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 tape1 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 commissionaire2 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’3 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 glim4?”
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 funk5!”
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 valour6, 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 bottled7 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 Buildings8.”
“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 fez9 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!10 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 beard11! 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.