Leaving Dickon in trembling perplexity and alarm, he stole forward on tiptoe towards the house.
At the foot of the wall lay a flower bed, now bare and black, separated by a gravel path from a low shrubbery of laurel. Behind this latter Desmond stole, screened from observation by the bushes. Coming to a spot exactly opposite the ladder, he saw that it rested on the sill of the library window, which was open. The library itself was dark, but there was still a dull glow in the next room. At the foot of the ladder stood a man.
The meaning of it all was plain. The large sum of money recently received by Sir Willoughby as rents had tempted someone to rob him. The robber must have learned that the money was kept in the strong room; and it argued either considerable daring or great ignorance to have timed his visit for an hour when anyone familiar with the squire’s habits would have known that he would not yet have retired to rest.
Desmond was about to run round to the other side of the house and rouse the squire, when the dim light in the strong room was suddenly extinguished. Apparently the confederate of the man below had secured his booty and was preparing to return. Desmond remained fixed to the spot, in some doubt what to do. He might call to Dickon and make a rush on the man before him, but the laborer was old and feeble, and the criminal was no doubt armed. A disturber would probably be shot, and though the shot would alarm the household, the burglars would have time to escape in the darkness. Save Sir Willoughby himself, doubtless every person in the house was by this time abed and asleep.
It seemed best to Desmond to send Dickon for help while he himself still mounted guard. Creeping silently as a cat along the shrubbery, he hastened back to the laborer, told him in a hurried whisper of his discovery, and bade him steal round to the servants’ quarters, rouse them quietly, and bring one or two to trap the man at the foot of the ladder while others made a dash through the library upon the marauder in the strong room. Dickon, whose wits were nimbler than his legs, understood what he was to do and slipped away, Desmond returning to his coign of vantage as noiselessly as he came.
He was just in time to see that a heavy object, apparently a box, was being lowered from the library window on to the ladder. Sliding slowly down, it came to the hands of the waiting man; immediately afterwards the rope by which it had been suspended was dropped from above, and the dark figure of a man mounted the sill.
He already had one leg over, preparing to descend, when Desmond, with a sudden rush, dashed through the shrubs and sprang across the path. The confederate was stooping over the booty; his back was towards the shrubbery; at the snapping of twigs and the crunching of the gravel he straightened himself and turned. Before he was aware of what was happening, Desmond caught at the ladder by the lowest rung, and jerked it violently outwards so that its top fell several feet below the windowsill, resting on the wall out of reach of the man above.