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"A hundred and thirty-nine yards from this to the open street," said Raffles, "not counting the stairs. I suppose we COULD do it in twenty seconds, but if we did we should have to jump the gates. No, you must remember to loaf out at slow march, Bunny, whether you like it or not."
"But you talked about a hiding-place for a night?"
"Quite so--for all night. We should have to get back, go on lying low, and saunter out with the crowd next day--after doing the whole show thoroughly."
"What! With gold in our pockets--"
"And gold in our boots, and gold up the sleeves and legs of our suits! You leave that to me, Bunny, and wait till you've tried two pairs of trousers sewn together at the foot! This is only a preliminary reconnoitre. And here we are."
It is none of my business to describe the so-called Room of Gold, with which I, for one, was not a little disappointed. The glass cases, which both fill and line it, may contain unique examples of the goldsmith's art in times and places of which one heard quite enough in the course of one's classical education; but, from a professional point of view, I would as lief have the ransacking of a single window in the West End as the pick of all those spoils of Etruria and of ancient Greece. The gold may not be so soft as it appears, but it certainly looks as though you could bite off the business ends of the spoons, and stop your own teeth in doing so. Nor should I care to be seen wearing one of the rings; but the greatest fraud of all (from the aforesaid standpoint) is assuredly that very cup of which Raffles had spoken. Moreover, he felt this himself.
"Why, it's as thin as paper," said he, "and enamelled like a middle-aged lady of quality! But, by Jove, it's one of the most beautiful things I ever saw in my life, Bunny. I should like to have it for its own sake, by all my gods!"
The thing had a little square case of plate-glass all to itself at one end of the room. It may have been the thing of beauty that Raffles affected to consider it, but I for my part was in no mood to look at it in that light. Underneath were the names of the plutocrats who had subscribed for this national gewgaw, and I fell to wondering where their L8,000 came in, while Raffles devoured his two-penny guide-book as greedily as a school-girl with a zeal for culture.
"Those are scenes from the martyrdom of St. Agnes," said he . . . "'translucent on relief . . . one of the finest specimens of its kind.' I should think it was! Bunny, you Philistine, why can't you admire the thing for its own sake? It would be worth having only to live up to! There never was such rich enamelling on such thin gold; and what a good scheme to hang the lid up over it, so that you can see how thin it is. I wonder if we could lift it, Bunny, by hook or crook?"
"You'd better try, sir," said a dry voice at his elbow.
The madman seemed to think we had the room to ourselves. I knew better, but, like another madman, had let him ramble on unchecked. And here was a stolid constable confronting us, in the short tunic that they wear in summer, his whistle on its chain, but no truncheon at his side. Heavens! how I see him now: a man of medium size, with a broad, good-humored, perspiring face, and a limp moustache. He looked sternly at Raffles, and Raffles looked merrily at him.
"Going to run me in, officer?" said he. "That WOULD be a joke--my hat!"
"I didn't say as I was, sir," replied the policeman. "But that's queer talk for a gentleman like you, sir, in the British Museum!" And he wagged his helmet at my invalid, who had taken his airing in frock-coat and top-hat, the more readily to assume his present part.
"What!" cried Raffles, "simply saying to my friend that I'd like to lift the gold cup? Why, so I should, officer, so I should! I don't mind who hears me say so. It's one of the most beautiful things I ever saw in all my life."
The constable's face had already relaxed, and now a grin peeped under the limp moustache. "I daresay there's many as feels like that, sir," said he.
"Exactly; and I say what I feel, that's all," said Raffles airily. "But seriously, officer, is a valuable thing like this quite safe in a case like that?"
"Safe enough as long as I'm here," replied the other, between grim jest and stout earnest. Raffles studied his face; he was still watching Raffles; and I kept an eye on them both without putting in my word.
"You appear to be single-handed," observed Raffles. "Is that wise?"
The note of anxiety was capitally caught; it was at once personal and public-spirited, that of the enthusiastic savant, afraid for a national treasure which few appreciated as he did himself. And, to be sure, the three of us now had this treasury to ourselves; one or two others had been there when we entered; but now they were gone.
"I'm not single-handed," said the officer, comfortably. "See that seat by the door? One of the attendants sits there all day long."
"Then where is he now?"
"Talking to another attendant just outside. If you listen you'll hear them for yourself."
We listened, and we did hear them, but not just outside. In my own mind I even questioned whether they were in the corridor through which we had come; to me it sounded as though they were just outside the corridor.
"You mean the fellow with the billiard-cue who was here when we came in?" pursued Raffles.
"That wasn't a billiard-cue! It was a pointer," the intelligent officer explained.
"It ought to be a javelin," said Raffles, nervously. "It ought to be a poleaxe! The public treasure ought to be better guarded than this. I shall write to the Times about it--you see if I don't!"
All at once, yet somehow not so suddenly as to excite suspicion, Raffles had become the elderly busybody with nerves; why, I could not for the life of me imagine; and the policeman seemed equally at sea.
"Lor' bless you, sir," said he, "I'm all right; don't you bother your head about ME."
"But you haven't even got a truncheon!"
"Not likely to want one either. You see, sir, it's early as yet; in a few minutes these here rooms will fill up; and there's safety in numbers, as they say."
"Oh, it will fill up soon, will it?"
"Any minute now, sir."
"It isn't often empty as long as this, sir. It's the Jubilee, I suppose."
"Meanwhile, what if my friend and I had been professional thieves? Why, we could have over-powered you in an instant, my good fellow!"
"That you couldn't; leastways, not without bringing the whole place about your ears."
"Well, I shall write to the Times, all the same. I'm a connoisseur in all this sort of thing, and I won't have unnecessary risks run with the nation's property. You said there was an attendant just outside, but he sounds to me as though he were at the other end of the corridor. I shall write to-day!"
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