Mr. Justice Raffles, by E. W. Hornung

Chapter 16

Watch and Ward

I well remember, as I set reluctant foot upon the wooden stair, taking a last and somewhat lingering look at the dust and dirt of the lower chamber, as one who knew not what might happen before he saw it again. The stain as of red rust in the lavatory basin, the gritty deposit in the bath, the verdigris on all the taps, the foul opacity of the windows, are among the trivialities that somehow stamped themselves upon my mind. One of the windows was open at the top, had been so long open that the aperture was curtained with cobwebs at each extremity, but in between I got quite a poignant picture of the Thames as I went upstairs. It was only a sinuous perspective of sunlit ripples twinkling between wooded gardens and open meadows, a fisherman or two upon the tow-path, a canoe in mid-stream, a gaunt church crowning all against the sky. But inset in such surroundings it was like a flash from a magic-lantern in a coal-cellar. And very loth was I to exchange that sunny peep for an indefinite prospect of my prisoner’s person at close quarters.

Yet the first stage of my vigil proved such a sinecure as to give me some confidence for all the rest. Dan Levy opened neither his lips nor his eyes at my approach, but lay on his back with the Red Ensign drawn up to his chin, and the peaceful countenance of profound oblivion. I remember taking a good look at him, and thinking that his face improved remarkably in repose, that in death he might look fine. The forehead was higher and broader than I had realised, the thick lips were firm enough now, but the closing of the crafty little eyes was the greatest gain of all. On the whole, not only a better but a stronger face than it had been all the morning, a more formidable face by far. But the man had fallen asleep in his bonds, and forgotten them; he would wake up abject enough; if not, I had the means to reduce him to docility. Meanwhile, I was in no hurry to show my power, but stole on tiptoe to the locker, and took my seat by inches.

Levy did not move a muscle. No sound escaped him either, and somehow or other I should have expected him to snore; indeed, it might have come as a relief, for the silence of the tower soon got upon my nerves. It was not a complete silence; that was (and always is) the worst of it. The wooden stairs creaked more than once; there were little rattlings, faint and distant, as of a dried leaf or a loose window, in the bowels of the house; and though nothing came of any of these noises, except a fresh period of tension on my part, they made the skin act on my forehead every time. Then I remember a real anxiety over a blue-bottle, that must have come in through the open window just below, for suddenly it buzzed into my ken and looked like attacking Levy on the spot. Somehow I slew it with less noise than the brute itself was making; and not until after that breathless achievement did I realise how anxious I was to keep my prisoner asleep. Yet I had the revolver, and he lay handcuffed and bound down! It was in the next long silence that I became sensitive to another sound which indeed I had heard at intervals already, only to dismiss it from my mind as one of the signs of extraneous life which were bound to penetrate even to the top of my tower. It was a slow and regular beat, as of a sledge-hammer in a distant forge, or some sort of machinery only audible when there was absolutely nothing else to be heard. It could hardly be near at hand, for I could not hear it properly unless I held my breath. Then, however, it was always there, a sound that never ceased or altered, so that in the end I sat and listened to it and nothing else. I was not even looking at Levy when he asked me if I knew what it was.

His voice was quiet and civil enough, but it undoubtedly made me jump, and that brought a malicious twinkle into the little eyes that looked as though they had been studying me at their leisure. They were perhaps less violently bloodshot than before, the massive features calm and strong as they had been in slumber or its artful counterfeit.

“I thought you were asleep?” I snapped, and knew better for certain before he spoke.

“You see, that pint o’ pop did me prouder than intended,” he explained. “It’s made a new man o’ me, you’ll be sorry to ‘ear.”

I should have been sorrier to believe it, but I did not say so, or anything else just then. The dull and distant beat came back to the ear. And Levy again inquired if I knew what it was.

“Do you?” I demanded.

“Rather!” he replied, with cheerful certitude. “It’s the clock, of course.”

“What clock?”

“The one on the tower, a bit lower down, facing the road.”

“How do you know?” I demanded, with uneasy credulity.

“My good young man,” said Dan Levy, “I know the face of that clock as well as I know the inside of this tower.”

“Then you do know where you are!” I cried, in such surprise that Levy grinned in a way that ill became a captive.

“Why,” said he, “I sold the last tenant up, and nearly took the ’ouse myself instead o’ the place I got. It was what first attracted me to the neighhour’ood.”

“Why couldn’t you tell us the truth before?” I demanded, but my warmth merely broadened his grin.

“Why should I? It sometimes pays to seem more at a loss than you are.”

“It won’t in this case,” said I through my teeth. But for all my austerity, and all his bonds, the prisoner continued to regard me with quiet but most disquieting amusement.

“I’m not so sure of that,” he observed at length. “It rather paid, to my way of thinking, when Raffles went off to cash my cheque, and left you to keep an eye on me.”

“Oh, did it!” said I, with pregnant emphasis, and my right hand found comfort in my jacket pocket, on the butt of the old brute’s own weapon.

“I only mean,” he rejoined, in a more conciliatory voice, “that you strike me as being more open to reason than your flash friend.”

I said nothing to that.

“On the other ‘and,” continued Levy, still more deliberately, as though he really was comparing us in his mind; “on the other hand” stooping to pick up what he had dropped, “you don’t take so many risks. Raffles takes so many that he’s bound to land you both in the jug some day, if he hasn’t done it this time. I believe he has, myself. But it’s no use hollering before you’re out o’ the wood.”

I agreed, with more confidence than I felt.

“Yet I wonder he never thought of it,” my prisoner went on as if to himself.

“Thought of what?”

“Only the clock. He must’ve seen it before, if you never did; you don’t tell me this little bit o’ kidnapping was a sudden idea! It’s all been thought out and the ground gone over, and the clock seen, as I say. Seen going. Yet it never strikes our flash friend that a going clock’s got to be wound up once a week, and it might be as well to find out which day!”

“How do you know he didn’t?”

“Because this ‘appens to be the day!”

And Levy lay back in the bunk with the internal chuckle that I was beginning to know so well, but had little thought to hear from him in his present predicament. It galled me the more because I felt that Raffles would certainly not have heard it in my place. But at least I had the satisfaction of flatly and profanely refusing to believe the prisoner’s statement.

“That be blowed for a bluff!” was more or less what I said. “It’s too much of a coincidence to be anything else.”

“The odds are only six to one against it,” said Levy, indifferently. “One of you takes them with his eyes open. It seems rather a pity that the other should feel bound to follow him to certain ruin. But I suppose you know your own business best.”

“At all events,” I boasted, “I know better than to be bluffed by the most obvious lie I ever heard in my life. You tell me how you know about the man coming to wind the clock, and I may listen to you.”

“I know because I know the man; little Scotchman he is, nothing to run away from — though he looks as hard as nails — what there is of him,” said Levy, in a circumstantial and impartial flow that could not but carry some conviction. “He comes over from Kingston every Tuesday on his bike; some time before lunch he comes, and sees to my own clocks on the same trip. That’s how I know. But you needn’t believe me if you don’t like.”

“And where exactly does he come to wind this clock? I see nothing that can possibly have to do with it up here.”

“No,” said Levy; “he comes no higher than the floor below.” I seemed to remember a kind of cupboard at the head of the spiral stair. “But that’s near enough.”

“You mean that we shall hear him?”

“And he us!” added Levy, with unmistakable determination.

“Look here, Mr. Levy,” said I, showing him his own revolver, “if we do hear anybody, I shall hold this to your head, and if he does hear us I shall blow out your beastly brains!”

The mere feeling that I was, perhaps, the last person capable of any such deed enabled me to grind out this shocking threat in a voice worthy of it, and with a face, I hoped, not less in keeping. It was all the more mortifying when Dan Levy treated my tragedy as farce; in fact, if anything could have made me as bad as my word, it would have been the guttural laugh with which he greeted it.

“Excuse me,” said he, dabbing his red eyes with the edge of the red bunting, “but the thought of your letting that thing off in order to preserve silence — why, it’s as droll as your whole attempt to play the cold-blooded villain —you!”

“I shall play him to some purpose,” I hissed, “if you drive me to it. I laid you out last night, remember, and for two pins I’ll do the same thing again this morning. So now you know.”

“That wasn’t in cold blood,” said Levy, rolling his head from side to side; “that was when the lot of us were brawling in our cups. I don’t count that. You’re in a false position, my dear sir. I don’t mean last night or this morning — though I can see that you’re no brigand or blackmailer at bottom — and I shouldn’t wonder if you never forgave Raffles for letting you in for this partic’lar part of this partic’lar job. But that isn’t what I mean. You’ve got in with a villain, but you ain’t one yourself; that’s where you’re in the false position. He’s the magsman, you’re only the swell. I can see that. But the judge won’t. You’ll both get served the same, and in your case it’ll be a thousand shames!”

He had propped himself on one elbow, and was speaking eagerly, persuasively, with almost a fatherly solicitude; yet I felt that both his words and their effect on me were being weighed and measured with meticulous discretion. And I encouraged him with a countenance as deliberately rueful and depressed, to an end which had only occurred to me with the significance of his altered tone.

“I can’t help it,” I muttered. “I must go through with the whole thing now.”

“Why must you?” demanded Levy. “You’ve been led into a job that’s none of your business, on be’alf of folks who’re no friends of yours, and the job’s developed into a serious crime, and the crime’s going to be found out before you’re an hour older. Why go through with it to certain quod?”

“There’s nothing else for it,” I answered, with a sulky resignation, though my pulse was quick with eagerness for what I felt was coming.

And then it came.

“Why not get out of the whole thing,” suggested Levy, boldly, “before it’s too late?”

“How can I?” said I, to lead him on with a more explicit proposition.

“By first releasing me, and then clearing out yourself!”

I looked at him as though this was certainly an idea, as though I were actually considering it in spite of myself and Raffles; and his eagerness fed upon my apparent indecision. He held up his fettered hands, begging and cajoling me to remove his handcuffs, and I, instead of telling him it was not in my power to do so until Raffles returned, pretended to hesitate on quite different grounds.

“It’s all very well,” I said, “but are you going to make it worth my while?”

“Certainly!” cried he. “Give me my chequebook out of my own pocket, where you were good enough to stow it before that blackguard left, and I’ll write you one cheque for a hundred now, and another for another hundred before I leave this tower.”

“You really will?” I temporised.

“I swear it!” he asseverated; and I still believe he might have kept his word about that. But now I knew where he had been lying to me, and now was the time to let him know I knew it.

“Two hundred pounds,” said I, “for the liberty you are bound to get for nothing, as you yourself have pointed out, when the man turns up to wind the clock? A couple of hundred to save less than a couple of hours?”

Levy changed colour as he saw his mistake, and his eyes flashed with sudden fury; otherwise his self-command was only less admirable than his presence of mind.

“It wasn’t to save time,” said he; “it was to save my face in the neighbourhood. The well-known money-lender found bound and handcuffed in an empty house! It means the first laugh at my expense, whoever has the last laugh. But you’re quite right; it wasn’t worth two hundred golden sovereigns. Let them laugh! At any rate you and your flash friend’ll be laughing on the wrong side of your mouths before the day’s out. So that’s all there is to it, and you’d better start screwing up your courage if you want to do me in! I did mean to give you another chance in life — but by God I wouldn’t now if you were to go down on your knees for one!”

Considering that he was bound and I was free, that I was armed and he defenceless, there was perhaps more humour than the prisoner saw in his picture of me upon my knees to him. Not that I saw it all at once myself. I was too busy wondering whether there could be anything in his clock-winding story after all. Certainly it was inconsistent with the big bribe offered for his immediate freedom; but it was with something more than mere adroitness that the money-lender had reconciled the two things. In his place I should have been no less anxious to keep my humiliating experience a secret from the world; with his means I could conceive myself prepared to pay as dearly for such secrecy. On the other hand, if his idea was to stop the huge cheque already given to Raffles, then there was indeed no time to be lost, and the only wonder was that Levy should have waited so long before making overtures to me.

Raffles had now been gone a very long time, as it seemed to me, but my watch had run down, and the clock on the tower did not strike. Why they kept it going at all was a mystery to me; but now that Dan Levy was lying still again, with set teeth and inexorable eyes, I heard it beating out the seconds more than ever like a distant sledgehammer, and sixty of these I counted up into a minute of such portentous duration that what had seemed many hours to me might easily have been less than one. I only knew that the sun, which had begun by pouring in at one port-hole and out at the other, which had bathed the prisoner in his bunk about the time of his trial by Raffles, now crowned me with fire if I sat upon the locker, and made its varnish sticky if I did not. The atmosphere of the place was fast becoming unendurable in its unwholesome heat and sour stagnation. I sat in my shirt-sleeves at the top of the stairs, where one got such air as entered by the open window below. Levy had kicked off his covering of scarlet bunting, with a sudden oath which must have been the only sound within the tower for an hour at least; all the rest of the time he lay with fettered fists clenched upon his breast, with fierce eyes fixed upon the top of the bunk, and something about the whole man that I was forced to watch, something indomitable and intensely alert, a curious suggestion of smouldering fires on the point of leaping into flame.

I feared this man in my heart of hearts. I may as well admit it frankly. It was not that he was twice my size, for I had the like advantage in point of years; it was not that I had any reason to distrust the strength of his bonds or the efficacy of the weapon in my possession. It was a question of personality, not of material advantage or disadvantage, or of physical fear at all. It was simply the spirit of the man that dominated mine. I felt that my mere flesh and blood would at any moment give a good account of his, as well they might with the odds that were on my side. Yet that did not lessen the sense of subtle and essential inferiority, which grew upon my nerves with almost every minute of that endless morning, and made me long for the relief of physical contest even on equal terms. I could have set the old ruffian free, and thrown his revolver out of the window, and then said to him, “Come on! Your weight against my age, and may the devil take the worse man!” Instead, I must sit glaring at him to mask my qualms. And after much thinking about the kind of conflict that could never be, in the end came one of a less heroic but not less desperate type, before there was time to think at all.

Levy had raised his head, ever so little, but yet enough for my vigilance. I saw him listening. I listened too. And down below in the core of the tower I heard, or thought I heard, a step like a feather, and then after some moments another. But I had spent those moments in gazing instinctively down the stair; it was the least rattle of the handcuffs that brought my eyes like lightning back to the bunk; and there was Levy with hollow palms about his mouth, and his mouth wide open for the roar that my own palms stifled in his throat.

Indeed, I had leapt upon him once more like a fiend, and for an instant I enjoyed a shameful advantage; it can hardly have lasted longer. The brute first bit me through the hand, so that I carry his mark to this day; then, with his own hands, he took me by the throat, and I thought that my last moments were come. He squeezed so hard that I thought my windpipe must burst, thought my eyes must leave their sockets. It was the grip of a gorilla, and it was accompanied by a spate of curses and the grin of a devil incarnate. All my dreams of equal combat had not prepared me for superhuman power on his part, such utter impotence on mine. I tried to wrench myself from his murderous clasp, and was nearly felled by the top of the bunk. I hurled myself out sideways, and out he came after me, tearing down the peg to which his handcuffs were tethered; that only gave him the better grip upon my throat, and he never relaxed it for an instant, scrambling to his feet when I staggered to mine, for by them alone was he fast now to the banisters.

Meanwhile I was feeling in an empty pocket for his revolver, which had fallen out as we struggled on the floor. I saw it there now with my starting eyeballs, kicked about by our shuffling feet. I tried to make a dive for it, but Levy had seen it also, and he kicked it through the banisters without relaxing his murderous hold. I could have sworn afterwards that I heard the weapon fall with a clatter on the wooden stairs. But what I still remember hearing most distinctly (and feeling hot upon my face) is the stertorous breathing that was unbroken by a single syllable after the first few seconds.

It was a brutal encounter, not short and sharp like the one over-night, but horribly protracted. Nor was all the brutality by any means on one side; neither will I pretend that I was getting much more than my deserts in the defeat that threatened to end in my extinction. Not for an instant had my enemy loosened his deadly clutch, and now he had me penned against the banisters, and my one hope was that they would give way before our united weight, and precipitate us both into the room below. That would be better than being slowly throttled, even if it were only a better death. Other chance there was none, and I was actually trying to fling myself over, beating the air with both hands wildly, when one of them closed upon the butt of the revolver that I thought had been kicked into the room below!

I was too far gone to realise that a miracle had happened — to be so much as puzzled by it then. But I was not too far gone to use that revolver, and to use it as I would have done on cool reflection. I thrust it under my opponent’s armpit, and I fired through into space. The report was deafening. It did its work. Levy let go of me, and staggered back as though I had really shot him. And that instant I was brandishing his weapon in his face.

“You tried to shoot me! You tried to shoot me!” he gasped twice over through a livid mask.

“No, I didn’t!” I panted. “I tried to frighten you, and I jolly well succeeded! But I’ll shoot you like a dog if you don’t get back to your kennel and lie down.”

He sat and gasped upon the side of the bunk. There was no more fight in him. His very lips were blue. I put the pistol back in my pocket, and retracted my threat in a sudden panic.

“There! It’s your own fault if you so much as see it again,” I promised him, in a breathless disorder only second to his own.

“But you jolly nearly strangled me. And now we’re a pretty pair!”

His hands grasped the edge of the bunk, and he leant his weight on them, breathing very hard. It might have been an attack of asthma, or it might have been a more serious seizure, but it was a case for stimulants if ever I saw one, and in the nick of time I remembered the flask that Raffles had left with me. It was the work of a very few seconds to pour out a goodly ration, and of but another for Daniel Levy to toss off the raw spirit like water. He was begging for more before I had helped myself. And more I gave him in the end; for it was no small relief to me to watch the leaden hue disappearing from the flabby face, and the laboured breathing gradually subside, even if it meant a renewal of our desperate hostilities.

But all that was at an end; the man was shaken to the core by his perfectly legitimate attempt at my destruction. He looked dreadfully old and hideous as he got bodily back into the bunk of his own accord. There, when I had yielded to his further importunities, and the flask was empty, he fell at length into a sleep as genuine as the last was not; and I was still watching over the poor devil, keeping the flies off him, and sometimes fanning him with a flag, less perhaps from humane motives than to keep him quiet as long as possible, when Raffles returned to light up the tableau like a sinister sunbeam.

Raffles had had his own adventures in town, and I soon had reason to feel thankful that I had not gone up instead of him. It seemed he had foreseen from the first the possibility of trouble at the bank over a large and absolutely open cheque. So he had gone first to the Chelsea studio in which he played the painter who never painted but kept a whole wardrobe of disguises for the models he never hired. Thence he had issued on this occasion in the living image of a well-known military man about town who was also well known to be a client of Dan Levy’s. Raffles said the cashier stared at him, but the cheque was cashed without a word. The unfortunate part of it was that in returning to his cab he had encountered an acquaintance both of his own and of the spendthrift soldier, and had been greeted evidently in the latter capacity.

“It was a jolly difficult little moment, Bunny. I had to say there was some mistake, and I had to remember to say it in a manner equally unlike my own and the other beggar’s! But all’s well that ends well; and if you’ll do exactly what I tell you I think we may flatter ourselves that a happy issue is at last in sight.”

“What am I to do now?” I asked with some misgiving.

“Clear out of this, Bunny, and wait for me in town. You’ve done jolly well, old fellow, and so have I in my own department of the game. Everything’s in order, down to those fifteen hundred guineas which are now concealed about my person in as hard cash as I can carry. I’ve seen old Garland and given him back his promissory note myself, with Levy’s undertaking about the mortgage. It was a pretty trying interview, as you can understand; but I couldn’t help wondering what the poor old boy would say if he dreamt what sort of pressure I’ve been applying on his behalf! Well, it’s all over now except our several exits from the surreptitious stage. I can’t make mine without our sleeping partner, but you would really simplify matters, Bunny, by not waiting for us.”

There was a good deal to be said for such a course, though it went not a little against my grain. Raffles had changed his clothes and had a bath in town, to say nothing of his luncheon. I was by this time indescribably dirty and dishevelled, besides feeling fairly famished now that mental relief allowed a thought for one’s lower man. Raffles had foreseen my plight, and had actually prepared a way of escape for me by the front door in broad daylight. I need not recapitulate the elaborate story he had told the caretaking gardener across the road; but he had borrowed the gardener’s keys as a probable purchaser of the property, who had to meet his builder and a business friend at the house during the course of the afternoon. I was to be the builder, and in that capacity to give the gardener an ingenious message calculated to leave Raffles and Levy in uninterrupted possession until my return. And of course I was never to return at all.

The whole thing seemed to me a super-subtle means to a far simpler end than the one we had achieved by stealth in the dead of the previous night. But it was Raffles all over and I ultimately acquiesced, on the understanding that we were to meet again in the Albany at seven o’clock, preparatory to dining somewhere in final celebration of the whole affair.

But much was to happen before seven o’clock, and it began happening. I shook the dust of that derelict tower from my feet; for one of them trod on something at the darkest point of the descent; and the thing went tinkling down ahead on its own account, until it lay shimmering in the light on a lower landing, where I picked it up.

Now I had not said much to Raffles about my hitherto inexplicable experience with the revolver, when I thought it had gone through the banisters, but found it afterwards in my hand. Raffles said it would not have gone through, that I must have been all but over the banisters myself when I grasped the butt as it protruded through them on the level of the floor. This he said (like many another thing) as though it made an end of the matter. But it was not the end of the matter in my own mind; and now I could have told him what the explanation was, or at least to what conclusion I had jumped. I had half a mind to climb all the way up again on purpose to put him in the wrong upon the point. Then I remembered how anxious he had seemed to get rid of me, and for other reasons also I decided to let him wait a bit for his surprise.

Meanwhile my own plans were altered, and when I had delivered my egregious message to the gardener across the road, I sought the nearest shops on my way to the nearest station; and at one of the shops I got me a clean collar, at another a tooth-brush; and all I did at the station was to utilise my purchases in the course of such scanty toilet as the lavatory accommodation would permit.

A few minutes later I was inquiring my way to a house which it took me another twenty or twenty-five to find.

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