THE IDES OF MARCH
It was about half-past twelve when I returned to the Albany1 as a last desperate resort. The scene of my disaster was much as I had left it. The baccarat-counters2 still strewed the table, with the empty glasses and the loaded ash-trays. A window had been opened to let the smoke out, and was letting in the fog instead. Rafﬂes himself had merely discarded his dining jacket for one of his innumerable blazers. Yet he arched his eyebrows as though I had dragged him from his bed.
'Forgotten something?' said he, when he saw me on his mat.
'No,' said I, pushing past him without ceremony. And I led the way into his room with an impudence amazing to myself.
'Not come back for your revenge, have you? Because I'm afraid I can't give it you single-handed. I was sorry myself that the others – '
We were face to face by his ﬁreside, and I cut him short.
'Rafﬂes,' said I, 'you may well be surprised at my coming back in this way and at this hour. I hardly know you. I was never in your rooms before to-night. But I fagged for you at school,3 and you said you remembered me. Of course that's no excuse; but will you listen to me – for two minutes?'
In my emotion I had at ﬁrst to struggle for every word; but his face reassured me as I went on, and I was not mistaken in its expression.
'Certainly, my dear man,' said he; 'as many minutes as you like. Have a Sullivan4 and sit down.' And he handed me his silver cigarette-case.
'No,' said I, ﬁnding a full voice as I shook my head; 'no, I won't smoke, and I won't sit down, thank you. Nor will you ask me to do either when you've heard what I have to say.'
'Really?' said he, lighting his own cigarette with one clear blue eye upon me. 'How do you know?'
'Because you'll probably show me the door,' I cried bitterly; 'and you'll be justiﬁed in doing it! But it's no good beating about the bush. You know I dropped over two hundred just now?'
'I hadn't the money in my pocket.'
'But I had my cheque-book, and I wrote each of you a cheque at that desk.'
'Not one of them was worth the paper it was written on, Rafﬂes. I am overdrawn already at my bank!'
'Surely only for the moment?'
'No. I have spent everything.'
'But somebody told me you were so well off. I heard you had come in for money?'
'So I did. Three years ago. It has been my curse; now it's all gone – every penny! Yes, I've been a fool; there never was nor will be such a fool as I've been . . . Isn't this enough for you? Why don't you turn me out?' He was walking up and down with a very long face instead.
'Couldn't your people do anything?' he asked at length.
'Thank God,' I cried, 'I have no people! I was an only child. I came in for everything there was. My one comfort is that they're gone, and will never know.'
I cast myself into a chair and hid my face. Rafﬂes continued to pace the rich carpet that was of a piece with everything else in his rooms. There was no variation in his soft and even footfalls.
'You used to be a literary little cuss,'5 he said at length; 'didn't you edit the mag.6 before you left? Anyway I recollect fagging you to do my verses; and literature of sorts is the very thing nowadays; any fool can make a living at it.'
I shook my head. 'Any fool couldn't write off my debts,' said I.
'Then you have a ﬂat somewhere?' he went on.
'Yes, in Mount Street.'7
'Well, what about the furniture?'
I laughed aloud in my misery. 'There's been a bill of sale8 on every stick for months!'
And at that Rafﬂes stood still, with raised eyebrows and stern eyes that I could meet the better now that he knew the worst; then, with a shrug, he resumed his walk, and for some minutes neither of us spoke. But in his handsome unmoved face I read my fate and death-warrant; and with every breath I cursed my folly and my cowardice in coming to him at all. Because he had been kind to me at school, when he was captain of the eleven,9 and I his fag, I had dared to look for kindness from him now; because I was ruined, and he rich enough to play cricket all the summer, and do nothing for the rest of the year, I had fatuously counted on his mercy, his sympathy, his help! Yes, I had relied on him in my heart, for all my outward difﬁdence and humility; and I was rightly served. There was as little of mercy as of sympathy in that curling nostril, that rigid jaw, that cold blue eye which never glanced my way. I caught up my hat. I blundered to my feet. I would have gone without a word; but Rafﬂes stood between me and the door.
'Where are you going?' said he.
'That's my business,' I replied. 'I won't trouble you any more.'
'Then how am I to help you?'
'I didn't ask your help.'
'Then why come to me?'
'Why, indeed!' I echoed. 'Will you let me pass?'
'Not until you tell me where you are going and what you mean to do.'
'Can't you guess?' I cried. And for many seconds we stood staring in each other's eyes.
'Have you got the pluck?'10 said he, breaking the spell in a tone so cynical that it brought my last drop of blood to the boil.
'You shall see,' said I, as I stepped back and whipped the pistol from my overcoat pocket. 'Now, will you let me pass or shall I do it here?'
The barrel touched my temple, and my thumb the trigger. Mad with excitement as I was, ruined, dishonoured, and now ﬁnally determined to make an end of my misspent life, my only surprise to this day is that I did not do so then and there. The despicable satisfaction of involving another in one's destruction added its miserable appeal to my baser egoism; and had fear or horror ﬂown to my companion's face, I shudder to think I might have died diabolically happy with that look for my last impious consolation. It was the look that came instead which held my hand. Neither fear nor horror were in it; only wonder, admiration, and such a measure of pleased expectancy as caused me after all to pocket my revolver with an oath.
'You devil!' I said. 'I believe you wanted me to do it!'
'Not quite,' was the reply, made with a little start, and a change of colour that came too late. 'To tell you the truth, though, I half thought you meant it, and I was never more fascinated in my life. I never dreamt you had such stuff in you, Bunny!11 No, I'm hanged if I let you go now. And you'd better not try that game again, for you won't catch me stand and look on a second time. We must think of some way out of the mess. I had no idea you were a chap of that sort! There, let me have the gun.'
One of his hands fell kindly on my shoulder, while the other slipped into my overcoat pocket, and I suffered him to deprive me of my weapon without a murmur. Nor was this simply because Rafﬂes had the subtle power of making himself irresistible at will. He was beyond comparison the most masterful man whom I have ever known; yet my acquiescence was due to more than the mere subjection of the weaker nature to the stronger. The forlorn hope which had brought me to the Albany was turned as by magic into an almost staggering sense of safety. Rafﬂes would help me after all! A.J. Rafﬂes12 would be my friend! It was as though all the world had come round suddenly to my side; so far therefore from resisting his action, I caught and clasped his hand with a fervour as uncontrollable as the frenzy which had preceded it.
'God bless you!' I cried. 'Forgive me for everything. I will tell you the truth. I did think you might help me in my extremity, though I well knew that I had no claim upon you. Still – for the old school's sake – the sake of old times – I thought you might give me another chance. If you wouldn't I meant to blow out my brains – and will still if you change your mind!'
In truth I feared that it was changing, with his expression, even as I spoke, and in spite of his kindly tone and kindlier use of my old school nickname. His next words showed me my mistake.
'What a boy it is for jumping to conclusions! I have my vices, Bunny, but backing and ﬁlling13 is not one of them. Sit down, my good fellow, and have a cigarette to soothe your nerves. I insist. Whisky? The worst thing for you; here's some coffee that I was brewing when you came in. Now listen to me. You speak of ''another chance''. What do you mean? Another chance at baccarat? Not if I know it! You think the luck must turn; suppose it didn't? We should only have made bad worse. No, my dear chap, you've plunged enough. Do you put yourself in my hands or do you not? Very well, then you plunge no more, and I undertake not to present my cheque. Unfortunately there are the other men; and still more unfortunately, Bunny, I'm as hard up at this moment as you are yourself!'
It was my turn to stare at Rafﬂes. 'You?' I vociferated. 'You hard up? How am I to sit here and believe that?'
'Did I refuse to believe it of you?' he returned, smiling. 'And, with your own experience, do you think that because a fellow has rooms in this place, and belongs to a club or two, and plays a little cricket, he must necessarily have a balance at the bank? I tell you, my dear man, that at this moment I'm as hard up as you ever were. I have nothing but my wits to live on – absolutely nothing else. It was as necessary for me to win some money this evening as it was for you. We're in the same boat, Bunny; we'd better pull together.'
'Together!' I jumped at it. 'I'll do anything in this world for you, Rafﬂes,' I said, 'if you really mean that you won't give me away. Think of anything you like, and I'll do it! I was a desperate man when I came here, and I'm just as desperate now. I don't mind what I do if only I can get out of this without a scandal.'
Again I see him, leaning back in one of the luxurious chairs with which his room was furnished. I see his indolent, athletic ﬁgure; his pale, sharp, clean-shaven features; his curly black hair; his strong, unscrupulous mouth. And again I feel the clear beam of his wonderful eye, cold and luminous as a star, shining into my brain – sifting the very secrets of my heart.14
'I wonder if you mean all that!' he said at length. 'You do in your present mood; but who can back his mood to last? Still, there's hope when a chap takes that tone. Now I think of it, too, you were a plucky little devil at school; you once did me rather a good turn, I recollect. Remember it, Bunny? Well, wait a bit, and perhaps I'll be able to do you a better one. Give me time to think.'
He got up, lit a fresh cigarette, and fell to pacing the room once more, but with a slower and more thoughtful step, and for a much longer period than before. Twice he stopped at my chair as though on the point of speaking, but each time he checked himself and resumed his stride in silence. Once he threw up the window, which he had shut some time since, and stood for some moments leaning out into the fog which ﬁlled the Albany courtyard. Meanwhile a clock on the chimney-piece struck one, and one again for the half-hour, without a word between us.
Yet I not only kept my chair with patience, but I acquired an incongruous equanimity in that half-hour. Insensibly I had shifted my burden to the broad shoulders of this splendid friend, and my thoughts wandered with my eyes as the minutes passed. The room was the good-sized, square one, with the folding doors, the marble mantel-piece, and the gloomy, old-fashioned distinction peculiar to the Albany. It was charmingly furnished and arranged, with the right amount of negligence and the right amount of taste. What struck me most, however, was the absence of the usual insignia of a cricketer's den. Instead of the conventional rack of war-worn bats, a carved oak book-case, with every shelf in a litter, ﬁlled the better part of one wall; and where I looked for cricketing groups, I found reproductions of such works as Love and Death and The Blessed Damozel,15 in dusty frames and different parallels. The man might have been a minor poet instead of an athlete of the ﬁrst water.16 But there had always been a ﬁne streak of æstheticism in his complex composition; some of these very pictures I had myself dusted in his study at school; and they set me thinking of yet another of his many sides – and of the little incident to which he had just referred.
Everybody knows how largely the tone of a public school depends on that of the eleven, and on the character of the captain of cricket in particular; and I have never heard it denied that in A.J. Rafﬂes's time our tone was good, or that such inﬂuence as he troubled to exert was on the side of the angels.17 Yet it was whispered in the school that he was in the habit of parading the town at night in loud checks and a false beard. It was whispered, and disbelieved. I alone knew it for a fact; for night after night had I pulled the rope up after him18 when the rest of the dormitory were asleep, and kept awake by the hour to let it down again on a given signal. Well, one night he was over-bold, and within an ace of ignominious expulsion in the hey-day of his fame. Consummate daring and extraordinary nerve on his part, aided, doubtless, by some little presence of mind on mine, averted that untoward result; and no more need be said of a discreditable incident. But I cannot pretend to have forgotten it in throwing myself on this man's mercy in my desperation. And I was wondering how much of his leniency was owing to the fact that Rafﬂes had not forgotten it either, when he stopped and stood over my chair once more.
'I've been thinking of that night we had the narrow squeak,' he began. 'Why do you start?'
'I was thinking of it too.'
He smiled, as though he had read my thoughts.
'Well, you were the right sort of little beggar then, Bunny; you didn't talk and you didn't ﬂinch. You asked no questions and you told no tales. I wonder if you're like that now?'
'I don't know,' said I, slightly puzzled by his tone. 'I've made such a mess of my own affairs that I trust myself about as little as I'm likely to be trusted by anybody else. Yet I never in my life went back on a friend. I will say that; otherwise perhaps I mightn't be in such a hole to-night.'
'Exactly,' said Rafﬂes, nodding to himself, as though in assent to some hidden train of thought; 'exactly what I remember of you, and I'll bet it's as true now as it was ten years ago. We don't alter, Bunny. We only develop. I suppose neither you nor I are really altered since you used to let down that rope and I used to come up it hand over hand. You would stick at nothing for a pal – what?'
'At nothing in this world,' I was pleased to cry.
'Not even at a crime?' said Rafﬂes, smiling.
I stopped to think, for his tone had changed, and I felt sure he was chafﬁng me. Yet his eye seemed as much in earnest as ever, and for my part I was in no mood for reservations.
'No, not even at that,' I declared; 'name your crime, and I'm your man.'
He looked at me one moment in wonder, and another moment in doubt; then turned the matter off with a shake of his head, and the little cynical laugh that was all his own.
'You're a nice chap, Bunny! A real desperate character – what? Suicide one moment, and any crime I like the next! What you want is a drag,19 my boy, and you did well to come to a decent law-abiding citizen with a reputation to lose. None the less we must have that money to-night – by hook or crook.'20
'The sooner the better. Every hour after ten o'clock tomorrow morning is an hour of risk. Let one of those cheques get round to your own bank, and you and it are dishonoured together. No, we must raise the wind21 to-night and reopen your account ﬁrst thing to-morrow. And I rather think I know where the wind can be raised.'
'At two o'clock in the morning?'
'But how – but where – at such an hour?'
'From a friend of mine here in Bond Street.'22
'He must be a very intimate friend!'
'Intimate's not the word. I have the run of his place and a latch-key all to myself.'
'You would knock him up at this hour of the night?'
'If he's in bed.'
'And it's essential that I should go in with you?'
'Then I must; but I'm bound to say I don't like the idea, Rafﬂes.'
'Do you prefer the alternative?' asked my companion, with a sneer. 'No, hang it, that's unfair!' he cried apologetically in the same breath. 'I quite understand. It's a beastly ordeal. But it would never do for you to stay outside. I tell you what, you shall have a peg before we start – just one. There's the whisky, here's a syphon, and I'll be putting on an overcoat while you help yourself.'
Well, I daresay I did so with some freedom, for this plan of his was not the less distasteful to me from its apparent inevitability. I must own, however, that it possessed fewer terrors before my glass was empty. Meanwhile Rafﬂes rejoined me, with a covert coat23 over his blazer, and a soft felt hat set carelessly on the curly head he shook with a smile as I passed him the decanter.
'When we come back,' said he. 'Work ﬁrst, play afterwards. Do you see what day it is?' he added, tearing a leaﬂet from a Shakesperian calendar,24 as I drained my glass. 'March 15th. ''The Ides of March, the Ides of March, remember.''25 Eh, Bunny, my boy? You won't forget them, will you?'
And, with a laugh, he threw some coals on the ﬁre before turning down the gas like a careful householder. So we went out together as the clock on the chimney-piece was striking two.