Mr. Justice Raffles, by E. W. Hornung

Chapter 11

A Dash in the Dark

In a few lines which I found waiting for me at the club, and have somewhat imprudently preserved, Raffles professes to have known he was being shadowed even before we met at Lord’s: “but it was no use talking about it until the foe were in the cart.” He goes on to explain the simple means by which he reduced the gentlemen in billycocks to the pitch of discomfiture implied in his metaphor. He had taken a hansom to the Burlington Gardens entrance to the Albany, and kept it waiting while he went in and changed his clothes; then he had sent Barraclough to pay off the cab, and himself marched out into Piccadilly, what time the billycock brims were still shading watchful eyes in Burlington Gardens. There, to be sure, I myself had spotted one of the precious pair when I drove up after vain exertions at the call-office outside Lord’s; but by that time his confederate was on guard at the Piccadilly end, and Raffles had not only shown a clean pair of wings, but left the poor brutes to watch an empty cage. He dismisses them not unfairly with the epithet “amateurish.” Thus I was the more surprised, but not the less relieved, to learn that he was “running down into the country for the weekend, to be out of their way”; but he would be back on the Monday night, “to keep an engagement you wot of, Bunny. And if you like you may meet me under the clock at Waterloo (in flannel kit and tennis-shoes for choice) at the witching hour of twelve sharp.”

If I liked! I had a premature drink in honour of an invitation more gratifying to my vanity than any compliment old Raffles had paid me yet; for I could still hear his ironical undertaking to let me know if he could not do without me, and there was obviously no irony in this delightfully early intimation of that very flattering fact. It altered my whole view of the case. I might disapprove of the risks Raffles was running for his other friends, but the more I was allowed to share in them the less critical I was inclined to be. Besides I was myself clearly implicated in the issue as between my own friend and the common enemy; it was no more palatable to me than it was to Raffles, to be beaten by Dan Levy after our initial victory over him. So I drank like a man to his destruction, and subsequently stole forth to spy upon his foolish myrmidons, who flattered themselves that they were spying on Raffles. The imbeciles were at it still! The one hanging about Burlington Gardens looked unutterably bored, but with his blots of whisker and his grimy jowl, as flagrant a detective officer as ever I saw, even if he had not so considerately dressed the part. The other bruiser was an equally distinctive type, with a formidable fighting face and a chest like a barrel; but in Piccadilly he seemed to me less occupied in taking notice than in avoiding it. In innocuous futility one could scarcely excel the other; and between them they raised my spirits to the zenith.

I spent the rest of the afternoon at their own game, dogging Miss Belsize about Lord’s until at last I had an opportunity of informing her that Raffles was quite safe. It may be that I made my report with too much gusto when my chance came; at any rate, it was only the fact that appeared to interest Miss Belsize; the details, over which I gloated, seemed to inspire in her a repugnance consistent with the prejudice she had displayed against Raffles yesterday, but not with her grateful solicitude on his behalf as revealed to me that very morning. I could only feel that gratitude was the beginning and the end of her new regard for him. Raffles had never fascinated this young girl as he did the rest of us; ordinarily engaged to an ordinary man, she was proof against the glamour that dazzled us. Nay, though she would not admit it even to me his friend, though like Levy she pretended to embrace the theory of the practical joke, making it the pretext for her anxiety, I felt more certain than ever that she now guessed, and had long suspected, what manner of man Raffles really was, and that her natural antipathy was greater even than before. Still more certain was I that she would never betray him by word or deed; that, whatever harm might come of his present proceedings, it would not be through Camilla Belsize.

But I was now determined to do my own utmost to minimise the dangers, to be a real help to Raffles in the act of altruistic depravity to which he had committed himself, and not merely a fifth wheel to his dashing chariot. Accordingly I went into solemn training for the event before us: a Turkish bath on the Saturday, a quiet Sunday between Mount Street and the club, and most of Monday lying like a log in cold-blooded preparation for the night’s work. And when night fell I took it upon me to reconnoitre the ground myself before meeting Raffles at Waterloo.

Another cool and starry evening seemed to have tempted all the town and his wife into the streets. The great streams of traffic were busier than ever, the backwaters emptier, and Gray’s Inn a basin drained to the last dreg of visible humanity. In one moment I passed through gateway and alley from the voices and lights of Holborn into a perfectly deserted square of bare ground and bright stars. The contrast was altogether startling, for I had never been there before; but for the same reason I had already lost my bearings, believing myself to be in Gray’s Inn Square when I was only in South Square, Gray’s Inn. Here I entered upon a hopeless search for the offices of Burroughs and Burroughs. Door after door had I tried in vain, and was beginning to realise my mistake, when a stray molecule of the population drifted in from Holborn as I had done, but with the quick step of the man who knows his way. I darted from a doorway to inquire mine, but he was across the square before I could cut him off, and as he passed through the rays of a lamp beside a second archway, I fell back thanking Providence and Raffles for my rubber soles. The man had neither seen nor heard me, but at the last moment I had recognised him as the burlier of the two blockheads who had shadowed Raffles three days before.

He passed under the arch without looking round. I flattened myself against the wall on my side of the arch; and in so standing I was all but eye-witness of a sudden encounter in the square beyond.

The quick steps stopped, and there was a “Here you are!” on one side, and a “Well! Where is he?” on the other, both very eager and below the breath.

“On the job,” whispered the first voice. “Up to the neck!”

“When did ‘e go in?”

“Nearly an hour ago; when I sent the messenger.”

“Which way?”

“Up through number seventeen.”

“Next door, eh?”

“That’s right.”

“Over the roof?”

“Can’t say; he’s left no tracks. I been up to see.”

“I suppose there’s the usual ladder and trapdoor?”

“Yes, but the ladder’s hanging in its proper place. He couldn’t have put it back there, could he?”

The other grunted; presently he expressed a doubt whether Raffles (and it thrilled me to hear the very name) had succeeded in breaking into the lawyer’s office at all. The first man on the scene, however, was quite sure of it — and so was I.

“And we’ve got to hang about,” grumbled the newcomer, “till he comes out again?”

“That’s it. We can’t miss him. He must come back into the square or through into the gardens, and if he does that he’ll have to come over these here railings into Field Court. We got him either way, and there’s a step just here where we can sit and see both ways as though it had been made for us. You come and try . . . a door into the old hall . . . ”

That was all I heard distinctly; first their footsteps, and then the few extra yards, made the rest unintelligible. But I had heard enough. “The usual ladder and trap-door!” Those blessed words alone might prove worth their weight in great letters of solid gold.

Now I could breathe again; now I relaxed my body and turned my head, and peered through the arch with impunity, and along the whole western side of Gray’s Inn Square, with its dusky fringe of plane-trees and its vivid line of lamps, its strip of pavement, and its wall of many-windowed houses under one unbroken roof. Dim lights smouldered in the column of landing windows over every door; otherwise there was no break in the blackness of that gaunt façade. Yet in some dark room or other behind those walls I seemed to see Raffles at work as plainly as I had just heard our natural enemies plotting his destruction. I saw him at a safe. I saw him at a desk. I saw him leaving everything as he had found it, only to steal down and out into the very arms of the law. And I felt that even that desperate dénouement was little more than he deserved for letting me think myself accessory before the fact, when all the time he meant me to have nothing whatever to do with it! Well, I should have everything to do with it now; if Raffles was to be saved from the consequences of his own insanity, I and I alone must save him. It was the chance of my life to show him my real worth. And yet the difficulty of the thing might have daunted Raffles himself.

I knew what to do if only I could gain the house which he had made the base of his own operations; at least I knew what to attempt, and what Raffles had done I might do. So far the wily couple within earshot had helped me out of their own mouths. But they were only just round the corner that hid them from my view; stray words still reached me; and they knew me by sight, would recognise me at a glance, might pounce upon me as I passed. Unless —

I had it!

The crowd in Holborn seemed strange and unreal as I jostled in its midst once more. I was out of it in a moment, however, and into a ‘bus, and out of the ‘bus in a couple of minutes by my watch. One more minute and I was seeing how far back I could sit in a hansom bound for Gray’s Inn Square.

“I forget the number,” I had told the cabman, “but it’s three or four doors beyond Burroughs and Burroughs, the solicitors.”

The gate into Holborn had to be opened for me, but the gate-keeper had not seen me on my previous entrance and exit afoot through the postern. It was when we drove under the further arch into the actual square that I pressed my head hard against the back of the hansom, and turned my face towards Field Court. The enemy might have abandoned their position, they might meet me face to face as I landed on the pavement; that was my risk, and I ran it without disaster. We passed the only house with an outer door to it in the square (now there is none), and on the plate beside it I read BURROUGHS AND BURROUGHS with a thrill. Up went my stick; my shilling (with a peculiarly superfluous sixpence for luck) I thrust through the trap with the other hand; and I was across the pavement, and on the stairs four clear doors beyond the lawyer’s office, before the driver had begun to turn his horse.

They were broad bare stairs, with great office doors right and left on every landing, and in the middle the landing window looking out into the square. I waited well within the window on the first floor; and as my hansom drove out under the arch, the light of its near lamp flashed across two figures lounging on the steps of that entrance to the hall; but there was no stopping or challenging the cabman, no sound at all but those of hoofs and bell, and soon only that of my own heart beating as I fled up the rest of the stairs in my rubber soles.

Near the top I paused to thank my kindly stars; sure enough there was a long step-ladder hanging on a great nail over the last half-landing, and a square trap-door right over the landing proper! I ran up just to see the names on the two top doors; one was evidently that of some pettifogging firm of solicitors, while the other bespoke a private resident, whom I judged to be out of town by the congestion of postal matter that met my fingers in his letter-box. Neither had any terrors for me. The step-ladder was unhooked without another moment’s hesitation. Care alone was necessary to place it in position without making a noise; then up I went, and up went the trapdoor next, without mishap or hindrance until I tried to stand up in the loft, and caught my head a crack against the tiles instead.

This was disconcerting in more ways than one, for I could not leave the ladder where it was, and it was nearly twice my height. I struck a match and lit up a sufficient perspective of lumber and cobwebs to reassure me. The loft was long enough, and the trap-door plumb under the apex of the roof, whereas I had stepped sideways off the ladder. It was to be got up, and I got it up, though not by any means as silently as I could have wished. I knelt and listened at the open trap-door for a good minute before closing it with great caution, a squeak and a scuttle in the loft itself being the only sign that I had disturbed a living creature.

There was a grimy dormer window, not looking down into the square, but leading like a companion hatchway into a valley of once red tiles, now stained blue-black in the starlight. It was great to stand upright here in the pure night air out of sight of man or beast. Smokeless chimney-stacks deleted whole pages of stars, but put me more in mind of pollards rising out of these rigid valleys, and sprouting with telephone wires that interlaced for foliage. The valley I was in ended fore and aft in a similar slope to that at either side; the length of it doubtless tallied with the frontage of a single house; and when I had clambered over the southern extremity into a precisely similar valley I saw that this must be the case. I had entered the fourth house beyond Burroughs and Burroughs’s, or was it the fifth? I threaded three valleys, and then I knew.

In all three there had been dormer windows on either hand, that on the square side leading into the loft; the other, or others, forming a sort of skylight to some top-floor room. Suddenly I struck one of these standing very wide open, and trod upon a rope’s end curled like a snake on the leads. I stooped down, and at a touch I knew that I had hold of Raffles’s favourite Manila, which united a silken flexibility with the strength of any hawser. It was tied to the window-post, and it dangled into a room in which there was a dull red glow of fire: an inhabited room if ever I put my nose in one! My body must follow, however, where Raffles had led the way; and when it did I came to ground sooner than I expected on something less secure. The dying firelight, struggling through the bars of a kitchen range, showed my tennis-shoes in the middle of the kitchen table. A cat was stretching itself on the hearth-rug as I made a step of a wooden chair, and came down like a cat myself.

I found the kitchen door, found a passage so dark that the window at the end hung like a picture slashed across the middle. Yet it only looked into the square, for I peered out when I had crept along the passage, and even thought I both heard and saw the enemy at their old post. But I was in another enemy’s country now; at every step I stopped to listen for the thud of feet bounding out of bed. Hearing nothing, I had the temerity at last to strike a match upon my trousers, and by its light I found the outer door. This was not bolted nor yet shut; it was merely ajar, and so I left it.

The rooms opposite appeared to be an empty set; those on the second and first floors were only partially shut off by swing doors leading to different departments of the mighty offices of Burroughs and Burroughs. There were no lights upon these landings, and I gathered my information by means of successive matches, whose tell-tale ends I carefully concealed about my person, and from copious legends painted on the walls. Thus I had little difficulty in groping my way to the private offices of Sir John Burroughs, head of the celebrated firm; but I looked in vain for a layer of light under any of the massive mahogany doors with which this portion of the premises was glorified. Then I began softly trying doors that proved to be locked. Only one yielded to my hand; and when it was a few inches open, all was still black; but the next few brought me to the end of my quest, and the close of my solitary adventures.

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