Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

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"Don't try to talk," she begged - as she had begged him on the
night before. "Just sit back and rest."

"Even now, you don't get an inkling of it," he murmured.
"That shows how little they've taken you into their confidence.
They warned you against any one who might find the hidden path,
and they even armed you for such an emergency. Yet they never
told you the Law might possibly be crouching to spring on the
Standish place, quite as ferociously as those other people who
are in the secret and who want to rob Standish and Hade of the
loot! And, by the way," he went on, pettishly, still smarting
under his own renunciation, "tell Hade with my compliments that
if he had lived as long in Southern Florida as I have, he'd know
mocking birds don't sing here in mid-February, and he'd devise
some other signal to use when he comes ashore by way of that
path and wants to know if the coast is clear."

And now, forgetful of the shadowy course wherewith she was
guiding the boat toward the distant dock - forgetful of
everything - she dropped her hand from the steering wheel and
turned about, in crass astonishment, to gaze at him.

"What - what do you mean?" she queried. "You know about the
signal? - You - ?"

"I know far too little about any of the whole crooked
business!" he retorted, still enraged at his own quixotic
resolve. "That's what I was sent here to clean up, after a
dozen others failed. That's what I was put in charge of this
district for. That's what I could have found out - or seventy
per cent of it - if I'd had the sense not to stop you when you
started to tell me, just now."

"Mr. Brice," she said, utterly confused, "I don't understand
you at all. At first I was afraid that blow on the head, and
then this afternoon's terrible experiences, had turned your
wits. But you don't talk like a man who is delirious or sick.
And there are things you couldn't possibly know - that signal,
for instance - if you were what you seemed to be. You made me
think you were a stranger in Florida, - that you were down
here, penniless and out of work. Yet now you speak about some
mysterious 'job' that you are giving up. It's all such a
tangle! I can't understand."

Brice tried to ignore the pitiful pleading - the childlike
tremor in her sweet voice. But it cut to the soul of him.
And he replied, brusquely:

"I let you think I was a dead-broke work-hunter. I did that,
because I needed to get into your brother's house, to make
certain of things which we suspected but couldn't quite prove.
I am the ninth man, in the past two months, to try to get in
there. And I'm the second to succeed. The first couldn't
find out anything of use. He could only confirm some of our
ideas. That's the sort of a man he is. A fine subordinate,
but with no genius for anything else except to obey orders. I
was the only one of the nine, with brains, who could win any
foothold there. And now I'm throwing away all I gained,
because one girl happens to be too much of a child (or of a
saint) for me to lie to! I've reason to be proud of myself,
haven't I?"

"Who are you?" she asked, dully bewildered under his fierce
tirade of self-contempt. "Who are you? What are you?"

"I'm Gavin Brice," he said. "As I told you. But I'm also a
United States Secret Service official - which I didn't tell
you."

"No!" she stammered, shrinking back. "Oh, no!"

He continued, briskly:

"Your brother, and your snake-loving friend Rodney Hade, are
working a pretty trick on Uncle Sam. And the Federal
Government has been trying to block it for the past few
months. There are plenty of us down here, just now. But, up
to lately, nothing's been accomplished. That's why they sent
me. They knew I'd had plenty of experience in this region."

"Here? In Florida? But - "

"I spent all my vacations at my grandfather's place, below
Coconut Grove, when I was in school and in college and for a
while afterward, and I know this coast and the keys as well as
any outsider can, - even if I was silly enough to let my scow
run into a reef to-night, that wasn't here in my day. They
sent me to take charge of the job and to straighten out its
mixups and to try to win where the others had bungled. I was
doing it, too, - and it would have been a big feather in my
cap, at Washington, when my good sense went to pieces on a
reef named Claire Standish, - a reef I hadn't counted on, any
more than I counted on the reef that stove in my scow, an hour
ago."

She strove to speak. The words died in her parched throat.
Brice went on:

"I've always bragged that I'm woman-proof. I'm not. No man
is. I hadn't met the right woman. That was all. If you'd
been of the vampire type or the ordinary kind, I could have
gone on with it, without turning a hair. If you'd been mixed
up in any of the criminal part of it at all - as I and all of
us supposed you must be - I'd have had no scruples about using
any information I could get from you. But - well, tonight, out
here, all at once I understood what I'd been denying to myself
ever since I met you. And I couldn't go on with it. You'll
be certain to suffer from it, in any case. But I'm strong
enough at the Department to persuade them you're innocent.
I - "

"Do you mean," she stammered, incredulously, finding hesitant
words at last, "Do you mean you're a - a spy? That you came to
our house - that you ate our bread - with the idea of learning
secrets that might injure us? That you - ? Oh!" she burst
forth in swift revulsion, "I didn't know any one could be
so - so vile! I - "

"Wait!" he commanded, sharply, wincing nevertheless under the
sick scorn in her voice and words. "You have no right to say
that. I am not a spy. Or if I am, then every police officer
and every detective and every cross-examining lawyer is a spy!
I am an official in the United States Secret Service. I, and
others like me, try to guard the welfare of our country and to
expose or thwart persons who are that country's enemies or who
are working to injure its interests. If that is being a spy,
then I'm content to be one. I - "

"If you are driven to such despicable work by poverty," she
said, unconsciously seeking excuse for him, "if it is the only
trade you know - then I suppose you can't help - "

"No," he said, unwilling to let her gain even this false
impression. "My grandfather, who brought me up - who owned the
place I spoke of, near Coconut Grove - left me enough to live
on in pretty fair comfort. I could have been an idler if I
chose. I didn't choose. I wanted work. And I wanted
adventure. That was why I went into the Secret Service. I
stayed in it till I went overseas, and I came back to it after
the war. I wasn't driven into it by poverty. It's an
honorable profession. There are hundreds of honorable men in
it. You probably know some of them. They are in all walks of
life, from Fifth Avenue to the slums. They are working
patriotically for the welfare of the land they love, and they
are working for pitifully small reward. It is not like the
Secret Service of Germany or of oldtime Russia. It upholds
Democracy, not Tyranny. And I'm proud to be a member of it.
At least, I was. Now, there is nothing left to me but to
resign. It - "

"You haven't even the excuse of poverty!" she exclaimed,
confusedly. "And you have not even the grace to feel ashamed
for - for your black ingratitude in tricking us into giving you
shelter and - "

"I think I paid my bill for that, to some slight extent," was
his dry rejoinder. "But for my 'trickery,' your half-brother
would be dead, by now. As for 'ingratitude,' how about the
trick he served me, today? Even if he didn't know Hade had
smuggled across a bagful of his pet moccasins to Roke, yet he
let me be trapped into that - "

"It's only in the Devil's Ledger, that two wrongs make a
right!" she flamed. "I grant my brother treated you
abominably. But his excuse was that your presence might ruin
his great ambition in life. Your only excuse for doing what
you have done is the - the foul instinct of the man-hunt.
The - "

"The criminal-hunt," he corrected her, trying not to writhe
under her hot contempt. "The enemy-to-man hunt, if you like.
Your half-brother - "

"My brother is not a criminal!" she cried, furiously. "You have
no right to say so. He has committed no crime. He has broken no
law."

Again he looked down, searchingly, into her angry little face,
as it confronted him so fiercely in the starlight. And he
knew she was sincere.

"Miss Standish," he said, slowly. "You believe you are
telling the truth. Your half-brother understood you too well
to let you know what he was really up to. He and Hade
concocted some story - I don't know what - to explain to you the
odd things going on in and around your home. You are
innocent. And you are ignorant. It cuts me like a knife to
have to open your eyes to all this. But, in a very few days,
at most, you are bound to know."

"If you think I'll believe a word against my brother - especially
from a self-confessed spy - "

"No?" said Gavin. "And you're just as sure of Rodney Hade's
noble uprightness as of your brother's?"


"I'm not defending Rodney Hade," said Claire. "He is nothing
to me, one way or the other. He - "

"Pardon me," interposed Brice. "He is a great deal to you.
You hate him and you are in mortal fear of him."

"If you spied that out, too - "

"I did," he admitted. "I did it, in the half-minute I saw you
and him together, last evening. I saw a look in your eyes - I
heard a tone in your voice - as you turned to introduce me to
him - that told me all I needed to know. And, incidentally, it
made me want to smash him. Apart from that - well, the
Department knows a good deal about Rodney Hade. And it
suspects a great deal more. It knows, among minor things,
that he schemed to make Milo Standish plunge so heavily on
certain worthless stocks that Standish went broke and in
desperation raised a check of Hade's (and did it rather badly,
as Hade had foreseen he would, when he set the trap) - in order
to cover his margins. It - "

"No!" she cried, in wrathful refusal to believe. "That is not
true. It can't be true! It is a - "

"Hade holds a mortgage on everything Standish owns," resumed
Brice, "and he has held that raised check over him as a
prison-menace. He - "

"Stop!" demanded Claire, ablaze with righteous indignation.
"If you have such charges to make against my brother, are you
too much of a coward to come to his house with me, now, and
make them to his face? Are you?"

"No," he said, without a trace of unwillingness or of bravado.
"I am not. I'll go there, with you, gladly. In the meantime - "

"In the meantime," she caught him up, "please don't speak to
me. And please sit in the other end of the boat, if you don't
mind. The air will be easier to breathe if - "

"Certainly," he assented, making his way to the far end of the
launch, while she seized the neglected steering wheel again.
"And I am sorrier than I can say, that I have had to tell you
all this. If it were not that you must know it, soon, anyway,
I'd have bitten my tongue out, sooner than make you so
unhappy. Please believe that, won't you?"

There was an earnest depth of contrition in his voice that
checked the icy retort she had been about to make. And,
emboldened by her silence, he went on:

"Hade needed your brother and the use of your brother's house
and land. He needed them, imperatively, for the scheme he was
trying to swing .... That was why he got Standish into his
power, in the first place. That was why he forced or wheedled
him into this partnership. The Standish house was built, in
its original form, more than a hundred years ago. In the days
when Dade County and all this end of Florida were in hourly
dread of Seminole raids from the Everglade country, and where
every settler's house must be not only his castle, but - "

"I'm sorry to have to remind you," she broke in, freezingly,
"that I asked you not to speak to me. Surely you can have at
least that much chivalry, - when I am helpless to get out of
hearing from you. You say you are willing to confront my
brother with, this - this - ridiculous charge. Very well. Till
then, I hope you won't - "

"All right," he said, gloomily. "And I don't blame you. I'm
a bungler, when it comes to saying things to women. I don't
know so very much about them. I've read that no man really
understands women. And certainly I don't. By the way, the
boat's run opposite that spit of beach at the bottom of your
mangrove swamp. If you're in a hurry, you can land there, and
we can go to the house by way of the hidden path. It will cut
off a mile or so. You have a flashlight. So - "

He let his voice trail away, frozen to silence by the rigidly
hostile little figure outlined at the other end of the boat by
the tumble of phosphorus in their wake.

Claire roused herself, from a gloomy reverie, enough to shift
the course of the craft and to head it for the dim-seen
sandspit that was backed by the ebony darkness of the mangrove
swamp.

Neither of them spoke again, until, with a swishing sound and
a soft grate of the light-draught boat, the keel clove its way
into the offshore sand and the craft came to coughing halt
twenty feet from land.

Claire roused herself, from a gloomy reverie in which she had
fallen. Subconsciously, she had accepted the man's suggestion
that they take the short cut. And she had steered thither,
forgetful that there was no dock and no suitable landing place
for even so light a boat anywhere along the patch of sandy
foreshore.

Now, fast aground, she saw her absent-minded error. And she
jumped to her feet, vainly reversing the engine in an effort
to back free of the sand wherein the prow had wedged itself so
tightly. But Gavin Brice had already taken charge of the
situation.

Stepping overside into the shallow water, he picked up the
astounded and vainly protesting girl, bodily, holding her
close to him with one arm, while, with his free hand he caught
the painter and dragged the boat behind him into water too low
for it to float off until the change of tide.

It was the work of a bare ten seconds, from the time he
stepped into the shallows until he had brought Claire to the
dry sand of the beach.

"Set me down!" she was demanding sternly, for the third time,
as she struggled with futile repugnance to slip from his
gently firm grip. "I - "

"Certainly," acquiesced Gavin, lowering her to the sand, and
steadying her for an instant, until her feet could find their
balance. "Only please don't glare at me as though I had
struck you. I didn't think you'd want to get those little
white shoes of yours all wet. So I took the liberty of
carrying you. My own shoes, and all the rest of me, are
drenched beyond cure anyhow. So another bit of immersion
didn't do me any harm."

He spoke in a careless, matter-of-fact manner, and as he
talked he was leading the way up the short beach, toward the
northernmost edge of the mangrove swamp. Claire could not
well take further offence at a service which apparently had
been rendered to her out of the merest common politeness. So,
after another icy look at his unconscious back, she followed
wordlessly in Brice's wake.

Now that he was on dry land again and on his way to the house
where, at the very least, a stormy scene might be expected,
the man's spirits seemed to rise, almost boyishly. The blood
was running again through his veins. The cool night air was
drying his soaked clothes. The prospect of possible adventure
stirred him.

Blithely he sought the shoreward entrance to the hidden path,
by the mental notes he had made of its exact whereabouts when
Bobby Burns had happened upon its secret. And, in another
half-minute he had drawn aside the screen of growing boughs
and was standing aside for Claire to enter the path.

"You see," he explained, impersonally, "this path is a very
nice little mystery. But, like most mysteries, it is quite
simple, when once you know your way in and out of it. I knew
where it was when I was a kid, but I couldn't remember the
spot where it came out here. Back yonder, a bit to northward,
I came upon Roke, yesterday. I gather he had been visiting
your house or Hade's, by way of the hidden path, and was on
his way back to his boat, to return to Roustabout Key, when he
happened upon Bobby Burns - and then on me. He must have
wondered where I vanished to. For he couldn't have seen me
enter the path. Maybe he mentioned that to Hade, too, this
afternoon. If Hade thought I knew the path, he'd think I knew
a good deal more .... By the way," he added, to the
ostentatiously unlistening Claire, "that's the second time
you've stumbled. And both times, you were too far ahead for
me to catch you. This is the best part of the path, too - the
straightest and the least dark part. If we stumble here,
we'll tumble, farther on, unless you use that flashlight of
yours. May I trouble you to - ?"

"I forgot," she said stiffly, as she drew the torch from her
pocket and pressed its button.

The dense black of the swamp was split by the light's white
sword, and softer beams from its sharp radiance illumined the
pitch-dark gloom for a few yards to either side of the
tortuous path. The shadows of the man and the woman were cast
in monstrous grotesquely floating shapes behind them as they
moved forward.

"This is a cheery rambling-place," commented Gavin. "I wonder
if you know its history? I mean, of course, before Standish
had it recut and jacked up and bridged, and all that? This
path dates back to the house's first owners - in the Seminole
days I was telling you about. They made it as a quick
getaway, to the water, in case a war-party of Seminoles should
drop in on them from the Everglades. I came through here,
once - oh, it must be twenty years ago - I was a school-kid, at
the time. An old Seminole chief, with the picturesque Indian
name of Aleck, showed it to me. His dad once cut off a party
of refugees, somewhere along here, on their way to the sea,
and deleted them. Several of the modern Seminoles knew the
path, he said. But almost no white men .... Get that queer
odor, and that flapping sound over to the left? That was a
'gator. And he seems to be fairly big and alive, from the
racket he made. Lucky we're on the path and not in the
undergrowth or the water!"

He talked on, as though not in the least concerned as to
whether or not she might hear or heed. And, awed by the
gruesome stillness and gloom of the place, Claire had not the
heart to bid him be silent. Any sound was better, she told
herself, than the dead noiselessness of the surrounding
forest.

"That's the tenth mosquito I've missed," cheerily resumed
Brice, slapping futilely at his own cheek. "In the old days,
they used to infest Miami. Now they're driven back into the
swamps. But they seem just as industrious as ever, and every
bit as hungry. It must be grand to have such an appetite."

As Claire disregarded this flippancy, he fell silent for a
space, and together they moved on, through the thick of the
swamp. Then:

"There's something I've been trying to figure out," he
recommenced, speaking more to himself than to Claire. "There
must be some sort of sense to all the signaling Hade does when
he comes out of this swamp, onto your lawn. If it was only
that he doesn't want casual visitors to know he has come that
way, he could just as well go around by the road to the south
of the swamp, and come openly to the house, by the front.
And, if things are to be moved to or from the house, they
could go by road, at night, as well as through here. There
must be something more to it all. And, I have an idea I know
what it is .... That enclosed space, with the high palings
and the vines all over it, to the north of your house, I think
you said that was a little walled orchard where Standish is
experimenting on some 'ideal' orange, and that he is so
jealous of the secret process that he won't even let you set
foot in it. The funny part of it is: - "

He stopped short. Claire had been walking a few yards in
advance, and they had come out on the widest part of the
trail, about midway through the woods. To one side of the
beaten path was a tiny clearing. This clearing was strewn
thick with a tangle of fallen undergrowth, scarce two feet
high at most.

And they reached it, the girl gave a little cry of fright and
stepped back, her hands reaching blindly
toward Gavin, as if for support or comfort. The gesture
caused her to drop the flashlight. Its button was "set
forward," so it did not go out as it fell. Instead, it rolled
in a semi-circle, casting its ray momentarily in a wide
irregular arc as it revolved. Then it came to a stop, against
an outcrop of coral, with a force that put its sensitive bulb
permanently out of business.

But, during that brief circular roll of the light, Gavin Brice
caught the most fleeting glimpse of the sight that had caused
Claire to cry out and shrink back against him.

He had seen, for the merest fraction of a second, the upper
half of a man's body - thickset and hairy, - upright, on a level
with the ground, as though it had been cut in two and the
legless trunk set up there.

By the time Brice's eyes could focus fairly upon this very
impossible sight, the half-body had begun to recede rapidly
into the earth, like that of an anglework which a robin pulls
halfway out of the lawn and then loses its grip on.

In practically the same instant, the rolling ray of light
moved past the amazing spectacle, and less than a second later
bumped against the fragment of coral - the bump which smashed
its bulb and left the two wanderers in total darkness for the
remainder of their strange pilgrimage.

Claire, momentarily unstrung, caught Gavin by the arm and
clung to him. He could feel the shudder of her slender body
as it pressed to his side for protection.

"What - what was it?" she whispered, tremblingly. "What was
it? Did I really see it? It it couldn't be! It looked - it
looked like a - a body that had been cut in half - and - and - "

"It's all right," he whispered, reassuringly, passing his arm
unchidden about her slight waist. "Don't be frightened, dear!
It wasn't a man cut in half. It was the upper half of a man
who was wiggling down into a tunnel hidden by that smother of
underbrush .... And here I was just wondering why people
should bother to come all the way through this path, instead
of skirting the woods! Answers furnished while you wait!"

Before he spoke, however, he had strained his ears to listen.
And the quick receding and then cessation of the sound of the
scrambling body in the tunnel had told him the seen half and
the unseen half of the intruder had alike vanished beyond
earshot, far under ground.

"But what - ?" began the frightened girl.

Then she realized for the first time that she was holding fast
to the man whom she had forbidden to speak to her. And she
relinquished her tight clasp on his arm.

"Stand where you are, a minute," he directed. "He's gone.
There's no danger. He was as afraid of us as you were of him.
He ducked, like a mud-turtle, as soon as he saw we weren't the
people he expected. Stay here, please. And face this way.
That's the direction we were going in, and we don't want to
get turned around. I've got to crawl about on all fours for a
while, in the merry quest of the flashlight. I know just
about where it stopped."

She could hear him groping amid the looser undergrowth. Then
he got to his feet.

"Here it is," he reported. "But it wasn't worth hunting for.
The bulb's gone bad. We'll have to walk the rest of the way
by faith. Would you mind, very much, taking my arm? The
path's wide enough for that, from here on. It needn't imply
that you've condoned anything I said to you, out yonder in the
boat, you know. But it may save you from a stumble. I'm
fairly sure-footed. And I'm used to this sort of travel."

Meekly, she obeyed, wondering at her own queer sense of peace
under the protection of this man whom she told herself she
detested. The wiry strength of the arm, around which her
white fingers closed so confidingly, thrilled her. Against
her will, she all at once lost her sense of repulsion and the
wrath she had been storing against him. Nor, by her very
best efforts, could she revive her righteous displeasure.

"Mr. Brice," she said, timidly, as he guided her with swiftly
steady step through the dense blackness, "perhaps I had no
right to speak as I did. If I did you an injustice - "


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Online LibraryAlbert Payson TerhuneBlack Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story → online text (page 10 of 15)