Read CHAPTER TWENTY NINE - Light in darkness. of Blind Policy , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

As Chester turned to face what he knew must prove to be a desperate encounter, Marion snatched at his wrist.

“Quick!” she whispered, and hurried with him through a door on their right, which led into a library with two windows facing the street; but the shutters were closed and the place was dimly lit by four diamond-shaped holes cut in their top panels, each of which sent a broad white ray across the room, to strike upon the end nearest the door, and to avoid their light Marion led him quickly close up into one corner by the window curtain.

They had hardly taken refuge there, to stand close together, when a hand struck the panel a sharp pat, and gave the door, which had gently swung to, a thrust which sent it back against the stop.

“Come in here,” said James Clareborough in a low, surly voice; and Chester felt his companion shiver, and the blood surged to his brain as he dimly saw the shadowy figures of four men enter the room, three of whom took chairs and threw themselves into them, the other standing against a book-case with a dull patch of light from the window shutters striking full upon his breast, about which his hand kept on playing nervously.

It seemed to Chester that it was only a matter of moments before they would be seen; but so far the party were unconscious of their presence, and a couple of dull red spots of light waxed and waned as the aromatic fumes of cigar smoke began to pervade the room.

“Throw open one of the shutters, uncle,” cried James Clareborough, hoarsely.

“No, no,” half shouted a voice which Chester recognised at once as that of his old patient.

“What!  Why?” cried James Clareborough, and the violent throbbing of Chester’s heart grew less painful as he heard Robert Clareborough’s reply ­

“Because if ever men wanted the darkness it is now.”

It was a respite, for no one uttered a word for a few moments.  Then in a low, angry voice, James Clareborough spoke again, and, with his every nerve on the strain, Chester noted that he took his glowing cigar from his lips and held it down between his knees.

“Curse them!  Who would ever have thought of the fools attempting that?”

“Where’s your wife, uncle?” said a voice which made the hand with which Marion clung to Chester’s wrist give a slight twitch.

“Upstairs, lying down, my boy,” said another voice, and it was Chester’s turn to start as he recognised it as one he had heard before, though he could not make out where.

“Is she much hurt?” said Robert Clareborough.

“More frightened than hurt,” said the same voice.  “Of course it is a terrible shock.”

“Horrible!  Here, this must be the end of it.  What do you say, Paddy?”

“Confound it! yes.  I’m sick.”

“Will you stop this cursed preaching, Rob?” snarled James Clareborough.  “You fools!  You know there can be no end to it.  What are you talking about?  It was their own fault.”

“Ah!” ejaculated Rob in a tone which made his sister shiver.

“Look here,” continued James Clareborough; “are you two going to show the white feather?  Take the case fairly, Paddy.  Suppose this had been at The Towers in the night, and we came upon a couple of scoundrels ­ with revolvers, mind! ­carrying off the girls’ jewellery, would either of you have hesitated about firing?”

“I suppose not,” said Dennis, heavily, “but it seemed such cold-blooded work.”

“Been more cold-blooded if they had dropped us two.  Now, then, no nonsense; let’s look the matter straight in the face.  One thing is enough at a time.  We can discuss Rob’s ideas of a dissolution of partnership later on,” was added, with a sneer.  “Now, uncle; what about their coming?  We had better have the old lady down.”

“No, let her be; she can tell you no more than I can.  They must have asked for leave to come up as you were all away, and come straight here ready to pitch some tale, and your aunt unsuspectingly let them in.  They must have set upon her, tied her fast, and carried her down.”

“Must, must, must!” cried James Clareborough, impatiently.  “You were not here.”

“No, boy, but it tells its own tale.  Arthur was dressed as if for a holiday, and the other fool too.”

“But what did it mean?” said Rob, hoarsely; “suspicion ­an effort to find out ­or robbery?”

“Robbery, my boy, for certain.  They thought that they would get at the girls’ jewellery.”

“Yes, that’s it,” said James Clareborough, sharply; “an interrupted burglary.  Curse them!  They had all the professional tools.  Well, they won’t want them any more.”

Marion started, and Chester passed his arm round her as he felt her trembling violently.  For something like light was beginning to dawn upon her ­a light which grew clearer as the thought of the butler asking leave for him and the footman to have a day in town, to see to some business, as the gentlemen were away.  That morning at breakfast, and now ­

The light was growing hard, clear and ghastly.

“Now, then,” said James Clareborough, sharply, “let’s look the position in the face.  Everything turns upon whether anyone knows beside ourselves that the hounds came here.”

“Yes, everything,” assented the voice which puzzled Chester still.  “Would anyone know?”

“Is it likely?” said James, cynically.  “They were coming on a burglarious expedition; they began by half killing the poor old aunt, and they were trapped trying to blow open the iron door.  Is it probable that they would tell anyone they were coming here?”

“No; absurd,” said Dennis, shortly.

“But still ­”

“Will you hold your tongue, Rob?” cried his cousin.  “Do you think they would have spoken?”

“No.”

“Then we’re safe in that direction,” continued James Clareborough.  “The next question is, then, did anyone who knew them see them come to the house?  The odds are a million to one that no one did, for they would take pretty good care that their faces were not seen as they stood waiting.  Besides, where does the inquiry begin?  Down yonder.  We were away; they ask for a holiday of my wife; she gives them leave; and they come away and do not return.  Their relatives, if the poor devils have any, may make inquiry, but it is doubtful.  I daresay we shall find that the scoundrels have been plundering us, and at the worst we could prove this.  There it is in a nut-shell.  They have disappeared like hundreds more, and the world will never be any wiser.”

A chill of horror ran through Chester as he listened to all this, and he was conscious that his companion hung more heavily upon his arm, as if about to faint.

The pale, ghastly light was growing broader and clearer now, and as he grasped the fact that he was being made the recipient of the acknowledgment of a terrible deed, he felt strongly, knowing as he did the character of one of the men present, how perilous his position was growing.  A few minutes more, he had strung himself up for a sharp encounter with the relatives who had, as it were, surprised them in a secret meeting.  There would, he felt, be angry words, there might be blows, but the Clareboroughs would not dare to proceed farther.  Now matters had assumed a dangerous shape, and his thoughts went towards the fireplace as he felt that the necessity might arise for him to defend himself and his companion ­one against four.

His heart beat fast, but mingled with the feelings of alarm which would assail the stoutest in such a position, he felt thrill after thrill of delight.  For Marion clung more tightly to him, as if trusting to his protection, and he mentally swore that he would protect her, come what might.

His thoughts came fast, but he had little time for musing; and as his arm tightened round his companion he listened eagerly for the next utterances of those who were grouped together some twenty feet away.

“Well,” said James Clareborough, after a pause, “what have you all to say to that?”