Jack was still not quite sure how Darling had managed to swing them a shared staircase with no one else on it for their final year. "Interlopers, my dear Jonathan," Darling had said, "are not to be borne in this, our collegiate idyll."
He'd also got hold of the keys to the whole staircase. Jack did know how he'd done that, because he'd been recruited to distract a porter while Darling demonstrated alarming skill as a catburglar.
The whole thing was so impressive that for weeks afterward Jack forewent his usual complaint that his name was not Jonathan but John. He had been pointing this out since their schooldays, but as Darling only ever looked mild and remarked on the ennui associated with monosyllables, Jack was coming around to giving it up as a bad job. It was jolly nice, as it happened, not to be bothered with other chaps for the year. Jack was a good-natured sort who got on well enough with his fellow men, but Darling wasn't: last year there'd been more than one dashed awkward moment when some silly cove they knew looked to Jack for support against Darling's airy mockery and Jack had been torn between not wishing to be unkind and the fact that Darling was funnier than anyone else he knew, and almost always right.
Besides, it wasn't as if they'd ever have another year like this. Before long they'd be done with Cambridge, and then—well, but there was no use thinking about it. Jack wasn't the kind of chap who wasted time worrying about things he couldn't change.
For now they held their staircase as their common castle. There were no interlopers, as Darling would say, and Jack never bothered to lock his rooms. Darling sauntered in and out whenever he pleased, and sometimes Jack would get up early for rowing—it was his second sport, not a patch on his beloved cricket, but Jack wouldn't have dreamed of letting down the other chaps in the third boat—and find Darling, stripe-jacketed and bemonocled, lounging on the floor of Jack’s sitting room sipping Turkish coffee with an insouciant air, for all the world as if he hadn't just been up all night wrestling with law books. Jack's floor was Darling's favourite lounging spot because his own sitting room floor was covered in books, papers, discarded smoking jackets, and a rather good collection of potted cacti.
Jack felt privileged to be the man who was allowed to know that Darling occasionally wrestled with things, that his airy unconcern with the opinions of lesser men did not mean he was airily unconcerned about everything, and furthermore that there was a beating heart of ambition somewhere underneath all those heaps of affectations. He was stolidly confident in his belief that Darling was the cleverest chap he'd ever met, and probably one of those fellows who goes on to Great Things. He knew he himself was not the Great Things type, except insofar as a cricket blue can be called Great, but he had no doubts about Darling's marvellous destiny.
Darling was in fact so tremendously remarkable by nature that Jack had resolved never to be astonished by anything he did. One had to expect remarkable sorts to be a law unto themselves, and besides half the fun of being Darling's friend lay in trying to keep a straight face. Nothing inspired Darling to greater heights of nonsense than the prospect of cracking Jack's composure. It was good fun and suited them both jolly well.
This comfortable habit was thrown rather out of joint on the evening when Jack came into his rooms to find Darling perched on Jack's much-neglected desk and assiduously applying deep scarlet lipstick to his mouth with the assistance of a small silver-backed hand mirror.
"Oh, I say," said Jack.
"My dear Jonathan," said Darling. "You are a generous gift of Fortune. Fate smiles upon the house of Darling today. Would you be so kind as to hold this mirror for me? No, my dear, at this angle. Thank you. The art of maquillage when practised by amateurs should be done with care and attention and, sometimes, both hands."
He pulled out a small brush and a small bottle of dark gunk and began to apply it with ostentatious carefulness to his eyelashes. Jack had no choice but to hold the mirror and stay still. He couldn’t help noticing that Darling’s red lips were parted. The black gunk made his lashes look even longer, but they had in fact already been quite remarkably long. Jack hardly knew where to look.
"Hmm," said Darling, when he was done. He turned his face to one side and then the other, considering the mirror. "A not unsatisfactory effect, wouldn’t you agree?"
"Er," said Jack.
Darling grinned at him. It was not that the makeup made him look girlish. He had a profoundly ungirlish face, all angles and lines, a permanent crease on one side of his high forehead from peering through the monocle he had started to wear while they were still at Harrow. The mouth he had adorned with scarlet paint was both wide and narrow-lipped, and his jaw was decidedly strong. Jack was experiencing some internal upheaval about the whole thing. "Not at all, old thing," he said. "Quite satisfactory."
Darling quirked an eyebrow and gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. "I shall, of course, require a wig," he said. "There is no getting around it. The spirit revolts, but to be poorly turned out will not do."
"Er—poorly turned out for what?" said Jack.
"Oh, did I not say? Forgive me, Jonathan. I grow forgetful in my old age. There goes Darling, they will say, once famed for his acuity: a tragic loss to the ravages of time. It is my intention to attend a ball."
Then, as if struck by a charming impulse, he added, "Would you care to escort me?"
Jack spluttered. "I mean—do I—"
Darling considered him. "No," he said. "No, it would not do, I am sorry to say. Your manly visage would not be improved by paint an inch thick; your noble physique is most naturally suited to a conservative, I do not say petit-borgeouis, sensibility. Wear your good suit, though." As if the matter was settled, he added, "I'll loan you one of my ties, I don't think you have a single one I can approve."
"You gave me all my ties," said Jack, rather stung. He'd worn them with pleasure, knowing Darling liked them.
"I don't know what I was thinking," said Darling. "I was young, a fool, a creature with no taste. You are right to criticise me and I beg your forgiveness. I will buy you some more, and in the meantime you had still better wear one of mine."
So it was that Jack and Darling took the London train, each carrying a sombre suit bag, in which Jack had his best dinner suit and a peach-coloured tie Darling had assured him brought out his eyes, and Darling had—God alone knew what. Jack had eyed his neat little bag of toiletries earlier with some trepidation. The lipstick was in there, he supposed. Darling had wiped it off without a second thought once the question of whether Jack was coming to this ball was settled. He still didn't know whose ball it was or what it was supposed to be for. "Who's throwing this shindig anyway?" he asked in his abrupt way as the train passed Potters Bar. "And where?"
"Some friends," Darling said lightly. "At the Cinderella Club, in Soho."
"Never heard of it," said Jack.
"No, you wouldn't have."
Jack was aware that his subsequent quietness might be interpreted as sulking. He was not, of course, sulking, because that was a rotten childish thing to do. He was just... thinking. Deep in thought. He hoped Darling would notice, and ask him about it, but Darling did no such thing, so Jack was left quite unable to say anything like, I didn't know you had other friends.
He had always been rather proud of it: that he'd noticed Darling for what a jolly good fellow he was, when the other boys at school had been beastly to him for years. They had only changed their tune when it turned out Darling was a wickedly good left-handed bowler, a fact he had kept to himself until the day Jack had nearly wept with frustration over the likely outcome of the upcoming Eton match after the 'flu had knocked out their best man.
It wasn't that Jack objected to Darling having other friends, of course. He just rather thought he ought to have known about them. He was sure there wasn't a thing about him Darling didn't know.
But that was sulking, and when Jack realised he was being a fool about it he stopped.
Darling had procured them a pleasant hotel room in Bloomsbury. The minute Jack put their bags down—he had somehow ended up carrying both—he disappeared into the bathroom with several mysterious bundles. The lock clicked and electric light flicked on under the door. "I say," protested Jack.
"We have only a matter of hours, Jonathan," Darling called through the door. "ars is not brevis."
"It's John," cried Jack, by way of objection.
"I can't hear you!" carolled Darling sweetly, and it was plain nothing further was going to be achieved by jawing about it.
Jack took his suit out and hung it up, but he didn't want to be sitting around in it for hours, as he knew from experience that only resulted in tiresome crumples and Darling putting on a disappointed air. He was left with nothing to do but sit on one of the beds—it was a pleasant hotel room, but not a big one, so there was nowhere else really to sit—and think about Darling in the bathroom putting on that lipstick. For heaven's sake. What on earth kind of ball was this? Some sort of theatrical business, Jack supposed darkly. He had never suspected Darling of theatricals before, but it made a certain amount of dreadful sense. Surely only a man with an overdeveloped sense of theatre wore a monocle.
It was a long two hours before Darling reappeared. Jack had stretched out to doze, and also eaten several biscuits which he had discovered on the bedside cabinet, and his equilibrium was much restored. He was in fact still half asleep, so that when the vision in white appeared over him he presumed himself to be dreaming until it said disapprovingly, "My dear Jonathan, you are distinctly underdressed for the occasion."
Jack sat up. He felt a certain amount of dropping in progress in the jaw area.
He'd supposed Darling was going to be wearing girl's togs. Really, what else could a fellow assume, when he found his best friend practising putting on lipstick? He'd also supposed the thing would be mildly ridiculous. After all (he told himself) the lipstick had been ridiculous; and Darling, though it felt disloyal to think it, quite often was ridiculous. It wasn't as if he would make a pretty girl. Jack was no connoisseur of young ladies, but he felt he had a reasonable if well-mannered eye, and he could identify a pretty girl quite easily with a mere glance. Prettiness called for a sort of sweet-faced freshness which Darling undeniably lacked. Pretty girls were also seldom as tall as Darling, or possessed of such solidly and surprisingly muscular arms.
The creature in the hotel room who must, by process of elimination, be Mr Rupert Darling, was by no means pretty. It was rapidly occurring to Jack that another thing which pretty girls all had in common was that his reasonable eye seldom found them all that interesting and had no difficulty remaining well-mannered.
His eyes, with all manners forgotten, were inexorably dragged over Darling from the bottom to the top. The shoes were white; the stockings, Jack suspected, were nylons. The dress—Jack was no expert on dresses. All he could really say about it was that there was certainly a lot of fringe, and that it had an inexpressible air of slink even when Darling was standing still. There was a shawl of frivolous peach-coloured gauze about Darling's shoulders. His mouth was deep red, his eyes huge and dark, his lashes extraordinary. The wig Jack barely perceived at first; it was the same dark colour as Darling's own hair, and cut in the daring modern fashion of the bob, swinging about Darling's pearl-adorned ears and leaving his white nape bare.
"Gosh," said Jack.
Darling only raised an eyebrow and tilted his head in the direction of Jack's suit.
Jack put on his suit. He tied his borrowed peach-coloured tie. Darling solicitously untied and retied it for him. "Much better," he said. "Shall we?"
"Well," said Jack, to whom suddenly the prospect of the hotel lobby and a London taxi appeared a frightful ordeal. Surely anyone who looked at Darling would know. And then—well, if any fellow said anything out of order Jack would knock him down, no two ways about it, but the fact was—
"O ye of little faith," said Darling. "I assure you, my dear Jonathan, your own decidedly masculine presence provides all the contrast necessary to complete the picture. Have I ever been wrong?"
He said this almost earnestly. Jack was forced to admit he could not think of any such incident.
"Trust me," said Darling.
"But—dash it all, Darling, what do I call you?"
"Darling," said Darling, mildly surprised at Jack’s fit of absurdity. "Comrade Darling, if you must."
"I wouldn’t escort a girl round London calling her Comrade in front of taxi drivers at any price," said Jack indignantly.
"If you call me Miss Darling," said Darling primly, "I shall have no choice but to assault you with my handbag."
Infuriatingly Darling proved to have been quite right. It was not that no one looked at him twice as he strolled along with his fingers resting lightly on Jack's arm and the potentially threatening handbag dangling from his other hand. Many people did look, twice or three times, and Jack bristled at first; and then he realised the looks were admiring, and bristled more. It was one thing for Jack to think that actually as a girl Darling was rather a dish; that if he'd had a suitably Darlingish sister who was inclined to high hemlines and red lipstick, she would quickly have Jack's full attention. But some of the coves who gave Darling that long once-over looked like rummy sorts. Jack didn't like it.
Thankfully they quickly arrived at the Cinderella Club. It wasn't much to look at: a dark narrow door led to a shallow flight of stairs, and the sound of music floated up from below. There was nothing else to be seen over the shoulder of the extremely large and unfriendly fellow on the door, who took one look at Jack and squared up like he was preparing to cart him off and throw him in the Thames.
"I beg you, Comrade Charles," said Darling, "be at your ease. My dear Jonathan's lithe physique is by no means suited to the welcome you propose, and furthermore he is wearing one of my ties."
"Darling!" said the large unfriendly fellow, lightening up considerably. "Give us a twirl, love, you look a treat."
"I shall not," said Darling calmly. "Come along, Jonathan. Do not let Comrade Charles discommode you. His oafish demeanour is a sad necessity, but I believe his true character to be as the gentle giant."
"Clever little thing, isn't he?" said Comrade Charles to Jack. To a man of his size perhaps everyone was a little thing: it was not a phrase that it had ever occurred to Jack to apply to Darling's six foot one before. "You have a nice evening now, gents."
"Oh, we shall, we shall, Comrade Charles," said Darling, and swept Jack along into the club.
At the foot of the staircase a hall opened up, a chandelier glittered, and underneath it men and women danced. So far it was a ball. But Jack stood transfixed: men danced with men, and women with women, and some individuals about whom he could not be sure danced with both. A couple swept past in lively enthusiasm who looked almost normal: a tall unhandsome gangling fellow, and a pretty girl of the fresh-faced golden-haired variety. It was only as they twirled away that Jack had to lean down to Darling and whisper urgently, "I say, wasn't that a boy?"
Darling frowned at him. "Good manners, my dear Jonathan, come about through the correct interpretation of social subtleties. Assuredly it was not a boy."
"If she wished to be regarded quasi puer," said Darling, almost patiently, "she would have dressed the part."
"Oh," said Jack. He had to think about this for a moment or two. Darling regarded him rather as one would regard a placid animal companion which may or may not consent to learn a new trick. Jack did not consider himself that much of an old dog, but this was rather a lot to swallow at once, and Darling was being less helpful than usual.
"Well, in that case," Jack said at last. He took a deep breath and offered Darling his arm again. "Miss Darling," he said politely, "may I get you a drink?"
Darling's eyes narrowed. "I thought I made myself quite clear," he said, "on the subject of Miss."
"You said you'd biff me with your handbag," Jack said, "and I'll take it like a man if I have to, but the fact of the matter is, if I'm escorting a girl to a ball, I'm dashed well calling her Miss and fetching her drinks, and you can like it or lump it."
"I believe I saw an individual bearing off a tray of cocktails in that direction," said Darling after a moment. "Perhaps you might apply your gentlemanly enthusiasm to the chase."
"I believe I shall," said Jack.
He never found the cocktail waiter, but there was a bar. While Jack was waiting, a little chap with a rather loud tie leaned against it next to him and said, "Mine’s a double, old thing."
Under normal circumstances Jack would have regarded this as ordinary friendliness, but the Cinderella Club plainly had its own rules, so he gave the man a nervous second glance and then coughed. "Of course," he said, not wishing to be rude, and gave the barman the nod. "But I’m afraid I’m here with company, so I won’t be much bally good to you if you’re looking to make friends, Mr—"
"Call me Percy," said Loud Tie, with a brilliant smile. "Who are you here with, then? I know bloody nearly everyone in this place, and I’ve never seen you around before. I’d remember." He gave Jack an exaggerated once-over.
Jack with a bit of a start recognised it as the look Darling gave to people he wanted to make uncomfortable. He frowned. He’d done nothing to upset this chap—in fact, he’d bought him a drink—so this seemed uncalled for. "Over there," he said brusquely, jerking his chin in the direction of the table where Darling had established himself. In the white dress he almost glowed under the light of the chandelier. He’d found some friends already. Jack was determined not to take it personally.
Call-me-Percy looked that way, paused, looked back at Jack, and said, "You’re here with Darling?" He assumed a sympathetic air. "Bad luck, old chap, I hope I’m not the first to tell you. You’re out of luck there. Darling’s—"
But Jack never found out what Percy thought Darling was, because the man himself materialised at Jack’s shoulder in a swirl of white fringe and peach gauze and said, very bored, "Jack, my dear, is that gin for me? Percival, good evening. I thought the tie you were wearing last time I saw you was the ugliest in existence, but once again I seem to have underestimated your eye for monstrosities."
Percy instead of jabbing back just gaped and then said, "Jack? You’re Darling’s Jack?"
"Jonathan, I am sorry that you seem to have found the most disreputable fellow in the place so quickly," said Darling. "He is also, I fear, not terribly bright. Yes, Percival, this is my good friend Mr Jack Harte. Was there anything else?"
"Nice dress," said Percy.
"I thought so, but since you approve I think I shall have to burn it."
"Suits me; but keep the stockings," Percy said, and put his arm through Jack’s to steer him towards Darling’s table. Jack, bewildered, saw that Darling and this colourful little fellow were in fact friends.
A string of introductions later Jack was feeling slightly stunned. Darling did in fact have friends apart from Jack, plenty of them, and he’d plainly known them all for years. There was a morose stringy-haired chap named Vic who called everyone comrade much more earnestly than Darling ever did, a shy Indian fellow whose name Jack hadn’t managed to catch, Percy of the loud tie, two more young men in bright jackets who seemed to be Percy’s acolytes, and then the ladies—Miss Chase, plump and shiny with sweat and plainly drunk, Miss Sowerbutts who kept a steadying arm around Miss Chase’s shoulders and ignored Jack completely, Miss Lillicoombe, golden haired and very pretty, who was the girl Jack had seen dancing earlier, and finally a lady introduced only as ‘Bill’, louche in a man’s suit and smoking cigarettes. Jack would have assumed the same rules as went for Miss Lillicoombe applied, except that she was wearing lipstick and pearls as well. "Darling?" she said.
"You’re too kind, Bill," said Darling, and let her light a cigarette for him. He took a long draw and blew out a puff of smoke between red lips. With the air of a king among courtiers he inquired of the table at large, "What joy, then, my dears?"
That seemed to be the cue for everyone to start talking at once. Jack couldn't keep up. He was jammed into the corner of the table with Darling at one elbow and the glum and very earnest Vic at the other. The Cinderella Club was full of chatter on top of the music from the band, and it was a frightful din. Jack actually felt rather low. Darling and Percy were having a sort of competition to see who could say the most outrageously rude thing to the other one, the Indian fellow plainly wasn't a talker, and Percy's acolytes were boring braying sorts of the kind Jack could have sworn Darling didn't give a fig for. None of the girls seemed friendly at all. He tried to strike up a conversation with Vic, but he didn't care above half for being called comrade by a stranger when it came down to it, and the cove leaned in too close and his breath smelled.
"Oh," said Miss Lillicoombe wistfully, "I just adore this tune."
Jack was tired of Darling ignoring him and very tired of Comrade Vic. Miss Lillicoombe was wearing a dress the colour of a dying rose and she had a jolly nice face, with a little turned-up nose. Besides, Jack had been raised a gentleman, and he knew a hint when he heard one. He stood up abruptly and said, "Would you care to dance, Miss Lillicoombe?"
By chance he'd said it into one of those moments of quiet that sometimes fell across a busy conversation, so Darling and the rest of them all looked at him. Jack didn't see what they were fussed about. "Jonathan," said Darling, "I never suspected you of saltatory enthusiasm."
"Well, you've never been dancing with me," Jack said, reasonably enough. "Anyway when a girl—a young lady starts jawing—talking about how much she likes the music, she wants to dance. Any idiot knows that." He held out his hand to Miss Lillicoombe.
Her eyes were wide above her tip-tilted nose. All at once she smiled and said, "I'd love to, Mr Harte."
Jack led her out to the floor. Behind him he heard one of the braying coves say, with faint hilarity, "Do you think he knows—"
"Who are you?" said Percy loudly over him. "I don't think we've met. What are you doing at my table? Leave."
Miss Lillicoombe giggled. "Percy's so protective," she murmured. "I take it you were getting tired of Vic?"
"I wouldn't say that," said Jack diplomatically, and put his hand on her waist. She giggled again and put hers on his shoulder.
It turned out she was a dashed good dancer. As it happened, so was Jack, just as Jack was good at most things that involved cheerful physical exertion and knowing the rules. It wasn't his favourite pastime, but it could be good fun with a good partner, and Miss Lillicoombe was light on her feet and laughed a lot. Jack was pleased to discover he was enjoying himself. When the number ended he offered Miss Lillicoombe his hand again, and she grinned and took it as the band started up a fast number.
They danced it through, and the next one too. Before long there was some space clearing on the floor for them. Miss Lillicoombe's light feet twinkled and spun, and her blond curls bobbed in the air when Jack swung her about. It was a ripping good time, and when Jack, rather winded, pulled his partner over to the bar to fetch them both another gin and tonic, he was grinning wildly. Miss Lillicoombe laughed and laughed. "Oh, I like you, Mr Harte," she said, eyes turned up to him full of sparkle, when Jack passed her a glass.
"It's Jack, please," Jack said.
"Dora," she said. "Are you really Darling's Jack, then?"
"I suppose I must be," said Jack. "Though I haven't the foggiest what that means."
"Oh—only that you're his good friend!" Dora said. "And that he talks about you once in a while, you know. But we none of us ever expected to actually meet you. We all thought you must be too jolly conventional for our set. Or rather that we're all too queer for you, and Darling wouldn't want you bothered with us."
Jack looked down at his G-and-T. Too jolly conventional made a lot of sense. It was probably what Darling had thought. That was why Jack had never known about any of this, Darling's other friends, this other world. Their staircase, their castle, had been enough for him. He'd thought Darling didn't want interlopers any more than he did. But then Dora and Percy and the rest of them plainly weren't interlopers: they had pieces of Darling Jack didn't, and Jack had never known.
"Oh," said Dora. "Oh dear—I'm sorry—I didn't mean anything by it."
"No, it's true," Jack said. "I am conventional, I daresay." He grinned to make it cheery, because there was no use getting down in the dumps about things. "Fond of my cricket and things, you know. Darling hates all my suits. I suppose I'm rather a dull sort. I just like to know the rules."
"You don't seem all that dull to me," Dora said. "Weren't you breaking all sorts of rules dancing with me just now?"
An honest frown wrinkled Jack's brow. "No?" he said. "What else do you do with a girl but dance with her?"
Dora's giggle this time was more of an earthy gurgle. "What indeed," she said. "Well, if you can't think of anything, perhaps you'd like to dance some more?"
Jack didn't need to plumb any depths of gallantry to answer honestly, "I'd be delighted, Miss Lillicoombe."
They danced again and then went back to the bar for more cocktails, and this time they stayed there a little longer, chatting. Dora was blissfully easy to chat to. Jack had been worried earlier that all of Darling's friends would be as brilliant and brittle and sharp as Darling and Percy were at each other, or else as glum as Comrade Vic. "Oh, the boys are all such show-offs," Dora said when Jack mentioned it. "Vic thinks having fun is too bourgeois for anything, while Percy thinks he's the second coming of Oscar Wilde, and Ru's determined to prove him wrong. Ramesh is the most decent of them, but he's awfully shy, especially if you're handsome." She dimpled up at Jack. "You won't get a word out of him for weeks."
Jack was so shocked by the thought of Darling as a Ru that he'd missed half of that. Dora still seemed like the best of the bunch to him, an opinion he maintained through her explanation that Millie and Sue were much better company when they weren't wrapped up in each other, and that Bill was an absolute angel, honestly. Dora didn’t really make jokes, which was a bit of a shame, but otherwise she was an ideal sort of girl. Pretty, too. There was no excuse for Jack to be angling himself so he could keep an eye on Darling back at the table, glimmering in his white dress under the light of the chandelier.
When he realised he was doing it he forced his full attention back to Dora and her tilted nose. She gave him a knowing look which he didn't altogether care for. "Do you know, Mr Harte, I think it must be our round," she said.
They took a tray back to the table from the bar—Dora seemed to know everyone's preferred cocktail—and were greeted with general acclaim. Jack took the seat between Vic and Darling again, but this time Dora slipped in on Vic's other side and engaged him in a lively conversation which dragged in most of the table. It meant no one interrupted when Darling leaned back in his seat, fixed Jack with an injured look, and said, "O! the sufferings of a woman scorned!"
"Oh?" said Jack, trying not to smile.
"How the masses must pity me," Darling said. "At last I understand the urges of the gothic female. I shall set your rooms alight to express my bitterness. Beware, my dear Jonathan: when my broken heart cracks and I am finally deceased, I shall haunt your chambers of unfaithfulness with pitiful wails."
"Are they the same ones you set on fire?" Jack inquired. "Because if so I might not be living in them anymore. Drafty, you understand."
"Drafty!" proclaimed Darling. "Ha! How cruelly your serpent's tongue stings, villain!"
"What rot," said Jack. "What did I do?"
Darling blinked long lashes. "Did I not invite you to this gathering to escort me?" he asked. "Did you not eagerly consent? Are you not wearing my tie?"
Jack didn't know about eager consent, but he nodded obediently.
"And yet at the first opportunity I am cast aside, abandoned for the cozening embrace of a fair stranger—"
"I say," said Jack. He didn't like cozening applied to Dora, who was a decent girl.
"—innocent and virtuous, I do not deny it," Darling went on without missing a beat, "but O! so too was Eve before the Fall, and how Lilith despised her beauty!"
"Look," said Jack, "d'you want to dance, then?"
Darling's red lips parted. The lipstick gave them a heady shine in the light of the chandelier. "Why, Mr Harte," he said.
"Because as a matter of fact," Jack bulled on, "when I take a girl to a ball, I'd rather dance with her than not. In fact I think a fellow jolly well ought to. So—" but he was talking the way he would talk to the Darling of their shared staircase, not to the Darling who wore nylons. "Miss Darling," he corrected himself. "Would you do me the honour?"
"I—should be delighted, Mr Harte," Darling said, and he put the very tips of his fingers into Jack's outstretched palm. Jack closed his hand around them. Darling had strong long-fingered hands. He looked up and caught Darling looking at him, inscrutable, dark-eyed. The bobbed wig fell forward across his cheekbones and gave his sharp face an elfin air. Jack barely noticed the quiet that had fallen over the table full of Darling's friends.
He led him out onto the floor.
By chance the band were playing something slow. Darling didn't quite seem to know what to do with his hands. Jack helped him put one on his shoulder. He put his other hand on Darling's waist. The white dress was smooth silky fabric. Jack fancied he could feel the warmth of Darling's skin through it. They stumbled through a few awkward steps before Jack saw the problem. "I'm leading," he said firmly. "Just go where I put you, old thing."
"Jonathan," said Darling.
"Trust me," said Jack.
Darling wasn't nearly as good a dancer as Miss Lillicoombe. He plainly hadn't much practice following, and Jack was glad it wasn't one of the lively numbers the band had been playing earlier. Around them couples turned slowly about the floor. Some just held each other tightly and swayed. Men danced with men, and women with women, and some whom Jack couldn't be sure about danced with both; and all the while Jack danced with Darling. They kept a respectable distance between them, but Darling's hand was still in Jack's, and now he'd got the idea of the thing he followed Jack's firm lead, stepping back when Jack stepped forward, turning where Jack steered him, eyes on Jack's, red mouth bare inches away. Jack tried not to grip his waist too tightly. It hadn't been hard to hold Miss Lillicoombe lightly, or to let her go when the music ended.
The silence between them seemed to shimmer like a summer afternoon. The syrup of the music couldn't fill it.
When he couldn't bear any more Jack swallowed and said quietly, "Ru? "
Darling's brow wrinkled. "Ah," he murmured, in a soft ghost of his usual lazy drawl. "Quite. And you know how I feel about monosyllables."
"Unspeakable boredom, wasn't it?"
"Ennui, my dear Jonathan. Boredom barely begins to describe it."
Jack, daring, twirled him out into a spin and drew him back in. White fringe flared; dark hair fell carelessly back into place. The peach gauze shawl had been abandoned at the table, and Darling's shoulders were broad and white and stark under the light of the chandelier. Somehow when they came back together they ended up a little closer. Now Jack could feel Darling's breath. The strong hand resting on his seemed to be holding a little tighter. He might have been imagining that.
When the dance ended Jack couldn't let go. "Another, Miss Darling?" he managed.
Darling only inclined his head and squeezed Jack's fingers a little tighter. That shimmer-hot silence was back as the music began again. Jack was sweating like a pig. In the normal run of things he'd expect Darling to tease him for it at any moment, but Darling's eyes stayed inscrutable and dark, no light of laughter in them, as Jack waltzed him around the dance floor.
Maybe Jack'd had a cocktail too many. The evening had been startling, and then enjoyable, but something seemed to have overturned and now it was overwhelming. The floor was crowded. Jack had to notice the other people, because he was leading, but they could have been wooden mannequins for all the sense his mind could make of them. Only Darling in his white dress seemed entirely there. He was sweating too; the satin was stuck to his waist, his hip, under Jack's hand. Something about Darling's silence and his dark gaze told Jack that he didn't need to be as mannerly as all that. He could slide his hand round and go for a good grab, and Darling would let him. Jack wanted to. He wanted. He couldn't possibly.
"My dear," Darling said, light and sarcastic, when Jack finally made himself let go so his hand wouldn't be tempted any more.
"You don't," said Jack. "Well, I don't."
Darling said nothing.
"Dash it all, Darling, you can't grope a girl on the dancefloor in a public club in front of her friends," Jack said. "It's not at all the thing."
"Of course," Darling said after a moment. "What price a gentleman's honour? I should never have doubted you."
"Right," said Jack gruffly. He held out his arm as couples began to swirl around them. Darling gave him a quick considering look and then took it so Jack could lead him back to the table. Some of the others were gone now: Dora was up again, dancing with the elegant Bill this time, and shy Ramesh had disappeared with Percy's surviving acolyte. Miss Chase seemed to have gone to sleep, curled sideways in Miss Sowerbutts' lap. Jack didn't much care. He saw Darling to his seat before he sat down. He picked up the peach shawl and draped it back across Darling's shoulders. Darling looked up at him wordlessly. "Cigarette?" Jack asked, fishing in his pocket.
"If you would," Darling said, and this time Jack got to light it for him, his hand close by Darling's mouth.
Across the table Percy took a deep breath and began, "Well—"
He cut off abruptly. Jack half-noticed that Vic had kicked him under the table, and couldn't spare the attention to wonder why. "Another drink, Miss Darling?" he said.
"Whiskey," said Darling, and added, uncharacteristically, "Please."
Jack cut straight across the dancefloor, through the maze of twirling couples, to get to the bar faster. When he got back it was to find Vic on his feet in the process of dragging Percy upright. "I haven't finished!" Percy was saying. Vic shook his head. Darling was laughing, his hand over his mouth in the first gesture all night that had really looked at all girlish. Jack found himself inclined to like Vic after all as he sternly and glumly drew Percy away. Percy gave Jack a fierce little stare as he went. "What was all that, then?" Jack said, setting the whiskey down in front of Darling.
Darling hiccupped a final gulp of faintly hysterical laughter and said, "A matter of no importance, Jonathan. Ah, thank God."
He took the whiskey. He drank the whiskey. Jack watched his throat move.
There was room at the table now for both of them to have plenty of breathing space, but he'd still seated himself right at Darling's elbow. Their knees were pressed together under the table. Darling tossed his head a little, and reached up to tuck a black strand of the bobbed wig behind his ear. He gave Jack a small smirk. "Very well, my dear," he said. "I repent my earlier wild speeches. No Gothic excesses can be justified on Darling's part. You are the very knight parfait, a model to which all gentlemen may aspire, and the ideal escort for any young lady bent on a night of revelry."
"Well, I'm trying," said Jack. "What else?"
Darling's gaze came up to meet his. "I can only direct your attention to the sign above the door," he said.
Jack obediently directed his attention that way. The sign said THE CINDERELLA CLUB, which he recalled was the name of the place. "You want me to do… something with shoes?" he hazarded, trying to remember how the fairytale went. Or was it something with sisters? Darling didn't have a sister. Jack remembered thinking that she'd be a bit of a looker if she existed, if she looked like Darling.
Darling let out another hiccup of laughter. "No, no, no," he said. "No. Come now, Jonathan, do better than that. Why did Cinderella come to the ball, if not to dance with the prince?"
Jack considered the idea of getting up to dance again. He was a little dubious. Darling had been showing a distinct tendency to trip over his own feet going backwards, and that was before he'd had that whiskey. The party was getting rowdier, too, and the band was showing no signs of slowing down. "Well, all right," he said, reaching a sensible decision as he got to his feet and pulled Darling up after him. "But you'd better lead this time."
"I bow to your superior expertise in the physical arts," Darling said. His pale face was flushed. "Let us, as they say, cut a rug."
Jack didn't know how much time passed, or how many more cocktails they drank. He didn't just dance with Darling, in the end; he led Dora out again, and Bill, and even took a turn about the floor with Percy, who was a frightful clodhopper. But it was Darling he kept coming back to; Darling in the white dress who let Jack take his hands; Darling whose dark eyes and red mouth Jack could not tear his eyes from.
It was getting on for eleven when Vic loomed up out of the crush behind Darling and plucked his gin out of his hand. "That's enough of that," he said, and took Jack's drink as well. "Don't get any drunker, you idiot. Telephoned for a taxi. Friend of mine. Outside right now."
Jack was still blinking in confusion at his empty hand. He put it on Darling's waist again. Better. Darling fluttered his eyelashes at Vic. "Comrade Victor, in the scheme of the evening's entertainments you are as the fairy godmother," he said.
"Dunno about that," said Vic. Jack was surprised to catch the very faintest air of the East End in his accent. "Take care of yourself, Ru."
"I say, it's jolly decent of you," Jack said.
Vic gave him a glum look. "Comrade," he said by way of farewell. It was the dourest comrade Jack had ever heard.
The cold of the air as they ascended the steps out of the Cinderella Club hit Jack like a solid right hook, and he grunted. He put his arm over Darling's shoulders. That peach gauze looked pretty flimsy to him. "Good sorts, your friends," he said.
"I have occasionally thought so," Darling conceded.
Jack tried to put together a question about Darling and Percy—there was a question in him, spurred by Darling's friendly outrageous rudeness to the fellow and Percy's... everything. But he couldn't come up with the words for it at all. There was no dashed way to say some things. Instead he said, "Bally odd how they all seem to think you're made of glass, though, Ru."
Darling snorted, unladylike. "I have attempted to disabuse them."
"Because you're not," Jack said, warming to his theme. "I daresay what with one thing and another you're the toughest chap I know."
"I beg you, do not test it," Darling said. "I would be loath to disappoint you, but I am afraid, Jonathan, that with your magnificent physique you could knock me down without difficulty."
"I don't mean fisticuffs or what have you," Jack said, and then, "Oh, the taxi."
"With a feather," said Darling softly.
The taxi couldn't get down the road their hotel was on. Jack paid the driver. It had started to rain, so Jack got out first and held the umbrella for Darling.
Rain trickled down the back of his neck. An electric street lamp illuminated a black circle of Bloomsbury pavement and the white half-moon of Darling’s ear as he tucked dark strands of his bobbed wig behind it and glanced up under his long lashes to give Jack a subtle red-lipped smile. "A very Lancelot," he said. "Alas for my dancing slippers in this downpour! I should have worn Wellingtons."
Jack in a fit of chivalric madness nearly offered to carry him along the puddled street. He stifled the impulse as he was opening his mouth. Darling was a solidly built chap, for all his leanness. Jack was fit as a fiddle but he hadn’t much chance of lugging him the whole way back to the hotel.
Darling’s smile went sly. "You’d have to put me over your shoulder, my dear," he murmured. "Not very knightly at all."
It was just what the regular Darling would say, a crack in the evening’s strangeness. From the moment Jack had offered to dance with him at the ball earlier Darling had seemed different: or no, from before that, from the instant Jack had looked up at a vision in white satin and red lipstick and only just in time realised he wasn’t dreaming and stilled his hands from reaching out. Tonight’s Darling, Darling in nylons, felt like a dream Jack was having, as lovely as it was impossible. Jack could not bear for it to end.
He coughed. He thought of himself as a good sport, and always smiled at Darling’s nonsense, but starting the nonsense himself didn’t come naturally to him. Darling could probably have come up with some amusing rot about Cinderella or what have you. Jack had to fall back on what he knew one should say. "A chap doesn’t feel right sloping off after such a jolly evening," he managed, gruffly. "Would you let me see you home, Miss Darling?"
All it would take was for Darling to chuckle and raise an eyebrow and point out that they were sharing a hotel room anyway, and that would be the end of it. Jack thought he would laugh. He almost wanted him to laugh.
But after an infinitesimal pause Darling lifted his chin and said, "That would be lovely, Mr Harte."
The rain drummed down on the umbrella and splashed up from the paving stones. The hotel had rainwater dripping from the arch affair over the front door. Jack was damp through by the time they reached the lobby. Darling looked worse off. Jack closed the umbrella, shook off the worst of the water, and left it in the elephant’s-foot stand by the door. Then he took off his suit jacket. "You're shivering," he said.
Darling demurely permitted Jack to put the jacket on him and murmured ladylike appreciation for the gesture. He was taller than Jack, but slighter, so it hung badly on him: loose in the shoulders, short at the wrists. The white dress, Jack couldn't help noticing, had gone translucent where it was wet. The fringe clung damply around Darling's long legs.
Jack gave him his arm to help him up the narrow stairs to their room. Darling's gaze was cast down. Jack kept glancing at his profile. The pearl at his earlobe winked occasionally through the fall of dark hair, and Jack would have liked to see it better.
"Well," he said, when they reached their room. It seemed extremely bloody odd to Jack that only hours ago he'd been lugging their bags up here and internally cursing all Darling's mad whims. "Well, I. Thank you for your company this evening, Miss—"
Darling looked up at last, long lashes flicking up, and said, "Would you like to come in, Mr Harte?"
Well of course I'm coming in, I'm paying for half the bally room, Jack could have said. Or: I say, Darling, what are you playing at? Or even, soothingly, that's enough nonsense now, old thing, if you don't mind.
His mouth was dry. Darling's eyes were nearly a stranger's with all that make-up on him. Jack swallowed and said, "I should be delighted, Miss Darling."
Then he added, because he would have, to Darling's imaginary sister, or any young lady, though he'd never as a matter of fact had exactly this conversation with one, "if you're sure."
Darling only smirked at him, red mouth curving. Abruptly Jack couldn't bear to stand around talking about it a moment longer. He stumbled forward, forcing Darling back a few steps. He only just had the presence of mind to kick the door closed behind him. The backs of Darling's legs hit the nearest bed—there was barely any room to spare in here at all—and he sat down with a thump, eyebrows going up. "Why, Mr Harte," he began.
Jack caught Darling's face in his hands and tilted it up and kissed him.
Whatever teasing Darling had been about to come out with was caught as a puff of air on his lips. They were waxy with lipstick. His cheeks were cold, still a little rain-damp. Jack lingered over the kiss, trying not to pant for breath. There was nothing to be gasping over in the bare touch of lips. Darling would say—Darling would say—chaste as Diana, or something of the sort, and laugh about it.
But Darling put his hand up onto Jack's shoulder, and his lips parted under Jack's, and he wasn't laughing. Jack felt like a mad thing, one of those frightful monsters you got in books or something, hunched over him like that and unable to stop kissing him. Darling was still wearing Jack's suit jacket and Jack liked it. Percy might crack jokes and Vic might call taxis and Dora might know all sorts of things Jack apparently didn't, but here was Darling in the hotel room and it was Jack's jacket on him. It was Jack who was kissing him. It was Jack sinking to the floor at the side of the bed because otherwise he was dashed sure his knees were going to give way.
Their kiss didn't break once. Darling followed him down and over and ended up tumbling off the bed onto the floor, practically into Jack's lap. Jack put his arms about him again the way he'd dared to when they were dancing and kissed him wildly, there on the strip of carpet between the door and the nearest bed. His hands snuck up under his own jacket so he could touch the place where Darling's broad pale back rose out of the fringed top of the white dress. Darling shivered.
"Cold?" Jack said, nosing at Darling's cheek while he said it, then putting his mouth there. He wanted to put his mouth damn near everywhere. Darling's red mouth kept distracting him, drawing him back like a compass drawn to north. He kissed it now before Darling could say anything.
"Not exactly," Darling said when they broke apart. The lipstick had finally smeared. Maybe some of it was on Jack. There were goosebumps on the pale skin of his back where Jack spread his hands above the line of the dress.
Jack went for his ear, closed his lips around the lobe and the pearl bob together. The pearl was surprisingly cool against his tongue. Darling jerked in his arms. Jack forced himself to stop it and managed, shakily, "I haven't the foggiest notion what I should be doing, so if you—"
Darling tipped his head to the side and said, "Please." After a moment he added, as if just remembering, "Mr Harte—"
Jack put his mouth back to Darling's earlobe. He took the tender flesh between his teeth and nipped, none too gently. Hot satisfaction ripped through him when Darling let out a low cry of pleasure.
"Mr Harte," Darling gasped a moment or two later, and brought their mouths back together hard.
Eventually it occurred to Jack that they had not one but two soft-ish beds right there, so it was silly to keep Darling on the floor. "Let me help you up, Miss Darling," he murmured. When they'd managed to stand Darling let Jack take the jacket off him, and then slid his hands into Jack's hair and pulled him into another tight clinch. Jack didn't much want to stop kissing either, but he wanted to see as well. "Let me," he said. "Let me."
Darling didn't understand, and then somehow in his usual remarkable way he did. He pushed Jack away when Jack couldn't make himself let go, and smiled at him, and sat on the edge of the bed. He crossed one leg over the other, ladylike. The hem of the white dress was riding up his thighs. "These shoes have an awfully fiddly buckle," he said, and batted his eyelashes at Jack. "I don't know what I shall do."
Jack laughed. "All right, all right, Cinderella." He got down on his knees and drew Darling's foot into his hands. The shoes were soft white leather with a strap across the front. They'd got all over mud out in the rainy street. There was nothing fiddly about the buckle at all, but Jack still gave it his full concentration, holding Darling's ankle firmly as he got it loose, drawing the shoe off carefully and setting it to one side. Darling above him let out a breath and recrossed his legs the other way. Jack repeated the whole thing with the second shoe.
This time he held onto Darling's foot afterwards, feeling the slick texture of the stockings, cupping the heel in his hand. He ran his thumb along the seam, from the back of the heel up Darling's calf, and paused and looked up at him.
Darling was staring. His wig was askew. Jack hadn't the faintest idea what his own expression was doing, but whatever it was it made Darling’s lips part. Jack very carefully ducked his head and kissed Darling's knee through the fine fabric. He opened his mouth and breathed out hotly against it. He whispered again, "Let me."
Darling didn't tell him no. Jack put both his hands around his calf, feeling the muscle under the delicate fabric, and then ran them slowly up to the knee again. This time he pushed a little. Darling said nothing but he uncrossed his legs.
Jack shuffled forward on his knees into the gap that left for him. Darling was breathing faster now. Jack slid his hands up both his calves at once, and then up his thighs. He didn't dare look at what his own fingers were doing as they slid up under the ruched-up satin and the fringe fell over his wrists. He looked up at Darling instead, at Darling's familiar sharp and clever face, made strange by the smeared makeup, by the flush high on his cheeks. There was lace under Jack's questing fingertips. In hushed tones he said, "Can I see?"
Darling cursed, short and sharp, just once. He reached down himself to tug the dress out of the way, wriggling a little to get it up round his hips. That wasn't what Jack had meant. He didn't care. Darling never did anything by halves, so naturally he was wearing girls' togs right down to his skin. There was white lace against his white thighs, and then a little gap of skin between that and the soft drawers above. Darling's stiff cock was practically in front of Jack's nose, pressing up against the fabric of his underthings, making a wet spot there.
Jack himself was hard as could ever remember being. He licked his lips.
Darling groaned. "Mr Harte," he said. Jack only nodded absently, unable to look away from Darling's cock framed between his thighs each with their lace and garters.
He didn't see that there was much point in asking Darling to let him again, since Darling plainly was letting him, and looked to be in quite a state about it, so he just fished Darling's cockstand out of his drawers and closed his mouth around the head of it.
Darling yelled, and then clapped a hand over his own mouth halfway through. Jack sucked tenderly on his mouthful. He was using one hand to steady things, but the other found its way blindly back to the naked strip of thigh above Darling's stocking. He slid his fingers under the tight strap of the garter. Darling's legs were trembling in taut irregular shakes. When Jack took his cock deeper into his mouth and then licked under the head the tremors got wilder, and Darling made more choked noises. Jack was getting dashed uncomfortable in his trousers. He wouldn't have minded palming himself through them, except he hadn't a hand to spare from touching Darling. Darling had never been touchable before, and Jack wasn't about to waste it.
It wasn't that he hadn't offered, in the friendly unspoken way chaps offered things of this sort. It had been at school, after that cricket match, Darling's first time playing for the first eleven, which he'd only done because Jack had needed him to. Jack had made the suggestion, without words, as one did. Darling had not understood at first. Then he'd looked upset, and rather tired, and he'd said—direct, as Darling was seldom direct—"No."
So Jack had left off, embarrassed about the whole thing. One didn't press these things, if the other fellow didn't fancy it. He'd rather have Darling sharing his rooms and dragging him into capers and verbally cutting up fools for Jack's amusement than anything else in the world. No sense risking that. Besides, it hardly mattered one way or the other, did it?
Except, Jack discovered—with his hands under Darling's skirt and his mouth full of Darling's taste and one of Darling's hands petting cautiously at his temple—except it did matter. It mattered tremendously. In fact it seemed to Jack that nothing could ever matter more than this: to be on his knees for Darling, hearing the sounds of pleasure he couldn't stifle as Jack sucked him, feeling the thick weight and warmth of his cock on Jack's tongue. He didn't understand how he'd ever managed to shrug it off so lightly when Darling turned him down years ago. Perhaps some part of Jack he didn't bother to look at much hadn't shrugged it off at all.
"Mr—Mr Harte," Darling said, and Jack savoured the stutter from that glib mouth. "I'll—in a second, if you—"
Jack made his enthusiasm plain by digging his thumbs into Darling's thighs and sucking harder.
"Oh," said Darling faintly. "Oh, that's very—"
Very what Jack never learned, because Darling started spending then. His cock spurted hotly onto Jack's tongue. Jack was full of that frightful monstrous satisfaction again, because he'd done that, no one else, and also because he could count on one hand all the times he'd managed to put Darling at a loss for words. He wiped off his mouth with the back of his hand afterwards. He couldn't stop grinning.
"Smugness ill becomes the handsome prince," Darling managed after a moment, in a fair approximation of his usual arch tones.
Jack wasn't fooled. "Don't you start," he said cheerfully. "I say, may I—" He already had his trousers open and a hand about himself.
"I think we can do rather better than that," Darling said. "If you would be so kind as to join me upon the bed," he paused, and then added sweetly, "Mr Harte."
"Miss Darling," Jack replied obediently, because that was the joke or the game or the caper tonight. That was the key that had let Jack kiss him in the first place. Jack wasn't about to point out that the lipstick was faded, the wig lopsided, or that the white dress hid absolutely nothing when it was up round Darling's hips like that. He wasn't going to break the spell now.
It was damned well worth it, anyway, when Darling pulled him down on top of him and kissed him again. It was worth it when Darling whispered a filthy suggestion in Jack's ear in words Jack wouldn't have thought a young lady could know, not before tonight. Darling kept the dress on but Jack stripped off, lay naked on top of him and guided his cock between Darling's thighs. He kissed the small round moles on Darling's back and sucked a bruise onto the white nape of his neck.
The wig had come off altogether sometime in sorting themselves out, but that just meant Jack had better access to the curve of Darling's ear. He panted harshly against it as he thrust himself into the slick heat of the space Darling had made for him. The lace at the top of Darling's stockings tickled. The head of Jack's cock pressed up under Darling's bollocks every time Jack shoved his hips forward. Darling hung his head and breathed in uneven gasps, and Jack shoved his hands back up under the dress. The satin and fringe were fantastically in the way when all Jack wanted was to get his hand on Darling's cock again and feel it fattening up for him.
The noises Darling started making when Jack took him in hand went straight to Jack's head, and other parts. Only Jack's usual determined character prevented him coming off right then. He wanted to see to Darling first. He kept them moving together, rocking into the cradle of Darling's thighs as he moved his hand on Darling's cock; got his other hand across Darling's chest to hold him in place when he started to thrash about.
Jack felt like there was something blowing up like a balloon in his chest and trying to get out of him. It seemed to him that it needed words of some sort, and he'd never have a better chance to say them than now, with Darling abandoned in his arms and Jack's lips at Darling's ear. The only thing was that Jack didn't have the faintest idea what the words were. Darling would know, Darling was the oratorical type, but he wasn't saying a thing, not even Mr Harte—just crying out over and over. Jack's senses were swimming, and he was sweating like a pig, and he couldn't even work out how to ask; and he couldn't have stopped fucking between Darling's stockinged thighs for a king's ransom.
"Darling," was all he could say, so he said that, and kissed Darling's ear, and said it again: "Darling—darling—"
He came off with a groan. It seemed to go on a jolly long time.
Jack was shaking afterwards, but he maintained enough presence of mind to tighten his grip on Darling's cock so Darling could finish himself off with a few more frantic thrusts into Jack's hand. He buried his face in the pillows as he finished to stifle the yell that came out of him. It was probably the prudent thing to do, but Jack wouldn't have minded hearing him. He wanted to hear him.
What with one thing and another they were both rather a mess after everything. Jack helped Darling peel the stained dress and underthings off. The stockings were a dead loss. "My nylons!" exclaimed Darling, and pouted, but Jack could see it was a joke.
Then Darling laid himself down on the cleaner of the two beds. Jack went and lay down with him. He put his arm over Darling's waist. Darling let out a soft sigh of a breath and was still.
Out in the rainy London night a big clock began to chime. It might have been the one outside Euston station. Jack listened with his eyes closed as it rang out the midnight hour with twelve echoing, merciless clangs.
Jack woke up first thing, but didn't move. He'd been lying there a quarter of an hour at least before Darling stirred, yawned, and said, "I must wash up."
Jack didn't try to hold onto him as he slipped out of bed.
When Darling emerged from the bathroom he was fully dressed in his usual style, down to the slim-fitting waistcoat, the butter-yellow tie, and the monocle. The last traces of last night’s makeup were gone. Not a smudge remained; he was entirely his normal pallid and elegant self. "All yours, Jonathan," he said, gesturing at the bathroom door.
Jack washed, dressed, contemplated shaving and decided not to, and stared at himself in the mirror for a little while. He wasn’t in the least hungover. He rather wished he was. Darling could easily get enough combined mockery and gentleness out of one of Jack’s hangovers to take them all the way back to Cambridge and their staircase where, Jack felt obscurely, he would be safe.
He looked at the mirror unseeing, thinking about Darling’s narrow chest rising and falling as he slept in Jack’s arms. After a moment something caught his eye, abandoned on the floor. Darling couldn’t go anywhere without scattering things. Jack half knelt and picked up the tube of lipstick.
"Here you go," he said, when he emerged from the bathroom.
Darling examined the lipstick through his monocle as if he had never seen it before.
"I say, Darling," Jack said, for he was not a coward, "may I ask you about something?"
Darling dropped the lipstick in his jacket pocket and made an expansive gesture. "May I ask, inquires the bosom friend? No request could be more superfluous. Assuredly you may ask, my dear Jonathan."
"And will you answer?" said Jack doggedly.
Darling half-smiled. "Perhaps."
Jack knew pressing the point wouldn’t get him anything better than that. "Well," he said, "I was talking to, er..."
"Miss Lillicoombe," supplied Darling kindly. "Yes, I noticed a certain partiality on your part."
Jack ignored that. "And she gave me to understand that some fellows, well, aren’t fellows, as such, and it upsets ‘em dreadfully to have chaps going around acting like they’re chaps—the fellows, I mean, not the chaps—when in point of fact they’re—"
"The harmonious ending," said Darling, "would be fillies, but I see your chivalrous nature has taken hold. Some unnecessary confusion was caused by the introduction of the chaps who may or may not also be fellows. Perhaps you would allow me to assist?"
Jack nodded desperately.
"Some whom the uncouth observer may assume to be gentlemen are in fact ladies, and as such deserve all those salutary attentions to which ladies are entitled by custom and good manners. Among which number you may indeed count the beauteous Miss Lillicoombe. If you should like to meet her again, Jonathan, I am happy to assist."
"No, Darling, what I mean to say is—dash it all," cried Jack. "I should never like to make you upset, so if there’s anything you’d like me to do, or say, or to not do or to not say—"
"Ah," said Darling.
"—you just have to say so," finished Jack stolidly.
Darling regarded him affectionately through the monocle. "Jonathan, you really are a remarkable specimen," he said. "I have always thought so."
"You need concern yourself no further," said Darling. "Although terra feminea has its charms, I regard my occasional visits there in the light of holiday sojourns. I have no desire or intention to remove my whole dwelling hence."
"All right," said Jack.
"To the unfairer sex belongs Darling, lipstick notwithstanding."
Darling paused and then said, with the careless air that meant he was being particularly careful, "It has struck me, Jonathan, from some small remarks of yours in the past, that you felt it obligatory to pursue after the collegiate idyll a—certain kind of life, and it seemed to me that you were not altogether happy with the prospect."
Jack said nothing.
"I may of course have misapprehended. But on the off-chance I had not, I thought perhaps you might wish to—that is, that you simply might not know—"
He trailed off into uncharacteristic silence.
"You didn’t," said Jack. "Misapprehend, or what have you. Thank you."
He meant it, too. To embark on a career, and get himself a nice little wife, and live in a nice little house, possibly with a dog, had seemed unavoidable: and then Darling, with his usual generosity, had drawn aside a curtain and revealed a queer but infinitely more bearable other world. Jack should be grateful.
Darling peered at him. "Jonathan, do I detect a hint of discontent?"
"Well, no," said Jack. It was not discontent he felt, but a strange helplessness.
"Oh, hang Miss Lillicoombe," snapped Jack.
Darling looked profoundly taken aback.
"I mean—she’s a perfectly topping girl, I’m sure," said Jack. "But I don’t—I don’t—"
He sat down hard on the bed and dropped his face into his hands. There was a long moment of silence.
Darling spoke as carefully as if each word were an egg that might crack. "I believe," he said, "you remarked, last night, that it was not in your nature to address a young lady as Comrade before a taxi driver. That, furthermore, your knightly soul required you to fetch aforementioned lady cocktails, and lead her onto the dance floor, and so on."
Jack said nothing. And so on covered a multitude of sins. He’d had to kiss that scarlet mouth, he’d had to. Darling hadn’t seemed to mind at the time. He'd let Jack touch him; he'd let Jack do anything he wanted. Only this morning the paint was all gone.
"Would you rather I was a woman, Jack?" said Darling gently.
"No," said Jack, wretched, into his hands. Without looking up he confessed, "Only then I’d know what to do."
Darling said, "What would you do?"
Jack said nothing.
"Let us assume Miss Darling. La Darling. Darlette. She had really a rather marvellous time, you know. There was a handsome gentleman dancing attendance on her all evening, first, and then came a kiss goodnight, and—rather more than a kiss—all of it entirely worth her ripped nylons. And she woke clasped to your manly bosom, and you—"
Jack was shocked when Darling took his hands, pulling them away from his face. He had knelt at Jack’s feet to do it.
"I cannot finish the tale alone,” he said. "What would you do?"
"I’d ask her to marry me," said Jack.
Darling’s eyebrows went up so far his monocle fell out. Without it he looked younger, and defenceless. His eyelashes really were terribly long.
"I would," said Jack. "I’d propose. I’d do it in a heartbeat, if I felt about her the way I feel about you." He swallowed. "But you’re not—you're not Cinderella, you know."
"I lack many prerequisites," Darling agreed slowly, "not least the wicked sisters."
God, what Jack wouldn't give for Darling to have a sister, a sharp-tongued smirking Darlingish sister who wore lipstick and white dresses. But even if she existed she couldn't be a patch on the real thing. It wouldn't be fair of Jack to expect her to stand in for someone else. Jack believed in fair play. The fact was—"I don't much care for pretty girls," he said. "Even Miss Lillicoombe."
"Jack," Darling said, "I don't understand."
But he did, Jack was sure. He had to. Darling was a clever chap. He was meant for great things. He wasn't Jack, who was the sort of fellow whom other people call solid, whom Dora and her lot called conventional—the sort who didn't know how to do anything until he knew the rules. "I remembered the story," he said, trying to explain anyway. "She has to go home at midnight, doesn't she? Or when she's done with Cambridge, rather, because the ball and the prince and the rest of it, it's all an—idyll, as you'd say…"
"Oh," Darling said softly.
Jack waited, trusting helplessly in that stupendous, unreasonable, endlessly inventive mind, Darling’s mind. There wasn’t a thing about Jack which Darling didn’t know. There couldn’t be. And Darling wasn’t like Jack. He didn’t get lost trying to find the words for things. He didn’t need someone to tell him how the game was supposed to go. He made up his own way of doing things and didn’t care what anyone thought, so he had to understand, he had to, or else Jack would bloody well fall apart—
"I'm the prince," Darling said. "Is that it?"
"Yes," Jack said, relieved. "Exactly."
"Oh," Darling said again, even more softly.
"And I'd propose to Miss Darling, of course," Jack said. "Except I wouldn't want to propose to Miss Darling, because she wouldn't be you."
Darling nodded. He squeezed Jack's hands convulsively tight, just once. All of a sudden he smiled. His wide thin-lipped mouth looked very different without the lipstick, but Jack wanted just as much to kiss it.
"I understand very well," Darling said, "the power of an apposite allusion. My dear Jonathan." Jack didn't see quite what he meant, but then Darling dipped his head, and kissed Jack's fingers, and added, in the tone of voice he used when he was quoting, "For he loved him as his own soul."
Jack recognised the verse with a faint feeling of shock. It would never have occurred to him in circumstances like these. His fingers tingled with the ghost of that fleeting kiss. But Darling was only smiling, rueful, as he knelt at Jack's feet and held onto his hands. "Miss Darling would accept your proposal," he said. "If you were wondering."
"I," said Jack. "But—would you, would you let me—"
"If I may," Darling said. "I believe this particular duty falls to Prince Charming." His eyebrows quirked. "I do feel you may have miscast me, Jack, but I shall try to live up to your admiring scrutiny. Ah, conveniently I find myself already on my knees." He took a breath. "Jack," he said. "Would you—you, you understand, not Cinderella or any Biblical gentleman or even the exceedingly civilised Mr Harte—would you do me the very great honour—"
"Good lord," said Jack, dizzy with joy and relief.
"of—really , Jack."
Jack couldn't stop smiling. "I'm sorry, old thing. Terribly sorry. Do go on."
"You interrupted me at a tender and affectionate moment," said Darling reprovingly. "One could almost suspect you of not being in love."
"I am, though," Jack said, glad to have the words after all.
"Yes, well," said Darling, sounding flustered, "so am I."