They were broad bare stairs, with great office doors right and left on every landing, and in the middle the landing window looking out into the square. I waited well within the window on the first floor; and as my hansom drove out under the arch, the light of its near lamp flashed across two figures lounging on the steps of that entrance to the hall; but there was no stopping or challenging the cabman, no sound at all but those of hoofs and bell, and soon only that of my own heart beating as I fled up the rest of the stairs in my rubber soles.
Near the top I paused to thank my kindly stars; sure enough there was a long step-ladder hanging on a great nail over the last half-landing, and a square trap-door right over the landing proper! I ran up just to see the names on the two top doors; one was evidently that of some pettifogging firm of solicitors, while the other bespoke a private resident, whom I judged to be out of town by the congestion of postal matter that met my fingers in his letter-box. Neither had any terrors for me. The step-ladder was unhooked without another moment's hesitation. Care alone was necessary to place it in position without making a noise; then up I went, and up went the trapdoor next, without mishap or hindrance until I tried to stand up in the loft, and caught my head a crack against the tiles instead.
This was disconcerting in more ways than one, for I could not leave the ladder where it was, and it was nearly twice my height. I struck a match and lit up a sufficient perspective of lumber and cobwebs to reassure me. The loft was long enough, and the trap-door plumb under the apex of the roof, whereas I had stepped sideways off the ladder. It was to be got up, and I got it up, though not by any means as silently as I could have wished. I knelt and listened at the open trap-door for a good minute before closing it with great caution, a squeak and a scuttle in the loft itself being the only sign that I had disturbed a living creature.
There was a grimy dormer window, not looking down into the square, but leading like a companion hatchway into a valley of once red tiles, now stained blue-black in the starlight. It was great to stand upright here in the pure night air out of sight of man or beast. Smokeless chimney-stacks deleted whole pages of stars, but put me more in mind of pollards rising out of these rigid valleys, and sprouting with telephone wires that interlaced for foliage. The valley I was in ended fore and aft in a similar slope to that at either side; the length of it doubtless tallied with the frontage of a single house; and when I had clambered over the southern extremity into a precisely similar valley I saw that this must be the case. I had entered the fourth house beyond Burroughs and Burroughs's, or was it the fifth? I threaded three valleys, and then I knew.
In all three there had been dormer windows on either hand, that on the square side leading into the loft; the other, or others, forming a sort of skylight to some top-floor room. Suddenly I struck one of these standing very wide open, and trod upon a rope's end curled like a snake on the leads. I stooped down, and at a touch I knew that I had hold of Raffles's favourite Manila, which united a silken flexibility with the strength of any hawser. It was tied to the window-post, and it dangled into a room in which there was a dull red glow of fire: an inhabited room if ever I put my nose in one! My body must follow, however, where Raffles had led the way; and when it did I came to ground sooner than I expected on something less secure. The dying firelight, struggling through the bars of a kitchen range, showed my tennis-shoes in the middle of the kitchen table. A cat was stretching itself on the hearth-rug as I made a step of a wooden chair, and came down like a cat myself.
I found the kitchen door, found a passage so dark that the window at the end hung like a picture slashed across the middle. Yet it only looked into the square, for I peered out when I had crept along the passage, and even thought I both heard and saw the enemy at their old post. But I was in another enemy's country now; at every step I stopped to listen for the thud of feet bounding out of bed. Hearing nothing, I had the temerity at last to strike a match upon my trousers, and by its light I found the outer door. This was not bolted nor yet shut; it was merely ajar, and so I left it.
The rooms opposite appeared to be an empty set; those on the second and first floors were only partially shut off by swing doors leading to different departments of the mighty offices of Burroughs and Burroughs. There were no lights upon these landings, and I gathered my information by means of successive matches, whose tell-tale ends I carefully concealed about my person, and from copious legends painted on the walls. Thus I had little difficulty in groping my way to the private offices of Sir John Burroughs, head of the celebrated firm; but I looked in vain for a layer of light under any of the massive mahogany doors with which this portion of the premises was glorified. Then I began softly trying doors that proved to be locked. Only one yielded to my hand; and when it was a few inches open, all was still black; but the next few brought me to the end of my quest, and the close of my solitary adventures.
A Midsummer Night's Work
The dense and total darkness was broken in one place, and one only, by a plateful of light proceeding from a tiny bulb of incandescence in its centre. This blinding atom of white heat lit up a hand hardly moving, a pen continually poised, over a disc of snowy paper; and on the other side, something that lay handy on the table, reflecting the light in its plated parts. It was Raffles at his latest deviltry. He had not heard me, and he could not see; but for that matter he never looked up from his task. Sometimes his face bent over it, and I could watch its absolute concentration. The brow was furrowed, and the mouth pursed, yet there was a hint of the same quiet and wary smile with which Raffles would bowl an over or drill holes in a door.
I stood for some moments fascinated, entranced, before creeping in to warn him of my presence in a whisper. But this time he heard my step, snatched up electric torch and glittering revolver, and covered me with the one in the other's light.
"A.J.!" I gasped.
"Bunny!" he exclaimed in equal amazement and displeasure. "What the devil do you mean by this?"
"You're in danger," I whispered. "I came to warn you!"
"Danger? I'm never out of it. But how did you know where to find me, and how on God's earth did you get here?"
"I'll tell you some other time. You know those two brutes you dodged the other day?"
"I ought to."
"They're waiting below for you at this very moment."
Raffles peered a few moments through the handful of white light between our faces.
"Let them wait!" said he, and replaced the torch upon the table and put down his revolver for his pen.
"They're detectives!" I urged.
"Are they, Bunny?"
"What else could they be?"
"What, indeed!" murmured Raffles, as he fell to work again with bent head and deliberate pen.
"You gave them the slip on Friday, but they must have known your game and lain in wait for you here, one or other of them, ever since. It's my belief Dan Levy put them up to it, and the yarn about the letter was just to tempt you into this trap and get you caught in the act. He didn't want a copy one bit; for God's sake, don't stop to finish it now!"
"I don't agree with you," said Raffles without looking up, "and I don't do things by halves, Your precious detectives must have patience. Bunny, and so must you." He held his watch to the bulb. "In about twenty minutes there'll be real danger, but we couldn't be safer in our beds for the next ten. So perhaps you'll let me finish without further interruption, or else get out by yourself as you came in."
I turned away from Raffles and his light, and blundered back to the landing. The blood boiled in my veins. Here had I fought and groped my way to his side, through difficulties it might have taxed even him to surmount, as one man swims ashore with a rope from the wreck, at the same mortal risk, with the same humane purpose. And not a word of thanks, not one syllable of congratulation, but "get out by yourself as you came in!" I had more than half a mind to get out, and for good; nay, as I stood and listened on the landing, I could have found it in my outraged heart to welcome those very sleuthhounds from the square, with a cordon of police behind them.
Yet my boiling blood ran cold when warm breath smote my cheek and a hand my shoulder at one and the same awful moment.
"Raffles!" I cried in a strangled voice.
"Hush, Bunny!" he chuckled in my ear. "Didn't you know who it was?"
"I never heard you; why did you steal on me like that?"
"You see you're not the only one who can do it, Bunny! I own it would have served me right if you'd brought the square about our ears."
"Have you finished in there?" I asked gruffly.
"Then you'd better hurry up and put everything as you found it."
"It's all done, Bunny; red tape tied on such a perfect forgery that the crux will be to prove it is one; safe locked up, and every paper in its place."
"I never heard a sound."
"I never made one," said Raffles, leading me upstairs by the arm. "You see how you put me on my mettle, Bunny, old boy!"
I said no more till we reached the self-contained flat at the top of the house; then I begged Raffles to be quiet in a lower whisper than his own.
"Why, Bunny? Do you think there are people inside?"
"Aren't there?" I cried aloud in my relief.
"You flatter me, Bunny!" laughed Raffles, as we groped our way in. "This is where they keep their John Bulldog, a magnificent figure of a commissionaire with the V.C. itself on his manly bosom. Catch me come when he was at home; one of us would have had to die, and it would have been a shame either way. Poor pussy, then, poor puss!"
We had reached the kitchen and the cat was rubbing itself against Raffles's legs.
"But how on earth did you get rid of him for the night?"
"Made friends with him when I called on Friday; didn't I tell you I had an appointment with the bloated head of this notorious firm when I cleared out of Lord's? I'm about to strengthen his already unrivalled list of clients; you shall hear all about that later. We had another interview this afternoon, when I asked my V.C. if he ever went to the theatre; you see he had spotted Tom Fool, and told me he never had a chance of getting to Lord's. So I got him tickets for 'Rosemary' instead, but of course I swore they had just been given to me and I couldn't use them. You should have seen how the hero beamed! So that's where he is, he and his wife—or was, until the curtain went down."
"Good Lord, Raffles, is the piece over?"
"Nearly ten minutes ago, but it'll take 'em all that unless they come home in a cab."
And Raffles had been sitting before the fire, on the kitchen table, encouraging the cat, when this formidable V.C. and his wife must be coming every instant nearer Gray's Inn Square!
"Why, my dear Bunny, I should back myself to swarm up and out without making a sound or leaving a sign, if I heard our hero's key in the lock this moment. After you, Bunny."
I climbed up with trembling knees, Raffles holding the rope taut to make it easier. Once more I stood upright under the stars and the telephone wires, and leaned against a chimney-stack to wait for Raffles. But before I saw him, before I even heard his unnecessarily noiseless movements, I heard something else that sent a chill all through me.
It was not the sound of a key in the lock. It was something far worse than that. It was the sound of voices on the roof, and of footsteps drawing nearer through the very next valley of leads and tiles.
I was crouching on the leads outside the dormer window as Raffles climbed into sight within.
"They're after us up here!" I whispered in his face. "On the next roof! I hear them!"
Up came Raffles with his hands upon the sill, then with his knees between his hands, and so out on all-fours into the narrow rivulet of lead between the sloping tiles. Out of the opposite slope, a yard or two on, rose a stout stack of masonry, a many-headed monster with a chimney-pot on each, and a full supply of wires for whiskers. Behind this Gorgon of the house-tops Raffles hustled me without a word, and himself took shelter as the muffled voices on the next roof grew more distinct. They were the voices that I had overheard already in the square, the voices but not the tones. The tones—the words—were those of an enemy divided against itself.
"And now we've gone and come too far!" grumbled the one who had been last to arrive upon the scene below.
"We did that," the other muttered, "the moment we came in after 'em. We should've stopped where we were."
"With that other cove driving up and going in without ever showing a glim?"
Raffles nudged me, and I saw what I had done. But the weakling of the pair still defended the position he had reluctantly abandoned on terra firma; he was all for returning while there was time; and there were fragments of the broken argument that were beginning to puzzle me when a soft oath from the man in front proclaimed the discovery of the open window and the rope.
"We got 'em," he whispered, stagily, "like rats in a trap!"
"You forget what it is we've got to get."
"Well, we must first catch our man, mustn't we? And how d'ye know his pal hasn't gone in to warn him where we were? If he has, and we'd stopped there, they'd do us easy."
"They may do us easier down there in the dark," replied the other, with a palpable shiver. "They'll hear us and lie in wait. In the dark! We shan't have a dog's chance."
"All right! You get out of it and save your skin. I'd rather work alone than with a blessed funk!"
The situation was identical with many a one in the past between Raffles and me. The poor brute in my part resented the charge against his courage as warmly as I had always done. He was merely for the better part of valour, and how right he was Raffles and I only knew. I hoped the lesson was not lost upon Raffles. Dialogue and action alike resembled one of our own performances far more than ordinary police methods as we knew them. We heard the squeeze of the leader's clothes and the rattle of his buttons over the window ledge. "It's like old times," we heard him mutter; and before many moments the weakling was impulsively whispering down to know if he should follow.
I felt for that fellow at every stage of his unwilling proceedings. I was to feel for him still more. Raffles had stepped down like a cat from behind our cover; grasping an angle of the stack with either hand, I put my head round after him. The wretched player of my old part was on his haunches at the window, stooping forward, more in than out. I saw Raffles grinning in the starlight, saw his foot poised and the other poor devil disappear. Then a dull bump, then a double crash and such a cursing as left no doubt that the second fellow had fallen plumb on top of the first. Also from his language I fancied he would survive the fall.
But Raffles took no peep at his handiwork; hardly had the rope whipped out at my feet than he had untied the other end.
"Like lamplighters, Bunny!"
And back we went helter-skelter along the valleys of lead and over the hills of tile.... The noise in the kitchen died away as we put a roof or two between us and that of Burroughs and Burroughs.
"This is where I came out," I called to Raffles as he passed the place. "There's a ladder here where I left it in the loft!"
"No time for ladders!" cried Raffles over his shoulder, and not for some moments did he stop in his stride. Nor was it I who stopped him then; it was a sudden hubbub somewhere behind us, somewhere below; the blowing of a police whistle, and the sound of many footsteps in the square.
"That's for us!" I gasped. "The ladder! The ladder!"
"Ladder be damned!" returned Raffles, roughly. "It isn't for us at all; it's my pal the V.C. who has come home and bottled the other blighters."
"Thinking they're thieves?"
"Thinking any rot you like! Our course is over the rest of the roofs on this side, over the whole lot at the top end, and, if possible, down the last staircase in the corner. Then we only have to show ourselves in the square for a tick before we're out by way of Verulam Buildings."
"Is there another gate there?" I asked as he scampered on with me after him.
"Yes; but it's closed and the porter leaves at twelve, and it must be jolly near that now. Wait, Bunny! Some one or other is sure to be looking out of the top windows across the square; they'll see us if we take our fences too freely!"
We had come to one of the transverse tile-slopes, which hitherto we had run boldly up and down in our helpful and noiseless rubber soles; now, not to show ourselves against the stars, to a stray pair of eyes on some other high level, we crept up on all fours and rolled over at full length. It added considerably to our time over more than a whole side of the square. Meanwhile the police whistles had stopped, but the company in the square had swollen audibly.
It seemed an age, but I suppose it was not many minutes, before we came to the last of the dormer windows, looking into the last vale of tiles in the north-east angle of the square. Something gleamed in the starlight, there was a sharp little sound of splitting wood, and Raffles led me on hands and knees into just such a loft as I had entered before by ladder. His electric torch discovered the trapdoor at a gleam. Raffles opened it and let down the rope, only to whisk it up again so smartly that it struck my face like a whiplash.
A door had opened on the top landing. We listened over the open trap-door, and knew that another stood listening on the invisible threshold underneath; then we saw him running downstairs, and my heart leapt for he never once looked up. I can see him still, foreshortened by our bird's-eye view into a Turkish fez and a fringe of white hair and red neck, a billow of dressing-gown, and bare heels peeping out of bedroom slippers at every step that we could follow; but no face all the way down, because he was a bent old boy who never looked like looking up.
Raffles threw his rope aside, gave me his hand instead, and dropped me on the landing like a feather, dropping after me without a moment's pause. In fact, the old fellow with the fez could hardly have completed his descent of the stairs when we began ours. Yet through the landing window we saw him charging diagonally across the square, shouting and gesticulating in his flight to the gathering crowd near the far corner.
"He spotted us, Bunny!" exclaimed Raffles, after listening an instant in the entrance. "Stick to me like my shadow, and do every blessed thing I do."
Out he dived, I after him, and round to the left with the speed of lightning, but apparently not without the lightning's attribute of attracting attention to itself. There was a hullabaloo across the square behind us, and I looked round to see the crowd there breaking in our direction, as I rushed after Raffles under an arch and up the alley in front of Verulam Buildings.
It was striking midnight as we made our sprint along this alley, and at the far end the porter was preparing to depart, but he waited to let us through the gate into Gray's Inn Road, and not until he had done so can the hounds have entered the straight. We did not hear them till the gate had clanged behind us, nor had it opened again before we were high and dry in a hansom.
"King's Cross!" roared Raffles for all the street to hear; but before we reached Clerkenwell Road he said he meant Waterloo, and round we went to the right along the tram-lines. I was too breathless to ask questions, and Raffles offered no explanations until he had lit a Sullivan. "That little bit of wrong way may lose us our train," he said as he puffed the first cloud. "But it'll shoot the whole field to King's Cross as sure as scent is scent; and if we do catch our train, Bunny, we shall have it to ourselves as far as this pack is concerned. Hurrah! Blackfriar's Bridge and a good five minutes to go!"
"You're going straight down to Levy's with the letter?"
"Yes; that's why I wanted you to meet me under the clock at twelve."
"But why in tennis-shoes?" I asked, recalling the injunctions in his note, and the meaning that I had naturally read into them.
"I thought we might possibly finish the night on the river," replied Raffles, darkly. "I think so still."
"And I thought you meant me to lend you a hand in Gray's Inn!"
"The less you think, my dear old Bunny, the better it always is! To-night, for example, you have performed prodigies on my account; your unselfish audacity has only been equalled by your resource; but, my dear fellow, it was a sadly unnecessary effort."
"Unnecessary to tell you those brutes were waiting for you down below?"
"Quite, Bunny. I saw one of them and let him see me. I knew he'd send off for his pal."
"Then I don't understand your tactics or theirs."
"Mine were to walk out the very way we did, you and I. They would never have seen me from the opposite corner of the square, or dreamt of going in after me if they hadn't spotted your getting in before them to put me on my guard. The place would have been left exactly as I found it, and those two numskulls as much in the lurch as I left them last week outside the Albany."
"Perhaps they were beginning to fear that," said I, "and meant ferreting for you in any case if you didn't show up."
"Not they," said Raffles. "One of them was against it as it was; it wasn't their job at all."
"Not to take you in the act if they could?"
"No; their job was to take the letter from me as soon as I got back to earth. That was all. I happen to know. Those were their instructions from old Levy."
"Did it never occur to you that I was being dogged by his creatures?"
"His creatures, Raffles?"
"He set them to shadow me from the hour of our interview on Saturday morning. Their instructions were to bag the letter from me as soon as I got it, but to let me go free to the devil!"
"How can you know, A.J.?"
"My dear Bunny, where do you suppose I've been spending the week-end? Did you think I'd go in with a sly dog like old Shylock without watching him and finding out his real game? I should have thought it hardly necessary to tell you I've been down the river all the time; down the river," added Raffles, chuckling, "in a Canadian canoe and a torpedo beard! I was cruising near the foot of the old brute's garden on Friday evening when one of the precious pair came down to tell him they had let me slip already. I landed and heard the whole thing through the window of the room where we shall find him to-night. It was Levy who set them to watch the crib since they'd lost the cracksman; he was good enough to reiterate all his orders for my benefit. You will hear me take him through them when we get down there, so it's no use going over the same ground twice."
"Funny orders for a couple of Scotland Yard detectives!" was my puzzled comment as Raffles produced an inordinate cab-fare.
"Scotland Yard?" said he. "My good Bunny, those were no limbs of the law; they're old thieves set to catch a thief, and they've been caught themselves for their pains!"
Of course they were! Every detail of their appearance and their behaviour confirmed the statement in the flash that brought them all before my mind! And I had never thought of it, never but dreamt that we were doing battle with the archenemies of our class. But there was no time for further reflection, nor had I recovered breath enough for another word, when the hansom clattered up the cobbles into Waterloo Station. And our last sprint of that athletic night ended in a simultaneous leap into separate carriages as the platform slid away from the 12:10 train.
But it was hardly likely to be the last excitement of the night, as I saw for myself before Raffles joined me at Vauxhall. An arch-traitor like Daniel Levy might at least be trusted to play the game out with loaded dice; no single sportsman could compete against his callous machinations; and that was obviously where I was coming in. I only wished I had not come in before! I saw now the harm that I had done by my rash proceedings in Gray's Inn, the extra risk entailed already and a worse one still impending. If the wretches who had shadowed him were really Levy's mercenaries, and if they really had been taken in their own trap, their first measure of self-defence would be the denunciation of Raffles to the real police. Such at least was my idea, and Raffles himself made light enough of it; he thought they could not expose him without dragging in Levy, who had probably made it worth their while not to do that on any consideration. His magnanimity in the matter, which he flatly refused to take as seriously as I did, made it difficult for me to press old Raffles, as I otherwise might have done, for an outline of those further plans in which I hoped to atone for my blunders by being of some use to him after all. His nonchalant manner convinced me that they were cut-and-dried; but I was left perhaps deservedly in the dark as to the details. I merely gathered that he had brought down some document for Levy to sign in execution of the verbal agreement made between them in town; not until that agreement was completed by his signature was the harpy to receive the precious epistle he pretended never to have written. Raffles, in fine, had the air of a man who has the game in his hands, who is none the less prepared for foul play on the other side, and by no means perturbed at the prospect.
We left the train at a sweet-smelling platform, on which the lights were being extinguished as we turned into a quiet road where bats flew over our heads between the lamp-posts, and a policeman was passing a disc of light over a jerry-built abuse of the name of Queen Anne. Our way led through quieter roads of larger houses standing further back, until at last we came to the enemy's gates. They were wooden gates without a lodge, yet the house set well beyond them, on the river's brim, was a mansion of considerable size and still greater peculiarity. It was really two houses, large and small, connected by a spine of white posts and joists and glimmering glass. In the more substantial building no lights were to be seen from the gates, but in the annex a large French window made a lighted square at right angles with the river and the road. We had set foot in the gravel drive; with a long line of poplars down one side, and on the other a wide lawn dotted with cedars and small shrubs, when Raffles strode among these with a smothered exclamation, and a wild figure started from the ground.
"What are you doing here?" demanded Raffles, with all the righteous austerity of a law-abiding citizen.
"Nutting, sare!" replied an alien tongue, a gleam of good teeth in the shadow of his great soft hat. "I been see Mistare Le-vie in ze 'ouse, on ze beezness, shentlemen."
"Seen him, have you? Then if I were you I should make a decent departure," said Raffles, "by the gate—" to which he pointed with increased severity of tone and bearing.
The weird figure uncovered a shaggy head of hair, made us a grotesque bow with his right hand melodramatically buried in the folds of a voluminous cape, and stalked off in the starlight with much dignity. But we heard him running in the road before the gate had clicked behind him.
"Isn't that the fellow we saw in Jermyn Street last Thursday?" I asked Raffles in a whisper.
"That's the chap," he whispered back. "I wonder if he spotted us, Bunny? Levy's treated him scandalously, of course; it all came out in a torrent the other morning. I only hope he hasn't been serving Dan Levy as Jack Rutter served old Baird! I could swear that was a weapon of sorts he'd got under his cloak."
And as we stood together under the stars, listening to the last of the runaway footfalls, I recalled the killing of another and a less notorious usurer by a man we both knew, and had even helped to shield from the consequences of his crime. Yet the memory of our terrible discovery on that occasion had not the effect of making me shrink from such another now; nor could I echo the hope of Raffles in my heart of hearts. If Dan Levy also had come to a bad end—well, it was no more than he deserved, if only for his treachery to Raffles, and, at any rate, it would put a stop to our plunging from bad to worse in an adventure of which the sequel might well be worst of all. I do not say that I was wicked enough absolutely to desire the death of this sinner for our benefit; but I saw the benefit at least as plainly as the awful possibility, and it was not with unalloyed relief that I beheld a great figure stride through the lighted windows at our nearer approach.
Though his back was to the light before I saw his face, and the whole man might have been hacked out of ebony, it was every inch the living Levy who stood peering in our direction, one hand hollowed at an ear, the other shading both eyes.
"Is that you, boys?" he croaked in sepulchral salute.
"It depends which boys you mean," replied Raffles, marching into the zone of light. "There are so many of us about to-night!"
Levy's arms dropped at his sides, and I heard him mutter "Raffles!" with a malediction. Next moment he was inquiring whether we had come down alone, yet peering past us into the velvet night for his answer.
"I brought our friend Bunny," said Raffles, "but that's all."
"Then what do you mean by saying there are so many of you about?"
"I was thinking of the gentleman who was here just before us."
"Here just before you? Why, I haven't seen a soul since my 'ousehold went to bed."
"But we met the fellow just this minute within your gates: a little foreign devil with a head like a mop and the cloak of an operatic conspirator."
"That beggar!" cried Levy, flying into a high state of excitement on the spot. "That blessed little beggar on my tracks down here! I've 'ad him thrown out of the office in Jermyn Street; he's threatened me by letter and telegram; so now he thinks he'll come and try it on in person down 'ere. Seen me, eh? I wish I'd seen 'im! I'm ready for biters like that, gentlemen. I'm not to be caught on the 'op down here!"
And a plated revolver twinkled and flashed in the electric light as Levy drew it from his hip pocket and flourished it in our faces; he would have gone prowling through the grounds with it if Raffles had not assured him that the foreign foe had fled on our arrival. As it was the pistol was not put back in his pocket when Levy at length conducted us indoors; he placed it on an occasional table beside the glass that he drained on entering; and forthwith set his back to a fire which seemed in keeping with the advanced hour, and doubly welcome in an apartment so vast that the billiard table was a mere item at one end, and sundry trophies of travel and the chase a far more striking and unforeseen feature.
"Why, that's a better grisly than the one at Lord's!" exclaimed Raffles, pausing to admire a glorious fellow near the door, while I mixed myself the drink he had declined.
"Yes," said Levy, "the man that shot all this lot used to go about saying he'd shoot me at one time; but I need 'ardly tell you he gave it up as a bad job, and went an' did what some folks call a worse instead. He didn't get much show 'ere, I can tell you; that little foreign snipe won't either, nor yet any other carrion that think they want my blood. I'd empty this shooter o' mine into their in'ards as soon as look at 'em, I don't give a curse who they are! Just as well I wasn't brought up to your profession, eh, Raffles?"
"I don't quite follow you, Mr. Levy."
"Oh yes you do!" said the money-lender, with his gastric chuckle. "How've you got on with that little bit o' burgling?"
And I saw him screw up his bright eyes, and glance through the open windows into the outer darkness, as though there was still a hope in his mind that we had not come down alone. I formed the impression that Levy had returned by a fairly late train himself, for he was in morning dress, in dusty boots, and there was an abundant supply of sandwiches on the table with the drinks. But he seemed to have confined his own attentions to the bottle, and I liked to think that the sandwiches had been cut for the two emissaries for whom he was welcome to look out for all night.
"How did you get on?" he repeated when he had given them up for the present.
"For a first attempt," replied Raffles, without a twinkle, "I don't think I've done so badly."
"Ah! I keep forgetting you're a young beginner," said Levy, catching the old note in his turn.
"A beginner who's scarcely likely to go on, Mr. Levy, if all cribs are as easy to crack as that lawyers' office of yours in Gray's Inn Square."
Raffles recollected his pose.
"It was enormous fun," said he. "Of course one couldn't know that there would be no hitch. There was an exciting moment towards the end. I have to thank you for quite a new thrill of sorts. But, my dear Mr. Levy, it was as easy as ringing the bell and being shown in; it only took rather longer."
"What about the caretaker?" asked the usurer, with a curiosity no longer to be concealed.
"He obliged me by taking his wife to the theatre."
"At your expense?"
"No, Mr. Levy, the item will be debited to you in due course."
"So you got in without any difficulty?"
"Over the roof."
"I hit upon the right room."
"And then, Raffles?"
"I opened the right safe."
"Go on, man!"
But the man was only going on at his own rate, and the more Levy pressed him, the greater his apparent reluctance to go on at all.
"Well, I found the letter all right. Oh, yes, I made a copy of it. Was it a good copy? Almost too good, if you ask me." Thus Raffles under increasing pressure.
"Well? Well? You left that one there, I suppose? What happened next?"
There was no longer any masking the moneylender's eagerness to extract the denouement of Raffles's adventure; that it required extracting must have seemed a sufficient earnest of the ultimate misadventure so craftily plotted by Levy himself. His great nose glowed with the imminence of victory. His strong lips loosened their habitual hold upon each other, and there was an impressionist daub of yellow fang between. The brilliant little eyes were reduced to sparkling pinheads of malevolent glee. This was not the fighting face I knew better and despised less, it was the living epitome of low cunning and foul play.
"The next thing that happened," said Raffles, in his most leisurely manner, "was the descent of Bunny like a bolt from the blue."
"Had he gone in with you?"
"No; he came in after me as bold as blazes to say that a couple of common, low detectives were waiting for me down below in the square!"
"That was very kind of 'im," snarled Levy, pouring a murderous fire upon my person from his little black eyes.
"Kind!" cried Raffles. "It saved the whole show."
"It did, did it?"
"I had time to dodge the limbs of the law by getting out another way, and never letting them know that I had got out at all."
"Then you left them there?"
"In their glory!" said Raffles, radiant in his own.
Though I must confess I could not see them at the time, there were excellent reasons for not stating there and then the delicious plight in which we had really left Levy's myrmidons. I myself would have driven home our triumph and his treachery by throwing our winning cards upon the table and simultaneously exposing his false play. But Raffles was right, and I should have been wrong, as I was soon enough to see for myself.
"And you came away, I suppose," suggested the money-lender, ironically, "with my original letter in your pocket?"
"Oh, no, I didn't," replied Raffles, with a reproving shake of the head.
"I thought not!" cried Levy in a gust of exultation.
"I came away," said Raffles, "if you'll pardon the correction, with the letter you never dreamt of writing, Mr. Levy!"
The Jew turned a deeper shade of yellow; but he had the wisdom and the self-control otherwise to ignore the point against him. "You'd better let me see it," said he, and flung out his open hand with a gesture of authority which it took a Raffles to resist.
Levy was still standing with his back to the fire, and I was at his feet in a saddle-bag chair, with my yellow beaker on the table at my elbow. But Raffles remained aloof upon his legs, and he withdrew still further from the fire as he unfolded a large sheet of office paper, stamped with the notorious address in Jermyn Street, and displayed it on high like a phylactery.
"You may see, by all means, Mr. Levy," said Raffles, with a slight but sufficient emphasis on his verb.
"But I'm not to touch—is that it?"
"I'm afraid I must ask you to look first," said Raffles, smiling. "I should suggest, however, that you exercise the same caution in showing me that part of your quid pro quo which you have doubtless in readiness; the other part is in my pocket ready for you to sign; and after that, the three little papers can change hands simultaneously."
Nothing could have excelled the firmness of this intimation, except the exggravating delicacy with which it was conveyed. I saw Levy clench and unclench his great fists, and his canine jaw working protuberantly as he ground his teeth. But not a word escaped him, and I was admiring the monster's self-control when of a sudden he swooped upon the table at my side, completely filled his empty glass with neat whiskey, and, spluttering and blinking from an enormous gulp, made a lurch for Raffles with his drink in one hand and his plated pistol in the other.
"Now I'll have a look," he hiccoughed, "an' a good look, unless you want a lump of lead in your liver!"
Raffles awaited his uncertain advance with a contemptuous smile.
"You're not such a fool as all that, Mr. Levy, drunk or sober," said he; but his eye was on the waving weapon, and so was mine; and I was wondering how a man could have got so very suddenly drunk, when the nobbler of crude spirit was hurled with most sober aim, glass and all, full in the face of Raffles, and the letter plucked from his grasp and flung upon the fire, while Raffles was still reeling in his blindness, and before I had struggled to my feet.
Raffles, for the moment, was absolutely blinded; as I say, his face was streaming with blood and whiskey, and the prince of traitors already crowing over his vile handiwork. But that was only for a moment, too; the blackguard had been fool enough to turn his back on me; and, first jumping upon my chair, I sprang upon him like any leopard, and brought him down with my ten fingers in his neck, and such a crack on the parquet with his skull as left it a deadweight on my hands. I remember the rasping of his bristles as I disengaged my fingers and let the leaden head fall back; it fell sideways now, and if it had but looked less dead I believe I should have stamped the life out of the reptile on the spot.
I know that I rose exultant from my deed....
Raffles was still stamping and staggering with his knuckles in his eyes, and I heard him saying, "The letter, Bunny, the letter!" in a way that made me realise all at once that he had been saying nothing else since the moment of the foul assault. It was too late now and must have been from the first; a few filmy scraps of blackened paper, stirring on the hearth, were all that remained of the letter by which Levy had set such store, for which Raffles had risked so much.
"He's burnt it," said I. "He was too quick for me."
"And he's nearly burnt my eyes out," returned Raffles, rubbing them again. "He was too quick for us both."
"Not altogether," said I, grimly. "I believe I've cracked his skull and finished him off!"
Raffles rubbed and rubbed until his bloodshot eyes were blinking out of a blood-stained face into that of the fallen man. He found and felt the pulse in a wrist like a ship's cable.
"No, Bunny, there's some life in him yet! Run out and see if there are any lights in the other part of the house."
When I came back Raffles was listening at the door leading into the long glass passage.
"Not a light!" said I.
"Nor a sound," he whispered. "We're in better luck than we might have been; even his revolver didn't go off." Raffles extracted it from under the prostrate body. "It might just as easily have gone off and shot him, or one of us." And he put the pistol in his own pocket.
"But have I killed him, Raffles?"
"Not yet, Bunny."
"But do you think he's going to die?"
I was overcome by reaction now; my knees knocked together, my teeth chattered in my head; nor could I look any longer upon the great body sprawling prone, or the insensate head twisted sideways on the parquet floor.
"He's all right," said Raffles, when he had knelt and felt and listened again. I whimpered a pious but inconsistent ejaculation. Raffles sat back on his heels, and meditatively wiped a smear of his own blood from the polished floor. "You'd better leave him to me," he said, looking and getting up with sudden decision.
"But what am I to do?"
"Go down to the boathouse and wait in the boat."
"Where is the boathouse?"
"You can't miss it if you follow the lawn down to the water's edge. There's a door on this side; if it isn't open, force it with this."
And he passed me his pocket jimmy as naturally as another would have handed over a bunch of keys.
"And what then?"
"You'll find yourself on the top step leading down to the water; stand tight, and lash out all round until you find a windlass. Wind that windlass as gingerly as though it were a watch with a weak heart; you will be raising a kind of portcullis at the other end of the boathouse, but if you're heard doing it at dead of night we may have to run or swim for it. Raise the thing just high enough to let us under in the boat, and then lie low on board till I come."
Reluctant to leave that ghastly form upon the floor, but now stricken helpless in its presence, I was softer wax than ever in the hands of Raffles, and soon found myself alone in the dew upon an errand in which I neither saw nor sought for any point. Enough that Raffles had given me something to do for our salvation; what part he had assigned to himself, what he was about indoors already, and the nature of his ultimate design, were questions quite beyond me for the moment. I did not worry about them. Had I killed my man? That was the one thing that mattered to me, and I frankly doubt whether even it mattered at the time so supremely as it seemed to have mattered now. Away from the corpus delicti, my horror was already less of the deed than of the consequences, and I had quite a level view of those. What I had done was barely even manslaughter at the worst. But at the best the man was not dead. Raffles was bringing him to life again. Alive or dead, I could trust him to Raffles, and go about my own part of the business, as indeed I did in a kind of torpor of the normal sensibilities.
Not much do I remember of that dreamy interval, until the dream became the nightmare that was still in store. The river ran like a broad road under the stars, with hardly a glimmer and not a floating thing upon it. The boathouse stood at the foot of a file of poplars, and I only found it by stooping low and getting everything over my own height against the stars. The door was not locked; but the darkness within was such that I could not see my own hand as it wound the windlass inch by inch. Between the slow ticking of the cogs I listened jealously for foreign sounds, and heard at length a gentle dripping across the breadth of the boathouse; that was the last of the "portcullis," as Raffles called it, rising out of the river; indeed, I could now see the difference in the stretch of stream underneath, for the open end of the boathouse was much less dark than mine; and when the faint band of reflected starlight had broadened as I thought enough, I ceased winding and groped my way down the steps into the boat.
But inaction at such a crisis was an intolerable state, and the last thing I wanted was time to think. With nothing more to do I must needs wonder what I was doing in the boat, and then what Raffles could want with the boat if it was true that Levy was not seriously hurt. I could see the strategic value of my position if we had been robbing the house, but Raffles was not out for robbery this time; and I did not believe he would suddenly change his mind. Gould it be that he had never been quite confident of the recovery of Levy, but had sent me to prepare this means of escape from the scene of a tragedy? I cannot have been long in the boat, for my thwart was still rocking under me, when this suspicion shot me ashore in a cold sweat. In my haste I went into the river up to one knee, and ran across the lawn with that boot squelching. Raffles came out of the lighted room to meet me, and as he stood like Levy against the electric glare, the first thing I noticed was that he was wearing an overcoat that did not belong to him, and that the pockets of this overcoat were bulging grotesquely. But it was the last thing I remembered in the horror that was to come.
Levy was lying where I had left him, only straighter, and with a cushion under his head, as though he were not merely dead, but laid out in his clothes where he had fallen.
"I was just coming for you, Bunny," whispered Raffles before I could find my voice. "I want you to take hold of his boots."
"His boots!" I gasped, taking Raffles by the sleeve instead. "What on earth for?"
"To carry him down to the boat!"
"But is he—is he still—"
"Alive?" Raffles was smiling as though I amused him mightily. "Rather, Bunny! Too full of life to be left, I can tell you; but it'll be daylight if we stop for explanations now. Are you going to lend a hand, or am I to drag him through the dew myself?"
I lent every fibre, and Raffles raised the lifeless trunk, I suppose by the armpits, and led the way backward into the night, after switching off the lights within. But the first stage of our revolting journey was a very short one. We deposited our poor burden as charily as possible on the gravel, and I watched over it for some of the longest minutes of my life, while Raffles shut and fastened all the windows, left the room as Levy himself might have left it, and finally found his way out by one of the doors. And all the while not a movement or a sound came from the senseless clay at my feet; but once, when I bent over him, the smell of whiskey was curiously vital and reassuring.
We started off again, Raffles with every muscle on the strain, I with every nerve; this time we staggered across the lawn without a rest, but at the boathouse we put him down in the dew, until I took off my coat and we got him lying on that while we debated about the boathouse, its darkness, and its steps. The combination beat us on a moment's consideration; and again I was the one to stay, and watch, and listen to my own heart beating; and then to the water bubbling at the prow and dripping from the blades as Raffles sculled round to the edge of the lawn.
I need dwell no more upon the difficulty and the horror of getting that inanimate mass on board; both were bad enough, but candour compels me to admit that the difficulty dwarfed all else until at last we overcame it. How near we were to swamping our craft, and making sure of our victim by drowning, I still shudder to remember; but I think it must have prevented me from shuddering over more remote possibilities at the time. It was a time, if ever there was one, to trust in Raffles and keep one's powder dry; and to that extent I may say I played the game. But it was his game, not mine, and its very object was unknown to me. Never, in fact, had I followed my inveterate leader quite so implicitly, so blindly, or with such reckless excitement. And yet, if the worst did happen and our mute passenger was never to open his eyes again, it seemed to me that we were well on the road to turn manslaughter into murder in the eyes of any British jury: the road that might easily lead to destruction at the hangman's hands.
But a more immediate menace seemed only to have awaited the actual moment of embarkation, when, as we were pushing off, the rhythmical plash and swish of a paddle fell suddenly upon our ears, and we clutched the bank while a canoe shot down-stream within a length of us. Luckily the night was as dark as ever, and all we saw of the paddler was a white shirt fluttering as it passed. But there lay Levy with his heavy head between my shins in the stern-sheets, with his waistcoat open, and his white shirt catching what light there was as greedily as the other; and his white face as conspicuous to my guilty mind as though we had rubbed it with phosphorus. Nor was I the only one to lay this last peril to heart. Raffles sat silent for several minutes on his thwart; and when he did dip his sculls it was to muffle his strokes so that even I could scarcely hear them, and to keep peering behind him down the Stygian stream.
So long had we been getting under way that nothing surprised me more than the extreme brevity of our actual voyage. Not many houses and gardens had slipped behind us on the Middlesex shore, when we turned into an inlet running under the very windows of a house so near the river itself that even I might have thrown a stone from any one of them into Surrey. The inlet was empty and ill-smelling; there was a crazy landing-stage, and the many windows overlooking us had the black gloss of empty darkness within. Seen by starlight with a troubled eye, the house had one salient feature in the shape of a square tower, which stood out from the facade fronting the river, and rose to nearly twice the height of the main roof. But this curious excrescence only added to the forbidding character of as gloomy a mansion as one could wish to approach by stealth at dead of night.
"What's this place?" I whispered as Raffles made fast to a post.
"An unoccupied house, Bunny."
"Do you mean to occupy it?"
"I mean our passenger to do so—if we can land him alive or dead!"
"It's a case of heels first, this time—"
Raffles was kneeling on the landing-stage—luckily on a level with our rowlocks—and reaching down into the boat.
"Give me his heels," he muttered; "you can look after his business end. You needn't be afraid of waking the old hound, nor yet hurting him."
"I'm not," I whispered, though mere words had never made my blood run colder. "You don't understand me. Listen to that!"
And as Raffles knelt on the landing-stage, and I crouched in the boat, with something desperately like a dead man stretched between us, there was a swish and a dip outside the inlet, and a flutter of white on the river beyond.
"Another narrow squeak!" he muttered with grim levity when the sound had died away. "I wonder who it is paddling his own canoe at dead of night?"
"I'm wondering how much he saw."
"Nothing," said Raffles, as though there could be no two opinions on the point. "What did we see to swear to between a sweater and a pocket-handkerchief? Only something white, and we were looking out, and it's far darker in here than out there on the main stream. But it'll soon be getting light, and we really may be seen unless we land our big fish first."
And without more ado he dragged the lifeless Levy ashore by the heels, while I alternately grasped the landing-stage to steady the boat, and did my best to protect the limp members and the leaden head from actual injury. All my efforts could not avert a few hard knocks, however, and these were sustained with such a horrifying insensibility of body and limb, that my worst suspicions were renewed before I crawled ashore myself, and remained kneeling over the prostrate form.
"Are you certain, Raffles?" I began, and could not finish the awful question.
"That he's alive?" said Raffles. "Rather, Bunny, and he'll be kicking below the belt again in a few more hours!"
"A few more hours, A.J.?"
"I give him four or five."
"Then it's concussion of the brain!"
"It's the brain all right," said Raffles. "But for 'concussion' I should say 'coma,' if I were you."
"What have I done!" I murmured, shaking my head over the poor old brute.
"You?" said Raffles. "Less than you think, perhaps!"
"But the man's never moved a muscle."
"Oh, yes, he has, Bunny!"
"I'll tell you at the next stage," said Raffles. "Up with his heels and come this way."
And we trailed across a lawn so woefully neglected that the big body sagging between us, though it cleared the ground by several inches, swept the dew from the rank growth until we got it propped up on some steps at the base of the tower, and Raffles ran up to open the door. More steps there were within, stone steps allowing so little room for one foot and so much for the other as to suggest a spiral staircase from top to bottom of the tower. So it turned out to be; but there were landings communicating with the house, and on the first of them we laid our man and sat down to rest.
"How I love a silent, uncomplaining, stone staircase!" sighed the now quite invisible Raffles. "So of course we find one thrown away upon an empty house. Are you there, Bunny?"
"Rather! Are you quite sure nobody else is here?" I asked, for he was scarcely troubling to lower his voice.
"Only Levy, and he won't count till all hours."
"I'm waiting to hear how you know."
"Have a Sullivan, first."
"Are we as safe as all that?"
"If we're careful to make an ash-tray of our own pockets," said Raffles, and I heard him tapping his cigarette in the dark. I refused to run any risks. Next moment his match revealed him sitting at the bottom of one flight, and me at the top of the flight below; either spiral was lost in shadow; and all I saw besides was a cloud of smoke from the blood-stained lips of Raffles, more clouds of cobwebs, and Levy's boots lying over on their uppers, almost in my lap. Raffles called my attention to them before he blew out his match.
"He hasn't turned his toes up yet, you see! It's a hog's sleep, but not by any means his last."
"Did you mean just now that he woke up while I was in the boathouse?"
"Almost as soon as your back was turned, Bunny—if you call it waking up. You had knocked him out, you know, but only for a few minutes."
"Do you mean to tell me that he was none the worse?"
"Very little, Bunny."
My feeble heart jumped about in my body.
"Then what knocked him out again, A.J.?"
"In the same way?"
"No, Bunny, he asked for a drink and I gave him one."
"A doctored drink!" I whispered with some horror; it was refreshing to feel once more horrified at some act not one's own.
"So to speak," said Raffles, with a gesture that I followed by the red end of his cigarette; "I certainly touched it up a bit, but I always meant to touch up his liquor if the beggar went back on his word. He did a good deal worse—for the second time of asking—and you did better than I ever knew you do before, Bunny! I simply carried on the good work. Our friend is full of a judicious blend of his own whiskey and the stuff poor Teddy had the other night. And when he does come to his senses I believe we shall find him damned sensible."
"And if he isn't, I suppose you'll keep him here until he is?"
"I shall hold him up to ransom," said Raffles, "at the top of this ruddy tower, until he pays through both nostrils for the privilege of climbing down alive."
"You mean until he stands by his side of your bargain?" said I, only hoping that was his meaning, but not without other apprehensions which Raffles speedily confirmed.
"And the rest!" he replied, significantly. "You don't suppose the skunk's going to get off as lightly as if he'd played the game, do you? I've got one of my own to play now, Bunny, and I mean to play it for all I'm worth. I thought it would come to this!"
In fact, he had foreseen treachery from the first, and the desperate device of kidnapping the traitor proved to have been as deliberate a move as Raffles had ever planned to meet a probable contingency. He had brought down a pair of handcuffs as well as a sufficient supply of Somnol. My own deed of violence was the one entirely unforeseen effect, and Raffles vowed it had been a help. But when I inquired whether he had ever been over this empty house before, an irritable jerk of his cigarette end foretold the answer.
"My good Bunny, is this a time for rotten questions? Of course I've been over the whole place; didn't I tell you I'd been spending the week-end in these parts? I got an order to view the place, and have bribed the gardener not to let anybody else see over it till I've made up my mind. The gardener's cottage is on the other side of the main road, which runs flush with the front of the house; there's a splendid garden on that side, but it takes him all his time to keep it up, so he's given up bothering about this bit here. He only sets foot in the house to show people over; his wife comes in sometimes to open the downstairs windows; the ones upstairs are never shut. So you perceive we shall be fairly free from interruption at the top of this tower, especially when I tell you that it finishes in a room as sound-proof as old Carlyle's crow's-nest in Cheyne Row."
It flashed across me that another great man of letters had made his local habitation if not his name in this part of the Thames Valley; and when I asked if this was that celebrity's house, Raffles seemed surprised that I had not recognised it as such in the dark. He said it would never let again, as the place was far too good for its position, which was now much too near London. He also told me that the idea of holding Dan Levy up to ransom had occurred to him when he found himself being followed about town by Levy's "mamelukes," and saw what a traitor he had to cope with.
"And I hope you like the idea, Bunny," he added, "because I was never caught kidnapping before, and in all London there wasn't a bigger man to kidnap."
"I love it," said I (and it was true enough of the abstract idea), "but don't you think he's just a bit too big? Won't the country ring with his disappearance?"
"My dear Bunny, nobody will dream he's disappeared!" said Raffles, confidently. "I know the habits of the beast; didn't I tell you he ran another show somewhere? Nobody seems to know where, but when he isn't here, that's where he's supposed to be, and when he's there he cuts town for days on end. I suppose you never noticed I've been wearing an overcoat all this time, Bunny?"
"Oh, yes, I did," said I. "Of course it's one of his?"
"The very one he'd have worn to-night, and his soft hat from the same peg is in one of the pockets; their absence won't look as if he'd come out feet first, will it, Bunny? I thought his stick might be in the way, so instead of bringing it too, I stowed it away behind his books. But these things will serve a second turn when we see our way to letting him go again like a gentleman."
The red end of the Sullivan went out sizzling between a moistened thumb and finger, and no doubt Raffles put it carefully in his pocket as he rose to resume the ascent. It was still perfectly dark on the tower stairs; but by the time we reached the sanctum at the top we could see each other's outlines against certain ovals of wild grey sky and dying stars. For there was a window more like a porthole in three of the four walls; in the fourth wall was a cavity like a ship's bunk, into which we lifted our still unconscious prisoner as gently as we might. Nor was that the last that was done for him, now that some slight amends were possible. From an invisible locker Raffles produced bundles of thin, coarse stuff, one of which he placed as a pillow under the sleeper's head, while the other was shaken out into a covering for his body.
"And you asked me if I'd ever been over the place!" said Raffles, putting a third bundle in my hands. "Why, I slept up here last night, just to see if it was all as quiet as it looked; these were my bed-clothes, and I want you to follow my example."
"I go to sleep?" I cried. "I couldn't and wouldn't for a thousand pounds, Raffles!"
"Oh, yes, you could!" said Raffles, and as he spoke there was a horrible explosion in the tower. Upon my word, I thought one of us was shot, until there came the smaller sounds of froth pattering on the floor and liquor bubbling from a bottle.
"Champagne!" I exclaimed, when he had handed me the metal cap of a flask, and I had taken a sip. "Did you hide that up here as well?"
"I hid nothing up here except myself," returned Raffles, laughing. "This is one of a couple of pints from the cellarette in Levy's billiard den; take your will of it, Bunny, and perhaps the old man may have the other when he's a good boy. I fancy we shall find it a stronger card than it looks. Meanwhile let sleeping dogs lie and lying dogs sleep! And you'd be far more use to me later, Bunny, if only you'd try to do the same."
I was beginning to feel that I might try, for Raffles was filling up the metal cup every minute, and also plying me with sandwiches from Levy's table, brought hence (with the champagne) in Levy's overcoat pocket. It was still pleasing to reflect that they had been originally intended for the rival bravos of Gray's Inn. But another idea that did occur to me, I dismissed at the time, and so justly that I would disabuse any other suspicious mind of it without delay. Dear old Raffles was scarcely more skilful and audacious as amateur cracksman than as amateur anaesthetist, nor was he ever averse from the practice of his uncanny genius at either game. But, sleepy as I soon found myself at the close of our very long night's work, I had no subsequent reason to suppose that Raffles had given me drop or morsel of anything but sandwiches and champagne.
So I rolled myself up on the locker, just as things were beginning to take visible shape even without the tower windows behind them, and I was almost dropping off to sleep when a sudden anxiety smote my mind.
"What about the boat?" I asked.
There was no answer.
"Raffles!" I cried. "What are you going to do about the beggar's boat?"
"You go to sleep," came the sharp reply, "and leave the boat to me."
And I fancied from his voice that Raffles also had lain him down, but on the floor.
Trial by Raffles
When I awoke it was dazzling daylight in the tower, and the little scene was quite a surprise to me. It had felt far larger in the dark. I suppose the floor-space was about twelve feet square, but it was contracted on one side by the well and banisters of a wooden staircase from the room below, on another by the ship's bunk, and opposite that by the locker on which I lay. Moreover, the four walls, or rather the four triangles of roof, sloped so sharply to the apex of the tower as to leave an inner margin in which few grown persons could have stood upright. The port-hole windows were shrouded with rags of cobweb spotted with dead flies. They had evidently not been opened for years; it was even more depressingly obvious that we must not open them. One was thankful for such modicum of comparatively pure air as came up the open stair from the floor below; but in the freshness of the morning one trembled to anticipate the atmosphere of this stale and stuffy eyrie through the heat of a summer's day. And yet neither the size nor the scent of the place, nor any other merely scenic feature, was half so disturbing or fantastic as the appearance of my two companions.
Raffles, not quite at the top of the stairs, but near enough to loll over the banisters, and Levy, cumbering the ship's bunk, were indeed startling figures to an eye still dim with sleep. Raffles had an ugly cut from the left nostril to the corner of the mouth; he had washed the blood from his face, but the dark and angry streak remained to heighten his unusual pallor. Levy looked crumpled and debauched, flabbily and feebly senile, yet with his vital forces making a last flicker in his fiery eyes. He was grotesquely swathed in scarlet bunting, from which his doubled fists protruded in handcuffs; a bit of thin rope attached the handcuffs to a peg on which his coat and hat were also hanging, and a longer bit was taken round the banisters from the other end of the bunting, which I now perceived to be a tattered and torn Red Ensign. This led to the discovery that I myself had been sleeping in the Union Jack, and it brought my eyes back to the ghastly face of Raffles, who was already smiling at mine.
"Enjoyed your night under canvas, Bunny? Then you might get up and present your colours to the prisoner in the bunk. You needn't be frightened of him, Bunny; he's such a devilish tough customer that I've had to clap him in irons, as you see. Yet he can't say I haven't given him rope enough; he's got lashings of rope—eh, Bunny?"
"That's right!" said Levy, with a bitter snarl. "Get a man down by foul play, and then wipe your boots on him! I'd stick it like a lamb if only you'd give me that drink."
And then it was, as I got to my feet, and shook myself free from the folds of the Union Jack, that I saw the unopened pint of champagne standing against the banisters in full view of the bunk. I confess I eyed it wistfully myself; but Raffles was adamant alike to friend and foe, and merely beckoned me to follow him down the wooden stair, without answering Levy at all. I certainly thought it a risk to leave that worthy unwatched for a moment, but it was scarcely for more. The room below was fitted with a bath and a lavatory basin, which Raffles pointed out to me without going all the way down himself. At the same time he handed me a stale remnant of the sandwiches removed with Levy from his house.
"I'm afraid you'll have to wash these down at that tap," said he. "The poor devil has finished what you left at daybreak, besides making a hole in my flask; but he can't or won't eat a bite, and if only he stands his trial and takes his sentence like a man, I think he might have the other pint to his own infernal cheek."
"Trial and sentence!" I exclaimed. "I thought you were going to hold him up to ransom?"
"Not without a fair trial, my dear Bunny," said Raffles in the accents of reproof. "We must hear what the old swab has to say for himself, when he's heard what I've got to say to him. So you stick your head under the tap when you've had your snack, Bunny; it won't come up to the swim I had after I'd taken the boat back, when you and Shylock were fast asleep, but it's all you've time for if you want to hear me open my case."
And open it he did before himself, as judge and counsel in one, sitting on the locker as on the bench, the very moment I reappeared in court.
"Prisoner in the bunk, before we formulate the charge against you we had better deal with your last request for drink, made in the same breath as a preposterous complaint about foul play. The request has been made and granted more than once already this morning. This time it's refused. Drink has been your undoing, prisoner in the bunk; it is drink that necessitates your annual purification at Carlsbad, and yet within a week of that chastening experience you come before me without knowing where you are or how you got here."
"That wasn't the whisky," muttered Levy with a tortured brow. "That was something else, which you'll hear more about; foul play it was, and you'll pay for it yet. There's not a headache in a hogshead of my whisky."
"Well," resumed Raffles, "your champagne is on the same high level, and here's a pint of the best which you can open for yourself if only you show your sense before I've done with you. But you won't advance that little millennium by talking about foul play as though it were all on one side and the foulest of the foul not on yours. You will only retard the business of the court. You are indicted with extortion and sharp practice in all your dealings, with cheating and misleading your customers, attempting to cheat and betray your friends, and breaking all the rules of civilised crime. You are not invited to plead either way, because this court would not attach the slightest value to your plea; but presently you will get an opportunity of addressing the court in mitigation of your sentence. Or, if you like," continued Raffles, with a wink at me, "you may be represented by counsel. My learned friend here, I'm sure, will be proud to undertake your defence as a 'docker'; or—perhaps I should say a 'bunker,' Mr. Bunny?"
And Raffles laughed as coyly as a real judge at a real judicial joke, whereupon I joined in so uproariously as to find myself degraded from the position of leading counsel to that of the general public in a single flash from the judge's eye.
"If I hear any more laughter," said Raffles, "I shall clear the court. It's perfectly monstrous that people should come here to a court of justice and behave as though they were at a theatre."
Levy had been reclining with his yellow face twisted and his red eyes shut; but now these burst open as with flames, and the dry lips spat a hearty curse at the judge upon the locker.
"Take care!" said Raffles. "Contempt of court won't do you any good, you know!"
"And what good will all this foolery do you? Say what you've got to say against me, and be damned to you!"
"I fear you're confusing our functions sadly," said Raffles, with a compassionate shake of the head. "But so far as your first exhortation goes, I shall endeavour to take you at your word. You are a money-lender trading, among other places, in Jermyn Street, St. James's, under the style and title of Daniel Levy."
"It 'appens to be my name."
"That I can well believe," rejoined Raffles; "and if I may say so, Mr. Levy, I respect you for it. You don't call yourself MacGregor or Montgomery. You don't sail under false colours at all. You fly the skull and crossbones of Daniel Levy, and it's one of the points that distinguish you from the ruck of money-lenders and put you in a class by yourself. Unfortunately, the other points are not so creditable. If you are more brazen than most you are also more unscrupulous; if you fly at higher game, you descend to lower dodges. You may be the biggest man alive at your job; you are certainly the biggest villain."
"But I'm up against a bigger now," said Levy, shifting his position and closing his crimson eyes.
"Possibly," said Raffles, as he produced a long envelope and unfolded a sheet of foolscap; "but permit me to remind you of a few of your own proven villainies before you take any more shots at mine. Last year you had three of your great bargains set aside by the law as hard and unconscionable; but every year you have these cases, and at best the terms are modified in favour of your wretched client. But it's only the exception who will face the music of the law-courts and the Press, and you figure on the general run. You prefer people like the Lincolnshire vicar you hounded into an asylum the year before last. You cherish the memory of the seven poor devils that you drove to suicide between 1890 and 1894; that sort pay the uttermost farthing before the debt to nature! You set great store by the impoverished gentry and nobility who have you to stay with them when the worst comes to the worst, and secure a respite in exchange for introductions to their pals. No fish is too large for your net, and none is too small, from his highness of Hathipur to that poor little builder at Bromley, who cut the throats—"
"Stop it!" cried Levy, in a lather of impotent rage.
"By all means," said Raffles, restoring the paper to its envelope. "It's an ugly little load for one man's soul, I admit; but you must see it was about time somebody beat you at your own beastly game."
"It's a pack of blithering lies," retorted Levy, "and you haven't beaten me yet. Stick to facts within your own knowledge, and then tell me if your precious Garlands haven't brought their troubles on themselves?"
"Certainly they have," said Raffles. "But it isn't your treatment of the Garlands that has brought you to this pretty pass."
"What is it, then?"
"Your treatment of me, Mr. Levy."
"A cursed crook like you!"
"A party to a pretty definite bargain, however, and a discredited person only so far as that bargain is concerned."
"And the rest!" said the money-lender, jeering feebly. "I know more about you than you guess."
"I should have put it the other way round," replied Raffles, smiling. "But we are both forgetting ourselves, prisoner in the bunk. Kindly note that your trial is resumed, and further contempt will not be allowed to go unpurged. You referred a moment ago to my unfortunate friends; you say they were the engineers of their own misfortunes. That might be said of all who ever put themselves in your clutches. You squeeze them as hard as the law will let you, and in this case I don't see how the law is to interfere. So I interfere myself—in the first instance as disastrously as you please."
"You did so!" exclaimed Levy, with a flicker of his inflamed eyes. "You brought things to a head; that's all you did."
"On the contrary, you and I came to an agreement which still holds good," said Raffles, significantly. "You are to return me a certain note of hand for thirteen thousand and odd pounds, taken in exchange for a loan of ten thousand, and you are also to give an understanding to leave another fifteen thousand of yours on mortgage for another year at least, instead of foreclosing, as you threatened and had a right to do this week. That was your side of the bargain."
"Well," said Levy, "and when did I go back on it?"
"My side," continued Raffles, ignoring the interpolation, "was to get you by hook or crook a certain letter which you say you never wrote. As a matter of fact it was only to be got by crook—"
"I got hold of it, nevertheless. I brought it to you at your house last night. And you instantly destroyed it after as foul an attack as one man ever made upon another!"
Raffles had risen in his wrath, was towering over the prostrate prisoner, forgetful of the mock trial, dead even to the humour which he himself had infused into a sufficiently lurid situation, but quite terribly alive to the act of treachery and violence which had brought that situation about. And I must say that Levy looked no less alive to his own enormity; he quailed in his bonds with a guilty fearfulness strange to witness in so truculent a brute; and it was with something near a quaver that his voice came next.
"I know that was wrong," the poor devil owned. "I'm very sorry for it, I'm sure! But you wouldn't trust me with my own property, and that and the drink together made me mad."
"So you acknowledge the alcoholic influence at last?"
"Oh, yes! I must have been as drunk as an owl."
"You know you've been suggesting that we drugged you?"
"Not seriously, Mr. Raffles. I knew the old stale taste too well. It must have been the best part of a bottle I had before you got down."
"In your anxiety to see me safe and sound?"
"That's it—with the letter."
"You never dreamt of playing me false until I hesitated to let you handle it?"
"Never for one moment, my dear Raffles!"
Raffles was still standing up to his last inch under the apex of the tower, his head and shoulders the butt of a climbing sunbeam full of fretful motes. I could not see his expression from the banisters, but only its effect upon Dan Levy, who first held up his manacled hands in hypocritical protestation, and then dropped them as though it were a bad job.
"Then why," said Raffles, "did you have me watched almost from the moment that we parted company at the Albany last Friday morning?"
"I have you watched!" exclaimed the other in real horror. "Why should I? It must have been the police."
"It was not the police, though the blackguards did their best to look as if they were. I happen to be too familiar with both classes to be deceived. Your fellows were waiting for me up at Lord's, but I had no difficulty in shaking them off when I got back to the Albany. They gave me no further trouble until last night, when they got on my tracks at Gray's Inn in the guise of the two common, low detectives whom I believe I have already mentioned to you."
"You said you left them there in their glory."
"It was glorious from my point of view rather than theirs."
Levy struggled into a less recumbent posture.
"And what makes you think," said he, "that I set this watch upon you?"
"I don't think," returned Raffles. "I know."
"And how the devil do you know?"
Raffles answered with a slow smile, and a still slower shake of the head: "You really mustn't ask me to give everybody away, Mr. Levy!"
The money-lender swore an oath of sheer incredulous surprise, but checked himself at that and tried one more poser.
"And what do you suppose was my object in having you watched, if it wasn't to ensure your safety?"
"It might have been to make doubly sure of the letter, and to cut down expenses at the same swoop, by knocking me on the head and abstracting the treasure from my person. It was a jolly cunning idea—prisoner in the bunk! I shouldn't be upset about it just because it didn't come off. My compliments especially on making up your varlets in the quite colourable image of the true detective. If they had fallen upon me, and it had been a case of my liberty or your letter, you know well enough which I should let go."
But Levy had fallen back upon his pillow of folded flag, and the Red Ensign over him bubbled and heaved with his impotent paroxysms.
"They told you! They must have told you!" he ground out through his teeth. "The traitors—the blasted traitors!"
"It's a catching complaint, you see, Mr. Levy," said Raffles, "especially when one's elders and betters themselves succumb to it."
"But they're such liars!" cried Levy, shifting his ground again. "Don't you see what liars they are? I did set them to watch you, but for your own good, as I've just been telling you. I was so afraid something might 'appen to you; they were there to see that nothing did. Now do you spot their game? I'd got to take the skunks into the secret, more or less, an' they've played it double on us both. Meant bagging the letter from you to blackmail me with it; that's what they meant! Of course, when they failed to bring it off, they'd pitch any yarn to you. But that was their game all right. You must see for yourself it could never have been mine, Raffles, and—and let me out o' this, like a good feller!"
"Is this your defence?" asked Raffles as he resumed his seat on the judicial locker.
"Isn't it your own?" the other asked in his turn, with an eager removal of all resentment from his manner. "'Aven't we both been got at by those two jackets? Of course I was sorry ever to 'ave trusted 'em an inch, and you were quite right to serve me as you did if what they'd been telling you 'ad been the truth; but, now you see it was all a pack of lies it's surely about time to stop treating me like a mad dog."
"Then you really mean to stand by your side of the original arrangement?"
"Always did," declared our captive; "never 'ad the slightest intention of doing anything else."
"Then where's the first thing you promised me in fair exchange for what you destroyed last night? Where's Mr. Garland's note of hand?"
"In my pocket-book, and that's in my pocket."
"In case the worst comes to the worst," murmured Raffles in sly commentary, and with a sidelong glance at me.
"What's that? Don't you believe me? I'll 'and it over this minute, if only you'll take these damned things off my wrists. There's no excuse for 'em now, you know!"
Raffles shook his head.
"I'd rather not trust myself within reach of your raw fists yet, prisoner. But my marshal will produce the note from your person if it's there."
It was there, in a swollen pocket-book which I replaced otherwise intact while Raffles compared the signature on the note of hand with samples which he had brought with him for the purpose.
"It's genuine enough," said Levy, with a sudden snarl and a lethal look that I intercepted at close quarters.
"So I perceive," said Raffles. "And now I require an equally genuine signature to this little document which is also a part of your bond."
The little document turned out to be a veritable Deed, engrossed on parchment, embossed with a ten-shilling stamp, and duly calling itself an INDENTURE, in fourteenth century capitals. So much I saw as I held it up for the prisoner to read over. The illegally legal instrument is still in existence, with its unpunctuated jargon about "hereditaments" and "fee simple," its "and whereas the said Daniel Levy" in every other line, and its eventual plain provision for "the said sum of L15,000 to remain charged upon the security of the hereditaments in the said recited Indenture ... until the expiration of one year computed from—" that summer's day in that empty tower! The whole thing had been properly and innocently prepared by old Mother Hubbard, the "little solicitor" whom Raffles had mentioned as having been in our house at school, from a copy of the original mortgage deed supplied in equal innocence by Mr. Garland. I sometimes wonder what those worthy citizens would have said, if they had dreamt for a moment under what conditions of acute duress their deed was to be signed!
Signed it was, however, and with less demur than might have been expected of so inveterate a fighter as Dan Levy. But his one remaining course was obviously the line of least resistance; no other would square with his ingenious repudiation of the charge of treachery to Raffles, much less with his repeated protestations that he had always intended to perform his part of their agreement. It was to his immediate interest to convince us of his good faith, and up to this point he might well have thought he had succeeded in so doing. Raffles had concealed his full knowledge of the creature's duplicity, had enjoyed leading him on from lie to lie, and I had enjoyed listening almost as much as I now delighted in the dilemma in which Levy had landed himself; for either he must sign and look pleasant, or else abandon his innocent posture altogether; and so he looked as pleasant as he could, and signed in his handcuffs, with but the shadow of a fight for their immediate removal.
"And now," said Levy, when I had duly witnessed his signature, "I think I've about earned that little drop of my own champagne."
"Not quite yet," replied Raffles, in a tone like thin ice. "We are only at the point we should have reached the moment I arrived at your house last night; you have now done under compulsion what you had agreed to do of your own free will then."
Levy lay back in the bunk, plunged in billows of incongruous bunting, with fallen jaw and fiery eyes, an equal blend of anger and alarm. "But I told you I wasn't myself last night," he whined. "I've said I was very sorry for all I done, but can't 'ardly remember doing. I say it again from the bottom of my 'eart."
"I've no doubt you do," said Raffles. "But what you did after our arrival was nothing to what you had already done; it was only the last of those acts of treachery for which you are still on your trial—prisoner in the bunk!"
"But I thought I'd explained all the rest?" cried the prisoner, in a palsy of impotent rage and disappointment.
"You have," said Raffles, "in the sense of making your perfidy even plainer than it was before. Come, Mr. Levy! I know every move you've made, and the game's been up longer than you think; you won't score a point by telling lies that contradict each other and aggravate your guilt. Have you nothing better to say why the sentence of the court should not be passed upon you?"
A sullen silence was broken by a more precise and staccato repetition of the question. And then to my amazement, I beheld the gross lower lip of Levy actually trembling, and a distressing flicker of the inflamed eyelids.