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“Hush!” said the professor, gently. “There are things which you ought not to see or know. You are weak from the shock and injuries you have received.”
“But listen, dear.”
“My dear old wifie,” he said tenderly, “it is of no use to look in that imploring way at me. You know what Jem is, and I am too old now to set myself in antagonism with him. There, be at rest; I will do all I can. Don’t think me so bloodthirsty as to desire their end. Still, so many interests are at stake. It is a case of burglar against housekeeper. The scoundrels came armed.”
“Yes, I saw a revolver in the trunk with their burgling tools. If I had come upon them suddenly, and they had had time, they would have fired at me.”
“Oh, surely not!”
“Humph! You are a woman, my dear, with a woman’s gentle heart, ready to defend and palliate. After the way in which I found you, I do not feel so merciful. Let me ask you one question; If there was nothing to fear from them, why did they come armed?”
The old housekeeper made no reply, but lay back upon the couch weak and trembling, while the professor slowly paced the room, till she opened her eyes wildly, and signed to him to come to her side.
“I am more upset than I thought for,” she said feebly. “Help me up to my room; I think I can walk now.”
The professor’s brow lightened, for it was a relief to him to hear the old woman’s words; but she noted the change and sighed as she rose painfully.
“You will wait until they come?” she said, trembling at the thought of that which she dreaded.
“Need you ask?” said the professor, gravely. “Come, you will be better after lying down for a few hours. Try to forget everything in the remembrance that I am doing all for you that I can.”
“Yes, Harry,” she said softly; “I have never had cause to complain of your want of love for me in these forty years; but for my sake, dear, let there be no more crime.”
“For your sake I will do everything I can,” said the professor, gravely, as he bent down and kissed her while leading her to the door and then slowly up to a bedroom on the third floor, where he left her at the end of a few minutes, apparently sinking into a doze.
As he stole out softly he silently removed the key, replaced it on the other side, and locked her in, before descending quickly to the hall, where he stood listening for a few minutes, and then went down into the basement and stepped softly forward to listen at the outer door of the plate vault.
A faint muttering of voices could be heard as he placed his ear to the key-hole, but all else was still; there was no sound of an effort being made to escape, and he went back to the hall, where he took out and re-examined his revolver.
“I wonder,” he said to himself, “whether a shot or two could be heard in the street. Pish! Absurd! No one heard the reports when poor Bob went down. Ah, here they are. They haven’t been long.”
For there was a faint rattle of a latch-key in the door, and Robert Clareborough entered, in company with the brothers, the former looking excited and anxious, the two latter stern and as if prepared for the worst.
Chapter Twenty Six.
As the door banged to and was locked, Roach uttered a wild cry and threw himself upon the floor, covering the back of his head with his hands, as he thrust it into the corner farthest from where the powder was sputtering and sending up tiny clouds of smoke.
Arthur shrank away against the wall for a moment, glancing wildly at the broken lantern and the lamp-wick, burning still in a little pool of oil, while the powder kept flashing out, darting from grain to grain, where they had been scattered about the floor.
Then the tiny flames divided, one set running towards the portmanteau, in which the partially-emptied tin had been thrown, the other going by fits and starts in the direction of the iron entry.
This nerved the younger man to desperation, and he made a dash at the grains upon the floor, to sweep them away before they reached the loaded door, feeling convinced, in his agony of fear, that the little burning train would somehow communicate with the powder with which he had charged the lock. But in spite of his efforts the fire was too quick, the flame running swiftly along by the bottom of the frame, and with a yell of despair he dashed to the other corner of the far side of the lobby, to imitate the butler, expecting to hear the charge explode, and then the iron door driven back to crush them to death.
It seemed long minutes to the two wretched men as they crouched there with their eyes shut, but it was only the matter of a few seconds’ suspense before the little chamber was in total darkness, and filled with the dull, dank reek of the burnt powder.
At last the footman raised his head cautiously, with hope reviving. The charge had not gone off and the tin had not been reached.
He looked in the direction of the great safe, but all was black, and, rising slowly, he felt his way to the door to try if it were really fast; while as his hands glided over it he found that it fitted so closely that he could hardly make out the crack between door and frame. The main object of his search, though, was for the lock, in the hope that he should be able to force it off with one of the wedges, and then, armed as they were, he and his companion might escape.
But there was no lock to attack, no key-hole. That which he sought was of the mortice pattern, buried in the heavy lining, and wherever he passed his hands, the surface was perfectly smooth.
“Curse the old Jezebel!” he muttered. “Here, Roach, old man, rouse up. We’re done, but we can’t stay here – we must get out somehow. Did you see her? I wish I’d tied her up a little tighter.”
“No, no, no,” groaned Roach. “I did not see her. She must have got free somehow. I only felt her hands as she jumped upon me from behind and drove me forward on to you. Is – is the powder going off?”
“No! Get up. There isn’t a spark now. Phew! it’s enough to stifle a fellow. Where’s that wine?”
“I put it somewhere in this corner. Yes, here.”
“Give us hold. Be sharp.”
There was a clicking noise in the utter darkness and after feeling about for a few moments, the younger man grasped the bottle, drank heavily, and passed it to his trembling companion, who snatched at it and drank deeply in turn.
“That’s better,” cried Arthur, sharply. “Now then, the matches.”
“No, no, don’t strike a light. Are you mad?”
“Pretty nigh, but we must risk it or we can never get out.”
“We never shall get out alive,” groaned Roach.
“Well, I mean to,” said his companion; “so here goes. I can’t use the hammer and chisels and wedges in this blessed darkness.”
There was the crackle of a match, and the elder man uttered a cry of horror as he shrank into his corner again, but as the wax taper burned up steadily in Arthur’s fingers, and no explosion followed, he obeyed his companion’s order and picked up the lamp, which proved not to be utterly drained of oil, and after a little patient effort began to burn again as it was replaced in the broken lantern.
“Now, then, sharp’s the word,” said Arthur. “Hold the light while I chisel out the wood till I can get at the lock. Mustn’t use the hammer, or it will put her on her guard. Wonder whether she’s outside listening.”
There was not a sound to be heard, and with Roach tremblingly holding the light, Arthur worked away with the sharpest-edged wedge, but made little progress, for a few cuts were sufficient to prove that the door was of the hardest oak, and when the man had been carving away for nearly an hour, with the perspiration streaming down his face, it was to throw down the chisel in despair, for the wood proved to be only the casing of an iron door of great strength.
“Give me the bottle,” said Arthur, panting. “Can’t you do something beside shivering there?”
Roach groaned as he handed the bottle.
“Man wants a bit o’ Dutch courage over a job like this.”
“We shall never get out,” groaned Roach.
“Not if it’s left to you, old man. You’d turn it into a tomb at once. Here, I’ve left you a drop. Tip it off, and see if it’ll put some pluck into you. There, I’ve tried fair play and quiet; now it’s got to be foul play and noise. Give me hold of the hammer and let’s see what a wedge’ll do.”
“Hist! What’s that?”
Arthur needed no telling to be silent. Snatching the light from his companion, he reached over to the portmanteau and took out the two small revolvers, handed one to his companion, and whispered to him —
“It was the lock. Someone coming. Don’t fire without you’re obliged. I’ll try the hammer first.”
As he spoke he blew out the little lamp, and set it down, before standing facing the door with his hand raised, ready to strike down the first who entered.
Some minutes must have elapsed without further alarm, and the two men were ready to believe that the sharp snap they had heard must have come from the iron door of the closet, the frame springing back after being strained by the application of the wedges that had been driven in.
All at once, just as an attack was about to be made once more upon the way by which they had entered, and Arthur had taken a fresh match from his box, a soft light began to dawn, grew rapidly, and dazzled their eyes, as they strove to make out whence it came, and stood ready once more to strike.
It was not from the passage door, but from the ceiling just over the great safe, and as the men stood trembling with fear and excitement, there was a spurt of smoke from the great iron safe, a dull concussion, and the footman fell back. While as the butler stood staring upward, his face ashy grey in the soft light, as the smoke curled about a glowing bulk, there was a second spurt of smoke, and concussion, the wretched man fell forward across his companion, and the light grew dimmer in the heavy clinging vapour, slowly dying out into utter darkness, while the silence was as that of the tomb.
Chapter Twenty Seven.
Under the Beeches
It was a lovely morning in the sylvan solitude by The Towers, and leaving Mrs James and Mrs Dennis Clareborough in the drawing-room, Marion took her sunshade and a book, to wander away across the lawn to the gate in the ring fence, and then along the path at the edge of the beech wood, ostensibly to find a seat in the shade of one of the great spreading trees, and have a calm, quiet read.
But ere she had gone a couple of hundred yards the fever in her blood and the throbbing of her temples told her that the idea of calm and rest was the merest farce.
She had hailed the departure of the gentlemen for Paris, as they had said, as a relief from the quiet, insidious siege laid to her by James Clareborough, who rarely spoke but on the most commonplace topics, and was always coldly polite; but there were moments when she met his eyes and read plainly enough that his intentions were unaltered, and that sooner of later he would again begin to make protestations of his love.
Her position seemed harder than she could bear. His wife hated her with a bitter, jealous hatred, but she was too much crushed down and afraid of her fierce lord to show her dislike more openly, though there were times when she seemed ready to break out into open reproach.
“Oh, if I could only end it all!” thought Marion again and again. “Will Rob never break with them?
“Never,” she said to herself, despairingly; “they would never let him go. And yet surely the world is wide enough, and somewhere surely he might find peace.
“No, he would never settle down to another life. It is fate. There is neither peace nor happiness now for me.”
She had wandered on for quite a mile before, feeling hot and wearied, she seated herself on one of the great gnarled mossy buttresses of a beech and leaned her head upon her hand, thinking of him whom she could not keep out of her thoughts, but still only in despair. Then her thoughts turned once more to James Clareborough, and, brave and firm as she was, a thrill of horror ran through her at the dread which oppressed her and set her heart throbbing wildly.
What if this Parisian journey was only a ruse and James Clareborough were back on purpose to try and gain a meeting with her while her brother was not by her side?
The thought was horrible, and it grew more intense, her cheeks flushing and then growing ghastly white from her emotion.
“What madness to come out here alone!” she thought. “He would have been watching for me, and be ready to read it as an invitation.”
She looked round wildly, and started as a sharp tap was heard close at hand.
“Am I growing such a nervous, feeble coward,” she said, “that I am afraid of a rabbit? What have I to fear from him?”
She laughed at her weak folly, and to prove to herself that she was no longer under the influence of dread she took her book and opened it at random, but did not read a word, for her musings began again.
“It is excusable,” she thought. “All these years of dread of discovery, of some end coming to their plans, and for the sake of what? A miserable gilded life of luxury that is hateful to me and makes me shiver when I look into his pleading eyes. He loves me and would marry me to-morrow in his ignorance; and then what would he say when he knew the truth? I cannot bear it; there must – there shall be an end. It is not life; it is one miserable nightmare of fear.”
She sprang to her feet, uttering a faint cry of horror, and turned to run. For there was some truth in her suspicions; she had been followed. There was a quick step behind, and she had run some little distance before, glancing back, she saw that it was not James Clareborough, but Chester, standing beneath the trees which had sheltered her, and now gazing after her with a look of anger and despair.
She stopped, and he came up to her side.
“Have I grown so hateful to your sight?” he said bitterly.
“No, no!” she cried, holding out her trembling hand, which he seized and pressed passionately to his lips. “I thought it was James Clareborough.”
“Then he has dared to insult you again?” said Chester, angrily.
“No, no; indeed, no,” she cried.
“But you live in fear of him. Oh, Marion, Marion, how long is this weary life to last? Once more let me plead. Would not a quiet life with my devotion be a happier one than this miserable luxury, where you are constantly persecuted by a scoundrel?”
“Oh, hush, hush!” she murmured. “I have told you it can never be.”
“Yes, but these are words. Your woman’s honour forbids you to stay.”
“Hush, for pity’s sake! You torture me,” she cried. “Must I explain, but you must see and know that I am tied down to it, that I cannot leave my brother – that he would never let me go.”
“I cannot – I will not believe but that all this is imaginary,” said Chester, firmly. “Will you not trust me? Will you not tell me what it all means, and let me, a man, be the judge?”
“No,” she said, mastering her emotion and speaking calmly now. “Once more, I cannot, I will not explain. Why have you come down here?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“You know,” he said. “Where should I be but near the woman who is my very life?”
“But it is madness – it is misery and torture to me.”
“Poor wretch that I am,” he said bitterly. “Still, I cannot help it.”
“But,” she cried imploringly, “your life would not be safe if they knew of your being here.”
“Indeed? Well, what of it? My presence is a torture to you. I am a torture and misery to myself. They would not dare to kill me. I don’t know, though,” he said, with a mocking laugh, “by accident, perhaps.”
“Dr Chester,” cried Marion, appealingly, “does it please you to inflict this agony upon me?”
“No, no,” he said, snatching at her hand. “I would give my life to save you pain.”
“Then go. Leave me and forget me. I am not the true, innocent woman you think. I am not fit to be your wife.”
“What!” he cried, turning ghastly pale, while as she saw his agony her face grew convulsed and she half raised her hands to him pleadingly, but let them fall.
He saw the movement and snatched them to his breast.
“It is not true,” he cried proudly. “Some false sentiment makes you say this. I will not believe it of the woman I love.”
She did not resist until he tried to take her to his heart. Then she shrank away.
“No,” she said. “You must not touch me like that. Once more, believe me, all this must end. You must think of me no more – you must go at once, and we must never meet again.”
“You have told me that before,” he said, “but I am not a free agent. I was obliged to come. I have been here these three days past, watching for an opportunity to speak to you; and when I do you once more cast me off – you drive me away. Well, I have borne it so long; I can go on bearing it till you relent, or – I die,” he added softly.
She looked at him wildly for a moment, and his hopes rose, for the relenting seemed close at hand, but she was stern and cold again directly.
“And your betrothed wife,” she said. “What of her?”
He was silent for a few moments, and then he made a deprecating sign with his hands.
“What do you know of her?” he said.
“Everything,” she replied. “How basely and cruelly you have behaved to her. Is this your honour as a man?”
He heard a deep sigh.
“I have only one thing to say in my defence,” he said slowly. “I believed that I loved her; but then I had not seen you. I was not under this spell.”
“It is no spell,” she said firmly. “Go to her, and forget me. I tell you that I am not worthy to be your wife, and that such a union is impossible for reasons which I dare not explain. You hear me?”
“Yes,” he said sadly, “I hear you.”
“Then good-bye for ever.”
She turned from him, but a piteous moan escaped her lips, and the next moment he had clasped her to his heart.
“Marion, my own!” he whispered, as he pressed his lips to hers; “then you do love me!”
“Yes,” she said, as she clung to him, and for a moment or two returned his embrace. “You know I love you and shall never love another, but go now, for Heaven’s sake! I tell you it is impossible. Good-bye – good-bye.”
She tore herself from his grasp and fled through the wood, not daring to turn her head to see if he followed, lest in her woman’s weakness she should give way and dare everything for his sake.
Chapter Twenty Eight.
Caught Once More
Marion did not check her pace till, hot and breathless, she was forced to rest for a few minutes. Her brain was in a state of bewildering confusion, and had Chester been there then to plead his cause, her heart would have made but a poor defence. She would have been his, and his alone.
But in a few minutes she began to grow calmer; the dangers of such a course were more and more apparent, and at last, as she walked on towards The Towers, her thoughts of the future assumed their wonted current, and she began to plan.
She was not long in deciding what to do. Chester was evidently staying somewhere near at hand; he would grow more and more persistent, and she could see nothing in the future but his presence being discovered by James Clareborough or his brother, and then some terrible mischief would arise, and fresh misery ensue.
There seemed to be but one course open, and that was to escape from Chester’s pursuit and to this end she went quietly into her own room to try and grow more composed, joined the others at lunch, and then in the most quiet, matter-of-fact way ordered the pony carriage to be round directly after for a drive.
“You will not go with me, I suppose, Di?” she said to James’s wife.
“I? No, thank you, Marion. I am not well to-day,” said the lady, flushing.
“Will you come, Hester?” she continued.
“I can’t; I am going over to the Ellistons’ to tennis,” was the reply.
“Then I’ll have my little drive alone,” said Marion, smiling; and shortly afterwards she stepped into the phaeton, the boy groom sprang up behind, and the spirited little ponies started off along the park drive at a rapid pace.
“How nice Marion always looks,” said Mrs Dennis, “and how well she drives.”
“Yes,” said her sister-in-law, bitterly; “everyone admires her. It is always Marion, Marion! Why did he not marry her? He would if I died. How long does it take, Hester, to break a woman’s heart?”
“Oh, hush, hush, dear!” whispered her sister-in-law, soothingly. “I know how sad it is, but you ought not to be so cold to poor Marion. I honestly believe that she absolutely hates James.”
“Hates? when she does all that she can to lure him on?”
“That is not true, dear,” said Mrs Dennis, gravely. “I know Marion better than you do, because you have always shut your heart against her.”
“Well, can you wonder?”
“Yes and no. It is a terrible position, and I pity you, dear; but believe me, James’s advances fill Marion with disgust and shame, and some day you will find this out.”
“I’d give the world to believe it,” sobbed the wretched woman, “but I cannot, and I am certain that she has gone to keep some appointment with him now.”
“You are unjust, Di dear,” said Mrs Dennis, kissing her lovingly.
“I am a miserable, unhappy woman, ill-treated and scorned by the man who swore to love me. What else can you expect? Why did I ever enter this wretched family?”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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