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"On quiet, harmless, well-behaved thieves," added Lord Thornaby, "in the unobtrusive exercise of their humble avocation."
And, as he turned to Raffles with his puffy smile, I knew that we had reached that part of the programme which had undergone rehearsal: it had been perfectly timed to arrive with the champagne, and I was not afraid to signify my appreciation of that small mercy. But Raffles laughed so quickly at his lordship's humor, and yet with such a natural restraint, as to leave no doubt that he had taken kindly to my own old part, and was playing the innocent inimitably in his turn, by reason of his very innocence. It was a poetic judgment on old Raffles, and in my momentary enjoyment of the novel situation I was able to enjoy some of the good things of this rich man's table. The saddle of mutton more than justified its place in the menu; but it had not spoiled me for my wing of pheasant, and I was even looking forward to a sweet, when a further remark from the literary light recalled me from the table to its talk.
"But, I suppose," said he to Kingsmill, "it's many a burglar you've restored to his friends and his relations'?"
"Let us say many a poor fellow who has been charged with burglary," replied the cheery Q.C. "It's not quite the same thing, you know, nor is 'many' the most accurate word. I never touch criminal work in town."
"It's the only kind I should care about," said the novelist, eating jelly with a spoon.
"I quite agree with you," our host chimed in. "And of all. the criminals one might be called upon to defend, give me the enterprising burglar."
"It must be the breeziest branch of the business," remarked Raffles, while I held my breath.
But his touch was as light as gossamer, and his artless manner a triumph of even his incomparable art. Raffles was alive to the danger at last. I saw him refuse more champagne, even as I drained my glass again. But it was not the same danger to us both. Raffles had no reason to feel surprise or alarm at such a turn in a conversation frankly devoted to criminology; it must have been as inevitable to him as it was sinister to me, with my fortuitous knowledge of the suspicions that were entertained. And there was little to put him on his guard in the touch of his adversaries, which was only less light than his own.
"I am not very fond of Mr. Sikes," announced the barrister, like a man who had got his cue.
"But he was prehistoric," rejoined my lord. "A lot of blood has flowed under the razor since the days of Sweet William."
"True; we have had Peace," said Parrington, and launched out into such glowing details of that criminal's last moments that I began to hope the diversion might prove permanent. But Lord Thornaby was not to be denied.
"William and Charles are both dead monarchs," said he. "The reigning king in their department is the fellow who gutted poor Danby's place in Bond Street."
There was a guilty silence on the part of the three conspirators - for I had long since persuaded myself that Ernest was not in their secret - and then my blood froze.
"I know him well," said Raffles, looking up.
Lord Thornaby stared at him in consternation. The smile on the Napoleonic countenance of the barrister looked forced and frozen for the first time during the evening. Our author, who was nibbling cheese from a knife, left a bead of blood upon his beard. The futile Ernest alone met the occasion with a hearty titter.
"What!" cried my lord. "You know the thief?"
"I wish I did," rejoined Raffles, chuckling. "No, Lord Thornaby, I only meant the jeweller, Danby. I go to him when I want a wedding present."
I heard three deep breaths drawn as one before I drew my own.
"Rather a coincidence," observed our host dryly, "for I believe you also know the Milchester people, where Lady Melrose had her necklace stolen a few months afterward."
"I was staying there at the time," said Raffles eagerly. No snob was ever quicker to boast of basking in the smile of the great.
"We believe it to be the same man," said Lord Thornaby, speaking apparently for the Criminologists' Club, and with much less severity of voice.
"I only wish I could come across him," continued Raffles heartily. "He's a criminal much more to my mind than your murderers who swear on the drop or talk cricket in the condemned cell!"
"He might be in the house now," said Lord Thornaby, looking Raffles in the face. But his manner was that of an actor in an unconvincing part and a mood to play it gamely to the bitter end; and he seemed embittered, as even a rich man may be in the moment of losing a bet.
"What a joke if he were!" cried the Wild West writer.
"Absit omen!" murmured Raffles, in better taste.
"Still, I think you'll find it's a favorite time," argued Kingsmill, Q.C. "And it would be quite in keeping with the character of this man, so far as it is known, to pay a little visit to the president of the Criminologists' Club, and to choose the evening on which he happens to be entertaining the other members."
There was more conviction in this sally than in that of our noble host; but this I attributed to the trained and skilled dissimulation of the bar. Lord Thornaby, however, was not to be amused by the elaboration of his own idea, and it was with some asperity that he called upon the butler, now solemnly superintending the removal of the cloth.
"Leggett! Just send up-stairs to see if all. the doors are open and the rooms in proper order. That's an awful idea of yours, Kingsmill, or of mine!" added my lord, recovering the courtesy of his order by an effort that I could follow. "We should look fools. I don't know which of us it was, by the way, who seduced the rest from the main stream of blood into this burglarious backwater. Are you familiar with De Quincey's masterpiece on 'Murder as a Fine Art,' Mr. Raffles?"
"I believe I once read it," replied Raffles doubtfully.
"You must read it again," pursued the earl. "It is the last word on a great subject; all. we can hope to add is some baleful illustration or bloodstained footnote, not unworthy of De Quincey's text. "Well, Leggett?"
The venerable butler stood wheezing at his elbow. I had not hitherto observed that the man was an asthmatic.
"I beg your lordship's pardon, but I think your lordship must have forgotten."
The voice came in rude gasps, but words of reproach could scarcely have achieved a finer delicacy.
"Forgotten, Leggett! Forgotten what, may I ask?"
"Locking your lordship's dressing-room door behind your lordship, my lord," stuttered the unfortunate Leggett, in the short spurts of a winded man, a few stertorous syllables at a time. "Been up myself, my lord. Bedroom door - dressing-room door - both locked inside!"
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