Nipper Nasmyth had been head of our school when Raffles was captain of cricket. I believe he owed his nickname entirely to the popular prejudice against a day-boy; and in view of the special reproach which the term carried in my time, as also of the fact that his father was one of the school trustees, partner in a banking firm of four resounding surnames, and manager of the local branch, there can be little doubt that the stigma was undeserved. But we did not think so then, for Nasmyth was unpopular with high and low, and appeared to glory in the fact. A swollen conscience caused him to see and hear even more than was warranted by his position, and his uncompromising nature compelled him to act on whatsoever he heard or saw: a savage custodian of public morals, he had in addition a perverse enthusiasm for lost causes, loved a minority for its own sake, and untenable tenets for theirs. Such, at all events, was my impression of Nipper Nasmyth, after my first term, which was also his last. I had never spoken to him, but I had heard him speak with extraordinary force and fervor in the school debates. I carried a clear picture of his unkempt hair, his unbrushed coat, his dominant spectacles, his dogmatic jaw. And it was I who knew the combination at a glance, after years and years, when the fateful whim seized Raffles to play once more in the Old Boys’ Match, and his will took me down with him to participate in the milder festivities of Founder’s Day.
It was, however, no ordinary occasion. The bicentenary loomed but a year ahead, and a movement was on foot to mark the epoch with an adequate statue of our pious founder. A special meeting was to be held at the school-house, and Raffles had been specially invited by the new head master, a man of his own standing, who had been in the eleven with him up at Cambridge. Raffles had not been near the old place for years; but I had never gone down since the day I left; and I will not dwell on the emotions which the once familiar journey awakened in my unworthy bosom. Paddington was alive with Old Boys of all ages — but very few of ours — if not as lively as we used to make it when we all landed back for the holidays. More of us had moustaches and cigarettes and “loud” ties. That was all. Yet of the throng, though two or three looked twice and thrice at Raffles, neither he nor I knew a soul until we had to change at the junction near our journey’s end, when, as I say, it was I who recognized Nipper Nasmyth at sight.
The man was own son of the boy we both remembered. He had grown a ragged beard and a moustache that hung about his face like a neglected creeper. He was stout and bent and older than his years. But he spurned the platform with a stamping stride which even I remembered in an instant, and which was enough for Raffles before he saw the man’s face.
“The Nipper it is!” he cried. “I could swear to that walk in a pantomime procession! See the independence in every step: that’s his heel on the neck of the oppressor: it’s the nonconformist conscience in baggy breeches. I must speak to him, Bunny. There was a lot of good in the old Nipper, though he and I did bar each other.”
And in a moment he had accosted the man by the boy’s nickname, obviously without thinking of an affront which few would have read in that hearty open face and hand.
“My name’s Nasmyth,” snapped the other, standing upright to glare.
“Forgive me,” said Raffles undeterred. “One remembers a nickname and forgets all it never used to mean. Shake hands, my dear fellow! I’m Raffles. It must be fifteen years since we met.”
“At least,” replied Nasmyth coldly; but he could no longer refuse Raffles his hand. “So you are going down,” he sneered, “to this great gathering?” And I stood listening at my distance, as though still in the middle fourth.
“Rather!” cried Raffles. “I’m afraid I have let myself lose touch, but I mean to turn over a new leaf. I suppose that isn’t necessary in your case, Nasmyth?”
He spoke with an enthusiasm rare indeed in him: it had grown upon Raffles in the train; the spirit of his boyhood had come rushing back at fifty miles an hour. He might have been following some honorable calling in town; he might have snatched this brief respite from a distinguished but exacting career. I am convinced that it was I alone who remembered at that moment the life we were really leading at that time. With me there walked this skeleton through every waking hour that was to follow. I shall endeavor not to refer to it again. Yet it should not be forgotten that my skeleton was always there.
“It certainly is not necessary in my case,” replied Nasmyth, still as stiff as any poker. “I happen to be a trustee.”
“Of the school?”
“Like my father before me.”
“I congratulate you, my dear fellow!” cried the hearty Raffles — a younger Raffles than I had ever known in town.
“I don’t know that you need,” said Nasmyth sourly.
“But it must be a tremendous interest. And the proof is that you’re going down to this show, like all the rest of us.”
“No, I’m not. I live there, you see.”
And I think the Nipper recalled that name as he ground his heel upon an unresponsive flagstone.
“But you’re going to this meeting at the school-house, surely?”
“I don’t know. If I do there may be squalls. I don’t know what you think about this precious scheme Raffles, but I. . . . ”
The ragged beard stuck out, set teeth showed through the wild moustache, and in a sudden out-pouring we had his views. They were narrow and intemperate and perverse as any I had heard him advocate as the firebrand of the Debating Society in my first term. But they were stated with all the old vim and venom. The mind of Nasmyth had not broadened with the years, but neither had its natural force abated, nor that of his character either. He spoke with great vigor at the top of his voice; soon we had a little crowd about us; but the tall collars and the broad smiles of the younger Old Boys did not deter our dowdy demagogue. Why spend money on a man who had been dead two hundred years? What good could it do him or the school? Besides, he was only technically our founder. He had not founded a great public school. He had founded a little country grammar school which had pottered along for a century and a half. The great public school was the growth of the last fifty years, and no credit to the pillar of piety. Besides, he was only nominally pious. Nasmyth had made researches, and he knew. And why throw good money after a bad man?
“Are there many of your opinion?” inquired Raffles, when the agitator paused for breath. And Nasmyth beamed on us with flashing eyes.
“Not one to my knowledge as yet,” said he. “But we shall see after tomorrow night. I hear it’s to be quite an exceptional gathering this year; let us hope it may contain a few sane men. There are none on the present staff, and I only know of one among the trustees!”
Raffles refrained from smiling as his dancing eye met mine.
“I can understand your view,” he said. “I am not sure that I don’t share it to some extent. But it seems to me a duty to support a general movement like this even if it doesn’t take the direction or the shape of our own dreams. I suppose you yourself will give something, Nasmyth?”
“Give something? I? Not a brass farthing!” cried the implacable banker. “To do so would be to stultify my whole position. I cordially and conscientiously disapprove of the whole thing, and shall use all my influence against it. No, my good sir, I not only don’t subscribe myself, but I hope to be the means of nipping a good many subscriptions in the bud.”
I was probably the only one who saw the sudden and yet subtle change in Raffles — the hard mouth, the harder eye. I, at least, might have foreseen the sequel then and there. But his quiet voice betrayed nothing, as he inquired whether Nasmyth was going to speak at next night’s meeting. Nasmyth said he might, and certainly warned us what to expect. He was still fulminating when our train came in.
“Then we meet again at Philippi,” cried Raffles in gay adieu. “For you have been very frank with us all, Nasmyth, and I’ll be frank enough in my turn to tell you that I’ve every intention of speaking on the other side!”
It happened that Raffles had been asked to speak by his old college friend, the new head master. Yet it was not at the school-house that he and I were to stay, but at the house that we had both been in as boys. It also had changed hands: a wing had been added, and the double tier of tiny studies made brilliant with electric light. But the quad and the fives-courts did not look a day older; the ivy was no thicker round the study windows; and in one boy’s castle we found the traditional print of Charing Cross Bridge which had knocked about our studies ever since a son of the contractor first sold it when he left. Nay, more, there was the bald remnant of a stuffed bird which had been my own daily care when it and I belonged to Raffles. And when we all filed in to prayers, through the green baize door which still separated the master’s part of the house from that of the boys, there was a small boy posted in the passage to give the sign of silence to the rest assembled in the hall, quite identically as in the dim old days; the picture was absolutely unchanged; it was only we who were out of it in body and soul.
On our side of the baize door a fine hospitality and a finer flow of spirits were the order of the night. There was a sound representative assortment of quite young Old Boys, to whom ours was a prehistoric time, and in the trough of their modern chaff and chat we old stagers might well have been left far astern of the fun. Yet it was Raffles who was the life and soul of the party, and that not by meretricious virtue of his cricket. There happened not to be another cricketer among us, and it was on their own subjects that Raffles laughed with the lot in turn and in the lump. I never knew him in quite such form. I will not say he was a boy among them, but he was that rarer being, the man of the world who can enter absolutely into the fun and fervor of the salad age. My cares and my regrets had never been more acute, but Raffles seemed a man without either in his life.
He was not, however, the hero of the Old Boys’ Match, and that was expected of him by all the school. There was a hush when he went in, a groan when he came out. I had no reason to suppose he was not trying; these things happen to the cricketer who plays out of his class; but when the great Raffles went on to bowl, and was hit all over the field, I was not so sure. It certainly failed to affect his spirits; he was more brilliant than ever at our hospitable board; and after dinner came the meeting at which he and Nasmyth were to speak.
It was a somewhat frigid gathering until Nasmyth rose. We had all dined with our respective hosts, and then repaired to this business in cold blood. Many were lukewarm about it in their hearts; there was a certain amount of mild prejudice, and a greater amount of animal indifference, to be overcome in the opening speech. It is not for me to say whether this was successfully accomplished. I only know how the temperature of that meeting rose with Nipper Nasmyth.
And I dare say, in all the circumstances of the case, his really was a rather vulgar speech. But it was certainly impassioned, and probably as purely instinctive as his denunciation of all the causes which appeal to the gullible many without imposing upon the cantankerous few. His arguments, it is true, were merely an elaboration of those with which he had favored some of us already; but they were pointed by a concise exposition of the several definite principles they represented, and barbed with a caustic rhetoric quite admirable in itself. In a word, the manner was worthy of the very foundation it sought to shake, or we had never swallowed such matter without a murmur. As it was, there was a demonstration in the wilderness when the voice ceased crying. But we sat in the deeper silence when Raffles rose to reply.
I leaned forward not to lose a word. I knew my Raffles so well that I felt almost capable of reporting his speech before I heard it. Never was I more mistaken, even in him! So far from a gibe for a gibe and a taunt for a taunt, there never was softer answer than that which A. J. Raffles returned to Nipper Nasmyth before the staring eyes and startled ears of all assembled. He courteously but firmly refused to believe a word his old friend Nasmyth had said — about himself. He had known Nasmyth for twenty years, and never had he met a dog who barked so loud and bit so little. The fact was that he had far too kind a heart to bite at all. Nasmyth might get up and protest as loud as he liked: the speaker declared he knew him better than Nasmyth knew himself. He had the necessary defects of his great qualities. He was only too good a sportsman. He had a perfect passion for the weaker side. That alone led Nasmyth into such excesses of language as we had all heard from his lips that night. As for Raffles, he concluded his far too genial remarks by predicting that, whatever Nasmyth might say or think of the new fund, he would subscribe to it as handsomely as any of us, like “the generous good chap” that we all knew him to be.
Even so did Raffles disappoint the Old Boys in the evening as he had disappointed the school by day. We had looked to him for a noble raillery, a lofty and loyal disdain, and he had fobbed us off with friendly personalities not even in impeccable taste. Nevertheless, this light treatment of a grave offence went far to restore the natural amenities of the occasion. It was impossible even for Nasmyth to reply to it as he might to a more earnest onslaught. He could but smile sardonically, and audibly undertake to prove Raffles a false prophet; and though subsequent speakers were less merciful the note was struck, and there was no more bad blood in the debate. There was plenty, however, in the veins of Nasmyth, as I was to discover for myself before the night was out.
You might think that in the circumstances he would not have attended the head master’s ball with which the evening ended; but that would be sadly to misjudge so perverse a creature as the notorious Nipper. He was probably one of those who protest that there is “nothing personal” in their most personal attacks. Not that Nasmyth took this tone about Raffles when he and I found ourselves cheek by jowl against the ballroom wall; he could forgive his franker critics, but not the friendly enemy who had treated him so much more gently than he deserved.
“I seem to have seen you with this great man Raffles,” began Nasmyth, as he overhauled me with his fighting eye. “Do you know him well?”
“I remember now. You were with him when he forced himself upon me on the way down yesterday. He had to tell me who he was. Yet he talks as though we were old friends.”
“You were in the upper sixth together,” I rejoined, nettled by his tone.
“What does that matter? I am glad to say I had too much self-respect, and too little respect for Raffles, ever to be a friend of his then. I knew too many of the things he did,” said Nipper Nasmyth.
His fluent insults had taken my breath. But in a lucky flash I saw my retort.
“You must have had special opportunities of observation, living in the town,” said I; and drew first blood between the long hair and the ragged beard; but that was all.
“So he really did get out at nights?” remarked my adversary. “You certainly give your friend away. What’s he doing now?”
I let my eyes follow Raffles round the room before replying. He was waltzing with a master’s wife — waltzing as he did everything else. Other couples seemed to melt before them. And the woman on his arm looked a radiant girl.
“I meant in town, or wherever he lives his mysterious life,” explained Nasmyth, when I told him that he could see for himself. But his clever tone did not trouble me; it was his epithet that caused me to prick my ears. And I found some difficulty in following Raffles right round the room.
“I thought everybody knew what he was doing; he’s playing cricket most of his time,” was my measured reply; and if it bore an extra touch of insolence, I can honestly ascribe that to my nerves.
“And is that all he does for a living?” pursued my inquisitor keenly.
“You had better ask Raffles himself,” said I to that. “It’s a pity you didn’t ask him in public, at the meeting!”
But I was beginning to show temper in my embarrassment, and of course that made Nasmyth the more imperturbable.
“Really, he might be following some disgraceful calling, by the mystery you make of it!” he exclaimed. “And for that matter I call first-class cricket a disgraceful calling, when it’s followed by men who ought to be gentlemen, but are really professionals in gentlemanly clothing. The present craze for gladiatorial athleticism I regard as one of the great evils of the age; but the thinly veiled professionalism of the so-called amateur is the greatest evil of that craze. Men play for the gentlemen and are paid more than the players who walk out of another gate. In my time there was none of that. Amateurs were amateurs and sport was sport; there were no Raffleses in first-class cricket then. I had forgotten Raffles was a modern first-class cricketer: that explains him. Rather than see my son such another, do you know what I’d prefer to see him?”
I neither knew nor cared: yet a wretched premonitory fascination held me breathless till I was told.
“I’d prefer to see him a thief!” said Nasmyth savagely; and when his eyes were done with me, he turned upon his heel. So that ended that stage of my discomfiture.
It was only to give place to a worse. Was all this accident or fell design? Conscience had made a coward of me, and yet what reason had I to disbelieve the worst? We were pirouetting on the edge of an abyss; sooner or later the false step must come and the pit swallow us. I began to wish myself back in London, and I did get back to my room in our old house. My dancing days were already over; there I had taken the one resolution to which I remained as true as better men to better vows; there the painful association was no mere sense of personal unworthiness. I fell to thinking in my room of other dances . . . and was still smoking the cigarette which Raffles had taught me to appreciate when I looked up to find him regarding me from the door. He had opened it as noiselessly as only Raffles could open doors, and now he closed it in the same professional fashion.
“I missed Achilles hours ago,” said he. “And still he’s sulking in his tent!”
“I have been,” I answered, laughing as he could always make me, “but I’ll chuck it if you’ll stop and smoke. Our host doesn’t mind; there’s an ash-tray provided for the purpose. I ought to be sulking between the sheets, but I’m ready to sit up with you till morning.”
“We might do worse; but, on the other hand, we might do still better,” rejoined Raffles, and for once he resisted the seductive Sullivan. “As a matter of fact, it’s morning now; in another hour it will be dawn; and where could day dawn better than in Warfield Woods, or along the Stockley road, or even on the Upper or the Middle? I don’t want to turn in, any more than you do. I may as well confess that the whole show down here has exalted me more than anything for years. But if we can’t sleep, Bunny, let’s have some fresh air instead.”
“Has everybody gone to bed?” I asked.
“Long ago. I was the last in. Why?”
“Only it might sound a little odd, our turning out again, if they were to hear us.”
Raffles stood over me with a smile made of mischief and cunning; but it was the purest mischief imaginable, the most innocent and comic cunning.
“They shan’t hear us at all, Bunny,” said he. “I mean to get out as I did in the good old nights. I’ve been spoiling for the chance ever since I came down. There’s not the smallest harm in it now; and if you’ll come with me I’ll show you how it used to be done.”
“But I know,” said I. “Who used to haul up the rope after you, and let it down again to the minute?”
Raffles looked down on me from lowered lids, over a smile too humorous to offend.
“My dear good Bunny! And do you suppose that even then I had only one way of doing a thing? I’ve had a spare loophole all my life, and when you’re ready I’ll show you what it was when I was here. Take off those boots, and carry your tennis-shoes; slip on another coat; put out your light; and I’ll meet you on the landing in two minutes.”
He met me with uplifted finger, and not a syllable; and down-stairs he led me, stocking soles close against the skirting, two feet to each particular step. It must have seemed child’s play to Raffles; the old precautions were obviously assumed for my entertainment; but I confess that to me it was all refreshingly exciting — for once without a risk of durance if we came to grief! With scarcely a creak we reached the hall, and could have walked out of the street door without danger or difficulty. But that would not do for Raffles. He must needs lead me into the boys’ part, through the green baize door. It took a deal of opening and shutting, but Raffles seemed to enjoy nothing better than these mock obstacles, and in a few minutes we were resting with sharp ears in the boys’ hall.
“Through these windows?” I whispered, when the clock over the piano had had matters its own way long enough to make our minds quite easy.
“How else?” whispered Raffles, as he opened the one on whose ledge our letters used to await us of a morning.
“And then through the quad ——”
“And over the gates at the end. No talking, Bunny; there’s a dormitory just overhead; but ours was in front, you remember, and if they had ever seen me I should have nipped back this way while they were watching the other.”
His finger was on his lips as we got out softly into the starlight. I remember how the gravel hurt as we left the smooth flagged margin of the house for the open quad; but the nearer of two long green seats (whereon you prepared your construe for the second-school in the summer term) was mercifully handy; and once in our rubber soles we had no difficulty in scaling the gates beyond the fives-courts. Moreover, we dropped into a very desert of a country road, nor saw a soul when we doubled back beneath the outer study windows, nor heard a foot-fall in the main street of the slumbering town. Our own fell like the night-dews and the petals of the poet; but Raffles ran his arm through mine, and would chatter in whispers as we went.
“So you and Nipper had a word — or was it words? I saw you out of the tail of my eye when I was dancing, and I heard you out of the tail of my ear. It sounded like words, Bunny, and I thought I caught my name. He’s the most consistent man I know, and the least altered from a boy. But he’ll subscribe all right, you’ll see, and be very glad I made him.”
I whispered back that I did not believe it for a moment. Raffles had not heard all Nasmyth had said of him. And neither would he listen to the little I meant to repeat to him; he would but reiterate a conviction so chimerical to my mind that I interrupted in my turn to ask him what ground he had for it.
“I’ve told you already,” said Raffles. “I mean to make him.”
“But how?” I asked. “And when, and where?”
“At Philippi, Bunny, where I said I’d see him. What a rabbit you are at a quotation!
“‘And I think that the field of Philippi
Was where Cæsar came to an end;
But who gave old Brutus the tip,
I Can’t comprehend!’
“You may have forgotten your Shakespeare, Bunny, but you ought to remember that.”
And I did, vaguely, but had no idea what it or Raffles meant, as I plainly told him.
“The theatre of war,” he answered —“and here we are at the stage door!”
Raffles had stopped suddenly in his walk. It was the last dark hour of the summer night, but the light from a neighboring lamp-post showed me the look on his face as he turned.
“I think you also inquired when,” he continued. “Well, then, this minute — if you will give me a leg up!”
And behind him, scarcely higher than his head, and not even barred, was a wide window with a wire blind, and the name of Nasmyth among others lettered in gold upon the wire.
“You’re never going to break in?”
“This instant, if you’ll help me; in five or ten minutes, if you won’t.”
“Surely you didn’t bring the — the tools?”
He jingled them gently in his pocket.
“Not the whole outfit, Bunny. But you never know when you mayn’t want one or two. I’m only thankful I didn’t leave the lot behind this time. I very nearly did.”
“I must say I thought you would, coming down here,” I said reproachfully.
“But you ought to be glad I didn’t,” he rejoined with a smile. “It’s going to mean old Nasmyth’s subscription to the Founder’s Fund, and that’s to be a big one, I promise you! The lucky thing is that I went so far as to bring my bunch of safe-keys. Now, are you going to help me use them, or are you not? If so, now’s your minute; if not, clear out and be ——”
“Not so fast, Raffles,” said I testily. “You must have planned this before you came down, or you would never have brought all those things with you.”
“My dear Bunny, they’re a part of my kit! I take them wherever I take my evening-clothes. As to this potty bank, I never even thought of it, much less that it would become a public duty to draw a hundred or so without signing for it. That’s all I shall touch, Bunny — I’m not on the make to-night. There’s no risk in it either. If I am caught I shall simply sham champagne and stand the racket; it would be an obvious frolic after what happened at that meeting. And they will catch me, if I stand talking here: you run away back to bed — unless you’re quite determined to ‘give old Brutus the tip!’”
Now we had barely been a minute whispering where we stood, and the whole street was still as silent as the tomb. To me there seemed least danger in discussing the matter quietly on the spot. But even as he gave me my dismissal Raffles turned and caught the sill above him, first with one hand and then with the other. His legs swung like a pendulum as he drew himself up with one arm, then shifted the position of the other hand, and very gradually worked himself waist-high with the sill. But the sill was too narrow for him; that was as far as he could get unaided; and it was as much as I could bear to see of a feat which in itself might have hardened my conscience and softened my heart. But I had identified his doggerel verse at last. I am ashamed to say that it was part of a set of my very own writing in the school magazine of my time. So Raffles knew the stuff better than I did myself, and yet scorned to press his flattery to win me over! He had won me: in a second my rounded shoulders were a pedestal for those dangling feet. And before many more I heard the old metallic snap, followed by the raising of a sash so slowly and gently as to be almost inaudible to me listening just below.
Raffles went through hands first, disappeared for an instant, then leaned out, lowering his hands for me.
“Come on, Bunny! You’re safer in than out. Hang on to the sill and let me get you under the arms. Now all together — quietly does it — and over you come!”
No need to dwell on our proceedings in the bank. I myself had small part in the scene, being posted rather in the wings, at the foot of the stairs leading to the private premises in which the manager had his domestic being. But I made my mind easy about him, for in the silence of my watch I soon detected a nasal note overhead, and it was resonant and aggressive as the man himself. Of Raffles, on the contrary, I heard nothing, for he had shut the door between us, and I was to warn him if a single sound came through. I need scarcely add that no warning was necessary during the twenty minutes we remained in the bank. Raffles afterward assured me that nineteen of them had been spent in filing one key; but one of his latest inventions was a little thick velvet bag in which he carried the keys; and this bag had two elastic mouths, which closed so tightly about either wrist that he could file away, inside, and scarcely hear it himself. As for these keys, they were clever counterfeits of typical patterns by two great safe-making firms. And Raffles had come by them in a manner all his own, which the criminal world may discover for itself.
When he opened the door and beckoned to me, I knew by his face that he had succeeded to his satisfaction, and by experience better than to question him on the point. Indeed, the first thing was to get out of the bank; for the stars were drowning in a sky of ink and water, and it was a comfort to feel that we could fly straight to our beds. I said so in whispers as Raffles cautiously opened our window and peeped out. In an instant his head was in, and for another I feared the worst.
“What was that, Bunny? No, you don’t, my son! There’s not a soul in sight that I can see, but you never know, and we may as well lay a scent while we’re about it. Ready? Then follow me, and never mind the window.”
With that he dropped softly into the street, and I after him, turning to the right instead of the left, and that at a brisk trot instead of the innocent walk which had brought us to the bank. Like mice we scampered past the great schoolroom, with its gable snipping a paler sky than ever, and the shadows melting even in the colonnade underneath. Masters’ houses flitted by on the left, lesser landmarks on either side, and presently we were running our heads into the dawn, one under either hedge of the Stockley road.
“Did you see that light in Nab’s just now?” cried Raffles as he led.
“No; why?” I panted, nearly spent.
“It was in Nab’s dressing-room.”
“I’ve seen it there before,” continued Raffles. “He never was a good sleeper, and his ears reach to the street. I wouldn’t like to say how often I was chased by him in the small hours! I believe he knew who it was toward the end, but Nab was not the man to accuse you of what he couldn’t prove.”
I had no breath for comment. And on sped Raffles like a yacht before the wind, and on I blundered like a wherry at sea, making heavy weather all the way, and nearer foundering at every stride. Suddenly, to my deep relief, Raffles halted, but only to tell me to stop my pipes while he listened.
“It’s all right, Bunny,” he resumed, showing me a glowing face in the dawn. “History’s on its own tracks once more, and I’ll bet you it’s dear old Nab on ours! Come on, Bunny; run to the last gasp, and leave the rest to me.”
I was past arguing, and away he went. There was no help for it but to follow as best I could. Yet I had vastly preferred to collapse on the spot, and trust to Raffles’s resource, as before very long I must. I had never enjoyed long wind and the hours that we kept in town may well have aggravated the deficiency. Raffles, however, was in first-class training from first-class cricket, and he had no mercy on Nab or me. But the master himself was an old Oxford miler, who could still bear it better than I; nay, as I flagged and stumbled, I heard him pounding steadily behind.
“Come on, come on, or he’ll do us!” cried Raffles shrilly over his shoulder; and a gruff sardonic laugh came back over mine. It was pearly morning now, but we had run into a shallow mist that took me by the throat and stabbed me to the lungs. I coughed and coughed, and stumbled in my stride, until down I went, less by accident than to get it over, and so lay headlong in my tracks. And old Nab dealt me a verbal kick as he passed.
“You beast!” he growled, as I have known him growl it in form.
But Raffles himself had abandoned the flight on hearing my downfall, and I was on hands and knees just in time to see the meeting between him and old Nab. And there stood Raffles in the silvery mist, laughing with his whole light heart, leaning back to get the full flavor of his mirth; and, nearer me, sturdy old Nab, dour and grim, with beads of dew on the hoary beard that had been lamp-black in our time.
“So I’ve caught you at last!” said he. “After more years than I mean to count!”
“Then you’re luckier than we are, sir,” answered Raffles, “for I fear our man has given us the slip.”
“Your man!” echoed Nab. His bushy eyebrows had shot up: it was as much as I could do to keep my own in their place.
“We were indulging in the chase ourselves,” explained Raffles, “and one of us has suffered for his zeal, as you can see. It is even possible that we, too, have been chasing a perfectly innocent man.”
“Not to say a reformed character,” said our pursuer dryly. “I suppose you don’t mean a member of the school?” he added, pinking his man suddenly as of yore, with all the old barbed acumen.
But Raffles was now his match.
“That would be carrying reformation rather far, sir. No, as I say, I may have been mistaken in the first instance; but I had put out my light and was looking out of the window when I saw a fellow behaving quite suspiciously. He was carrying his boots and creeping along in his socks — which must be why you never heard him, sir. They make less noise than rubber soles even — that is, they must, you know! Well, Bunny had just left me, so I hauled him out and we both crept down to play detective. No sign of the fellow! We had a look in the colonnade — I thought I heard him — and that gave us no end of a hunt for nothing. But just as we were leaving he came padding past under our noses, and that’s where we took up the chase. Where he’d been in the meantime I have no idea; very likely he’d done no harm; but it seemed worth while finding out. He had too good a start, though, and poor Bunny had too bad a wind.”
“You should have gone on and let me rip,” said I, climbing to my feet at last.
“As it is, however, we will all let the other fellow do so,” said old Nab in a genial growl. “And you two had better turn into my house and have something to keep the morning cold out.”
You may imagine with what alacrity we complied; and yet I am bound to confess that I had never liked Nab at school. I still remember my term in his form. He had a caustic tongue and a fine assortment of damaging epithets, most of which were levelled at my devoted skull during those three months. I now discovered that he also kept a particularly mellow Scotch whiskey, an excellent cigar, and a fund of anecdote of which a mordant wit was the worthy bursar. Enough to add that he kept us laughing in his study until the chapel bells rang him out.
As for Raffles, he appeared to me to feel far more compunction for the fable which he had been compelled to foist upon one of the old masters than for the immeasurably graver offence against society and another Old Boy. This, indeed, did not worry him at all; and the story was received next day with absolute credulity on all sides. Nasmyth himself was the first to thank us both for our spirited effort on his behalf; and the incident had the ironic effect of establishing an immediate entente cordiale between Raffles and his very latest victim. I must confess, however, that for my own part I was thoroughly uneasy during the Old Boys’ second innings, when Raffles made a selfish score, instead of standing by me to tell his own story in his own way. There was never any knowing with what new detail he was about to embellish it: and I have still to receive full credit for the tact that it required to follow his erratic lead convincingly. Seldom have I been more thankful than when our train started next morning, and the poor, unsuspecting Nasmyth himself waved us a last farewell from the platform.
“Lucky we weren’t staying at Nab’s,” said Raffles, as he lit a Sullivan and opened his Daily Mail at its report of the robbery. “There was one thing Nab would have spotted like the downy old bird he always was and will be.”
“What was that?”
“The front door must have been found duly barred and bolted in the morning, and yet we let them assume that we came out that way. Nab would have pounced on the point, and by this time we might have been nabbed ourselves.”
It was but a little over a hundred sovereigns that Raffles had taken, and, of course, he had resolutely eschewed any and every form of paper money. He posted his own first contribution of twenty-five pounds to the Founder’s Fund immediately on our return to town, before rushing off to more first-class cricket, and I gathered that the rest would follow piecemeal as he deemed it safe. By an odd coincidence, however, a mysterious but magnificent donation of a hundred guineas was almost simultaneously received in notes by the treasurer of the Founder’s Fund, from one who simply signed himself “Old Boy.” The treasurer happened to be our late host, the new man at our old house, and he wrote to congratulate Raffles on what he was pleased to consider a direct result of the latter’s speech. I did not see the letter that Raffles wrote in reply, but in due course I heard the name of the mysterious contributor. He was said to be no other than Nipper Nasmyth himself. I asked Raffles if it was true. He replied that he would ask old Nipper point-blank if he came up as usual to the ‘Varsity match, and if they had the luck to meet. And not only did this happen, but I had the greater luck to be walking round the ground with Raffles when we encountered our shabby friend in front of the pavilion.
“My dear fellow,” cried Raffles, “I hear it was you who gave that hundred guineas by stealth to the very movement you denounced. Don’t deny it, and don’t blush to find it fame. Listen to me. There was a great lot in what you said; but it’s the kind of thing we ought all to back, whether we strictly approve of it in our hearts or not.”
“Exactly, Raffles, but the fact is ——”
“I know what you’re going to say. Don’t say it. There’s not one in a thousand who would do as you’ve done, and not one in a million who would do it anonymously.”
“But what makes you think I did it, Raffles?”
“Everybody is saying so. You will find it all over the place when you get back. You will find yourself the most popular man down there, Nasmyth!”
I never saw a nobler embarrassment than that of this awkward, ungainly, cantankerous man: all his angles seemed to have been smoothed away: there was something quite human in the flushed, undecided, wistful face.
“I never was popular in my life,” he said. “I don’t want to buy my popularity now. To be perfectly candid with you, Raffles ——”
“Don’t! I can’t stop to hear. They’re ringing the bell. But you shouldn’t have been angry with me for saying you were a generous good chap, Nasmyth, when you were one all the time. Good-by, old fellow!”
But Nasmyth detained us a second more. His hesitation was at an end. There was a sudden new light in his face.
“Was I?” he cried. “Then I’ll make it two hundred, and damn the odds!”
Raffles was a thoughtful man as we went to our seats. He saw nobody, would acknowledge no remark. Neither did he attend to the cricket for the first half-hour after lunch; instead, he eventually invited me to come for a stroll on the practice ground, where, however, we found two chairs aloof from the fascinating throng.
“I am not often sorry, Bunny, as you know,” he began. “But I have been sorry since the interval. I’ve been sorry for poor old Nipper Nasmyth. Did you see the idea of being popular dawn upon him for the first time in his life?”
“I did; but you had nothing to do with that, my dear man.”
Raffles shook his head over me as our eyes met.
“I had everything to do with it. I tried to make him tell the meanest lie. I made sure he would, and for that matter he nearly did. Then, at the last moment, he saw how to hedge things with his conscience. And his second hundred will be a real gift.”
“You mean under his own name?”
“And with his own free-will. My good Bunny, is it possible you don’t know what I did with the hundred we drew from that bank!”
“I knew what you were going to do with it,” said I. “I didn’t know you had actually got further than the twenty-five you told me you were sending as your own contribution.”
Raffles rose abruptly from his chair.
“And you actually thought that came out of his money?”
“In my name?”
“I thought so.”
Raffles stared at me inscrutably for some moments, and for some more at the great white numbers over the grand-stand.
“We may as well have another look at the cricket,” said he. “It’s difficult to see the board from here, but I believe there’s another man out.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09