he was wholly concealed by the screen of Bunny’s slighter form, and his face, next to Bunny’s own, was masked by the broad brim of the hat.

“Remember, Bunny,” whispered Raffles, so close against Bunny’s ear that he could feel the hot breath ghosting over it, as the footsteps drew closer. “Victory, or Wormwood Scrubs!”

Bunny held his breath as the door opened. To his eyes, half accustomed now to groping around in the absolute darkness, the hint of candlelight seemed horrifyingly bright, and he couldn’t imagine how Nasmyth could possibly miss them. If it hadn’t been for Raffles’ arms, heavy and warm about his waist, and the smell of soap and expensive tobacco that wrapped around him like perfume, he felt sure that his nerve would have snapped.

Very, very faintly, he could make out the gleam of Raffles’ eyes in the darkness. Slowly, Raffles winked.

The door closed.

Bunny counted to ten before opening his mouth. But Raffles must have sensed the movement in the air somehow, for he extricated one hand from the folds of Bunny’s dressing-gown and covered his mouth.

They stood there without moving a muscle for a full count of sixty, before Raffles let out his breath in a deep sigh and moved his hand.

“That,” he breathed, “was as near a squeak as I ever wish to have in my life. Well, Bunny my lad – “

Bunny screwed up all the courage he possessed, and some he’d rather thought he didn’t, and leaned up to blindly press a rather awkward, off-centre kiss on Raffles’ mouth.

There was a moment of silence which would have made Bunny want to run away and hide, if it hadn’t been for Raffles’ arm around him, warm through the thin cotton.

“I thought you said you didn’t,” said Raffles, eventually.

Bunny remembered their conversation earlier that evening, and what Tomlinson had said, and blushed in the darkness. “Um…sorry. I think I probably do.”

Raffles laughed, very softly. “Plucky little devil.”

Bunny felt Raffles’ breath against his lips first, so it wasn’t entirely a surprise when Raffles rewarded him with a rather more central, rather more successful kiss.

The little cupboard was pitch dark, and smelled faintly of turpentine and galoshes. At some point, Bunny’s felt hat fell off, though he didn’t really notice.

“I knew you’d have all the pluck and all the brain and all the nerve you needed, if it ever came to the pinch,” Raffles murmured. “I rather think you’ll make an excellent partner in crime.”

Bunny hardly heard him.