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But by this time the noble master was in worse case than the man. His fine forehead was a tangle of livid cords; his baggy jowl filled out like a balloon. In another second he had abandoned his place as our host and fled the room; and in yet another we had forgotten ours as his guests and rushed headlong at his heels.
Raffles was as excited as any of us now: he outstripped us all. The cherubic little lawyer and I had a fine race for the last place but one, which I secured, while the panting butler and his satellites brought up a respectful rear. It was our unconventional author, however, who was the first to volunteer his assistance and advice.
"No use pushing, Thornaby!" cried he. "If it's been done with a wedge and gimlet, you may smash the door, but you'll never force it. Is there a ladder in the place?"
"There's a rope-ladder somewhere, in case of fire, I believe," said my lord vaguely, as he rolled a critical eye over our faces. "Where is it kept, Leggett?"
"'William will fetch it, my lord."
And a pair of noble calves went flashing to the upper regions.
"What's the good of bringing it down," cried Parrington, who had thrown back to the wilds in his excitement. "Let him hang it out of the window above your own, and let me climb down and do the rest! I'll undertake to have one or other of these doors open in two twos!"
The fastened doors were at right angles on the landing which we filled between us. Lord Thornaby smiled grimly on the rest of us, when he had nodded and dismissed the author like a hound from the leash.
"It's a good thing we know something about our friend Parrington," said my lord. "He takes more kindly to all. this than I do, I can tell you."
"It's grist to his mill," said Raffles charitably.
"Exactly! We shall have the whole thing in his next book."
"I hope to have it at the Old Bailey first," remarked Kingsmill, Q.C.
"Refreshing to find a man of letters such a man of action too!"
It was Raffles who said this, and the remark seemed rather trite for him, but in the tone there was a something that just caught my private ear. And for once I understood: the officious attitude of Parrington, without being seriously suspicious in itself, was admirably calculated to put a previously suspected person in a grateful shade. This literary adventurer had elbowed Raffles out of the limelight, and gratitude for the service was what I had detected in Raffles's voice. No need to say how grateful I felt myself. But my gratitude was shot with flashes of unwonted insight. Parrington was one of those who suspected Raffles, or, at all. events, one who was in the secret of those suspicions. What if he had traded on the suspect's presence in the house? What if he were a deep villain himself, and the villain of this particular piece? I had made up my mind about him, and that in a tithe of the time I take to make it up as a rule, when we heard my man in the dressing-room. He greeted us with an impudent shout; in a few moments the door was open, and there stood Parrington, flushed and dishevelled, with a gimlet in one hand and a wedge in the other.
Within was a scene of eloquent disorder. Drawers had been pulled out, and now stood on end, their contents heaped upon the carpet. Wardrobe doors stood open; empty stud-cases strewed the floor; a clock, tied up in a towel, had been tossed into a chair at the last moment. But a long tin lid protruded from an open cupboard in one corner. And one had only to see Lord Thornaby's wry face behind the lid to guess that it was bent over a somewhat empty tin trunk.
"What a rum lot to steal!" said he, with a twitch of humor at the corners of his canine mouth. "My peer's robes, with coronet complete!"
We rallied round him in a seemly silence. I thought our scribe would put in his word. But even he either feigned or felt a proper awe.
"You may say it was a rum place to keep 'em," continued Lord Thornaby. "But where would you gentlemen stable your white elephants? And these were elephants as white as snow; by Jove, I'll job them for the future!"
And he made merrier over his loss than any of us could have imagined the minute before; but the reason dawned on me a little later, when we all. trooped down-stairs, leaving the police in possession of the theatre of crime. Lord Thornaby linked arms with Raffles as he led the way. His step was lighter, his gayety no longer sardonic; his very looks had improved. And I divined the load that had been lifted from the hospitable heart of our host.
"I only wish," said he, "that this brought us any nearer to the identity of the gentleman we were discussing at dinner, for, of course, we owe it to all. our instincts to assume that it was he."
"I wonder!" said old Raffles, with a foolhardy glance at me.
"But I'm sure of it, my dear sir," cried my lord. "The audacity is his and his alone. I look no further than the fact of his honoring me on the one night of the year when I endeavor to entertain my brother Criminologists. That's no coincidence, sir, but a deliberate irony, which would have occurred to no other criminal mind in England."
"You may be right," Raffles had the sense to say this time, though I flattered myself it was my face that made him.
"What is still more certain," resumed our host, "is that no other criminal in the world would have crowned so delicious a conception with so perfect an achievement. I feel sure the inspector will agree with us."
The policeman in command had knocked and been admitted to the library as Lord Thornaby spoke.
"I didn't hear what you said, my lord."
"Merely that the perpetrator of this amusing outrage can be no other than the swell mobsman who relieved Lady Melrose of her necklace and poor Danby of half his stock a year or two ago."
"I believe your lordship has hit the nail on the head."
"The man who took the Thimblely diamonds and returned them to Lord Thimblely, you know."
"Perhaps he'll treat your lordship the same."
"Not he! I don't mean to cry over my spilt milk. I only wish the fellow joy of all. he had time to take. Anything fresh up-stain by the way?"
"Yes, my lord: the robbery took place between a quarter past eight and the half-hour."
"How on earth do you know?"
"The clock that was tied up in the towel had stopped at twenty past."
"Have you interviewed my man?"
"I have, my lord. He was in your lordship's room until close on the quarter, and all. was as it should be when he left it."
"Then do you suppose the burglar was in hiding in the house?"
"It's impossible to say, my lord. He's not in the house now, for he could only be in your lordship's bedroom or dressing-room, and we have searched every inch of both."
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