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CHAPTER VI


AN EXHIBITION PERFORMANCE


COLD reason may disapprove of wagers, but without a doubt there is something joyous and lovable in the type of mind that rushes at the least provocation into the making of them, something smacking of the spacious days of the Regency. Nowadays, the spirit seems to have deserted England. When Mr. Asquith became Premier of Great Britain, no earnest forms were to be observed rolling peanuts along the Strand with a toothpick. When Mr. Asquith is dethroned, it is improbable that any Briton will allow his beard to remain unshaved until the Liberal party returns to office. It is in the United States that the wager has found a home. It is characteristic of some minds to dash into a wager with the fearlessness of a soldier in a forlorn hope, and, once in, to regard it almost as a sacred trust. Some men never grow up out of the schoolboy spirit of "daring."

To this class Jimmy Pitt belonged. He was of the same type as the man in the comic opera who proposed to the lady because somebody bet him he wouldn't. There had never been a time when a challenge, a "dare," had not acted as a spur to him. In his newspaper days, life had heen one long series of challenges. They had been the essence of the business. A story had not been worth getting unless the getting were difficult.

With the conclusion of his newspaper life came a certain flatness into the scheme of things. There were times, many times, when Jimmy was bored. He hungered for excitement, and life appeared to have so little to offer! The path of the rich man was so smooth, and it seemed to lead nowhere! This task of burgling a house was like an unexpected treat to a child. With an intensity of purpose that should have touched his sense of humor, but, as a matter of fact, did not appeal to him as ludicrous in any way, he addressed himself to the work. The truth was that Jimmy was one of those men who are charged to the brim with force. Somehow, the force had to find an outlet. If he had undertaken to collect birds' eggs, he would have set about it w r ith the same tense energy.


Spike was sitting on the edge of his chair, dazed but happy, his head still buzzing from the unhoped-for praise. Jimmy looked at his watch. It was nearly three o'clock. A sudden idea struck him. The gods had provided gifts: why not take them?

"Spike!"

"Huh?"

"Would you care to come and crack a crib with me, now?"

Reverential awe was written on the red-haired one's face.

"Gee, boss!"

"Would you?"

"Surest t'ing you know, boss."

"Or, rather," proceeded Jimmy, "would you care to crack a crib while I came along with you? Strictly speaking, I am here on a vacation, but a trifle like this isn't real work. It's this way," he explained. "I've taken a fancy to you, Spike, and I don't like to see you wasting your time on coarse work. You have the root of the matter in you, and with a little coaching I could put a polish on you. I wouldn't do this for everyone, but I hate to see a man bungling who might do better! I want to see you at work. Come right along, and we'll go up-town, and you shall start in. Don't get nervous. Just work as you would if I were not there. I shall not expect too much. Rome was not built in a day. When we are through, I will criticize a few of your mistakes. How does that suit you?"

"Gee, boss! Great! An' I know where dere's a peach of a place, boss. Regular soft proposition. A friend of mine told me. It's—"

"Very well, then. One moment, though."

He went to the telephone. Before he had left New York on his travels, Arthur Mifflin had been living at a hotel near Washington Square. It was probable that he was still there. He called up the number. The night-clerk was an old acquaintance of his.

"Hello, Dixon," said Jimmy, "is that you? I'm Pitt—Pitt! Yes, I'm back. How did you guess? Yes, very pleasant. Has Mr. Mifflin come in yet? Gone to bed? Never mind, call him up, will you? Good." Presently, the sleepy and outraged voice of Mr. Mifflin spoke at the other end of the line.

"What's wrong? Who the devil's that?"

"My dear Arthur! Where you pick up such expressions I can't think—not from me."

"Is that you, Jimmy? What in the name of—!"

"Heavens! What are you kicking about? The night's yet young. Arthur, touching that little arrangement we made—cracking that crib, you know. Are you listening? Have you any objection to my; taking an assistant along with me? I don't want to do anything contrary to our agreement, but there's a young fellow here who's anxious that I should let him come along and pick up a few hints. He's a professional all right. Not in our class, of course, but quite a fair rough workman. He—Arthur! Arthur! These are harsh words! Then, am I to understand you have no objection? Very well. Only, don't say later on that I didn't play fair. Good-night."

He hung up the receiver, and turned to Spike.

"Ready?"

"Ain't youse goin' to put on your gum-shoes, boss?"

Jimmy frowned reflectively, as if there was something in what this novice suggested. He went into the bedroom, and returned wearing a pair of thin patent-leather shoes.

Spike coughed tentatively.

"Won't youse need your gun?" he hazarded.

Jimmy gave a short laugh.

"I work with brains, not guns," he said. "Let us be going."


There was a taxi-cab near by, as there always is in New York. Jimmy pushed Spike in, and they drove off. To Jimmy, New York stopped somewhere about Seventy-Second Street. Anything beyond that was getting on for the Middle West, and seemed admirably suited as a field for the cracksman. He had a vague idea of up-town as a remote, desolate district, badly lighted—if lighted at all—and sparsely dotted with sleepy policemen.

The luxury of riding in a taxi-cab kept Spike dumb for several miles. Having arrived at what seemed a sufficiently remote part of America, Jimmy paid the driver, who took the money with that magnificently aloof air which characterizes the taxi-chauffeur. A lesser man might have displayed some curiosity about the ill-matched pair. The chauffeur, having lighted a cigarette, drove off without any display of interest whatsoever. It might have been part of his ordinary duties to drive gentlemen in evening clothes and shock-headed youths in parti-colored sweaters about the city at three o'clock in the morning.

"We will now," said Jimmy, "stroll on and prospect. It is up to you, Spike. Didn't you say something about knowing a suitable house somewhere? Are we anywhere near it?"

Spike looked at the number of the street.

"We got some way to go, boss," he said. "I wisht youse hadn't sent away de cab."

"Did you think we were going to drive up to the door? Pull yourself together, my dear man."

They walked on, striking eastward out of Broadway. It caused Jimmy some surprise to find that the much-enduring thoroughfare extended as far as this. It had never occurred to him before to ascertain what Broadway did with itself beyond Times Square.

It was darker now that they had moved from the center of things, but it was still far too light for Jimmy's tastes. He was content, however, to leave matters entirely to his companion. Spike probably had his methods for evading publicity on these occasions.

Spike plodded on. Block after block he passed, until finally the houses began to be more scattered.

At last, he halted before a fair-sized detached house.

"Dis is de place," he said. "A friend of mine tells me of it. I didn't know he was me friend, dough, before he puts me wise about dis joint. I t'ought he'd got it in fer me 'cos of last week when I scrapped wit' him about somet'in'. I t'ought after that he was layin' fer me, but de next time he seen me he put me wise to dis place."

"Coals of fire," said Jimmy. "He was of a forgiving disposition." A single rain-drop descended on the nape of his neck. In another moment, a smart shower had begun.

"This matter has passed out of our hands," said Jimmy. "We must break in, if only to get shelter. Get busy, my lad."

There was a handy window only a few feet from the ground. Spike pulled from his pocket a small bottle.

"What's that?" inquired Jimmy.

"Molasses, boss," said Spike, deferentially.

He poured the contents of the bottle on a piece of paper, which he pressed firmly against the windowpane. Then, drawing out a short steel instrument, he gave the paper a sharp tap. The glass broke almost inaudibly. The paper came away, leaving a gap in the pane. Spike inserted his hand, shot back the catch, and softly pushed up the window.

"Elementary," said Jimmy; "elementary, but quite neat."

There was now a shutter to be negotiated. This took longer, but in the end Spike's persuasive methods prevailed.

Jimmy became quite cordial.

"You have been well-grounded, Spike," he said. "And, after all, that is half the battle. The advice I give to every novice is, 'Learn to walk before you try to run.' Master the a, b, c, of the craft first. With a little careful coaching, you will do. Just so. Pop in."

Spike climbed cautiously over the sill, followed by Jimmy. The latter struck a match, and found the electric light switch. They were in a parlor, furnished and decorated with surprising taste. Jimmy had expected the usual hideousness, but here everything from the wall-paper to the smallest ornaments was wonderfully well selected.

Business, however, was business. This was no time to stand admiring artistic effects in room-furnishing. There was that big J to be carved on the front door. If 'twere done, then 'twere well 'twere done quickly.

He was just moving to the door, when from some distant part of the house came the bark of a dog. Another joined in. The solo became a duet. The air was filled with their clamor.

"Gee!" cried Spike.

The remark seemed more or less to sum up the situation.

"'Tis sweet," says Byron, "to hear the watch-dog's honest bark." Jimmy and Spike found two watch-dogs' honest barks cloying. Spike intimated this by making a feverish dash for the open window. Unfortunately for the success of this maneuver, the floor of the room was covered not with a carpet but with tastefully scattered rugs, and underneath these rugs it was very highly polished. Spike, treading on one of these islands, was instantly undone. No power of will or muscle can save a man in such a case. Spike skidded. His feet flew from under him. There was a momentary flash of red head, as of a passing meteor. The next moment, he had fallen on his back with a thud that shook the house. Even in the crisis, the thought flashed across Jimmy's mind that this was not Spike's lucky night.

Upstairs, the efforts of the canine choir had begun to resemble the "A ché la morte" duet in "Il Trovatore." Particularly good work was being done by the baritone dog.

Spike sat up, groaning. Equipped though he was by nature with a skull of the purest and most solid ivory, the fall had disconcerted him. His eyes, like those of Shakespeare's poet, rolling in a fine frenzy, did glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. He passed his fingers tenderly through his vermilion hair.

Heavy footsteps were descending the stairs. In the distance, the soprano dog had reached A in alt., and was holding it, while his fellow artiste executed runs in the lower register.

"Get up!" hissed Jimmy. "There's somebody coming! Get up, you idiot, can't you!"

It was characteristic of Jimmy that it never even occurred to him to desert the fallen one, and depart alone. Spike was his brother-in-arms. He would as soon have thought of deserting him as a sea-captain would of abandoning the ship.

Consequently, as Spike, despite all exhortations, continued to remain on the floor, rubbing his head and uttering "Gee!" at intervals in a melancholy voice, Jimmy resigned himself to fate, and stood where he was, waiting for the door to open.

It opened the next moment as if a cyclone had been behind it.