It would be hard to find a better refuge on a rainy day than the amphibious retreat described by Raffles as a “country house in Kensington.” There was a good square hall, full of the club comforts so welcome in a home, such as magazines and cigarettes, and a fire when the rain set in. The usual rooms opened off the hall, and the library was not the only one that led on into the conservatory; the drawing-room was another, in which I heard voices as I lit a cigarette among the palms and tree-ferns. It struck me that poor Mr. Garland was finding it hard work to propitiate the lady whom Raffles had deemed unworthy of mention overnight. But I own I was in no hurry to take over the invidious task. To me it need prove nothing more; to him, anguish; but I could not help feeling that even as matters stood I was quite sufficiently embroiled in these people’s affairs. Their name had been little more than a name to me until the last few hours. Only yesterday I might have hesitated to nod to Teddy Garland at the club, so seldom had we met. Yet here was I helping Raffles to keep the worst about the son from the father’s knowledge, and on the point of helping that father to keep what might easily prove worse still from his daughter-in-law to be. And all the time there was the worst of all to be hidden from everybody concerning Raffles and me!
Meanwhile I explored a system of flower-houses and vineries that ran out from the conservatory in a continuous chain—each link with its own temperature and its individual scent—and not a pane but rattled and streamed beneath the timely torrent. It was in a fernery where a playing fountain added its tuneful drop to the noisy deluge that the voices of the drawing-room sounded suddenly at my elbow, and I was introduced to Miss Belsize before I could recover from my surprise. My foolish face must have made her smile in spite of herself, for I did not see quite the same smile again all day; but it made me her admirer on the spot, and I really think she warmed to me for amusing her even for a moment.
So we began rather well; and that was a mercy in the light of poor Mr. Garland’s cynically prompt departure; but we did not go on quite as well as we had begun. I do not say that Miss Belsize was in a bad temper, but emphatically she was not pleased, and I for one had the utmost sympathy with her displeasure. She was simply but exquisitely dressed, with unostentatious touches of Cambridge blue1 and a picture hat2 that really was a picture. Yet on a perfect stranger in a humid rockery she was wasting what had been meant for mankind at Lord’s. The only consolation I could suggest was that by this time Lord’s would be more humid still.
“And so there’s something to be said for being bored to tears under shelter, Miss Belsize.” Miss Belsize did not deny that she was bored.
“But there’s plenty of shelter there,” said she.
“Packed with draggled dresses and squelching shoes! You might swim for it before they admitted you to that Pavilion, you know.”
“But if the ground’s under water, how can they play to-day?”
“They can’t, Miss Belsize, I don’t mind betting.”
That was a rash remark.
“Then why doesn’t Teddy come back?”
“Oh, well, you know,” I hedged, “you can never be quite absolutely sure.
It might clear up. They’re bound to give it a chance until the afternoon. And the players can’t leave till stumps are drawn3.”
“I should have thought Teddy could have come home to lunch,” said Miss Belsize, “even if he had to go back afterwards.”
“I shouldn’t wonder if he did come,” said I, conceiving the bare possibility: “and A.J. with him.”
“Do you mean Mr. Raffles?”
“Yes, Miss Belsize; he’s the only A.J. that counts!”
Camilla Belsize turned slightly in the basket-chair to which she had confided her delicate frock, and our eyes met almost for the first time. Certainly we had not exchanged so long a look before, for she had been watching the torpid goldfish in the rockery pool, and I admiring her bold profile and the querulous poise of a fine head as I tried to argue her out of all desire for Lord’s. Suddenly our eyes met, as I say, and hers dazzled me; they were soft and yet brilliant, tender and yet cynical, calmly reckless, audaciously sentimental—all that and more as I see them now on looking back; but at the time I was merely dazzled.
“So you and Mr. Raffles are great friends?” said Miss Belsize, harking back to a remark of Mr. Garland’s in introducing us.
“Rather!” I replied.
“Are you as great a friend of his as Teddy is?”
I liked that, but simply said I was an older friend. “Raffles and I were at school together,” I added loftily.
“Really? I should have thought he was before your time.”
“No, only senior to me. I happened to be his fag.”
“And what sort of a schoolboy was Mr. Raffles?” inquired Miss Belsize, not by any means in the tone of a devotee. But I reflected that her own devotion was bespoke, and not improbably tainted with some little jealousy of Raffles.
“He was the most Admirable Crichton4 who was ever at the school,” said I: “captain of the eleven, the fastest man in the fifteen5, athletic champion, and an ornament of the Upper Sixth.”
“And you worshipped him, I suppose?”
My companion had been taking renewed interest in the goldfish; now she looked at me again with the cynical light full on in her eyes.
“You must be rather disappointed in him now!”
“Disappointed! Why?” I asked with much outward amusement. But I was beginning to feel uncomfortable.
“Of course I don’t know much about him,” remarked Miss Belsize as though she cared less. “But does anybody know anything of Mr. Raffles except as a cricketer?”
“I do,” said I, with injudicious alacrity.
“Well,” said Miss Belsize, “what else is he?”
“The best fellow in the world, among other things.”
“But what other things?”
“Ask Teddy!” I said unluckily.
“I have,” replied Miss Belsize. “But Teddy doesn’t know. He often wonders how Mr. Raffles can afford to play so much cricket without doing any work.”
“Does he, indeed!”
“Many people do.”
“And what do they say about him?”
Miss Belsize hesitated, watching me for a moment and the goldfish rather longer. The rain sounded louder, and the fountain as though it had been turned on again, before she answered:
“More than their prayers, no doubt!”
“Do you mean,” I almost gasped, “as to the way Raffles gets his living?”
“You might tell me the kind of things they say, Miss Belsize!”
“But if there’s no truth in them?”
“I’ll soon tell you if there is or not.”
“But suppose I don’t care either way?” said Miss Belsize with a brilliant smile.
“Then I care so much that I should be extremely grateful to you.”
“Mind, I don’t believe it myself, Mr. Manders.”
“You don’t believe—”
“That Mr. Raffles lives by his wits and—his cricket!6”
I jumped to my feet.
“Is that all they say about him?” I cried.
“Isn’t it enough?” asked Miss Belsize, astonished in her turn at my demeanour.
“Oh, quite enough, quite enough!” said I. “It’s only the most scandalously unfair and utterly untrue report that ever got about—that’s all!”
This heavy irony was, of course, intended to convey the impression that one’s first explosion of relief had been equally ironical. But I was to discover that Camilla Belsize was never easily deceived; it was unpleasantly apparent in her bold eyes before she opened her firm mouth.
“Yet you seemed to expect something worse,” she said at length.
“What could be worse?” I asked, my back against the wall of my own indiscretion. “Why, a man like A.J. Raffles would rather be any mortal thing than a paid amateur!”
“But you haven’t told me what he is, Mr. Manders.”
“And you haven’t told me, Miss Belsize, why you’re so interested in A. J. after all!” I retorted, getting home for once, and sitting down again on the strength of it.
But Miss Belsize was my superior to the last; in the single moment of my ascendency she made me blush for it and for myself. She would be quite frank with me: my friend Mr. Raffles did interest her rather more than she cared to say. It was because Teddy thought so much of him, that was the only reason, and her one excuse for all inquisitive questions and censorious remarks. I must have thought her very rude; but now I knew. Mr. Raffles had been such a friend to Teddy; sometimes she wondered whether he was quite a good friend; and there I had “the whole thing in a nutshell.”
I had indeed! And I knew the nut, and had tasted its bitter kernel too often to make any mistake about it. Jealousy was its other name. But I did not care how jealous Miss Belsize became of Raffles as long as jealousy did not beget suspicion; and my mind was not entirely relieved on that point.
We dropped the whole subject, however, with some abruptness; and the rest of our conversation in the rockery, and in the steaming orchid-house and further vineries which we proceeded to explore together, was quite refreshingly tame. Yet I think it was on this desultory tour, to the still incessant accompaniment of rain on the glasshouses, that Camilla’s mother took shape in my mind as the Lady Laura Belsize, an apparently impecunious widow reduced to “semi-detachment7 down the river” and suburban neighbours whose manners and customs my companion hit off with vivacious intolerance. She told me how she had shocked them by smoking cigarettes in the back garden8, and pronounced a gratuitous conviction that I of all people would have been no less scandalised! That was in the uttermost vinery, and in another minute two Sullivans were in full blast under the vines. I remember discovering that the great brand was not unfamiliar to Miss Belsize, and even gathering that it was Raffles himself who had made it known to her. Raffles, whom she did not “know much about,” or consider “quite a good friend” for Teddy Garland!
I was becoming curious to see this antagonistic pair together; but it was the middle of the afternoon before Raffles reappeared, though Mr. Garland told me he had received an optimistic note from him by special messenger earlier in the day. I felt I might have been told a little more, considering the intimate part I was already playing as a stranger in a strange house. But I was only too thankful to find that Raffles had so far infected our host with his confidence as to tide us through luncheon with far fewer embarrassments than before; nor did Mr. Garland desert us again until the butler with a visitor’s card brought about his abrupt departure from the conservatory.
Then my troubles began afresh. It stopped raining at last; if Miss Belsize could have had her way we should all have started for Lord’s that minute. I took her into the garden to show her the state of the lawns, coldly scintillant with standing water and rimmed by regular canals. Lord’s would be like them, only fifty times worse; play had no doubt been abandoned on that quagmire for the day. Miss Belsize was not so sure about that; why should we not drive over and find out? I said that was the surest way of missing Teddy. She said a hansom would take us there and back in a half-an-hour. I gained time disputing that statement, but said if we went at all I was sure Mr. Garland would want to go with us, and that in his own brougham. All this on the crown of a sloppy path, and when Miss Belsize asked me how many more times I was going to change my ground, I could not help looking at her absurd shoes sinking into the softened gravel, and saying I thought it was for her to do that. Miss Belsize took my advice to the extent of turning upon a submerged heel, though with none too complimentary a smile; and then it was that I saw what I had been curious to see all day. Raffles was coming down the path towards us. And I saw Miss Belsize hesitate and stiffen before shaking hands with him.
“They’ve given it up as a bad job at last,” said he. “I’ve just come from Lord’s, and Teddy won’t be very long.”
“Why didn’t you bring him with you?” asked Miss Belsize pertinently.
“Well, I thought you ought to know the worst at once,” said Raffles, rather lamely for him; “and then a man playing in a ‘Varsity match is never quite his own master, you know. Still, he oughtn’t to keep you waiting much longer.”
It was perhaps unfortunately put; at any rate Miss Belsize took it pretty plainly amiss, and I saw her colour rise as she declared she had been waiting in the hope of seeing some cricket. Since that was at an end she must be thinking of getting home, and would just say good-bye to Mr. Garland. This sudden decision took me as much by surprise as I believe it took Miss Belsize herself; but having announced her intention, however hot-headedly, she proceeded to action by way of the conservatory and the library door, while Raffles and I went through into the hall the other way.
“I’m afraid I’ve put my foot in it,” said he to me. “But it’s just as well, since I needn’t tell you there’s no sign of Teddy up at Lord’s.”
“Have you been there all day?” I asked him under my breath.
“Except when I went to the office of this rag,” replied Raffles, brandishing an evening paper that ill deserved his epithet. “See what they say about Teddy here.”
And I held my breath while Raffles showed me a stupendous statement in the stop-press column: it was to the effect that E.M. Garland (Eton and Trinity) might be unable to keep wicket for Cambridge after all, “owing to the serious illness of his father.”
“His father!” I exclaimed. “Why, his father’s closeted with somebody or other at this very moment behind the door you’re looking at!”
“I know, Bunny. I’ve seen him.”
“But what an extraordinary fabrication to get into a decent paper! I don’t wonder you went to the office about it.”
“You’ll wonder still less when I tell you I have an old pal on the staff.”
“Of course you made him take it straight out?”
“On the contrary, Bunny, I persuaded him to put it in!”
And Raffles chuckled in my face as I have known him chuckle over many a more felonious—but less incomprehensible—exploit.
“Didn’t you see, Bunny, how bad the poor old boy looked in his library this morning? That gave me my idea; the fiction is at least founded on fact. I wonder you don’t see the point; as a matter of fact, there are two points, just as there were two jobs I took on this morning; one was to find Teddy, and the other was to save his face at Lord’s. Well, I haven’t actually found him yet; but if he’s in the land of the living he will see this statement, and when he does see it even you may guess what he will do! Meanwhile, there’s nothing but sympathy for him at Lord’s. Studley couldn’t have been nicer; a place will be kept for Teddy up to the eleventh hour to-morrow. And if that isn’t killing two birds with one stone, Bunny, may I never perform the feat!”
“But what will old Garland say, A. J.?”
“He has already said, Bunny. I told him what I was doing in a note before lunch, and the moment I arrived just now he came out to hear what I had done. He doesn’t mind what I do so long as I find Teddy and save his face before the world at large and Miss Belsize in particular. Look out, Bunny—here she is!”
The excitement in his whisper was not characteristic of Raffles, but it was less remarkable than the change in Camilla Belsize as she entered the hall through the drawing-room as we had done before her. For one moment I suspected her of eavesdropping; then I saw that all traces of personal pique had vanished from her face, and that some anxiety for another had taken its place. She came up to Raffles and me as though she had forgiven both of us our trespasses of two or three minutes ago.
“I didn’t go into the library after all,” she said, looking askance at the library door. “I am afraid Mr. Garland is having a trying interview with somebody. I had just a glimpse of the man’s face as I hesitated, and I thought I recognised him.”
“Who was it?” I asked, for I myself had wondered who the rather mysterious visitor might be for whom Mr. Garland had deserted us so abruptly in the conservatory, and with whom he was still conferring in the hour of so many issues.
“I believe it’s a dreadful man I know by sight down the river,” said Miss Belsize; and hardly had she spoke before the library door opened and out came the dreadful man in the portentous person of Dan Levy, the usurer of European notoriety, our victim of the morning and our certain enemy for life.