The Intrusion of Jimmy/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V


A THIEF IN THE NIGHT


HOW long the light had been darting about the room like a very much enlarged firefly, Jimmy did not know. It seemed to him like hours, for it had woven itself into an incoherent waking dream of his; and for a moment, as the mists of sleep passed away from his brain, he fancied that he was dreaming still. Then, sleep left him, and he realized that the light, which was now moving slowly across the bookcase, was a real light.

That the man behind it could not have been there long was plain, or he would have seen the chair and its occupant. He seemed to be taking the room step by step. As Jimmy sat up noiselessly and gripped the arms of the chair in readiness for a spring, the light passed from the bookcase to the table. Another foot or so to the left, and it would have fallen on Jimmy.

From the position of the ray, Jimmy could see that the burglar was approaching on his side of the table. Though until that day he had not been in the room for two months, its geography was clearly stamped on his mind's eye. He knew almost to a foot where his visitor was standing. Consequently, when, rising swiftly from the chair, he made a football dive into the darkness, it was no speculative dive. It had a conscious aim, and it was not restrained by any uncertainty as to whether the road to the burglar's knees was clear or not.

His shoulder bumped into a human leg. His arms closed instantaneously on it, and pulled. There was a yelp of dismay, and a crash. The lantern bounced away across the room, and wrecked itself on the reef of the steam-heater. Its owner collapsed in a heap on top of Jimmy.

Jimmy, underneath at the fall, speedily put himself uppermost with a twist of his body. He had every advantage. The burglar was a small man, and had been taken very much by surprise, and any fight there might have been in him in normal circumstances had been shaken out of him by the fall. He lay still, not attempting to struggle.

Jimmy half-rose, and, pulling his prisoner by inches to the door, felt up the wall till he found the electric-light button.

The yellow glow that flooded the room disclosed a short, stocky youth of obviously Bowery extraction. A shock of vivid red hair was the first thing about him that caught the eye. A poet would have described it as Titian. Its proprietor's friends and acquaintances probably called it "carrots." Looking up at Jimmy from under this wealth of crimson was a not unpleasing face. It was not handsome, certainly; but there were suggestions of a latent good-humor. The nose had been broken at one period of its career, and one of the ears was undeniably of the cauliflower type; but these are little accidents which may happen to any high-spirited young gentleman. In costume, the visitor had evidently been guided rather by individual taste than by the dictates of fashion. His coat was of rusty black, his trousers of gray, picked out with stains of various colors. Beneath the coat was a faded red-and-white sweater. A hat of soft felt lay on the floor by the table.

The cut of the coat was poor, and the fit of it spoiled by a bulge in one of the pockets. Diagnosing this bulge correctly, Jimmy inserted his hand, and drew out a dingy revolver.

"Well?" he said, rising.

Like most people, he had often wondered what he should do if he were to meet a burglar; and he had always come to the conclusion that curiosity would be his chief emotion. His anticipations were proved perfectly correct. Now that he had abstracted his visitor's gun, he had no wish to do anything but engage him in conversation. A burglar's life was something so entirely outside his experience! He wanted to learn the burglar's point of view. Incidentally, he reflected with amusement, as he recalled his wager, he might pick up a few useful hints.

The man on the floor sat up, and rubbed the back of his head ruefully.

"Gee!" he muttered. "I t'ought some guy had t'rown de buildin' at me."

"It was only little me," said Jimmy. "Sorry if I hurt you at all. You really want a mat for that sort of thing."

The man's hand went furtively to his pocket. Then, his eye caught sight of the revolver, which Jimmy had placed on the table. With a sudden dash, he seized it.

"Now, den, boss!" he said, between his teeth.

Jimmy extended his hand, and unclasped it. Six shells lay in the palm.

"Why worry?" he said. "Sit down and let us talk of life."

"It's a fair cop, boss," said the man, resignedly.

"Away with melancholy," said Jimmy. "I'm not going to call the police. You can beat it whenever you like."

The man stared.

"I mean it," said Jimmy. "What's the trouble? I've no grievance. I wish, though, if you haven't any important engagement, you would stop and talk awhile first."

A broad grin spread itself across the other's face. There was something singularly engaging about him when he grinned.

"Gee! If youse ain't goin' to call de cops, I'll talk till de chickens roost ag'in."

"Talking, however," said Jimmy, "is dry work. Are you by any chance on the wagon?"

"What's dat? Me? On your way, boss!"

"Then, you'll find a pretty decent whiskey in that decanter. Help yourself. I think you'll like it."

A musical gurgling, followed by a contented sigh, showed that the statement had been tested and proved correct.

"Cigar?" asked Jimmy.

"Me fer dat," assented his visitor.

"Take a handful."

"I eats dem alive," said the marauder jovially, gathering in the spoils.

Jimmy crossed his legs.

"By the way," he said, "let there be no secrets between us. What's your name? Mine is Pitt. James Willoughby Pitt."

"Mullins is my monaker, boss. Spike, dey calls me."

And you make a living at this sort of thing?"

"Not so woise."

"How did you get in here?"

Spike Mullins grinned.

"Gee! Ain't de window open?"

"If it hadn't been?"

"I'd a' busted it."

Jimmy eyed the fellow fixedly.

"Can you use an oxy-acetylene blow-pipe?" he demanded.

Spike was on the point of drinking. He lowered his glass, and gaped.

"What's dat?" he said.

"An oxy-acetylene blow-pipe."

"Search me," said Spike, blankly. "Dat gets past me."

Jimmy's manner grew more severe.

"Can you make soup?"

"Soup, boss?"

"He doesn't know what soup is," said Jimmy, despairingly. "My good man, I'm afraid you have missed your vocation. You have no business to be trying to burgle. You don't know the first thing about the game."

Spike was regarding the speaker with disquiet over his glass. Till now, the red-haired one had been very well satisfied with his methods, but criticism was beginning to sap his nerve. He had heard tales of masters of his craft who made use of fearsome implements such as Jimmy had mentioned; burglars who had an airy acquaintanceship, bordering on insolent familiarity, with the marvels of science; men to whom the latest inventions were as familiar as his own jemmy was to himself. Could this be one of that select band? His host began to take on a new aspect in his eyes.

"Spike," said Jimmy.

"Huh?"

"Have you a thorough knowledge of chemistry, physics—"

"On your way, boss!"

"—toxicology—"

"Search me!"

"—electricity and microscopy?"

" … Nine, ten. Dat's de finish. I'm down an' out."

Jimmy shook his head, sadly.

"Give up burglary," he said. "It's not in your line. Better try poultry-farming."

Spike twiddled his glass, abashed.

"Now, I," said Jimmy airily, "am thinking of breaking into a house to-night."

"Gee!" exclaimed Spike, his suspicions confirmed at last. "I t'ought youse was in de game, boss. Sure, you're de guy dat's onto all de curves. I t'ought so all along."

"I should like to hear," said Jimmy amusedly, as one who draws out an intelligent child, "how you would set about burgling one of those up-town villas. My own work has been on a somewhat larger scale and on the other side of the Atlantic."

"De odder side?"

"I have done as much in London as anywhere else," said Jimmy. "A great town, London, full of opportunities for the fine worker. Did you hear of the cracking of the New Asiatic Bank in Lombard Street?"

"No, boss," whispered Spike. "Was dat you?"

Jimmy laughed.

"The police would like an answer to the same question," he said, self-consciously. "Perhaps, you heard nothing of the disappearance of the Duchess of Havant's diamonds?"

"Was dat—?"

"The thief," said Jimmy, flicking a speck of dust from his coat sleeve, "was discovered to have used an oxy-acetylene blow-pipe."

The rapturous intake of Spike's breath was the only sound that broke the silence. Through the smoke, his eyes could be seen slowly widening.

"But about this villa," said Jimmy. "I am always interested even in the humblest sides of the profession. Now, tell me, supposing you were going to break into a villa, what time of night would you do it?"

"I always t'inks it's best either late like dis or when de folks is in at supper," said Spike, respectfully.

Jimmy smiled a faint, patronizing smile, and nodded.

"Well, and what would you do?"

"I'd rubber around some to see isn't dere a window open somewheres," said Spike, diffidently.

"And if there wasn't?"

"I'd climb up de porch an' into one of de bedrooms," said Spike, almost blushing. He felt like a boy reading his first attempts at original poetry to an established critic. What would this master cracksman, this polished wielder of the oxy-acetylene blow-pipe, this expert in toxicology, microscopy and physics think of his callow outpourings!

"How would you get into the bedroom?"

Spike hung his head.

"Bust de catch wit' me jemmy," he whispered, shamefacedly.

"Burst the catch with your jemmy?"

"It's de only way I ever learned," pleaded Spike.

The expert was silent. He seemed to be thinking. The other watched his face, humbly.

"How would youse do it, boss?" he ventured timidly, at last.

"Eh?"

"How would youse do it?"

"Why, I'm not sure," said the master, graciously, "whether your way might not do in a case like that. It's crude, of course, but with a few changes it would do."

"Gee, boss! Is dat right?" queried the astonished disciple.

"It would do," said the master, frowning thoughtfully; "it would do quite well—quite well!"

Spike drew a deep breath of joy and astonishment. That his methods should meet with approval from such a mind … !

"Gee!" he whispered—as who would say, "I and Napoleon."