The Return Match
I had turned into Piccadilly, one thick evening in the following November, when my guilty heart stood still at the sudden grip of a hand upon my arm. I thought--I was always thinking--that my inevitable hour was come at last. It was only Raffles, however, who stood smiling at me through the fog.
"Well met!" said he. "I've been looking for you at the club."
"I was just on my way there," I returned, with an attempt to hide my tremors. It was an ineffectual attempt, as I saw from his broader smile, and by the indulgent shake of his head.
"Come up to my place instead," said he. "I've something amusing to tell you."
I made excuses, for his tone foretold the kind of amusement, and it was a kind against which I had successfully set my face for months. I have stated before, however, and I can but reiterate, that to me, at all events, there was never anybody in the world so irresistible as Raffles when his mind was made up. That we had both been independent of crime since our little service to Sir Bernard Debenham--that there had been no occasion for that masterful mind to be made up in any such direction for many a day--was the undeniable basis of a longer spell of honesty than I had hitherto enjoyed during the term of our mutual intimacy. Be sure I would deny it if I could; the very thing I am to tell you would discredit such a boast. I made my excuses, as I have said.
But his arm slid through mine, with his little laugh of light-hearted mastery. And even while I argued we were on his staircase in the Albany.
His fire had fallen low. He poked and replenished it after lighting the gas. As for me, I stood by sullenly in my overcoat until he dragged it off my back.
"What a chap you are!" said Raffles, playfully. "One would really think I had proposed to crack another crib this blessed night! Well, it isn't that, Bunny; so get into that chair, and take one of these Sullivans and sit tight."
He held the match to my cigarette; he brought me a whiskey and soda. Then he went out into the lobby, and, just as I was beginning to feel happy, I heard a bolt shot home. It cost me an effort to remain in that chair; next moment he was straddling another and gloating over my discomfiture across his folded arms.
"You remember Milchester, Bunny, old boy?"
His tone was as bland as mine was grim when I answered that I did.
"We had a little match there that wasn't down on the card. Gentlemen and Players, if you recollect?"
"I don't forget it."
"Seeing that you never got an innings, so to speak, I thought you might. Well, the Gentlemen scored pretty freely, but the Players were all caught."
"Don't be too sure. You remember the fellow we saw in the inn? The florid, over-dressed chap who I told you was one of the cleverest thieves in town?"
"I remember him. Crawshay his name turned out to be."
"Well, it was certainly the name he was convicted under, so Crawshay let it be. You needn't waste any pity on HIM, old chap; he escaped from Dartmoor yesterday afternoon."
Raffles smiled, but his eyebrows had gone up, and his shoulders followed suit.
"You are perfectly right; it was very well done indeed. I wonder you didn't see it in the paper. In a dense fog on the moor yesterday good old Crawshay made a bolt for it, and got away without a scratch under heavy fire. All honor to him, I agree; a fellow with that much grit deserves his liberty. But Crawshay has a good deal more. They hunted him all night long; couldn't find him for nuts; and that was all you missed in the morning papers."
He unfolded a Pall Mall, which he had brought in with him.
"But listen to this; here's an account of the escape, with just the addition which puts the thing on a higher level. 'The fugitive has been traced to Totnes, where he appears to have committed a peculiarly daring outrage in the early hours of this morning. He is reported to have entered the lodgings of the Rev. A. H. Ellingworth, curate of the parish, who missed his clothes on rising at the usual hour; later in the morning those of the convict were discovered neatly folded at the bottom of a drawer. Meanwhile Crawshay had made good his second escape, though it is believed that so distinctive a guise will lead to his recapture during the day.' What do you think of that, Bunny?"
"He is certainly a sportsman," said I, reaching for the paper.
"He's more," said Raffles, "he's an artist, and I envy him. The curate, of all men! Beautiful--beautiful! But that's not all. I saw just now on the board at the club that there's been an outrage on the line near Dawlish. Parson found insensible in the six-foot way. Our friend again! The telegram doesn't say so, but it's obvious; he's simply knocked some other fellow out, changed clothes again, and come on gayly to town. Isn't it great? I do believe it's the best thing of the kind that's ever been done!"
"But why should he come to town?"
In an instant the enthusiasm faded from Raffles's face; clearly I had reminded him of some prime anxiety, forgotten in his impersonal joy over the exploit of a fellow-criminal. He looked over his shoulder towards the lobby before replying.
"I believe," said he, "that the beggar's on MY tracks!"
And as he spoke he was himself again--quietly amused--cynically unperturbed--characteristically enjoying the situation and my surprise.
"But look here, what do you mean?" said I. "What does Crawshay know about you?"
"Not much; but he suspects."
"Why should he?"
"Because, in his way he's very nearly as good a man as I am; because, my dear Bunny, with eyes in his head and brains behind them, he couldn't help suspecting. He saw me once in town with old Baird. He must have seen me that day in the pub on the way to Milchester, as well as afterwards on the cricket-field. As a matter of fact, I know he did, for he wrote and told me so before his trial."
"He wrote to you! And you never told me!"
The old shrug answered the old grievance.
"What was the good, my dear fellow? It would only have worried you."
"Well, what did he say?"
"That he was sorry he had been run in before getting back to town, as he had proposed doing himself the honor of paying me a call; however, he trusted it was only a pleasure deferred, and he begged me not to go and get lagged myself before he came out. Of course he knew the Melrose necklace was gone, though he hadn't got it; and he said that the man who could take that and leave the rest was a man after his own heart. And so on, with certain little proposals for the far future, which I fear may be the very near future indeed! I'm only surprised he hasn't turned up yet."
He looked again towards the lobby, which he had left in darkness, with the inner door shut as carefully as the outer one. I asked him what he meant to do.
"Let him knock--if he gets so far. The porter is to say I'm out of town; it will be true, too, in another hour or so."
"You're going off to-night?"
"By the 7.15 from Liverpool Street. I don't say much about my people, Bunny, but I have the best of sisters married to a country parson in the eastern counties. They always make me welcome, and let me read the lessons for the sake of getting me to church. I'm sorry you won't be there to hear me on Sunday, Bunny. I've figured out some of my best schemes in that parish, and I know of no better port in a storm. But I must pack. I thought I'd just let you know where I was going, and why, in case you cared to follow my example."
He flung the stump of his cigarette into the fire, stretched himself as he rose, and remained so long in the inelegant attitude that my eyes mounted from his body to his face; a second later they had followed his eyes across the room, and I also was on my legs. On the threshold of the folding doors that divided bedroom and sitting-room, a well-built man stood in ill-fitting broadcloth, and bowed to us until his bullet head presented an unbroken disk of short red hair.
Brief as was my survey of this astounding apparition, the interval was long enough for Raffles to recover his composure; his hands were in his pockets, and a smile upon his face, when my eyes flew back to him.
"Let me introduce you, Bunny," said he, "to our distinguished colleague, Mr. Reginald Crawshay."
The bullet head bobbed up, and there was a wrinkled brow above the coarse, shaven face, crimson also, I remember, from the grip of a collar several sizes too small. But I noted nothing consciously at the time. I had jumped to my own conclusion, and I turned on Raffles with an oath.
"It's a trick!" I cried. "It's another of your cursed tricks! You got him here, and then you got me. You want me to join you, I suppose? I'll see you damned!"
So cold was the stare which met this outburst that I became ashamed of my words while they were yet upon my lips.
"Really, Bunny!" said Raffles, and turned his shoulder with a shrug.
"Lord love yer," cried Crawshay, "'E knew nothin'. 'E didn't expect me; 'E'S all right. And you're the cool canary, YOU are," he went on to Raffles. "I knoo you were, but, do me proud, you're one after my own kidney!" And he thrust out a shaggy hand.
"After that," said Raffles, taking it, "what am I to say? But you must have heard my opinion of you. I am proud to make your acquaintance. How the deuce did you get in?"
"Never you mind," said Crawshay, loosening his collar; "let's talk about how I'm to get out. Lord love yer, but that's better!"
There was a livid ring round his bull-neck, that he fingered tenderly. "Didn't know how much longer I might have to play the gent," he explained; "didn't know who you'd bring in."
"Drink whiskey and soda?" inquired Raffles, when the convict was in the chair from which I had leapt.
"No, I drink it neat," replied Crawshay, "but I talk business first. You don't get over me like that, Lor' love yer!"
"Well, then, what can I do for you?"
"You know without me tellin' you."
"Give it a name."
"Clean heels, then; that's what I want to show, and I leaves the way to you. We're brothers in arms, though I ain't armed this time. It ain't necessary. You've too much sense. But brothers we are, and you'll see a brother through. Let's put it at that. You'll see me through in yer own way. I leaves it all to you."
His tone was rich with conciliation and concession; he bent over and tore a pair of button boots from his bare feet, which he stretched towards the fire, painfully uncurling his toes.
"I hope you take a larger size than them," said he. "I'd have had a see if you'd given me time. I wasn't in long afore you."
"And you won't tell me how you got in?"
"Wot's the use? I can't teach YOU nothin'. Besides, I want out. I want out of London, an' England, an' bloomin' Europe too. That's all I want of you, mister. I don't arst how YOU go on the job. You know w'ere I come from, 'cos I 'eard you say; you know w'ere I want to 'ead for, 'cos I've just told yer; the details I leaves entirely to you."
"Well," said Raffles, "we must see what can be done."
"We must," said Mr. Crawshay, and leaned back comfortably, and began twirling his stubby thumbs.
Raffles turned to me with a twinkle in his eye; but his forehead was scored with thought, and resolve mingled with resignation in the lines of his mouth. And he spoke exactly as though he and I were alone in the room.
"You seize the situation, Bunny? If our friend here is 'copped,' to speak his language, he means to 'blow the gaff' on you and me. He is considerate enough not to say so in so many words, but it's plain enough, and natural enough for that matter. I would do the same in his place. We had the bulge before; he has it now; it's perfectly fair. We must take on this job; we aren't in a position to refuse it; even if we were, I should take it on! Our friend is a great sportsman; he has got clear away from Dartmoor; it would be a thousand pities to let him go back. Nor shall he; not if I can think of a way of getting him abroad."
"Any way you like," murmured Crawshay, with his eyes shut. "I leaves the 'ole thing to you."
"But you'll have to wake up and tell us things."
"All right, mister; but I'm fair on the rocks for a sleep!"
And he stood up, blinking.
"Think you were traced to town?"
"Must have been."
"Not in this fog--not with any luck."
Raffles went into the bedroom, lit the gas there, and returned next minute.
"So you got in by the window?"
"That's about it."
"It was devilish smart of you to know which one; it beats me how you brought it off in daylight, fog or no fog! But let that pass. You don't think you were seen?"
"I don't think it, sir."
"Well, let's hope you are right. I shall reconnoitre and soon find out. And you'd better come too, Bunny, and have something to eat and talk it over."
As Raffles looked at me, I looked at Crawshay, anticipating trouble; and trouble brewed in his blank, fierce face, in the glitter of his startled eyes, in the sudden closing of his fists.
"And what's to become o' me?" he cried out with an oath.
"You wait here."
"No, you don't," he roared, and at a bound had his back to the door. "You don't get round me like that, you cuckoos!"
Raffles turned to me with a twitch of the shoulders. "That's the worst of these professors," said he; "they never will use their heads. They see the pegs, and they mean to hit 'em; but that's all they do see and mean, and they think we're the same. No wonder we licked them last time!"
"Don't talk through yer neck," snarled the convict. "Talk out straight, curse you!"
"Right," said Raffles. "I'll talk as straight as you like. You say you put yourself in my hands--you leave it all to me--yet you don't trust me an inch! I know what's to happen if I fail. I accept the risk. I take this thing on. Yet you think I'm going straight out to give you away and make you give me away in my turn. You're a fool, Mr. Crawshay, though you have broken Dartmoor; you've got to listen to a better man, and obey him. I see you through in my own way, or not at all. I come and go as I like, and with whom I like, without your interference; you stay here and lie just as low as you know how, be as wise as your word, and leave the whole thing to me. If you won't--if you're fool enough not to trust me--there's the door. Go out and say what you like, and be damned to you!"
Crawshay slapped his thigh.
"That's talking!" said he. "Lord love yer, I know where I am when you talk like that. I'll trust yer. I know a man when he gets his tongue between his teeth; you're all right. I don't say so much about this other gent, though I saw him along with you on the job that time in the provinces; but if he's a pal of yours, Mr. Raffles, he'll be all right too. I only hope you gents ain't too stony--"
And he touched his pockets with a rueful face.
"I only went for their togs," said he. "You never struck two such stony-broke cusses in yer life!"
"That's all right," said Raffles. "We'll see you through properly. Leave it to us, and you sit tight."
"Rightum!" said Crawshay. "And I'll have a sleep time you're gone. But no sperrits--no, thank'ee--not yet! Once let me loose on the lush, and, Lord love yer, I'm a gone coon!"
Raffles got his overcoat, a long, light driving-coat, I remember, and even as he put it on our fugitive was dozing in the chair; we left him murmuring incoherently, with the gas out, and his bare feet toasting.
"Not such a bad chap, that professor," said Raffles on the stairs; "a real genius in his way, too, though his methods are a little elementary for my taste. But technique isn't everything; to get out of Dartmoor and into the Albany in the same twenty-four hours is a whole that justifies its parts. Good Lord!"
We had passed a man in the foggy courtyard, and Raffles had nipped my arm.
"Who was it?"
"The last man we want to see! I hope to heaven he didn't hear me!"
"But who is he, Raffles?"
"Our old friend Mackenzie, from the Yard!"
I stood still with horror.
"Do you think he's on Crawshay's track?"
"I don't know. I'll find out."
And before I could remonstrate he had wheeled me round; when I found my voice he merely laughed, and whispered that the bold course was the safe one every time.
"But it's madness--"
"Not it. Shut up! Is that YOU, Mr. Mackenzie?"
The detective turned about and scrutinized us keenly; and through the gaslit mist I noticed that his hair was grizzled at the temples, and his face still cadaverous, from the wound that had nearly been his death.
"Ye have the advantage o' me, sirs," said he.
"I hope you're fit again," said my companion. "My name is Raffles, and we met at Milchester last year."
"Is that a fact?" cried the Scotchman, with quite a start. "Yes, now I remember your face, and yours too, sir. Ay, yon was a bad business, but it ended vera well, an' that's the main thing."
His native caution had returned to him. Raffles pinched my arm.
"Yes, it ended splendidly, but for you," said he. "But what about this escape of the leader of the gang, that fellow Crawshay? What do you think of that, eh?"
"I havena the parteeculars," replied the Scot.
"Good!" cried Raffles. "I was only afraid you might be on his tracks once more!"
Mackenzie shook his head with a dry smile, and wished us good evening as an invisible window was thrown up, and a whistle blown softly through the fog.
"We must see this out," whispered Raffles. "Nothing more natural than a little curiosity on our part. After him, quick!"
And we followed the detective into another entrance on the same side as that from which we had emerged, the left-hand side on one's way to Piccadilly; quite openly we followed him, and at the foot of the stairs met one of the porters of the place. Raffles asked him what was wrong.
"Nothing, sir," said the fellow glibly.
"Rot!" said Raffles. "That was Mackenzie, the detective. I've just been speaking to him. What's he here for? Come on, my good fellow; we won't give you away, if you've instructions not to tell."
The man looked quaintly wistful, the temptation of an audience hot upon him; a door shut upstairs, and he fell.
"It's like this," he whispered. "This afternoon a gen'leman comes arfter rooms, and I sent him to the orfice; one of the clurks, 'e goes round with 'im an' shows 'im the empties, an' the gen'leman's partic'ly struck on the set the coppers is up in now. So he sends the clurk to fetch the manager, as there was one or two things he wished to speak about; an' when they come back, blowed if the gent isn't gone! Beg yer pardon, sir, but he's clean disappeared off the face o' the premises!" And the porter looked at us with shining eyes.
"Well?" said Raffles.
"Well, sir, they looked about, an' looked about, an' at larst they give him up for a bad job; thought he'd changed his mind an' didn't want to tip the clurk; so they shut up the place an' come away. An' that's all till about 'alf an hour ago, when I takes the manager his extry-speshul Star; in about ten minutes he comes running out with a note, an' sends me with it to Scotland Yard in a hansom. An' that's all I know, sir--straight. The coppers is up there now, and the tec, and the manager, and they think their gent is about the place somewhere still. Least, I reckon that's their idea; but who he is, or what they want him for, I dunno."
"Jolly interesting!" said Raffles. "I'm going up to inquire. Come on, Bunny; there should be some fun."
"Beg yer pardon, Mr. Raffles, but you won't say nothing about me?"
"Not I; you're a good fellow. I won't forget it if this leads to sport. Sport!" he whispered as we reached the landing. "It looks like precious poor sport for you and me, Bunny!"
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know. There's no time to think. This, to start with."
And he thundered on the shut door; a policeman opened it. Raffles strode past him with the air of a chief commissioner, and I followed before the man had recovered from his astonishment. The bare boards rang under us; in the bedroom we found a knot of officers stooping over the window-ledge with a constable's lantern. Mackenzie was the first to stand upright, and he greeted us with a glare.
"May I ask what you gentlemen want?" said he.
"We want to lend a hand," said Raffles briskly. "We lent one once before, and it was my friend here who took over from you the fellow who split on all the rest, and held him tightly. Surely that entitles him, at all events, to see any fun that's going? As for myself, well, it's true I only helped to carry you to the house; but for old acquaintance I do hope, my dear Mr. Mackenzie, that you will permit us to share such sport as there may be. I myself can only stop a few minutes, in any case."
"Then ye'll not see much," growled the detective, "for he's not up here. Constable, go you and stand at the foot o' the stairs, and let no other body come up on any conseederation; these gentlemen may be able to help us after all."
"That's kind of you, Mackenzie!" cried Raffles warmly. "But what is it all? I questioned a porter I met coming down, but could get nothing out of him, except that somebody had been to see these rooms and not since been seen himself."
"He's a man we want," said Mackenzie. "He's concealed himself somewhere about these premises, or I'm vera much mistaken. D'ye reside in the Albany, Mr. Raffles?"
"Will your rooms be near these?"
"On the next staircase but one."
"Ye'll just have left them?"
"Been in all the afternoon, likely?"
"Then I may have to search your rooms, sir. I am prepared to search every room in the Albany! Our man seems to have gone for the leads; but unless he's left more marks outside than in, or we find him up there, I shall have the entire building to ransack."
"I will leave you my key," said Raffles at once. "I am dining out, but I'll leave it with the officer down below."
I caught my breath in mute amazement. What was the meaning of this insane promise? It was wilful, gratuitous, suicidal; it made me catch at his sleeve in open horror and disgust; but, with a word of thanks, Mackenzie had returned to his window-sill, and we sauntered unwatched through the folding-doors into the adjoining room. Here the window looked down into the courtyard; it was still open; and as we gazed out in apparent idleness, Raffles reassured me.
"It's all right, Bunny; you do what I tell you and leave the rest to me. It's a tight corner, but I don't despair. What you've got to do is to stick to these chaps, especially if they search my rooms; they mustn't poke about more than necessary, and they won't if you're there."
"But where will you be? You're never going to leave me to be landed alone?"
"If I do, it will be to turn up trumps at the right moment. Besides, there are such things as windows, and Crawshay's the man to take his risks. You must trust me, Bunny; you've known me long enough."
"Are you going now?"
"There's no time to lose. Stick to them, old chap; don't let them suspect YOU, whatever else you do." His hand lay an instant on my shoulder; then he left me at the window, and recrossed the room.
"I've got to go now," I heard him say; "but my friend will stay and see this through, and I'll leave the gas on in my rooms, and my key with the constable downstairs. Good luck, Mackenzie; only wish I could stay."
"Good-by, sir," came in a preoccupied voice, "and many thanks."
Mackenzie was still busy at his window, and I remained at mine, a prey to mingled fear and wrath, for all my knowledge of Raffles and of his infinite resource. By this time I felt that I knew more or less what he would do in any given emergency; at least I could conjecture a characteristic course of equal cunning and audacity. He would return to his rooms, put Crawshay on his guard, and--stow him away? No--there were such things as windows. Then why was Raffles going to desert us all? I thought of many things--lastly of a cab. These bedroom windows looked into a narrow side-street; they were not very high; from them a man might drop on to the roof of a cab--even as it passed--and be driven away even under the noses of the police! I pictured Raffles driving that cab, unrecognizable in the foggy night; the vision came to me as he passed under the window, tucking up the collar of his great driving-coat on the way to his rooms; it was still with me when he passed again on his way back, and stopped to hand the constable his key.
"We're on his track," said a voice behind me. "He's got up on the leads, sure enough, though how he managed it from yon window is a myst'ry to me. We're going to lock up here and try what like it is from the attics. So you'd better come with us if you've a mind."
The top floor at the Albany, as elsewhere, is devoted to the servants--a congeries of little kitchens and cubicles, used by many as lumber-rooms--by Raffles among the many. The annex in this case was, of course, empty as the rooms below; and that was lucky, for we filled it, what with the manager, who now joined us, and another tenant whom he brought with him to Mackenzie's undisguised annoyance.
"Better let in all Piccadilly at a crown a head," said he. "Here, my man, out you go on the roof to make one less, and have your truncheon handy."
We crowded to the little window, which Mackenzie took care to fill; and a minute yielded no sound but the crunch and slither of constabulary boots upon sooty slates. Then came a shout.
"What now?" cried Mackenzie.
"A rope," we heard, "hanging from the spout by a hook!"
"Sirs," purred Mackenzie, "yon's how he got up from below! He would do it with one o' they telescope sticks, an' I never thocht o't! How long a rope, my lad?"
"Quite short. I've got it."
"Did it hang over a window? Ask him that!" cried the manager. "He can see by leaning over the parapet."
The question was repeated by Mackenzie; a pause, then "Yes, it did."
"Ask him how many windows along!" shouted the manager in high excitement.
"Six, he says," said Mackenzie next minute; and he drew in his head and shoulders. "I should just like to see those rooms, six windows along."
"Mr. Raffles," announced the manager after a mental calculation.
"Is that a fact?" cried Mackenzie. "Then we shall have no difficulty at all. He's left me his key down below."
The words had a dry, speculative intonation, which even then I found time to dislike; it was as though the coincidence had already struck the Scotchman as something more.
"Where is Mr. Raffles?" asked the manager, as we all filed downstairs.
"He's gone out to his dinner," said Mackenzie.
"Are you sure?"
"I saw him go," said I. My heart was beating horribly. I would not trust myself to speak again. But I wormed my way to a front place in the little procession, and was, in fact, the second man to cross the threshold that had been the Rubicon of my life. As I did so I uttered a cry of pain, for Mackenzie had trod back heavily on my toes; in another second I saw the reason, and saw it with another and a louder cry.
A man was lying at full length before the fire on his back, with a little wound in the white forehead, and the blood draining into his eyes. And the man was Raffles himself!
"Suicide," said Mackenzie calmly. "No--here's the poker--looks more like murder." He went on his knees and shook his head quite cheerfully. "An' it's not even murder," said he, with a shade of disgust in his matter-of-fact voice; "yon's no more than a flesh-wound, and I have my doubts whether it felled him; but, sirs, he just stinks o' chloryform!"
He got up and fixed his keen gray eyes upon me; my own were full of tears, but they faced him unashamed.
"I understood ye to say ye saw him go out?" said he sternly.
"I saw that long driving-coat; of course, I thought he was inside it."
"And I could ha' sworn it was the same gent when he give me the key!"
It was the disconsolate voice of the constable in the background; on him turned Mackenzie, white to the lips.
"You'd think anything, some of you damned policemen," said he. "What's your number, you rotter? P 34? You'll be hearing more of this, Mr. P 34! If that gentleman was dead--instead of coming to himself while I'm talking--do you know what you'd be? Guilty of his manslaughter, you stuck pig in buttons! Do you know who you've let slip, butter-fingers? Crawshay--no less--him that broke Dartmoor yesterday. By the God that made ye, P 34, if I lose him I'll hound ye from the forrce!"
Working face--shaking fist--a calm man on fire. It was a new side of Mackenzie, and one to mark and to digest. Next moment he had flounced from our midst.
"Difficult thing to break your own head," said Raffles later; "infinitely easier to cut your own throat. Chloroform's another matter; when you've used it on others, you know the dose to a nicety. So you thought I was really gone? Poor old Bunny! But I hope Mackenzie saw your face?"
"He did," said I. I would not tell him all Mackenzie must have seen, however.
"That's all right. I wouldn't have had him miss it for worlds; and you mustn't think me a brute, old boy, for I fear that man, and, know, we sink or swim together."
"And now we sink or swim with Crawshay, too," said I dolefully.
"Not we!" said Raffles with conviction. "Old Crawshay's a true sportsman, and he'll do by us as we've done by him; besides, this makes us quits; and I don't think, Bunny, that we'll take on the professors again!"Next