Mr. Justice Raffles, by E. W. Hornung

Chapter 17

A Secret Service

This house also was on the river, but it was very small bricks-and-mortar compared with the other two. One of a semi-detached couple built close to the road, with narrow strips of garden to the river’s brim, its dingy stucco front and its green Venetian blinds conveyed no conceivable attraction beyond that of a situation more likely to prove a drawback three seasons out of the four. The wooden gate had not swung home behind me before I was at the top of a somewhat dirty flight of steps, contemplating blistered paint and ground glass fit for a bathroom window, and listening to the last reverberations of an obsolete type of bell. There was indeed something oppressively and yet prettily Victorian about the riparian retreat to which Lady Laura Belsize had retired in her impoverished widowhood.

It was not for Lady Laura that I asked, however, but for Miss Belsize, and the almost slatternly maid really couldn’t say whether Miss Belsize was in or whether she wasn’t. She might be in the garden, or she might be on the river. Would I step inside and wait a minute? I would and did, but it was more minutes than one that I was kept languishing in an interior as dingy as the outside of the house. I had time to take the whole thing in. There were massive remnants of deservedly unfashionable furniture. The sofa I can still see in my mind’s eye, and the steel fire-irons, and the crystal chandelier. An aged and gigantic Broadwood occupied nearly half the room; and in a cheap frame thereon, inviting all sorts of comparisons and contrasts, stood a full-length portrait of Camilla Belsize resplendent in contemporary court kit.

I was still studying that frankly barbaric paraphernalia — the feather, the necklace, the coiled train — and wondering what noble kinsman had come to the rescue for the great occasion, and why Camilla should have looked so bored with her finery, when the door opened and she herself entered — not even very smartly dressed — and looking anything but bored, although I say it.

But she did seem astonished, anxious, indignant, reproachful, and to my mind still more nervous and distressed, though this hardly showed through the loopholes of her pride. And as for her white serge coat and skirt, they looked as though they had seen considerable service on the river, and I immediately perceived that one of the large enamel buttons was missing from the coat.

Up to that moment, I may now confess, I had been suffering from no slight nervous anxiety of my own. But all qualms were lost in sheer excitement when I spoke.

“You may well wonder at this intrusion,” I began. “But I thought this must be yours, Miss Belsize.”

And from my waistcoat pocket I produced the missing button of enamel.

“Where did you find it?” inquired Miss Belsize, with an admirably slight increase of astonishment in voice and look. “And how did you know it was mine?” came quickly in the next breath.

“I didn’t know,” I answered. “I guessed. It was the shot of my life!”

“But you don’t say where you found it?”

“In an empty house not far from here.”

She had held her breath; now I felt it like the lightest zephyr. And quite unconsciously I had retained the enamel button.

“Well, Mr. Manders? I’m very much obliged to you. But may I have it back again?”

I returned her property. We had been staring at each other all the time. I stared still harder as she repeated her perfunctory thanks.

“So it was you!” I said, and was sorry to see her looking purposely puzzled at that, but thankful when the reckless light outshone all the rest in those chameleon eyes of hers.

“Who did you think it was?” she asked me with a frosty little smile.

“I didn’t know if it was anybody at all. I didn’t know what to think,” said I, quite candidly. “I simply found his pistol in my hand.”

“Whose pistol?”

“Dan Levy’s.”

“Good!” she said grimly. “That makes it all the better.”

“You saved my life.”

“I thought you had taken his — and I’d collaborated!”

There was not a tremor in her voice; it was cautious, eager, daring, intense, but absolutely her own voice now.

“No,” I said, “I didn’t shoot the fellow, but I made him think I had.”

“You made me think so too, until I heard what you said to him.”

“Yet you never made a sound yourself.”

“I should think not! I made myself scarce instead.”

“But, Miss Belsize, I shall go perfectly mad if you don’t tell me how you happened to be there at all!”

“Don’t you think it’s for you to tell me that about yourself and — all of you?”

“Oh, I don’t mind which of us fires first!” said I, excitedly.

“Then I will,” she said at once, and took me to the dreadful sofa at the inner end of the room, and sat down as though it were the most ordinary experience she had to relate. Nor could I believe the things that had really happened, and all so recently, as we talked them over in that commonplace environment of faded gentility. There was a window behind us, overlooking the ribbon of lawn and the cord of gravel, and the bunch of willows that hedged them from the Thames. It all looked unreal to me, unreal in its very realism as the scene of our incredible conversation.

“You know what happened the other afternoon — I mean the day they couldn’t play,” began Miss Belsize, “because you were there; and though you didn’t stay to hear all that came out afterwards, I expect you know everything now. Mr. Raffles would be sure to tell you; in fact, I heard poor dear Mr. Garland give him leave. It’s a dreadful story from every point of view. Nobody comes out of it with flying colours, but what nice person could cope with a horrid money-lender? Mr. Raffles, perhaps — if you call him nice!”

I said that was about the worst thing I called him. I mentioned some of the other things. Miss Belsize listened to them with exemplary patience.

“Well,” she resumed, “he was quite nice about this. I will say that for him. He said he knew Mr. Levy pretty well, and would see what could be done. But he spoke like an executioner who was going to see what could be done with the condemned man! And all the time I was wondering what had been done already at Carlsbad — what exactly that horrid creature meant when he was talking at Mr. Raffles before us all. Well, of course, I knew what he meant us to think he meant; but was there, could there be, anything in it?”

Miss Belsize looked at me as though she expected an answer, only to stop me the moment I opened my mouth to speak.

“I don’t want to know, Mr. Manders! Of course you know all about Mr. Raffles”— there was a touch of feeling in this —“but it’s nothing to me, though in this case I should certainly have been on his side. You said yourself that it could only have been a practical joke, if there was anything in it at all, and so I tried to think in spite of those horrid men who were following him about at Lord’s, even in spite of the way he vanished with them after him. But he never came near the match again — though he had travelled all the way from Carlsbad to see it! Why had he ever been there? What had he really done there? And what could he possibly do to rescue anybody from Mr. Levy, if he himself was already in Levy’s power?”

“You don’t know Raffles,” said I, promptly enough this time. “He never was in any man’s power for many minutes. I would back him to save the most desperate situation you could devise.”

“You mean by some desperate deed? That’s what I feared,” declared Miss Belsize, rather strenuously. “Something really had happened at Carlsbad; something worse was by way of happening next. For Teddy’s sake,” she whispered, “and his poor father’s!”

I agreed that old Raffles stuck at nothing for his friends, and Miss Belsize again said that was what she had feared. Her tone had completely altered about Raffles, as well it might. I thought it would have broken with gratitude when she spoke of the unlucky father and son.

“And I was right!” she exclaimed, with that other kind of feeling to which I found it harder to put a name. “I came home miserable from the match on Saturday —”

“Though Teddy had done so well!” I was fool enough to interject.

“I couldn’t help thinking about Mr. Raffles,” replied Camilla, with a flash of her frank eyes, “and wondering, and wondering, what had happened. And then on Sunday I saw him on the river.”

“He didn’t tell me.”

“He didn’t know I recognised him; he was disguised — absolutely!” said Camilla Belsize under her breath. “But he couldn’t disguise himself from me,” she added as though glorying in her perspicacity.

“Did you tell him so, Miss Belsize?”

“Not I, indeed! I didn’t speak to him; it was no business of mine. But there he was, at the bottom of Mr. Levy’s garden, having a good look at the boathouse when nobody was about. Why? What could his object be? And why disguise himself? I thought of the affair at Carlsbad, and I felt certain that something of the kind was going to happen again!”

“Well?”

“What could I do? Should I do anything at all? Was it any business of mine? You may imagine the way I cross-questioned myself, and you may imagine the crooked answers I got! I won’t bore you with the psychology of the thing; it’s pretty obvious after all. It was not so much a case of doing the best as of knowing the worst. All day yesterday there were no developments of any sort, and there was no sign of Mr. Raffles; nothing had happened in the night, or we should have heard of it; but that made me all the more certain that something or other would happen last night. The week’s grace was nearly up — you know what I mean — their last week at their own house. If anything was to be done, it was about time, and I knew Mr. Raffles was going to do something. I wanted to know what — that was all.”

“Quite right, too!” I murmured. But I doubt if Miss Belsize heard me; she was in no need of my encouragement or my approval. The old light — her own light — the reckless light — was burning away in her brilliant eyes!

“The night before,” she went on, “I hardly slept a wink; last night I preferred not to go to bed at all. I told you I sometimes did weird things that astonished the natives of these suburban shores. Well, last night, if it wasn’t early this morning, I made my weirdest effort yet. I have a canoe, you know; just now I almost live in it. Last night I went out unbeknowns after midnight, partly to reassure myself, partly — I beg your pardon, Mr. Manders?”

“I didn’t speak.”

“Your face shouted!”

“I’d rather you went on.”

“But if you know what I’m going to say?”

Of course I knew, but I dragged it from her none the less. The nebulous white-shirted figure in the canoe, that had skimmed past Dan Levy’s frontage as we were trying to get him aboard his own pleasure-boat, and again past the empty house when we were in the act of disembarking him there, that figure was the trim and slim one now at my side. She had seen us — searched for us — each time. Our voices she had heard and recognised; only our actions, or rather that midnight deed of ours, had she misinterpreted. She would not admit it to me, but I still believe she feared it was a dead body that we had shipped at dead of night to hide away in that desolate tower.

Yet I cannot think she thought it in her heart. I rather fancy (what she indeed averred) that some vague inkling of the truth flashed across her at least as often as that monstrous hypothesis. But know she must; therefore, after boldly ascertaining that nothing was known of the master’s whereabouts at Levy’s house, but that no uneasiness was entertained on his account, this young woman, true to the audacity which I had seen in her eyes from the first, had taken the still bolder step of landing on the rank lawn and entering the empty tower to discover its secret, for herself. Her stealthy step upon the spiral stair had been the signal for my mortal struggle with Dan Levy. She had heard the whole, and even seen a little of that; in fact, she had gathered enough from Levy’s horrible imprecations to form later a rough but not incorrect impression of the situation between him and Raffles and me. As for the moneylender’s language, it was with a welcome gleam of humour that Miss Belsize assured me she had “gone too straight to hounds” in her time to be as completely paralysed by it as her mother’s neighbours might have been. And as for the revolver, it had fallen at her feet, and first she thought I was going to follow it over the banisters, and before she could think again she had restored the weapon to my wildly clutching hand!

“But when you fired I felt a murderess,” she said. “So you see I misjudged you for the second time.”

If I am conveying a dash of flippancy in our talk, let me earnestly declare that it was hardly even a dash. It was but a wry and rueful humour on the girl’s part, and that only towards the end, but I can promise my worst critic that I was never less facetious in my life. I was thinking in my heavy way that I had never looked into such eyes as these, so bold, so sad, so merry with it all! I was thinking that I had never listened to such a voice, or come across recklessness and sentiment so harmonised, save also in her eyes! I was thinking that there never was a girl to touch Camilla Belsize, or a man either except A. J. Raffles! And yet —

And yet it was over Raffles that she took all the wind from my sails, exactly as she had done at Lord’s, only now she did it at parting, and sent me off into the dusk a slightly puzzled and exceedingly exasperated man.

“Of course,” said Camilla at her garden gate, “of course you won’t repeat a word of what I’ve told you, Mr. Manders?”

“You mean about your adventures last night and today?” said I, somewhat taken aback.

“I mean every single thing we’ve talked about!” was her sweeping reply. “Not a syllable must go an inch further; otherwise I shall be very sorry I ever spoke to you.”

As though she had come and confided in me of her own accord! But I passed that, even if I noticed it at the time.

“I won’t tell a soul, of course,” I said, and fidgeted. “That is — except — I suppose you don’t mind —”

“I do! There must be no exceptions.”

“Not even old Raffles?”

“Mr. Raffles least of all!” cried Camilla Belsize, with almost a forked flash from those masterful eyes. “Mr. Raffles is the last person in the world who must ever know a single thing.”

“Not even that it was you who absolutely saved the situation for him and me?” I asked, wistfully; for I much wanted these two to think better of each other; and it had begun to look as though I had my wish, so far as Camilla was concerned, while I had only to tell Raffles everything to make him her slave for life. But now she was adamant on the point, adamant heated in some hidden flame.

“It’s rather hard lines on me, Mr. Manders, if because I go and get excited, and twist off a button in my excitement, as I suppose I must have done — unless it’s a judgment on me — it’s rather hard lines if you give me away when I never should have given myself away to you!”

This was unkind. It was still more unfair in view of the former passage between us to the same tune. I was evidently getting no credit for my very irksome fidelity. I helped myself to some at once.

“You gave yourself away to me at Lord’s all right,” said I, cheerfully. “And I never let out a word of that.”

“Not even to Mr. Raffles?” she asked, with a quick unguarded intonation that was almost wistful.

“Not a word,” was my reply. “Raffles has no idea you noticed anything, much less how keen you were for me to warn him.”

Miss Belsize looked at me a moment with civil war in her splendid eyes. Then something won — I think it was only her pride — and she was holding out her hand.

“He must never know a word of this either,” said she, firmly as at first. “And I hope you’ll forgive me for not trusting you quite as I always shall for the future.”

“I’ll forgive you everything, Miss Belsize, except your dislike of dear old Raffles!”

I had spoken quite earnestly, keeping her hand; she drew it away as I made my point.

“I don’t dislike him,” she answered in a strange tone; but with a stranger stress she added, “I don’t like him either.”

And even then I could not see what the verb should have been, or why Miss Belsize should turn away so quickly in the end, and snatch her eyes away quicker still.

I saw them, and thought of her, all the way back to the station, but not an inch further. So I need no sympathy on that score. If I did, it would have been just the same that July evening, for I saw somebody else and had something else to think about from the moment I set foot upon the platform. It was the wrong platform. I was about to cross by the bridge when a down train came rattling in, and out jumped a man I knew by sight before it stopped.

The man was Mackenzie, the incorrigibly Scotch detective whom we had met at Milchester Abbey, who I always thought had kept an eye on Raffles ever since. He was across the platform before the train pulled up, and I did what Raffles would have done in my place. I ran after him.

“Ye ken Dan Levy’s hoose by the river?” I heard him babble to his cabman, with wilful breadth of speech. “Then drive there, mon, like the deevil himsel’!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hornung/ew/mr-justice-raffles/chapter17.html

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