Albert Payson Terhune.

Black Caesar's Clan : a Florida Mystery Story online

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In rushed the water, filling her in an incredibly short time.
Settling by the head under the weight of this inpouring flood
she toppled off the tooth of reef and slid free. Then with a
wallowing dignity she proceeded to sink.

The iron sheathing on her keel and hull had not been strong
enough in its rusted state to resist the hammerblow of the
reef. But it was heavy enough, together with her big metal
steering apparatus, to counterbalance any buoyant qualities
left in the wooden frame.

And, down she went, waddling like a fat and ponderous hen,
into a twenty-foot nest of water.

Gavin had wasted no time in the impossible feat of baling her
or of plugging her unpluggable leak. As she went swayingly
toward the bottom of the bay he slipped clear of her and
struck out through the tepid water.

The mangrove swamp's beach was a bare half-mile away. And the
man knew he could swim the intervening space with ease. Yet
the tedious delay of it all irked him and fanned to a blind
fury his rage against Milo. Moreover, now, he could not hope
to reach the hidden path before real darkness should set in.
And he did not relish the idea of traversing its blind mazes
without a glimmer of daylight to guide him.

Yet he struck out, stubbornly, doggedly. As he passed the
tooth of coral that had wrecked his scow the reef gave him a
painful farewell scrape on one kicking knee. He swam on
fuming at this latest annoyance.

Then to his ears came the steady purr of a motorboat. It was
close to him and coming closer.

"Boat ahoy!" he sang out treading water and raising himself as
high as possible to peer about him through the dusk.

"Boat ahoy!" he called again, shouting to be heard above the
motor's hum. "Man overboard! Ten dollars if you'll carry me
to the mainland!"

And now he could see against the paler hue of the sky. the
dark outlines of the boat's prow. It was bearing down on him.
Above the bow's edge he could make out the vague silhouette of
a head and upper body.

Then into his memory flashed something which the shock of his
upsetting had completely banished. He recalled the motorboat
which had darted, arrow-like, out from around the southern
edge of the mangrove swamp, and which he had been watching
when his scow went to pieces on the reef.

If this were the same boat - if its steersman chanced to be
Milo Standish crossing to the key to learn if his murderplot
had yet culminated - so much the better! Man to man, there
between sea and sky in the gathering gloom, they could settle
the account once and for all.

Perhaps Standish had recognized him. Perhaps he merely took
him for some capsized fisherman. In either event, a swimming
man is the most utterly defenseless of all creatures against
attack from land or from boat. And Gavin was not minded to
let Standish finish his work with boat-hook or with oar. If
he and his foe were to meet it should be on even terms.

The boat had switched off power and was coming to a
standstill. Gavin dived. He swam clean under the craft,
lengthwise, coming up at its stern and farthest from that
indistinct figure in the prow.

As he rose to the surface he caught with both hands the narrow
overhang of the stern, and with a mighty heave he hoisted
himself hip-high out of the water.

Thence it was the work of a bare two seconds for him to swing
himself over the stern and to land on all fours in the bottom
of the boat. The narrow craft careened dangerously under such
treatment. But she righted herself, and by the time he had
fairly landed upon the cleated bottom. Brice was on his feet
and making for the prow. He was ready now for any emergency
and could meet his adversary on equal terms.

"Mr. Brice!" called the boat's other occupant, springing up,
her sweet voice trembling and almost tearful. "Oh, thank God
you're safe! I was so frightened!"

"Miss Standish!" sputtered Gavin, aghast. "Miss Standish!"

For a moment they stood staring at each other through the
darkness, wordless, breathing hard. Their quick breath and
the trickling of fifty runnels of water from Gavin's drenched
clothes into the bottom of the once-tidy boat alone broke the
tense stillness of sky and bay. Then:

"You're safe? You're not harmed?" panted the girl.

And the words brought back with a rush to Gavin Brice all he
had been through.

"Yes," he made harsh answer trying to steady his rage-choked
voice. "I am safe. I am not harmed. Apart from a few
fire-blisters on my ankles and the charring of my clothes and
the barking of one knee against a bit of submerged coral and
the cutting of my fingers rather badly and a few more minor
mischances - I'm quite safe and none the worse for the Standish
family's charming hospitality. And, by the way, may I suggest
that it might have been better for your brother or the
gentle-hearted Mr. Hade to run across to the key to get news
of my fate, instead of sending a girl on such an errand? It's
no business of mine, of course. And I don't presume to
criticize two such noble heroes. But surely they ought not
have sent you. If their kindly plan had worked out according
to schedule. I should not have been a pretty sight for a
woman to look at, by this time. I - "

"I - I don't understand half of the things you're saying!" she
cried, shrinking from his taunting tone
as from a fist-blow. "They don't make any sense to me. But I
do see why you're so angry. And I don't blame you. It was
horrible! Horrible! It - "

"It was all that," he agreed drily, breaking in on her
quivering speech and steeling himself against its pitiful
appeal. "All that. And then some. And it's generous of you
not to blame me for being just the very tiniest least bit
riled by it. That helps. I was afraid my peevishness might
displease you. My temper isn't what it should be. If it were
I should be apologizing to you for getting your nice boat all
sloppy like this."

"Please!" she begged. "Please! Won't you please try not
to - to think too hardly of my brother? And won't you please
acquit me of knowing anything of it? I didn't know.
Honestly. Mr Brice. I didn't. When Milo came back home
without you he told me you had decided to stay on at
Roustabout Key to help Roke, till the new foreman could come
from Homestead."

"Quite so," assented Gavin, his voice as jarring as a file's.
"I did. And he decided that I shouldn't change my mind.
He - "

"It wasn't till half an hour ago," she hurried on, miserably,
"that I knew. I was coming down stairs. Milo and Rodney Hade
were in the music-room together. I didn't mean to overhear.
But oh, I'm so glad I did!"

"I'm glad it could make you so happy," he said. "The pleasure
is all yours."

"All I caught was just this:" she went on. "Rodney was
saying: 'Nonsense! Roke will have let him out before now.
And there are worse places to spend a hot afternoon in than
locked snugly in a cool storeroom.'"

"Are there?" interpolated Brice. "I'd hate to test that."

"All in a flash. I understood," she continued, her sweet
voice struggling gallantly against tears. "I knew Rodney
didn't want us to have any guests or to have any outsiders at
all at our house. He was fearfully displeased with us last
night for having you there. It was all we could do to
persuade him that the man who had saved Milo's life couldn't
be turned out of doors or left to look elsewhere for work. It
was only when Milo promised to give you work at the key that
he stopped arguing and being so imperative about it. And when
I heard him speak just now about your being locked in a store
room there. I knew he had done it to prevent your coming back
here for a while."

"Your reasoning was most unfeminine in its correctness,"
approved Gavin, still forcing himself to resist the piteous
pleading in her voice.

He could see her flinch under the harshness of his tone as she
added:

"And all at once I realized what it must mean to you and what
you must think of us - after all you'd done for Milo. And I
knew how a beast like Roke would be likely to treat you when
he knew my brother and Rodney had left you there at the mercy
of his companionship. There was no use talking to them. It
might be hours before I could convince them and make them go
or send for you. And I couldn't bear to have you kept there
all that time. So I slipped out of the house and ran to the
landing. Just as I got out into the bay. I saw you coming
through that strait back there. I recognized the fruit
launch. And I knew it must be you. For nobody from the key
would have run at such speed toward that clump of reefs. You
capsized before I could get to you, and - "


She shuddered, and ceased to speak. For another moment or two
there was silence between them. Gavin Brice's mind was busy
with all she said. He was dissecting and analyzing her every
anxious word. He was bringing to bear on the matter not only
his trained powers of logic but his knowledge of human nature.

And all at once he knew this trembling girl was in no way
guilty of the crime attempted against him. He knew, too, from
the speech of Hade's which she had just repeated, that
Standish presumably had had no part in the attempted murder,
but that that detail had been devised by Hade for Roke to put
into execution. Nor, evidently had Davy been let into the
secret by Roke.

In a few seconds Brice had revised his ideas as to the
afternoon's adventures, and had come to a sudden decision.
Speaking with careful forethought and with a definite object
in view, he said:

"Miss Standish. I do not ask pardon for the way I spoke to
you just now. And when you've heard why you won't blame me,
I want to tell you just what happened to me today from the
time I set foot on Roustabout Key, until I boarded this boat
of yours. When you realize that I thought your brother and
probably yourself were involved in it to the full you'll
understand, perhaps, why I didn't greet you with overmuch
cordiality. Will you listen?"

She nodded her head, wordless, not trusting her voice to speak
further. And she sank back into the seat she had quitted.
Brice seated himself on the thwart near her, and began to
speak, while the boat, its power still shut off bobbed lazily
on a lazier sea.

Tersely, yet omitting no detail except that of his talk with
Davy, he told of the afternoon's events. She heard, wide-eyed
and breathing fast. But she made no interruption, except when
he came to the episode of the moccasins she cried aloud in
horror, and caught unconsciously his lacerated hand between
her own warm palms.

The clasp of her fingers, unintentional as it was, sent a
strange thrill through the man, and, for an instant, he
wavered in his recital. But he forced himself to continue.
And after a few seconds the girl seemed to realize what she
was doing. For she withdrew her hands swiftly, and clasped
them together in her lap.

As he neared the end of his brief story she raised her hands
again. But they did not seek his. Instead she covered her
horrified eyes with them, and she shook all over.

When he had finished he could see she was fighting for
self-control. Then, in a flood, the power of speech came back
to her.

"Oh!" she gasped, her flower-face white and drawn,
in the faint light. "Oh, it can't be. It can't! There must
be a hideous mistake somewhere!"

"There is," he agreed, with a momentary return to his former
manner. "There was one mistake. I made it, by escaping.
Otherwise the plan was flawless. Luckily, a key had been
left on the floor. And luckily, I got hold of it. Luckily,
too, I had a match with me. And, if there are sharks as near
land as this, luckily you happened to meet me as I was
swimming for shore. As to mistakes - . Have you a
flashlight?"

From her pocket she drew a small electric torch she had had
the foresight to pick up from the hall table as she ran out.
Gavin took it and turned its rays on his wet ankles. His
shoes and trouser-legs still showed clear signs of the
scorching they had received. And his palms were cut and
abraded.

"If I had wanted to make up a story," said he. "I could have
devised one that didn't call for such painful stage-setting."

"Oh, don't!" she begged. "Don't speak so flippantly of it!
How can you? And don't think for one instant, that I doubted
your word. I didn't. But it didn't seem possible that such a
thing - Mr. Brice!" she broke off earnestly. "You mustn't - you
can't - think that Milo knew anything of this! I mean
about the - the snakes and all. He is enough to blame - he has
shamed our hospitality and every trace of gratitude enough - by
letting you be locked in there at all and by consenting to
have you marooned on the key. I'm not trying to excuse him
for that. There's no excuse. And without proof I wouldn't
have believed it of him. But at least you must believe he had
no part in - in the other - "

"I do believe it," said Gavin, gently, touched to the heart
by her grief and shame. "At first, I was certain he had
connived at it. But what you overheard proves he didn't."

"Thank you," she said simply.

This time it was his hand that sought hers. And, even as she,
he was unconscious of the action.

"You mustn't let this distress you so," he soothed, noting
her effort to fight back the tears. "It all came out safely
enough. But - I think I've paid to-day for my right to ask
such a question - how does it happen that you and your
brother - you, especially - can have sunk to such straits that
you take orders meekly from a murderer like Rodney Hade, and
that you let him dictate what guests you shall or shan't
receive?"

She shivered all over.

"I - I have no right to tell you," she murmured. "It isn't my
secret. I have no right to say there is any secret. But
there is! And it is making my life a torture! If only you
knew - if only there were some one I could turn to for help or
even for advice! But I'm all alone, except for Milo. And
lately he's changed so! I - "

She broke down all at once in her valiant attempt at
calmness. And burying her face in her hands again she burst
into a tempest of weeping. Gavin Brice, a lump in his own
throat, drew her to him. And she clung to his soaked coat
lapels hiding her head on his drenched breast.

There was nothing of love or of sex in the action. She was
simply a heartbroken child seeking refuge in the strength of
some one older and stronger than she. Gavin realized it, and
he held her to him and comforted her as though she had been
his little sister.

Presently the passion of convulsive weeping passed, leaving
her broken and exhausted. Gavin knew the girl's powers of
mental resistance were no longer strong enough to overcome her
need for a comforter to whom she could unburden her soul of
its miserable perplexities.

She had drawn back from his embrace but she still sat close to
him, her hands in his, pathetically eager for his sympathy and
aid. The psychological moment had come and Gavin Brice knew
it. Loathing himself for the role he must play and vowing
solemnly to his own heart that she should never be allowed to
suffer for any revelation she might make, he said with a
gentle insistence, "Tell me."




CHAPTER VII

SECRETS


There was a short silence. Brice looked anxiously through the
gathering darkness at the dimly seen face so near to his own.
He could not guess, for the life of him, whether the girl was
silent because she refused to tell him what he sought so
eagerly to know, or whether she was still fighting to control
her voice.

As he sat gazing down at her, there was something so tiny, so
fragile, so helplessly trustful about her, that it went
straight to the man's heart. He had played and schemed and
risked life itself for this crucial hour, for this hour when
he should have swept aside the girl's possible suspicions and
enlisted her complete sympathy for himself and could make her
trust him and feel keen remorse for the treatment he had
received.

Yes - he had achieved all this. And he had done infinitely
more. He had awakened in her heart a sense of loneliness and
of need for some one in whom she might confide.

He had done all this, had Gavin Brice. And, though he was
not a vain man, yet he knew he had done it cleverly. But,
somehow - even as he waited to see if the hour for full
confidences were indeed ripe - he was not able to feel the thrill
of exultation which should belong to the winner of a hard-fought
duel. Instead, to his amazement, he was aware of a growing sense
of shame, of disgust at having used such weapons against any
woman, - especially against this girl whose whiteness of soul and of
purpose he could no longer doubt.

Then, through the silence and above the soft lap-lap-lap of
water against the idly drifting boat's side, Claire drew a
deep breath. She threw back her drooping shoulders and sat
up, facing the man. And in the dusk, Gavin could see the
flash of resolve in her great eyes.

"Yes!" she said, impulsively. "Yes. I'll tell you. If it
is wrong for me to tell, then let it be wrong. I'm sick of
mystery and secrets and signals and suspense, and - oh, I'm
sick of it all! And it's - it's splendid of you to want to
help me, after what has happened to you through meeting me!
It's your right to know."

She paused for breath. And again Gavin wondered at his own
inability to feel a single throb of gladness at having come so
triumphantly to the end of this particular road. Glumly, he
stared down at the vibrant little figure beside him.

"There is some of it I don't know, myself," she began. "And
lately I've found myself wondering if all I really know is
true, or whether they have been deceiving me about some of it.
I have no right to feel that way, I suppose, about my own
brother. But he's so horribly under Rodney Hade's influence,
and - "

Again, she paused, seeming to realize she was wandering from
the point. And she made a fresh start.

"It all began as an adventure, a sort of game, more than in
earnest," she said. "At least, looking back, that's the way
it seems to me now. As a wonderfully exciting game. You see,
everything down here was so thrillingly exciting and
interesting to me, even then."

"I see."

"If you don't mind," she added, "I think I can make you
understand it all the better, if you'll let me go back to the
beginning. I'll make it as short as I can."

"Yes."

"I had been brought up in New York, except when we were in
Europe or when I was away at school. My father and mother
never let me see or know anything of real life. Dad was old,
even as far back as I can remember. Mother was his second
wife. Milo's mother was his first wife, and she died ever so
long ago. Milo is twenty years older than I am. Milo came
down here on a cruise, when he got out of college. And he
fell in love with this part of the country. He persuaded Dad
to buy him a farm here, and he has spent fifteen years in
building it up to what it is now. He and my mother didn't
didn't get on awfully well together. So Milo spent about all
his time down here, and I hardly ever saw him. Then Dad and
Mother died, within a day of each other, during the flu
epidemic. And Milo came on, for the funeral, of course, and
to wind up the estate. Then he wanted me to come down here
and live with him. He said he was lonely. And I was still
lonelier.

"I came here. And I've been here ever since. It is a part of
the world that throws a charm around every one who stays long
enough under its spell. And I grew to loving it as much as
Milo did. We had a beautiful life here, he and I and the
cordial, lovable people who became our friends. It was last
spring that Rodney Hade came to see us. Milo had known him,
slightly, down here, years ago. He came back here - nobody
knows from where, and rented a house, the other side of
Coconut Grove, and brought his yacht down to Miami Harbor.
Almost right away, he seemed to gain the queerest influence
over Milo. It was almost like hypnotism. And yet, I don't
altogether wonder. He has an odd sort of fascination about
him. Even when he is discussing his snakes."

"His snakes?"

"He has three rooms in his house fitted up as a reptile zoo.
He collects them from everywhere. He says - and he seems to
believe it - that they won't hurt him and that he can handle
them as safely as if they were kittens. Just like that man
they used to have in the post office up at Orlando, who used
to sit with his arms full of rattlesnakes and moccasins, and
pet them."

"Yes," said Gavin, absentmindedly, as he struggled against an
almost overmastering impulse which was gripping him. "I
remember. But at last one of his pets killed him. He - "

"How did you know?" she asked, surprised. "How in the world
should a newcomer from the North know about - "

"Oh, I read it in a Florida dispatch to one of the New York
papers," he said, impatient at his own blunder. "And it was
such a strange story it stuck in my memory. It - "

"Well," resumed Claire, "I think I've made you understand the
simple and natural things that led up to it all. And now,
I'll tell you everything, at least everything I know about
it. It's - it's a gruesome sort of story, and - and I've grown
to hate it all so!" She quivered. Then, squaring her young
shoulders again, she continued:

"I don't ask you to believe what I'm going to tell you. But
it's all true. It began this way:

"One night, six months ago, as Milo and I were sitting on the
veranda, we heard a scream - a hideous sound it was - from the
mangrove swamp. And a queer creature in drippy white came
crawling out of - "

"Wait!"

Brice's monosyllable smashed into the current of her
scarce-started narrative with the jarring suddenness of a
pistol shot. She stared up at him in amaze. For, seen
through the starlight, his face was working strangely. And
his voice was vibrant with some mighty emotion.

"Wait!" he repeated. "You shan't go on. You shan't tell me
the rest. I'm a fool. For I'm throwing away the best chance
that could have come to me. I'm throwing it away with my eyes
open, and because I'm a fool."

"I - I don't understand," she faltered, bewildered.

"No," he said roughly. "You don't understand. That's just
why I can't let you go on. And, because I'm a fool, I can't
play out this hand, where every card is mine. I'll despise
myself, always, for this, I suppose. And it's a certainty
that I'll be despised. It means an end to a career I found
tremendously interesting. I didn't need the money it brought.
But I - "

"What in the world are you talking about?" she demanded,
drawing a little away from him. "I - "

"Listen," he interrupted. "A lot of men, in my line and in
others, have come a cropper in their careers, because of some
woman. But I'm the first to come such a cropper on account of
a woman with a white soul and the eyes of a child, - a woman I
scarcely know, and who has no interest in me. But, to-night,
I shall telegraph my resignation. Some saner man can take
charge. There are enough of our men massed in this vicinity
to choose from. I'm going to get out of Florida and leave the
game to play itself to an end, without me. I'm an idiot to do
it. But I'd be worse than an idiot to let you trust me and
let you tell me things that would wreck your half-brother and
bring sorrow and shame to you. I'm through! And I can't even
be sorry."

"Mr. Brice," she said, gently, "I'm afraid your terrible
experiences, this afternoon and last evening, have unsettled
your mind, a little. Just sit still there, and rest. I am
going to run the boat to shore and - "

"You're right," he laughed, ruefully, as he made way for her
to start the engine. "My experiences have 'unsettled' my
mind. And now that I've spoiled my own game, I'll tell you
the rest - as much of it as I have a right to. It doesn't
matter, any longer. Hade knows - or at least suspects.
That's why he tried to get me killed. In this century, people
don't try to have others killed, just for fun. There's got to
be a powerful motive behind it. Such a motive as made a man
last evening try to knife your half-brother. Such a motive as
induced Hade to get me out of the way. He knows. Or he
suspects. And that means the crisis must come, almost at
once. The net will close. Whether or not it catches him in
it."

The boat was started and had gotten slowly under way. During
its long idleness it had been borne some distance to
southwestward by tide and breeze. Her work done, Claire
turned again to Gavin.


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