Read CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE - The collector wakes up. of Blind Policy , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

Professor Westcott, next door, had another consignment that morning.  The London and North Western Railway Company’s men called with their van and a way-bill to deliver two chests from Birmingham, weighing over two hundredweight each, both strongly screwed up and roped, and a smaller line round them, carefully-sealed: ­“Books; with great care.  To be kept dry.”

There were two men with the van, and a boy, the former making very light of the heavy chests as they lifted them off the tail-board of the vehicle, while the professor stood blinking on the steps in his big spectacles, his grey hair hanging down long from beneath a black velvet skull-cap, and his rusty dressing-gown, tied on anyhow, reaching nearly to his heels.

“Rum old owl, Joe,” said one of the men.  “This makes six chesties I’ve delivered since Christmas.”

“Books?” said the other.  “Yes, books.  The old buffer’s got his house chock-full of ’em from top to bottom, I should say.  You’ll see when we get in; he’ll ask us to carry ’em downstairs.”

“All right, mate; I don’t mind if its anywheres near the beer cellar.”

“Well, it ain’t, Tom, and so I tell you.  I’ve delivered boxes o’ books to him for years now, and I never see a glass o’ ale yet.”

“Stingy old hunks!  I say, we ain’t ’bliged to carry ’em farther then the front door.  That’s delivering.”

“Yes, that’s delivering, mate, but you’re allus in such a hurry.  I was going to say you get no beer, but he’ll be as civil as treacle, and stand rubbing his hands and telling yer to mind and not break the glass in the book-cases as you passes; and when you’ve done he twinkles at you through them Chinee-looking specs of his, and crooks his finger, and beckons you to follow him into the front room, as is full of books.  Then he brings out a little glass and a bottle of the most heavenly old sperrets you ever tasted.  Tlat!  I can taste it yet.  Talk about cordial ­why, it’s enough to make you say you’ll never have a glass in a pub. again.”

“Well, lay hold,” said Tom, sharply; “look alive!  Can’t you see the gentleman’s a-waiting?”

The head van-man chuckled, and together they lifted in chest Number 1, the professor smiling and looking deeply interested.

“On the mat, if you please,” he said, “and when you have carried in the other, I should be very much obliged if you would take them both downstairs, where I can open them without making a mess.”

“Suttunly, sir,” said Tom, and they set down Number 1 and went after Number 2, upon which the boy sat, drumming the side with his heels.

“Right, Tommy?”

“Right you are, mate.”  And the men went on with their task muttering ­

“Don’t see how it would make a mess if they were opened in the front passage.  Long time since there’s been a broom there.”

“See the spiders too?”

“No, but I saw the webs.”

“But what does he do with all these books?  He can’t read ’em all.”

“Collects ’em, I should say.  Steady!  Got it?”

“Right!” and the second chest was carried in.  “One moment while I shut the door,” said the professor, rubbing his hands; “then I’ll show you the way.  Now then, please; mind the book-cases as you pass.  It is rather dark.  Very heavy, I suppose?”

“Oh, tidy, sir.  Nothing to signify.  Books is heavy things.”

“Yes, very heavy, my good man.  That’s right, through this door, and down these stone stairs.  I’m afraid you find it very heavy.”

“Oh, we’re all right, sir.  Used to it,” grunted Tom.  “We’re always lifting things in or out; but we has a good rest between, sir, and rides about in the company’s carriage.”

“Down there, please, under that window, where I can see to unpack them.  Thank you.”

The two men went up the stone staircase again, noting the empty chests and book-cases with which the walls were lined, and above all the dust of years collected thickly.  Then the second chest was carried down, and the quaint-looking old gentleman smiled and made his round-glassed spectacles twinkle as they reached the hall.

“I must sign the paper and pay you, my men,” he said; and then in a drily comical way he crooked his right index finger, and beckoned to them to follow him into the gloomy book-lined dining-room, where he signed the delivery book, paid the carriage, and then took a bottle from a cellarette and a glass from a closet under a book-case, and poured out for the men, while they tossed off the rich spirit in turn.

“That’s prime, sir,” said the first man.

“’Eavenly,” sighed Tom.

“Old and good, my men.  I’m glad you like it.  It’s soft and mellow, and will not hurt you.  Have another glass?”

“Hurt yer, sir!” said the second man, with a sigh; “that stuff wouldn’t hurt a babby.”

It did not hurt him when it came to his turn.  To use his own figurative way of speaking, he only made one bite at it, and then glanced at the black bottle as if it were a little idol which ought to be worshipped, before following his leader out into the hall, the old professor closing the door after them and immediately after, drawing himself up straight, taking off his goggle glasses and thrusting them into his pocket, looking now a keen-eyed, elderly man, with the sharp, yellow-tinged face of a New Englander.

Going back with a firm step into the dining-room, and with the weak old stooping manner entirely wanting, he took a fresh glass from the closet, filled it and tossed off the contents.

“Hah! yes, that is a good glass of brandy,” he muttered; and taking a cigar from the same receptacle he lit up and began to smoke, as he seated himself at a table, drew forward a blotter, and spent some time reading and writing letters, before throwing himself upon an old well-worn couch and going off into sleep which lasted a couple of hours.

He woke and in the most business-like way went downstairs into the basement, where from a cupboard he took a large screw-driver, walked to the chests, cut the ropes, and carefully examined the seals attached to the lesser cords before disturbing them.  Then, apparently satisfied, he cut these in turn, and began to take out the screws from the lid of the first chest.

He had reached the last screw when he suddenly stopped short and stood listening.  The next minute he had walked to the end of the passage, to stand listening again, till apparently satisfied, he went into a dark corner and pulled at a knob as if ringing a bell.  Then he went sharply back to the chests, laid down the screw-driver, and hurried up the stairs to the dining-room with all the activity of a man of forty.

Here he went to a book-case and took down an ancient-looking massive tome, laid it upon the table, lifted the cover, and showed that it was only an imitation book, the cover proving to be the lid of a box in which lay a mahogany case, from which he drew out a small revolver, and after examining its six chambers to see if they were loaded, he carefully concealed it in the breast of the vest he wore beneath the old dressing-gown.

Then the spectacles were resumed, and the slow, stooping, aged aspect came over him, as he went into the hall, threw off his dressing-gown and took an old-fashioned coat from a peg, donned it, and then completed his old-world aspect with a quaint broad-brimmed hat.

He looked the most peaceable of elderly gentlemen as he took a baggy umbrella from the stand, went out, closed the door after him, walked slowly along by the area railings for a few steps, and then turned up the steps to the Clareboroughs’ door, passing into the hall so quickly that it seemed as if the door was opened from the inside, though anyone who had watched would have seen that there was a very quick, clever application of a latch-key.

His movements now were slow, deliberate and silent.  He laid down umbrella and hat upon a table, and, apparently quite at home, went from room to room on the ground floor before ascending to the drawing-rooms; but finding no one, he went a floor higher and then descended to the hall, where from the top of the stairs he stood listening to the hammering going on below.

For some time he seemed undecided how to act, but at last he was in the act of descending, when steps below made him retreat, and he stepped back, listening, and hearing Roach go into the pantry.  The next minute the man began to ascend, and as actively as a cat, and with as silent a step, the professor ran to the foot of the grand staircase and bounded up to the drawing-room floor, ensconced himself behind a heavy curtain which draped one of the doors, and made out that whoever it was reached the hall and went into dining-room, library, study, lobby and morning-room, before he went back to the stairs and descended once more to the basement.

The professor was after him directly, and at the head of the stairs in time to hear Roach come out of the pantry again, and the chink of a glass against a bottle.

He descended the gloomy stairs by slow degrees, listening the while to the work going on, and hearing the sound of tools, the whisperings, and after a long period of waiting and another forced retreat when Roach went again to the pantry to make sure the housekeeper was safe, he finally stood thinking.

“Someone who knows the place well,” he said to himself.  “Quite at home.  Where can the old woman be?  They can’t have killed her.”

He raised one hand quickly to his breast, as the thought sent a thrill through him, and taking advantage of a busy time when tools clinked and voices whispering were heard, he stole right down, stepped cautiously along the passage, and then darted into the first open doorway, for there was an impatient utterance from somewhere ahead, and he felt that he was on the point of being discovered.  But the work went on again, and he glanced round, found that he was in the butler’s pantry, and saw at the same instant more ­the tightly-bound woman upon the table.

He was at her side in an instant, and as he bent over her the wild eyes were opened and gazed intently in his.

There was no occasion for him to raise his finger to his lips, for the old housekeeper, as the tapping went on, gave him a meaning look and jerked her head side-wise, before lying perfectly still again.

The professor nodded sharply, tapped his breast, and then drew a pen-knife from his pocket, with whose keen blade he quickly divided the rope which bound hands and feet.  Then, pressing his finger to his lips once more, he went silently out of the pantry, followed by the housekeeper’s eyes, as breathing hard she watched him and then lay perfectly still with her face contracted by pain and dread, waiting for the denouement.

It was long in coming, for the professor’s movements were slow and cautious in the extreme.  But there was to be no more retreat.  He did not know who were there for some time, but he was ready to meet the enemy, whoever it might be.

At last he was in a position from which he could peer round the angle where the passage turned sharply, and as he gazed into the lobby a few yards off, where Roach directed the light of the bull’s-eye lantern with quivering hand, his own trembled and the revolver he held shook when it was raised again and again to take aim.

At last a grim smile of satisfaction tightened his lips into a line, for he saw his opportunity.

In the very nick of time, after stealing close up, he threw himself forward, and with one heavy thrust drove the butler forward over his companion, banged to the door and locked it, bringing out the key, before he retreated and turned the corner to listen for the explosion which did not come.

“Light went out, I suppose,” he muttered.  “Pity too.  Pleasanter for others, and it would have been accidental.”

He thrust back the revolver, placed the key in his pocket, and without stopping hurried into the pantry.

“Got them ­safe,” he said, and ran upstairs to the handsome library, where he unlocked a cabinet, touched a button and waited for a minute, before a little weird voice answered ­

“Who is it?”

He gave his number to the questioner, and asked to be switched on to X987654321.

In a few minutes, in obedience to the modern magic of the telephone, there came another signal and question and satisfactory proof of identity, before the professor said sharply ­

“Krakatoa.  Come quick.”

“Hah!” sighed the operator, as he closed the little cabinet; “now for the old lady.  Is the danger scotched or killed?”

He hurried down to the pantry, to find that the housekeeper had not moved; and as soon as he reached her side, he took her in his arms, while hers feebly clasped his neck.

“My poor old darling!” he whispered tenderly.  “In much pain?”

“A good deal.  My ankles are numbed.  Is there any danger now?”

“Not for us, I think,” he said grimly.  “There, hold still, and I’ll carry you up to the library;” and lifting her from the table as easily as if she had been a mere girl, he bore her up the stairs and laid her upon a couch, kneeling afterwards by her side to chafe her ankles and wrists in turn, while she told him all that he did not know.

“What will you do now?” she said anxiously at last.

“Go on chafing my poor old darling’s ankles,” he said quietly.

“No, no; you know what I mean ­those two men.”

“Did anyone see them come, dear?”

“Not that I am aware of,” she replied.

“Humph!”

“Well, you do not speak.”

“Why should I?  It is not your business ­not entirely mine.  We must see what they say.”

“You have sent for them?”

“Of course; directly.  It is a vital question.”

“For us?”

“For them, I fear.”

The old woman shuddered.

“Why that?” he said quietly.  “Ought we to sympathise so much with burglars who stand at nothing?”

“But it is so horrible,” she whispered.

“It would be as horrible for us,” he said sharply; “and we are of more consequence than they.”

“But surely they will not ­”

“Kill them?  Possibly.  Something must be done to silence them.  It is their own doing, the scoundrels!  We cannot go to the wall.”

The old woman closed her eyes and sighed.

“God help us!” she said softly.  “Harry, I am getting very weary of my life now; it is so near the end.”

“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.”

“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.