The Black Mask, by E. W. Hornung

The last Laugh

As I have had occasion to remark elsewhere, the pick of our exploits, from a frankly criminal point of view, are of least use for the comparatively pure purposes of these papers. They might be appreciated in a trade journal (if only that want could be supplied), by skilled manipulators of the jemmy and the large light bunch; but, as records of unbroken yet insignificant success, they would be found at once too trivial and too technical, if not sordid and unprofitable into the bargain. The latter epithets, and worse, have indeed already been applied, if not to Raffles and all his works, at least to mine upon Raffles, by more than one worthy wielder of a virtuous pen. I need not say how heartily I disagree with that truly pious opinion. So far from admitting a single word of it, I maintain it is the liveliest warning that I am giving to the world. Raffles was a genius, and he could not make it pay! Raffles had invention, resource, incomparable audacity, and a nerve in ten thousand. He was both strategian and tactician, and we all now know the difference between the two. Yet for months he had been hiding like a rat in a hole, unable to show even his altered face by night or day without risk, unless another risk were courted by three inches of conspicuous crepe. Then thus far our rewards had oftener than not been no reward at all. Altogether it was a very different story from the old festive, unsuspected, club and cricket days, with their noctes ambrosianae at the Albany.

And now, in addition to the eternal peril of recognition, there was yet another menace of which I knew nothing. I thought no more of our Neapolitan organ-grinders, though I did often think of the moving page that they had torn for me out of my friend’s strange life in Italy. Raffles never alluded to the subject again, and for my part I had entirely forgotten his wild ideas connecting the organ-grinders with the Camorra, and imagining them upon his own tracks. I heard no more of it, and thought as little, as I say. Then one night in the autumn — I shrink from shocking the susceptible for nothing — but there was a certain house in Palace Gardens, and when we got there Raffles would pass on. I could see no soul in sight, no glimmer in the windows. But Raffles had my arm, and on we went without talking about it. Sharp to the left on the Notting Hill side, sharper still up Silver Street, a little tacking west and south, a plunge across High Street, and presently we were home.

“Pyjamas first,” said Raffles, with as much authority as though it mattered. It was a warm night, however, though September, and I did not mind until I came in clad as he commanded to find the autocrat himself still booted and capped. He was peeping through the blind, and the gas was still turned down. But he said that I could turn it up, as he helped himself to a cigarette and nothing with it.

“May I mix you one?” said I.

“No, thanks.”

“What’s the trouble?”

“We were followed.”

“Never!”

“You never saw it.”

“But YOU never looked round.”

“I have an eye at the back of each ear, Bunny.”

I helped myself and I fear with less moderation than might have been the case a minute before.

“So that was why —”

“That was why,” said Raffles, nodding; but he did not smile, and I put down my glass untouched.

“They were following us then!”

“All up Palace Gardens.”

“I thought you wound about coming back over the hill.”

“Nevertheless, one of them’s in the street below at this moment.”

No, he was not fooling me. He was very grim. And he had not taken off a thing; perhaps he did not think it worth while.

“Plain clothes?” I sighed, following the sartorial train of thought, even to the loathly arrows that had decorated my person once already for a little aeon. Next time they would give me double. The skilly was in my stomach when I saw Raffles’s face.

“Who said it was the police, Bunny?” said he. “It’s the Italians. They’re only after me; they won’t hurt a hair of YOUR head, let alone cropping it! Have a drink, and don’t mind me. I shall score them off before I’m done.”

“And I’ll help you!”

“No, old chap, you won’t. This is my own little show. I’ve known about it for weeks. I first tumbled to it the day those Neapolitans came back with their organs, though I didn’t seriously suspect things then; they never came again, those two, they had done their part. That’s the Camorra all over, from all accounts. The Count I told you about is pretty high up in it, by the way he spoke, but there will be grades and grades between him and the organ-grinders. I shouldn’t be surprised if he had every low-down Neapolitan ice-creamer in the town upon my tracks! The organization’s incredible. Then do you remember the superior foreigner who came to the door a few days afterwards? You said he had velvet eyes.”

“I never connected him with those two!”

“Of course you didn’t, Bunny, so you threatened to kick the fellow downstairs, and only made them keener on the scent. It was too late to say anything when you told me. But the very next time I showed my nose outside I heard a camera click as I passed, and the fiend was a person with velvet eyes. Then there was a lull — that happened weeks ago. They had sent me to Italy for identification by Count Corbucci.”

“But this is all theory,” I exclaimed. “How on earth can you know?”

“I don’t know,” said Raffles, “but I should like to bet. Our friend the bloodhound is hanging about the corner near the pillar-box; look through my window, it’s dark in there, and tell me who he is.”

The man was too far away for me to swear to his face, but he wore a covert-coat of unEnglish length, and the lamp across the road played steadily on his boots; they were very yellow, and they made no noise when he took a turn. I strained my eyes, and all at once I remembered the thin-soled, low-heeled, splay yellow boots of the insidious foreigner, with the soft eyes and the brown-paper face, whom I had turned from the door as a palpable fraud. The ring at the bell was the first I had heard of him, there had been no warning step upon the stairs, and my suspicious eye had searched his feet for rubber soles.

“It’s the fellow,” I said, returning to Raffles, and I described his boots.

Raffles was delighted.

“Well done, Bunny; you’re coming on,” said he. “Now I wonder if he’s been over here all the time, or if they sent him over expressly? You did better than you think in spotting those boots, for they can only have been made in Italy, and that looks like the special envoy. But it’s no use speculating. I must find out.”

“How can you?”

“He won’t stay there all night.”

“Well?”

“When he gets tired of it I shall return the compliment and follow HIM.”

“Not alone,” said I, firmly.

“Well, we’ll see. We’ll see at once,” said Raffles, rising. “Out with the gas, Bunny, while I take a look. Thank you. Now wait a bit . . . yes! He’s chucked it; he’s off already; and so am I!”

But I slipped to our outer door, and held the passage.

“I don’t let you go alone, you know.”

“You can’t come with me in pyjamas.”

“Now I see why you made me put them on!”

“Bunny, if you don’t shift I shall have to shift you. This is my very own private one-man show. But I’ll be back in an hour — there!”

“You swear?”

“By all my gods.”

I gave in. How could I help giving in? He did not look the man that he had been, but you never knew with Raffles, and I could not have him lay a hand on me. I let him go with a shrug and my blessing, then ran into his room to see the last of him from the window.

The creature in the coat and boots had reached the end of our little street, where he appeared to have hesitated, so that Raffles was just in time to see which way he turned. And Raffles was after him at an easy pace, and had himself almost reached the corner when my attention was distracted from the alert nonchalance of his gait. I was marvelling that it alone had not long ago betrayed him, for nothing about him was so unconsciously characteristic, when suddenly I realized that Raffles was not the only person in the little lonely street. Another pedestrian had entered from the other end, a man heavily built and clad, with an astrakhan collar to his coat on this warm night, and a black slouch hat that hid his features from my bird’s-eye view. His steps were the short and shuffling ones of a man advanced in years and in fatty degeneration, but of a sudden they stopped beneath my very eyes. I could have dropped a marble into the dinted crown of the black felt hat. Then, at the same moment, Raffles turned the corner without looking round, and the big man below raised both his hands and his face. Of the latter I saw only the huge white moustache, like a flying gull, as Raffles had described it; for at a glance I divined that this was his arch-enemy, the Count Corbucci himself.

I did not stop to consider the subtleties of the system by which the real hunter lagged behind while his subordinate pointed the quarry like a sporting dog. I left the Count shuffling onward faster than before, and I jumped into some clothes as though the flats were on fire. If the Count was going to follow Raffles in his turn, then I would follow the Count in mine, and there would be a midnight procession of us through the town. But I found no sign of him in the empty street, and no sign in the Earl’s Court Road, that looked as empty for all its length, save for a natural enemy standing like a waxwork figure with a glimmer at his belt.

“Officer,” I gasped, “have you seen anything of an old gentleman with a big white mustache?”

The unlicked cub of a common constable seemed to eye me the more suspiciously for the flattering form of my address.

“Took a hansom,” said he at length.

A hansom! Then he was not following the others on foot; there was no guessing his game. But something must be said or done.

“He’s a friend of mine,” I explained, “and I want to overtake him. Did you hear where he told the fellow to drive?”

A curt negative was the policeman’s reply to that; and if ever I take part in a night assault-at-arms, revolver versus baton, in the back kitchen, I know which member of the Metropolitan Police Force I should like for my opponent.

If there was no overtaking the Count, however, it should be a comparatively simple matter in the case of the couple on foot, and I wildly hailed the first hansom that crawled into my ken. I must tell Raffles who it was that I had seen; the Earl’s Court Road was long, and the time since he vanished in it but a few short minutes. I drove down the length of that useful thoroughfare, with an eye apiece on either pavement, sweeping each as with a brush, but never a Raffles came into the pan. Then I tried the Fulham Road, first to the west, then to the east, and in the end drove home to the flat as bold as brass. I did not realize my indiscretion until I had paid the man and was on the stairs. Raffles never dreamt of driving all the way back; but I was hoping now to find him waiting up above. He had said an hour. I had remembered it suddenly. And now the hour was more than up. But the flat was as empty as I had left it; the very light that had encouraged me, pale though it was, as I turned the corner in my hansom, was but the light that I myself had left burning in the desolate passage.

I can give you no conception of the night that I spent. Most of it I hung across the sill, throwing a wide net with my ears, catching every footstep afar off, every hansom bell farther still, only to gather in some alien whom I seldom even landed in our street. Then I would listen at the door.

He might come over the roof; and eventually some one did; but now it was broad daylight, and I flung the door open in the milkman’s face, which whitened at the shock as though I had ducked him in his own pail.

“You’re late,” I thundered as the first excuse for my excitement.

“Beg your pardon,” said he, indignantly, “but I’m half an hour before my usual time.”

“Then I beg yours,” said I; “but the fact is, Mr. Maturin has had one of his bad nights, and I seem to have been waiting hours for milk to make him a cup of tea.”

This little fib (ready enough for Raffles, though I say it) earned me not only forgiveness but that obliging sympathy which is a branch of the business of the man at the door. The good fellow said that he could see I had been sitting up all night, and he left me pluming myself upon the accidental art with which I had told my very necessary tarra-diddle. On reflection I gave the credit to instinct, not accident, and then sighed afresh as I realized how the influence of the master was sinking into me, and he Heaven knew where! But my punishment was swift to follow, for within the hour the bell rang imperiously twice, and there was Dr. Theobald on our mat; in a yellow Jaeger suit, with a chin as yellow jutting over the flaps that he had turned up to hide his pyjamas.

“What’s this about a bad night?” said he.

“He couldn’t sleep, and he wouldn’t let me,” I whispered, never loosening my grasp of the door, and standing tight against the other wall. “But he’s sleeping like a baby now.”

“I must see him.”

“He gave strict orders that you should not.”

“I’m his medical man, and I—”

“You know what he is,” I said, shrugging; “the least thing wakes him, and you will if you insist on seeing him now. It will be the last time, I warn you! I know what he said, and you don’t.”

The doctor cursed me under his fiery moustache.

“I shall come up during the course of the morning,” he snarled.

“And I shall tie up the bell,” I said, “and if it doesn’t ring he’ll be sleeping still, but I will not risk waking him by coming to the door again.”

And with that I shut it in his face. I was improving, as Raffles had said; but what would it profit me if some evil had befallen him? And now I was prepared for the worst. A boy came up whistling and leaving papers on the mats; it was getting on for eight o’clock, and the whiskey and soda of half-past twelve stood untouched and stagnant in the tumbler. If the worst had happened to Raffles, I felt that I would either never drink again, or else seldom do anything else.

Meanwhile I could not even break my fast, but roamed the flat in a misery not to be described, my very linen still unchanged, my cheeks and chin now tawny from the unwholesome night. How long would it go on? I wondered for a time. Then I changed my tune: how long could I endure it?

It went on actually until the forenoon only, but my endurance cannot be measured by the time, for to me every hour of it was an arctic night. Yet it cannot have been much after eleven when the ring came at the bell, which I had forgotten to tie up after all. But this was not the doctor; neither, too well I knew, was it the wanderer returned. Our bell was the pneumatic one that tells you if the touch be light or heavy; the hand upon it now was tentative and shy.

The owner of the hand I had never seen before. He was young and ragged, with one eye blank, but the other ablaze with some fell excitement. And straightway he burst into a low torrent of words, of which all I knew was that they were Italian, and therefore news of Raffles, if only I had known the language! But dumb-show might help us somewhat, and in I dragged him, though against his will, a new alarm in his one wild eye.

“Non capite?” he cried when I had him inside and had withstood the torrent.

“No, I’m bothered if I do!” I answered, guessing his question from his tone.

“Vostro amico,” he repeated over and over again; and then, “Poco tempo, poco tempo, poco tempo!”

For once in my life the classical education of my public-school days was of real value. “My pal, my pal, and no time to be lost!” I translated freely, and flew for my hat.

“Ecco, signore!” cried the fellow, snatching the watch from my waistcoat pocket, and putting one black thumb-nail on the long hand, the other on he numeral twelve. “Mezzogiorno — poco tempo — poco tempo!” And again I seized his meaning, that it was twenty past eleven, and we must be there by twelve. But where, but where? It was maddening to be summoned like this, and not to know what had happened, nor to have any means of finding out. But my presence of mind stood by me still, I was improving by seven-league strides, and I crammed my handkerchief between the drum and hammer of the bell before leaving. The doctor could ring now till he was black in the face, but I was not coming, and he need not think it.

I half expected to find a hansom waiting, but there was none, and we had gone some distance down the Earl’s Court Road before we got one; in fact, we had to run to the stand. Opposite is the church with the clock upon it, as everybody knows, and at sight of the dial my companion had wrung his hands; it was close upon the half-hour.

“Poco tempo — pochissimo!” he wailed. “Bloom-buree Ske-warr,” he then cried to the cabman —“numero trentotto!”

“Bloomsbury Square,” I roared on my own account, “I’ll show you the house when we get there, only drive like bedamned!”

My companion lay back gasping in his corner. The small glass told me that my own face was pretty red.

“A nice show!” I cried; “and not a word can you tell me. Didn’t you bring me a note?”

I might have known by this time that he had not, still I went through the pantomime of writing with my finger on my cuff. But he shrugged and shook his head.

“Niente,” said he. “Una quistione di vita, di vita!”

“What’s that?” I snapped, my early training come in again. “Say it slowly — andante — rallentando.”

Thank Italy for the stage instructions in the songs one used to murder! The fellow actually understood.

“Una — quistione — di — vita.”

“Or mors, eh?” I shouted, and up went the trap-door over our heads.

“Avanti, avanti, avanti!” cried the Italian, turning up his one-eyed face.

“Hell-to-leather,” I translated, “and double fare if you do it by twelve o’clock.”

But in the streets of London how is one to know the time? In the Earl’s Court Road it had not been half-past, and at Barker’s in High Street it was but a minute later. A long half-mile a minute, that was going like the wind, and indeed we had done much of it at a gallop. But the next hundred yards took us five minutes by the next clock, and which was one to believe? I fell back upon my own old watch (it was my own), which made it eighteen minutes to the hour as we swung across the Serpentine bridge, and by the quarter we were in the Bayswater Road — not up for once.

“Presto, presto,” my pale guide murmured. “Affretatevi — avanti!”

“Ten bob if you do it,” I cried through the trap, without the slightest notion of what we were to do. But it was “una quistione di vita,” and “vostro amico” must and could only be my miserable Raffles.

What a very godsend is the perfect hansom to the man or woman in a hurry! It had been our great good fortune to jump into a perfect hansom; there was no choice, we had to take the first upon the rank, but it must have deserved its place with the rest nowhere. New tires, superb springs, a horse in a thousand, and a driver up to every trick of his trade! In and out we went like a fast half-back at the Rugby game, yet where the traffic was thinnest, there were we. And how he knew his way! At the Marble Arch he slipped out of the main stream, and so into Wigmore Street, then up and in and out and on until I saw the gold tips of the Museum palisade gleaming between the horse’s ears in the sun. Plop, plop, plop; ting, ling, ling; bell and horse-shoes, horse-shoes and bell, until the colossal figure of C. J. Fox in a grimy toga spelt Bloomsbury Square with my watch still wanting three minutes to the hour.

“What number?” cried the good fellow over-head.

“Trentotto, trentotto,” said my guide, but he was looking to the right, and I bundled him out to show the house on foot. I had not half-a-sovereign after all, but I flung our dear driver a whole one instead, and only wish that it had been a hundred.

Already the Italian had his latch-key in the door of 38, and in another moment we were rushing up the narrow stairs of as dingy a London house as prejudiced countryman can conceive. It was panelled, but it was dark and evil-smelling, and how we should have found our way even to the stairs but for an unwholesome jet of yellow gas in the hall, I cannot myself imagine. However, up we went pell-mell, to the right-about on the half-landing, and so like a whirlwind into the drawing-room a few steps higher. There the gas was also burning behind closed shutters, and the scene is photographed upon my brain, though I cannot have looked upon it for a whole instant as I sprang in at my leader’s heels.

This room also was panelled, and in the middle of the wall on our left, his hands lashed to a ring-bolt high above his head, his toes barely touching the floor, his neck pinioned by a strap passing through smaller ring-bolts under either ear, and every inch of him secured on the same principle, stood, or rather hung, all that was left of Raffles, for at the first glance I believed him dead. A black ruler gagged him, the ends lashed behind his neck, the blood upon it caked to bronze in the gaslight. And in front of him, ticking like a sledge-hammer, its only hand upon the stroke of twelve, stood a simple, old-fashioned, grandfather’s clock — but not for half an instant longer — only until my guide could hurl himself upon it and send the whole thing crashing into the corner. An ear-splitting report accompanied the crash, a white cloud lifted from the fallen clock, and I saw a revolver smoking in a vice screwed below the dial, an arrangement of wires sprouting from the dial itself, and the single hand at once at its zenith and in contact with these.

“Tumble to it, Bunny?”

He was alive; these were his first words; the Italian had the blood-caked ruler in his hand, and with his knife was reaching up to cut the thongs that lashed the hands. He was not tall enough, I seized him and lifted him up, then fell to work with my own knife upon the straps. And Raffles smiled faintly upon us through his blood-stains.

“I want you to tumble to it,” he whispered; “the neatest thing in revenge I ever knew, and another minute would have fixed it. I’ve been waiting for it twelve hours, watching the clock round, death at the end of the lap! Electric connection. Simple enough. Hour-hand only — O Lord!”

We had cut the last strap. He could not stand. We supported him between us to a horsehair sofa, for the room was furnished, and I begged him not to speak, while his one-eyed deliverer was at the door before Raffles recalled him with a sharp word in Italian.

“He wants to get me a drink, but that can wait,” said he, in firmer voice; “I shall enjoy it the more when I’ve told you what happened. Don’t let him go, Bunny; put your back against the door. He’s a decent soul, and it’s lucky for me I got a word with him before they trussed me up. I’ve promised to set him up in life, and I will, but I don’t want him out of my sight for the moment.”

“If you squared him last night,” I exclaimed, “why the blazes didn’t he come to me till the eleventh hour?”

“Ah, I knew he’d have to cut it fine though I hoped not quite so fine as all that. But all’s well that ends well, and I declare I don’t feel so much the worse. I shall be sore about the gills for a bit — and what do you think?”

He pointed to the long black ruler with the bronze stain; it lay upon the floor; he held out his hand for it, and I gave it to him.

“The same one I gagged him with,” said Raffles, with his still ghastly smile; “he was a bit of an artist, old Corbucci, after all!”

“Now let’s hear how you fell into his clutches,” said I, briskly, for I was as anxious to hear as he seemed to tell me, only for my part I could have waited until we were safe in the flat.

“I do want to get it off my chest, Bunny,” old Raffles admitted, “and yet I hardly can tell you after all. I followed your friend with the velvet eyes. I followed him all the way here. Of course I came up to have a good look at the house when he’d let himself in, and damme if he hadn’t left the door ajar! Who could resist that? I had pushed it half open and had just one foot on the mat when I got such a crack on the head as I hope never to get again. When I came to my wits they were hauling me up to that ring-bolt by the hands, and old Corbucci himself was bowing to me, but how HE got here I don’t know yet.”

“I can tell you that,” said I, and told how I had seen the Count for myself on the pavement underneath our windows. “Moreover,” I continued, “I saw him spot you, and five minutes after in Earl’s Court Road I was told he’d driven off in a cab. He would see you following his man, drive home ahead, and catch you by having the door left open in the way you describe.”

“Well,” said Raffles, “he deserved to catch me somehow, for he’d come from Naples on purpose, ruler and all, and the ring-bolts were ready fixed, and even this house taken furnished for nothing else! He meant catching me before he’d done, and scoring me off in exactly the same way that I scored off him, only going one better of course. He told me so himself, sitting where I am sitting now, at three o’clock this morning, and smoking a most abominable cigar that I’ve smelt ever since. It appears he sat twenty-four hours when I left HIM trussed up, but he said twelve would content him in my case, as there was certain death at the end of them, and I mightn’t have life enough left to appreciate my end if he made it longer. But I wouldn’t have trusted him if he could have got the clock to go twice round without firing off the pistol. He explained the whole mechanism of that to me; he had thought it all out on the vineyard I told you about; and then he asked if I remembered what he had promised me in the name of the Camorra. I only remembered some vague threats, but he was good enough to give me so many particulars of that institution that I could make a European reputation by exposing the whole show if it wasn’t for my unfortunate resemblance to that infernal rascal Raffles. Do you think they would know me at the Yard, Bunny, after all this time? Upon my soul I’ve a good mind to risk it!”

I offered no opinion on the point. How could it interest me then? But interested I was in Raffles, never more so in my life. He had been tortured all night and half a day, yet he could sit and talk like this the moment we cut him down; he had been within a minute of his death, yet he was as full of life as ever; ill-treated and defeated at the best, he could still smile through his blood as though the boot were on the other leg. I had imagined that I knew my Raffles at last. I was not likely so to flatter myself again.

“But what has happened to these villains?” I burst out, and my indignation was not only against them for their cruelty, but also against their victim for his phlegmatic attitude toward them. It was difficult to believe that this was Raffles.

“Oh,” said he, “they were to go off to Italy INSTANTER; they should be crossing now. But do listen to what I am telling you; it’s interesting, my dear man. This old sinner Corbucci turns out to have been no end of a boss in the Camorra — says so himself. One of the capi paranze, my boy, no less; and the velvety Johnny a giovano onorato, Anglice, fresher. This fellow here was also in it, and I’ve sworn to protect him from them evermore; and it’s just as I said, half the organ-grinders in London belong, and the whole lot of them were put on my tracks by secret instructions. This excellent youth manufactures iced poison on Saffron Hill when he’s at home.”

“And why on earth didn’t he come to me quicker?”

“Because he couldn’t talk to you, he could only fetch you, and it was as much as his life was worth to do that before our friends had departed. They were going by the eleven o’clock from Victoria, and that didn’t leave much chance, but he certainly oughtn’t to have run it as fine as he did. Still you must remember that I had to fix things up with him in the fewest possible words, in a single minute that the other two were indiscreet enough to leave us alone together.”

The ragamuffin in question was watching us with all his solitary eye, as though he knew that we were discussing him. Suddenly he broke out in agonized accents, his hands clasped, and a face so full of fear that every moment I expected to see him on his knees. But Raffles answered kindly, reassuringly, I could tell from his tone, and then turned to me with a compassionate shrug.

“He says he couldn’t find the mansions, Bunny, and really it’s not to be wondered at. I had only time to tell him to hunt you up and bring you here by hook or crook before twelve today, and after all he has done that. But now the poor devil thinks you’re riled with him, and that we’ll give him away to the Camorra.”

“Oh, it’s not with him I’m riled,” I said frankly, “but with those other blackguards, and — and with you, old chap, for taking it all as you do, while such infamous scoundrels have the last laugh, and are safely on their way to France!”

Raffles looked up at me with a curiously open eye, an eye that I never saw when he was not in earnest. I fancied he did not like my last expression but one. After all, it was no laughing matter to him.

“But are they?” said he. “I’m not so sure.”

“You said they were!”

“I said they should be.”

“Didn’t you hear them go?”

“I heard nothing but the clock all night. It was like Big Ben striking at the last — striking nine to the fellow on the drop.”

And in that open eye I saw at last a deep glimmer of the ordeal through which he had passed.

“But, my dear old Raffles, if they’re still on the premises —”

The thought was too thrilling for a finished sentence.

“I hope they are,” he said grimly, going to the door. “There’s a gas on! Was that burning when you came in?”

Now that I thought of it, yes, it had been.

“And there’s a frightfully foul smell,” I added, as I followed Raffles down the stairs. He turned to me gravely with his hand upon the front-room door, and at the same moment I saw a coat with an astrakhan collar hanging on the pegs.

“They are in here, Bunny,” he said, and turned the handle.

The door would only open a few inches. But a detestable odor came out, with a broad bar of yellow gaslight. Raffles put his handkerchief to his nose. I followed his example, signing to our ally to do the same, and in another minute we had all three squeezed into the room.

The man with the yellow boots was lying against the door, the Count’s great carcass sprawled upon the table, and at a glance it was evident that both men had been dead some hours. The old Camorrist had the stem of a liqueur-glass between his swollen blue fingers, one of which had been cut in the breakage, and the livid flesh was also brown with the last blood that it would ever shed. His face was on the table, the huge moustache projecting from under either leaden cheek, yet looking itself strangely alive. Broken bread and scraps of frozen macaroni lay upon the cloth and at the bottom of two soup-plates and a tureen; the macaroni had a tinge of tomato; and there was a crimson dram left in the tumblers, with an empty fiasco to show whence it came. But near the great gray head upon the table another liqueur-glass stood, unbroken, and still full of some white and stinking liquid; and near that a tiny silver flask, which made me recoil from Raffles as I had not from the dead; for I knew it to be his.

“Come out of this poisonous air,” he said sternly, “and I will tell you how it has happened.”

So we all three gathered together in the hall. But it was Raffles who stood nearest the street-door, his back to it, his eyes upon us two. And though it was to me only that he spoke at first, he would pause from point to point, and translate into Italian for the benefit of the one-eyed alien to whom he owed his life.

“You probably don’t even know the name, Bunny,” he began, “of the deadliest poison yet known to science. It is cyanide of cacodyl, and I have carried that small flask of it about with me for months. Where I got it matters nothing; the whole point is that a mere sniff reduces flesh to clay. I have never had any opinion of suicide, as you know, but I always felt it worth while to be forearmed against the very worst. Well, a bottle of this stuff is calculated to stiffen an ordinary roomful of ordinary people within five minutes; and I remembered my flask when they had me as good as crucified in the small hours of this morning. I asked them to take it out of my pocket. I begged them to give me a drink before they left me. And what do you suppose they did?”

I thought of many things but suggested none, while Raffles turned this much of his statement into sufficiently fluent Italian. But when he faced me again his face was still flaming.

“That beast Corbucci!” said he —“how can I pity him? He took the flask; he would give me none; he flicked me in the face instead. My idea was that he, at least, should go with me — to sell my life as dearly as that — and a sniff would have settled us both. But no, he must tantalize and torment me; he thought it brandy; he must take it downstairs to drink to my destruction! Can you have any pity for a hound like that?”

“Let us go,” I at last said, hoarsely, as Raffles finished speaking in Italian, and his second listener stood open-mouthed.

“We will go,” said Raffles, “and we will chance being seen; if the worst comes to the worst this good chap will prove that I have been tied up since one o’clock this morning, and the medical evidence will decide how long those dogs have been dead.”

But the worst did not come to the worst, more power to my unforgotten friend the cabman, who never came forward to say what manner of men he had driven to Bloomsbury Square at top speed on the very day upon which the tragedy was discovered there, or whence he had driven them. To be sure, they had not behaved like murderers, whereas the evidence at the inquest all went to show that the defunct Corbucci was little better. His reputation, which transpired with his identity, was that of a libertine and a renegade, while the infernal apparatus upstairs revealed the fiendish arts of the anarchist to boot. The inquiry resulted eventually in an open verdict, and was chiefly instrumental in killing such compassion as is usually felt for the dead who die in their sins.

But Raffles would not have passed this title for this tale.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hornung/ew/black-mask/chapter4.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 20:51