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“That’s right, uncle; that’s right,” growled Dennis. “Come, Rob, old man, you must feel that this is good sound sense.”
“Yes,” said Rob, with a groan; “I suppose it is. There, uncle, go on.”
“Yes, yes, my dear boy,” cried the old man. “Well, here is our position, to finish up what Jem has said. It would be easier and better for us if we could call in the police and go through the inquest, but you know it is impossible. Now then, has either of you anything to propose over what must be done at once?”
There was utter silence, and Chester, as he stood there with a cold perspiration making his hair cling to his temples, wondered that those present did not detect the beating of his and his companion’s hearts.
“No one speaks,” said the old man, quietly; “well then, the old inventor has to come to the front again, as he always has since we held the first meeting, and had to look starvation in the face. Hark ye here, boys,” he continued in a low, deep whisper; “I have turned it all over in my mind, and there is only one thing to be done. I am not going to be troubled about the disposal of what is, after all – speaking as a chemist – so much matter which has to be resolved rapidly into its primary constituents. There is the far cellar beneath the other house; we must dig there. Then a few bags of cement, and a carboy of acid, etcetera, and the matter is at an end.”
Dennis drew a deep breath, and a low, hissing sound arose, which Chester felt must have come from between Robert Clareborough’s teeth.
“Well, have I spoken rightly?” said the old man.
“Yes, that’s right,” said James Clareborough.
“You others are silent, but of course you acquiesce. You must keep the women down at The Towers, or take them to the Riviera for a month, and your aunt will know nothing more. There, the administrative has spoken; it is for the executive to go to work.”
“The executive has done its work,” said James Clareborough, sharply, “while you two stood behind a door and listened.”
Chester felt a spasm run through Marion as these words were spoken.
“Well, well,” said the old man; “you two are young and strong, and have steady hands. I do not wish to hang back from anything for ensuring the safety and prosperity of all. Robert, my boy, my muscles are not what they were; I shall be obliged to ask you to help me.”
Another spasm ran through Marion, and Chester, as they stood there in the darkness, felt her crane forward as if to hear her brother’s answer.
It came on the instant, in sharp, fierce tones, – “No, uncle. I wash my hands of it all. I cannot help what has passed, and I will be silent for the benefit of all, but help further in this – no, I would sooner die!”
“What!” cried James Clareborough, savagely. “Curse you, then, die, and rid us of our miserable clog. Look here, all of you – I will not stand by and let him sneak out of the business in this cursed cowardly way. You, Rob – you have got to help the old man over this, or – ”
“Or what?” cried Rob, as fiercely.
Marion made a movement as if to rush to her brother’s help, but Chester tightened his grasp.
“My dear Jem! My dear Rob! for Heaven’s sake!” cried the professor, interposing.
“You hold your tongue, old man,” cried James Clareborough, springing up; “I’ve had enough of this. For a year past now I’ve had to put up with his cursed objections, and hanging back from nearly everything, like the coward he is, and I’ll have no more of it. Paddy and I have done our bit of work to save the family from utter ruin and destruction, and now he is asked to help you in necessary work he begins to ride the high horse and dictate. I say he shall help you, and at once, or, if I hang for it, I’ll make him.”
“You make me, you cowardly, treacherous beast!” cried Robert, fiercely. “I defy you to. You two know that our quarrel has not been on account of my shrinking from the work. I always hated it, but I have still done my part. Why did he fire at me that night but because I struck him down for his cowardly, brutal insults to my poor sister, whose honour ought to have been sacred and the object of his defence?”
“You miserable hound!” growled James Clareborough. “Go with the old man at once, or you sha’n’t live another day!”
“Go yourself, beast, and keep your hand from that pistol, or I’ll fire, I swear!”
The utter silence in the room after these words were spoken was broken by the sharp clicking of two pistols, and half stunned for the moment, as he listened for the reports, Chester, recalling what must have happened on the night when he was first called in, threw himself before Marion to screen her from any bullet which might come there.
The act necessitated the loosening of his grasp, and with a wild cry Marion sprang from him, to rush in the direction of her brother’s voice.
“The door!” shouted the professor, and it was banged to and bolted by Dennis, as the old man sprang to his side, touched the stud, and the room was suffused with the soft electric light, showing the two adversaries, not a couple of yards apart, and Marion clinging to her brother’s arm, Chester just behind.
James Clareborough burst into a yell of mocking laughter.
“Picture – tableau – curtain!” he roared. “End of Act the Second, gentlemen. Loud cries for author and heroine. A success – a success! Marion, my charming, sweet, chaste, innocent cousin, I congratulate you. Beautifully done. Doctor, I salute you. Brave, honourable, noble, frank, winner of the heroine’s love – what a happy combination of gallantry and business! I presume that, vulture-like, you scented carrion, and came for another job; but sweet, innocent Marion here was premature. Marion, beloved one; caught here in the dark! Oh, fie!”
“Curse you! hold your mocking tongue!” cried Robert, fiercely. “You, Chester, how came you here?”
“Ha-ha-ha!” cried James Clareborough, “what a question! Our sweet Marion.”
“Hound! Speak of my sister in that way again, and I’ll fire.”
“Bah!” retorted his cousin, contemptuously, and, without heeding him, he turned to Chester, covered him with his pistol, and in a low, fierce growl bade him sit down in the nearest chair.
Chester did not stir.
“Once more, you meddling idiot, sit down!” cried James Clareborough, menacingly, and Marion sprang from her brother’s side to stand between them.
“Very well, I can wait. Now, all of you, our plans are known. Like a set of idiots, we have sat smoking and babbling before this fool, who could not be content with his last visit, but must intrude again, play the spy, and suffer for his knowledge. Uncle – Dennis, my lad, you agree with me?”
No one spoke, but the three others stood gazing fiercely at the interloper.
“Now, Rob,” continued James Clareborough, “our quarrels can keep. Act the man. You see how we stand – you know what is at stake for all. Dr Chester, you are our prisoner again. Now – quick!”
Pistol in hand, he took a step forward, the others following his example, and Chester sprang towards the fireplace to seize the poker, while Marion tried to throw herself between him and his enemies.
The efforts of both were in vain. The professor baulked the brave woman’s effort. He swung her lightly towards the window and joined the others, who, in spite of a brave struggle, easily mastered Chester and got him down, after they had swayed here and there close by the locked door.
“Now,” said James Clareborough, pistol in hand, as Dennis knelt upon the prostrate man’s chest, Robert and the professor each holding an arm. “You will lie still, doctor, or you will force me to prescribe. You see that the situation is critical – Ha! Marion! Come away!”
He pointed his weapon at the window, but Marion did not stir. She had sprung to it while they were occupied with their prisoner, swung open the heavy shutters, and the window had yielded silently, leaving the room open to the street. Then she had reached out, holding on by the lower bar of the sash, but turned her head to look back.
“Now,” she cried wildly, “fire if you dare! Fred Chester! Here. Rob, help him, for my sake. Ah! keep back, or I shriek for the police.”
Chapter Thirty One.
“Sauve Qui Peut.”
Marion, in her desperation, thoroughly now at bay and fierce in her reckless determination to save her lover’s life, uttered her warning words to James Clareborough, who had been stealing round the table to spring at her.
“What’s the matter, ma’am?” cried a gruff voice at the area railings, and Marion turned to see, to her horror, the sturdy figure of a helmeted constable. “Fight? Pistols? All right.” A piercing whistle rang out, and the man signalled with his arm, while the passers-by began to stop and collect.
“Curse her! she has done it,” cried James Clareborough, savagely, and he was in the act of taking aim at the trembling woman, when the pistol was struck up by Robert.
“All right,” said the scoundrel, without resenting the act, and thrusting the pistol into his pocket. “The game’s up, gentlemen – sauve qui peut.”
Robert had passed him by this time, caught his sister’s hand, and meeting with no resistance, he drew her from the window, shut and fastened it, and closed the shutters again, just as a loud peal was heard at the door bell.
The next minute Chester was at her side, the library door unlocked, and his other assailants gone.
“He’s right,” said Robert, hoarsely; “the game is up, Marion, and it is sauve qui peut.”
“You villain!” cried Chester, excitedly.
“That will do, doctor,” said Robert, coolly. “She’s fainting; help me to get her away. Poor old girl! she loved me,” he continued, kissing his sister’s ghastly face, “and she did it to save you, not to hand me over to the police. One moment. Hold her; I’ll be back directly.”
Chester caught the half-fainting burden willingly, and glanced after the young man as he darted from the room.
“Gone,” muttered Chester. “Marion, look up, love; we are safe. They have escaped.”
“Now then,” cried Robert Clareborough, returning; “I have slipped the bolts, and it will take them an hour to break in. Come!”
“Come! Where?” cried Chester angrily.
“Where you will, doctor, only we must escape from here. The others are off, and I must go and help save the rest. You don’t wish to see her in the hands of the police, appearing against her brother and his confederates?”
“God help me, no!” cried Chester.
“Come along, then, man. It’s all over now. I knew it must come. Doctor, you saved my life. I must trust you. I know you love her, and that she loves you. I trust her to your honour as a gentleman.”
“You may,” said Chester, “and – ”
“Don’t talk, man. Come while the way is open. They’ll break in, as sure as we are here. Come.”
Chester lifted Marion in his arms and bore her toward the door, Robert Clareborough having caught up the doctor’s hat, and led the way into the hall, where the police were thundering at the door; and then downstairs, where sounds were heard from the area, as if someone was trying the door there.
“Shall I take her?” said Robert, as they reached the lower passage.
“No; I can carry her easily.”
“This way, then,” and to Chester’s astonishment he turned into the short passage at the end of which was the ordinary-looking door.
“Humph! shut,” he said, with a bitter laugh. “Jem’s parting act of kindness; he must have been the last.”
“Where does that door lead?” cried Chester, as Marion uttered a sigh indicative of recovery.
“To safety, doctor,” said the young man, sadly. “Foxes always have a second hole, and a way of using it.”
He drew a key from his pocket, flung open the door, and made room for his companion to bear his sister into the square lobby, which was littered with wedges, the powder tin, pistols, keys, hammer, and the other contents of the portmanteau standing in one corner, while in one spot a quantity of sawdust seemed to have been spilled.
All was plainly seen by a bright reflected light which shone out from the small glass bulb in the ceiling, shedding a strange glow, while the odour of exploded powder struck on Chester’s nostrils at once.
As soon as they were inside, Robert calmly drew the door close, and just then Marion opened her eyes and looked wildly from one to the other.
“Where am I?” she said faintly.
“Where you have never been before, sis, but quite safe,” replied her brother. “There, don’t look like that; the doctor and I are friends.”
“Ah, I remember now,” she cried wildly, and she struggled to her feet, and seized her brother’s arms. “Oh, Rob, what have I done?”
“The best thing you ever did in your life. I am glad it has come to an end; but I must be off. I can’t face the dock. Too great a coward, I suppose, dear. There, God bless you! I hope you’ll be very happy now.”
“No, no, Rob! I cannot leave you.”
“Eh?” he said, smiling bitterly, as he took out another key. “Yes; he has promised me, dear, and he is as true as steel. There, I trust him, and you feel as if you can. Take her somewhere, doctor, where the police cannot find her out. She’s innocent enough, but no one would believe. Come, we may as well get right away, though I suppose it would be hours before they could get through here. I never thought I should some day be showing you our secrets, sis,” he continued lightly; “certainly not to Dr Chester. There we are.”
He had thrust the small bright key he had held into the lock of the iron door, and turned it, the bolts yielding easily in spite of the grit of powder still left in; and clinging now to Chester’s arm as the door was swung open, Marion, at a word from her brother, stepped forward into the iron-floored receptacle, then he followed and closed the door behind him with a sharp metallic clang.
In the demoralisation which had ensued it had been undoubtedly sauve qui peut, only one of the party seeming to think of anyone else. This was the old professor, who hurried upstairs, unlocked the chamber door, and brought down his wife, who proved well enough to follow him.
The result was that when Robert Clareborough, to Chester’s wonderment, hurried his companions through passage and crypt, and up again into the book-cumbered house, all was perfectly still, the dusty place looking as if it had not had a soul therein for years.
“This way, Marion,” said Robert, coolly. “Poor old uncle! he will break his heart about leaving his books; pretty choice, too, some of them.”
There was no reply, and he led sister and doctor out through the back door, down a weed-grown, desolate-looking garden, and into the stables at the bottom, the entrance being open.
“Now then,” he said, “you must lose no time. Once out in the mews, make for the street, and you are safe. Good-bye, Marion dear.”
“No, no, Robert!” cried Marion, flinging her arms about his neck; “you are still weak and ill. I cannot leave you.”
“You prefer to go with me?” said the young man, smiling.
“Ah, well, it’s very good of you, old darling, but you can’t; perhaps in an hour I shall be in a police cell.”
“True enough, old girl; and if I am, with the knowledge that you are arrested too, I shall make an end of myself.”
“Oh no, no, no!”
“But I shall. You know me. I don’t make empty threats. Listen: you must escape. Jem and Paddy are on the way to the station by now, to fetch those two away from The Towers. Be sensible, and we shall all get away. You will obey me, dear?”
“I always have, Rob.”
“Then go with the doctor. We’ll trust him. Now, not a word. If you keep me still talking, we shall have the police round here at the back, and be all taken before we can get away. Chester, I trust you, even if I am a scoundrel. Now then, out in the mews, and walk together. Take no notice of me, and don’t think I am forsaking you, Marion. I must go, or you will be taken too.”
Chester took Marion’s hand and drew it through his arm, as he stepped out into the mews, and making a desperate effort to preserve her calmness, the trembling girl walked steadily by his side as they made for the end of the place, Robert Clareborough passing them coolly enough on the other side, lighting a cigar as he walked on fairly fast.
Just as Robert reached the end of the mews, a dozen yards in front of them, Marion started as if a sudden spasm had shot through her, for a couple of policemen suddenly turned the corner, hesitated as they saw him and seemed about to stop, but the young man’s coolness saved him. For just as they were hesitating he turned off the narrow pavement into the road and crossed diagonally toward them.
“Can you direct me to Vincent Square?” he said.
One of the constables gave the route, with the firsts and seconds to right and left, and as Chester and Marion were passing, the young man said shortly – “Thanks, I see,” and they heard his step behind, while the police continued their way down the mews.
“I’ll take a cab as soon as we get a little farther away. Try and be calm,” whispered Chester. “Your brother has escaped.”
“Is – is he followed?” said Marion, faintly.
“No; his coolness saved him. The police have gone on down the mews, but I dare not look round to see if they are on our track.”
She made no reply, but hung more heavily upon his arm, while he tried hard to recover his own composure and think out what was best to be done under the circumstances.
His first thought had been to take a cab, but feeling that they might still be watched, or, if not, that the various cabmen about would be questioned as to whom they took up close to the mews, or else, upon the matter getting into the papers, that they might volunteer the information, he decided to make first for the railway, and with Marion hanging more and more heavily upon his arm he led her out into the main street, nodded to the first passing cab-driver, and said, “Victoria.”
“Where are you taking me?” said Marion, faintly, as he sank back beside her.
“Where you will be safe,” he replied, pressing her hand. “You have promised to trust me, so sit still and take no heed of the way I take you. I don’t think we are watched, but it is impossible to say.”
He heard her draw her breath painfully, and as he glanced sideways he could read in her face the effort she was making.
She saw that he was watching her, and met his eyes firmly.
“Do you think Rob will escape?” she asked.
“I feel sure that he will. The police did not know him by sight. But he was only just in time. A few seconds more, and he – we – must have been taken.”
She was silent for a time, and then she said bitterly, “I ought not to have left him, poor fellow! It was cowardly at such a time.”
“You did quite right,” said Chester, firmly. “Your presence would have been a hindrance to him in his endeavours to escape, and for your sake, horrible as all this is, I hope he will get right away.”
“But I ought not to have left him,” sighed Marion, and further conversation ceased, for the cab stopped and they entered the station.
Here Chester took tickets for Kensington. Then he crossed to the other side of the line, and took tickets back right to the City, and leaving the station there, plunged with his companion amongst the busy throng which filled the streets, and finally, feeling pretty confident that they were not followed, he ended by taking a cab to Raybeck Square.
Marion started as she heard the address given, and there was a look of reproach in her eyes as she said once more —
“Where are you taking me?”
“Where I believe you will be safe,” he said gravely; “to my aunt and sister, who will welcome you as the lady who will be my wife.”
“Your wife! Oh no, no, no!” she said sadly. “That is impossible now.”
“Why?” he whispered tenderly.
“Why?” she cried. “Did you hear? Can you not see how I am linked with those who are flying from justice? Heaven help me! I ought to be with them still.”
“Hush!” he said gently; “you are wildly excited now. Your brain is not in a condition to think calmly and dispassionately of your position. It may be days before it recovers its balance. Till then, Marion, try and think this one thing – that you are watched over by one to whom your honour and safety are more than his own life. Marion, my own – my very own – let the past be dead; the future shall be my care.”
She sighed piteously and shivered, as she lay back in the corner of the cab, and, startled by her manner, he hurriedly took her hand.
She shrank back, looking wildly at him, till she fully realised his object, and then with a weary smile upon her lip she resigned her hand.
“You are utterly prostrated by the shock of what you have gone through,” he said gravely. “We shall not be long now. Try – try hard to be calm. The distance is very short, and then you will feel safe and soon grow composed.”
She gave him a grateful look, and then closed her eyes, lying back with her face ghastly pale, and the nerves at the sides of her temples and the corners of her lips twitching sharply at times, as if she were in pain.
But she sat up when the cab stopped, and gave Chester her hand as she alighted, and walked with him up the steps and into the house.
As the door closed she turned to him wildly and tottered slightly, but when he made a movement to catch her in his arms, she shrank away, and he drew back and offered his hand.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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