A Thief in the Night
one nor the other; this time I was the understudy playing lead at last; and I wish I
could think that Raffles ever realized with what gusto I threw myself into his part.
Thus I was first out of a crowded theatre train at Esher next night, and first down
the stairs into the open air. The night was close and cloudy; and the road to
Hampton Court, even now that the suburban builder has marked much of it for
his own, is one of the darkest I know. The first mile is still a narrow avenue, a
mere tunnel of leaves at midsummer; but at that time there was not a lighted
pane or cranny by the way. Naturally, it was in this blind reach that I fancied I
was being followed. I stopped in my stride; so did the steps I made sure I had
heard not far behind; and when I went on, they followed suit. I dried my forehead
as I walked, but soon brought myself to repeat the experiment when an exact
repetition of the result went to convince me that it had been my own echo all. the
time. And since I lost it on getting quit of the avenue, and coming out upon the
straight and open road, I was not long in recovering from my scare. But now I
could see my way, and found the rest of it without mishap, though not without
another semblance of adventure. Over the bridge across the Mole, when about to
turn to the left, I marched straight upon a policeman in rubber soles. I had to call
him "officer" as I passed, and to pass my turning by a couple of hundred yards,
before venturing back another way.
At last I had crept through a garden gate, and round by black windows to a black
lawn drenched with dew. It had been a heating walk, and I was glad to blunder
on a garden seat, most considerately placed under a cedar which added its own
darkness to that of the night. Here I rested a few minutes, putting up my feet to
keep them dry, untying my shoes to save time, and generally facing the task
before me with a coolness which I strove to make worthy of my absent chief. But
mine was a self-conscious quality, as far removed from the original as any other
deliberate imitation of genius. I actually struck a match on my trousers, and lit
one of the shorter Sullivans. Raffles himself would not have done such a thing at
such a moment. But I wished to tell him that I had done it; and in truth I was not
more than pleasurably afraid; I had rather that impersonal curiosity as to the
issue which has been the saving of me in still more precarious situations. I even
grew impatient for the fray, and could not after all sit still as long as I had
intended. So it happened that I was finishing my cigarette on the edge of the wet
lawn, and about to slip off my shoes before stepping across the gravel to the
conservatory door, when a most singular sound arrested me in the act. It was a
muffled gasping somewhere overhead. I stood like stone; and my listening
attitude must have been visible against the milky sheen of the lawn, for a labored
voice hailed me sternly from a window.
"Who on earth are you?" it wheezed.
"A detective officer," I replied, "sent down by the Burglary Insurance Company."
Not a moment had I paused for my precious fable. It had all. been prepared for
me by Raffles, in case of need. I was merely repeating a lesson in which I had
been closely schooled. But at the window there was pause enough, filled only by
the uncanny wheezing of the man I could not see.