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"Poor Jack Rutter!" said Raffles, with a sigh. "Nothing's sadder than to see a fellow going to the bad like that. He's about mad with drink and debt, poor devil! Did you see his eye? Odd that we should have met him to-night, by the way; it's old Baird who's said to have skinned him. By God, but I'd like to skin old Baird!"
And his tone took a sudden low fury, made the more noticeable by another long silence, which lasted, indeed, throughout an admirable dinner at the club, and for some time after we had settled down in a quiet corner of the smoking-room with our coffee and cigars. Then at last I saw Raffles looking at me with his lazy smile, and I knew that the morose fit was at an end.
"I daresay you wonder what I've been thinking about all this time?" said he. "I've been thinking what rot it is to go doing things by halves!"
"Well," said I, returning his smile, "that's not a charge that you can bring against yourself, is it?"
"I'm not so sure," said Raffles, blowing a meditative puff; "as a matter of fact, I was thinking less of myself than of that poor devil of a Jack Rutter. There's a fellow who does things by halves; he's only half gone to the bad; and look at the difference between him and us! He's under the thumb of a villainous money-lender; we are solvent citizens. He's taken to drink; we're as sober as we are solvent. His pals are beginning to cut him; our difficulty is to keep the pal from the door. Enfin, he begs or borrows, which is stealing by halves; and we steal outright and are done with it. Obviously ours is the more honest course. Yet I'm not sure, Bunny, but we're doing the thing by halves ourselves!"
"Why? What more could we do?" I exclaimed in soft derision, looking round, however, to make sure that we were not overheard.
"What more," said Raffles. "Well, murder--for one thing."
"A matter of opinion, my dear Bunny; I don't mean it for rot. I've told you before that the biggest man alive is the man who's committed a murder, and not yet been found out; at least he ought to be, but he so very seldom has the soul to appreciate himself. Just think of it! Think of coming in here and talking to the men, very likely about the murder itself; and knowing you've done it; and wondering how they'd look if THEY knew! Oh, it would be great, simply great! But, besides all that, when you were caught there'd be a merciful and dramatic end of you. You'd fill the bill for a few weeks, and then snuff out with a flourish of extra-specials; you wouldn't rust with a vile repose for seven or fourteen years."
"Good old Raffles!" I chuckled. "I begin to forgive you for being in bad form at dinner."
"But I was never more earnest in my life."
"I mean it."
"You know very well that you wouldn't commit a murder, whatever else you might do."
"I know very well I'm going to commit one to-night!"
He had been leaning back in the saddle-bag chair, watching me with keen eyes sheathed by languid lids; now he started forward, and his eyes leapt to mine like cold steel from the scabbard. They struck home to my slow wits; their meaning was no longer in doubt. I, who knew the man, read murder in his clenched hands, and murder in his locked lips, but a hundred murders in those hard blue eyes.
"Baird?" I faltered, moistening my lips with my tongue.
"But you said it didn't matter about the room in Chelsea?"
"I told a lie."
"Anyway you gave him the slip afterwards!"
"That was another. I didn't. I thought I had when I came up to you this evening; but when I looked out of your window--you remember? to make assurance doubly sure--there he was on the opposite pavement down below."
"And you never said a word about it!"
"I wasn't going to spoil your dinner, Bunny, and I wasn't going to let you spoil mine. But there he was as large as life, and, of course, he followed us to the Albany. A fine game for him to play, a game after his mean old heart: blackmail from me, bribes from the police, the one bidding against the other; but he sha'n't play it with me, he sha'n't live to, and the world will have an extortioner the less. Waiter! Two Scotch whiskeys and sodas. I'm off at eleven, Bunny; it's the only thing to be done."
"You know where he lives, then?"
"Yes, out Willesden way, and alone; the fellow's a miser among other things. I long ago found out all about him."
Again I looked round the room; it was a young man's club, and young men were laughing, chatting, smoking, drinking, on every hand. One nodded to me through the smoke. Like a machine I nodded to him, and turned back to Raffles with a groan.
"Surely you will give him a chance!" I urged. "The very sight of your pistol should bring him to terms."
"It wouldn't make him keep them."
"But you might try the effect?"
"I probably shall. Here's a drink for you, Bunny. Wish me luck."
"I'm coming too."
"I don't want you."
"But I must come!"
An ugly gleam shot from the steel blue eyes.
"To interfere?" said Raffles.
"You give me your word?"
"Bunny, if you break it--"
"You may shoot me, too!"
"I most certainly should," said Raffles, solemnly. "So you come at your own peril, my dear man; but, if you are coming--well, the sooner the better, for I must stop at my rooms on the way."
Five minutes later I was waiting for him at the Piccadilly entrance to the Albany. I had a reason for remaining outside. It was the feeling--half hope, half fear--that Angus Baird might still be on our trail--that some more immediate and less cold-blooded way of dealing with him might result from a sudden encounter between the money-lender and myself. I would not warn him of his danger; but I would avert tragedy at all costs. And when no such encounter had taken place, and Raffles and I were fairly on our way to Willesden, that, I think, was still my honest resolve. I would not break my word if I could help it, but it was a comfort to feel that I could break it if I liked, on an understood penalty. Alas! I fear my good intentions were tainted with a devouring curiosity, and overlaid by the fascination which goes hand in hand with horror.
I have a poignant recollection of the hour it took us to reach the house. We walked across St. James's Park (I can see the lights now, bright on the bridge and blurred in the water), and we had some minutes to wait for the last train to Willesden. It left at 11.21, I remember, and Raffles was put out to find it did not go on to Kensal Rise. We had to get out at Willesden Junction and walk on through the streets into fairly open country that happened to be quite new to me. I could never find the house again. I remember, however, that we were on a dark footpath between woods and fields when the clocks began striking twelve.
"Surely," said I, "we shall find him in bed and asleep?"
"I hope we do," said Raffles grimly.
"Then you mean to break in?"
"What else did you think?"
I had not thought about it at all; the ultimate crime had monopolized my mind. Beside it burglary was a bagatelle, but one to deprecate none the less. I saw obvious objections: the man was au fait with cracksmen and their ways: he would certainly have firearms, and might be the first to use them.
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