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“Ah’m not a conch!” he rasped, his voice sounding as rusty as an unused hinge. “Ah’m a Caesar, yo’ dirty Yank! Tuhn me loose, yo’! Ah ain’t hurt nuthin’.”

“How did you get in here?” bellowed Milo, advancing threateningly on the youth, and swinging aloft one of his hamlike fists.

The intruder stiffened into silence and stolid rigidity. Unflinchingly, he eyed the oncoming giant. Brice motioned Standish back.

“No use,” said he. “I know the breed. They’ve been kicked and beaten and hammered about, till a licking has no terrors for them. This sweet soul will stay in the silences, till–“

Again, he broke off speaking. And again on account of Simon Cameron. The cat, recovering from the indignity of being brushed from in front of the opening door, had returned to his former post of watching, and now stood, tail erect and back arched, staring up at the prisoner out of huge round green eyes. The sight of a stranger had its wonted lure for the Persian.

The lad’s impotently roving glance fell upon Simon Cameron. And into his sullen face leaped stark terror. At sight of it, Gavin Brice hit on a new idea for wringing speech from the captive.

He knew that the grossly ignorant wreckers and fisherfolk of the keys had never set eyes on such an object as this, nor had so much as heard of Persian cats’ existence. The few cats they had seen were of course of the alley-variety, lean and of short and mangy coat. Simon Cameron’s halo of wide-fluffing silver-gray fur gave him the appearance of being double his real size. His plumed cheeks and tasseled ears and dished profile and, above all, the weirdly staring green eyes–all combined to present a truly frightful appearance to a youth so unsophisticated as this and to any one as superstitious and as fearful of all unknown things as were the conchs in general.

“Standish,” said Brice, “just take my place for a minute as holder of this conch’s very ragged shirt collar. So! Now then:”

He stepped back, and picked up Simon Cameron in his arms. The cat did not resent the familiarity, Gavin still being enough of a stranger in the house to be of interest to the Persian. But the round green eyes still remained fixed with unwinking intensity upon the newer and thus more interesting arrival. Which is the way of a Persian cat.

Brice held Simon Cameron gingerly, almost respectfully, standing so the huge eyes were able to gaze unimpeded at the gaping and shaking boy. Then, speaking very slowly, in a deep and reverent voice, he intoned:

“Devil, look mighty close at that conch, yonder. Watch him, so’s you’ll always remember him! Put the voodoo on him, Devil. Haunt him waking, haunt him sleeping. Haunt him eating, haunt him drinking. Haunt him standing and sitting, haunt him lying and kneeling. Rot his bones and his flesh and–“

A howl of panic terror from the youth interrupted the solemn incantation. The prisoner slumped to his knees in Standish’s grasp, weeping and jabbering for mercy. Brice saw the time was ripe for speech and that the captive’s stolid nerve was gone. Turning on him, he said, sternly:

“If you’ll speak up and answer us, truthfully, I’ll make this ha’nt take off the curse. But if you lie, in one word, he’ll know it and he’ll tell me, and–and then I’ll turn him loose on you. It’s your one chance. Want it?”

The youth fairly gabbled his eagerness to assent.

“Good!” said Brice, still holding Simon Cameron, lest the supposed devil spoil everything by rubbing against the prisoner’s legs and purring. “First of all:–how did you get in here?”

The boy gulped. Gavin bent his own head toward the cat and seemed about to resume his incantation. With a galvanic jump, the youth made answer:

“Came by the path. Watched till the dawg run out in the road to bark at suthin’. This man,” with a jerk of his head toward his captor, “this man went to the road after him. I cut across the grass, yonder, and got in. They come back. I hid me in there.”

“H’m! Why didn’t you come by way of the tunnel, like the other Caesars?”

“Pop tol me not to. Sent me ahead. Said mebbe they moughtn’t git in here if the doors was locked early. Tol’ me to hide me in the house an’ let ’em in, late, ef they-all couldn’t git in no earlier, or ef they couldn’t cotch one of the two cusses outside the house.”

“Good strategy!” approved Brice. “That explains why they haven’t rushed us, Standish. They came here in force, and most likely (if they’ve gotten out of the enclosure, yet) they’ve surrounded the house, waiting for you or Hade to come in or go out. If that doesn’t work, they plan to wait till you’re asleep, and then get in, by this gallant youngster’s help, and cut your throat at their leisure and loot the house and take a good leisurely hunt for the treasure. It calls for more sense than I thought they had …. How did they find the tunnel?” he continued, to the prisoner.

“They been a-huntin’ fer it, nigh onto one-half of a year,” sulkily returned the boy. “Pop done found it, yest’dy. Stepped into it, he did, a walkin’ past.”

“The rumor of that tunnel has been hereabout for over a century,” explained Brice, to the Standishes. “Just as the treasure-rumors have. I heard of it when I was a kid. The Caesars must have heard it, a thousand times. But, till this game started, there was no impetus to look for it, of course. The tunnel is supposed to have been dug just after that Seminole warparty cut off the refugees in the path. By the way, Miss Standish, I didn’t mention it while we were still there, but the mangrove-swamp is supposed to be haunted by the ghosts of those killed settlers.”

Brother and sister glanced at each other, almost in guilt, as it seemed to the observing Brice. And Claire said, shortly:

“I know. Every one around here has heard it. Some of the negroes and even some of the more ignorant crackers declare they have heard screams from the swamp on dark nights and that white figures have been seen flitting–“

“So?” queried Brice. “Back in the boat, you were starting to tell me how you sat on the veranda, one night, and heard a cry in the swamp and then saw a white figure emerge from the path. Yes? I have a notion that that white figure was responsible for the cry, and that your brother and Rodney Hade were responsible for both. Wasn’t that a trick to scare off any chance onlookers, when some of the treasure was to be brought here?”

“Yes,” admitted Claire, shamefacedly, and she added: “Milo hadn’t told me anything about it. And Rodney thought I was at a dance at the Royal Palm Hotel, that evening. I had expected to go, but I had a headache. When the cry and the white form frightened me so, Milo had to tell me what they both meant. That was how I found out, first, that they–“

“Claire!” cried Standish in alarmed rebuke.

“It’s all right, Standish,” said Gavin. “I know all about it. A good deal more than she does. And none of it from her, either. We’ll come to that, later. Now for the prisoner.”

Turning to the glumly scowling youth, he resumed:

“How many of them are there in this merry little midnight murder party?”

“I dunno,” grunted the boy.

“Devil, is that true?” gravely asked Gavin, bending again toward Simon Cameron.

“Six!” babbled the lad, eagerly. “Pop and–“

“Never mind giving me a census of them,” said Brice. “It wouldn’t do me any good. I’ve left my copies of ‘Who’s Who’ and Burke’s Peerage at home. And they figured Mr. Standish and Mr. Hade would both be here, to-night?”

“Most nights t’other one comes,” said the boy. “I laid out yonder and heern him, one night. Whistles like he’s a mocking-bird, when he gits nigh here. I told Pop an’ them about that. They–“

“By the way,” asked Gavin, “when your Pop came back from finding the tunnel, last night, was he in pretty bad shape? Hey? Was he?”

“He were,” responded the captive, after another scared look at Simon Cameron. “He done fell into the tunnel, arter he step down it. An’ he bust hisself up, suthin’ fierce, round the haid an’ the th’oat. He–“

“I see,” agreed Brice.

Then, to Standish:

“I think we’ve got about all out of the charming child that we can expect to. Suppose we throw him out?”

“Throw him out?” echoed Milo, incredulously. “Do you mean, set him free? Why, man he’d–“

“That’s exactly what I mean,” said Gavin. “I agree with Caesar–Julius Caesar, not the pirate. Caesar used to say that it was a mistake to hold prisoners. They must be fed and guarded and they can do incalculable mischief. We’ve turned this prisoner inside out. We’ve learned from him that six men are lurking somewhere outside, on the chance that you or Rodney Hade may come out or come in, so that they can cut you both off, comfortably, out there in the dark, and carry on their treasure-hunt here. Failing that, they plan to get in here, when you’re asleep. All this lad can tell them is that you are on your guard, and that there are enough of us to hold the house against any possible rush. He can also tell them,” pursued Gavin, dropping back into his slowly solemn diction, “about this devil–this ha’nt–that serves us, and of the curse–the voodoo–he can put on them all if they try to harm us. We’ll let him go. He was sent on by the path because he went some time ahead of the rest, and he didn’t know the secret of the tunnel. In fact, none of them could have known just where it ended here. But they’ll know by now. He can join them, if they’re picketing the house. And he can tell them what he knows.”

Strolling over to the front door, he unbarred it and opened it wide, standing fearlessly in its lighted threshold.

“Pass him along to me,” he bade Standish. “Or, you can let him go. He won’t miss the way out.”

“But,” argued Milo, stubbornly retaining his grip on the ragged shirt collar, “I don’t agree with you. I’m going to keep him here and lock him up, till–“

He got no further. The sight of the open door leading to freedom was too much for the youth’s stolidity. Twisting suddenly, he drove his yellow teeth deep into the fleshy part of Standish’s hand. And, profiting by the momentary slackening of Milo’s grasp, he made one wildly scrambling dive across the hall, vaulting over the excited Bobby Burns (and losing a handful of his disreputable trousers to the dog’s jaws in the process) and volleying over the threshold with the speed of an express train.

While Standish nursed his sorely-bitten hand, Brice watched the lad’s lightning progress across the lawn.

Then, still standing in the open doorway, he called back, laughingly to the two others: “Part of my well-built scheme has gone to smash. He didn’t stop to look for any of his clansmen. Not even the redoubtable Pop. He just beat it for the hidden path, without hitting the ground more than about once, on the way. And he dived into the path like a rabbit. He’ll never stop till he reaches the beach. And then the chances are he’ll swim straight out to sea without even waiting to find where the Caesars’ boats are cached …. Best get some hot water and iodine and wash out that bite, Standish. Don’t look so worried, Miss Standish! I’m in no danger, standing here. In the first place, I doubt if they’ll have the nerve to rush the house at all,–certainly not yet, if they didn’t recognize our fast-running friend. In the second, they’re after Hade and your brother. And in this bright light they can’t possibly mistake me for either of them. Hello!” he broke off. “There went one of them, just then, across that patch of light, down yonder. And, unless my eyes are going back on me, there’s another of them creeping along toward the head of the path. They must have seen–or thought they saw–some one dash down there, even if it was too dark for them to recognize him. And they are trying to get some line on who he is …. The moon is coming up. That won’t help them, to any great extent.”

He turned back into the room, partly shutting the door behind him. But he did not finish the process of closing it.

For–sweet, faint, yet distinct to them all–the soaring notes of a mocking-bird’s song swelled out on the quiet of the night.

“Rodney Hade!” gasped Standish. “It’s his first signal. He gives it when he’s a hundred yards from the end. Good Lord! And he’s going to walk straight into that ambush! It’s–it’s sure death for him!”

CHAPTER IX

THE FIGURE IN WHITE

For a moment none of the three spoke. Standish and his sister stared at each other in dumb horror. Then Milo took an uncertain step toward the door. Brice made no move to check him, but stood looking quietly on, with the detached expression of a man who watches an interesting stage drama.

Just within the threshold, Standish paused, irresolute, his features working. And Gavin Brice, as before, read his emotions as though they were writ in large letters. He knew Milo was not only a giant in size and in strength, but that in ordinary circumstances or at bay he was valiant enough. But it is one thing to meet casual peril, and quite another to fare forth in the dark among six savage men, all of whom are waiting avidly for the chance to murder.

A braver warrior than Milo Standish might well have hesitated to face sure death in such a form, for the mere sake of saving a man whom he feared and hated, and whose existence threatened his own good name and liberty.

Wherefore, just within the shelter of the open door, the giant paused and hung back, fighting for the nerve to go forth on his fatal errand of heroism. Gavin, studying him, saw with vivid clearness the weakness of character which had made this man the dupe and victim of Hade, and which had rendered him helpless against the wiles of a master-mind.

But if Standish hesitated, Claire did not. After one look of scornful pity at her wavering half-brother, she moved swiftly past him to the threshold. There was no hint of hesitation in her free step as she ran to the rescue of the man who had ruined Milo’s career. And both onlookers knew she would brave any and all the dire perils of the lurking marauders, in order to warn back the unconsciously oncoming Hade.

As she sped through the doorway, Brice came to himself, with a start. Springing forward, he caught the flying little figure and swung it from the ground. Disregarding Claire’s violent struggles, he bore her back into the house, shutting and locking the door behind her and standing with his back to it.

“You can’t go, Miss Standish!” he said, in stern command, as if rebuking some fractious child. “Your little finger is worth more than that blackguard’s whole body. Besides,” he added, grimly, “mocking birds, that sing nearly three weeks ahead of schedule, must be prepared to pay the bill.”

She was struggling with the door. Then, realizing that she could not open it, she ran to the nearest window which looked out on the lawn and the path-head. Tugging at the sash she flung it open, and next fell to work at the shutter-bars. As she threw wide the shutters, and put one knee on the sill, Milo Standish
caught her by the shoulder. Roughly drawing her back into the room, he said:

“Brice is right. It’s not your place to go. It would be suicide. Useless suicide, at that. I’d go, myself. But- -but–“

“‘They that take up the sword shall perish by the sword,'” quoted Gavin, tersely. “The man who sets traps must expect to step into a trap some day. And those Caesars will be more merciful assassins than the moccasin snakes would have been …. He’s taking plenty of time, to cover that last hundred yards. Perhaps he met the conch boy, running back, and had sense enough to take alarm.”

“Not he,” denied Standish. “That fool boy was so scared, he’d plunge into the brush or the water, the second he heard Rodney’s step. Those conchs can keep as mum as Seminoles. He’d never let Rodney see him or hear him. He–“

Standish did not finish his sentence. Into his slow-moving brain, an idea dawned. Leaning far out of the window and shouting at the top of his enormous lungs, he bawled through the night:

“Hade! Back, man! Go back! They’ll kill you!”

The bull-like bellow might have been heard for half a mile. And, as it ceased, a muffled snarling, like a dog’s, came from the edge of the forest, where waited the silent men whose knives were drawn for the killing.

And, in the same instant, from the head of the path, drifted the fluting notes of a mocking bird.

Disregarding or failing to catch the meaning of the thickly-bellowed warning, Rodney Hade was advancing nonchalantly upon his fate. The three in the hallway crowded into the window-opening, tense, wordless, mesmerized, peering aghast toward the screen of vines which veiled the end of the path.

The full moon, which Brice had glimpsed as it was rising, a minute or so before, now breasted the low tops of the orange trees across the highroad and sent a level shaft of light athwart the lawn. Its clear beams played vividly on the dark forest, revealing the screen of vines at the head of the path, and revealing also three crouching dark figures, close to the ground, at the very edge of the lawn, not six feet from the path head.

And, almost instantly, with a third repetition of the mocking bird call, the vine screen was swept aside. Out into the moonshine sauntered a slight figure, all in white, yachting cap on head, lighted cigarette in hand.

The man came out from the black vine-screen, and, for a second, stood there, as if glancing carelessly about him. Milo Standish shouted again, at the top of his lungs. And this time, Claire’s voice, like a silver bugle, rang out with his in that cry of warning.

But, before the dual shout was fairly launched, three dark bodies had sprung forward and hurled themselves on the unsuspecting victim. There was a tragically brief struggle. Then, all four were on the ground, the vainly-battling white body underneath. And there was a gruesome sound as of angry beasts worrying their meat.

Carried out of his own dread, by the spectacle, Milo Standish vaulted over the sill and out onto the veranda. But there he came to a halt. For there was no further need for him to throw away his own life in the belated effort at rescue.

The three black figures had regained their feet. And, on the trampled lawn-edge in front of them lay a huddle of white, with darker stains splashed here and there on it. The body lay in an impossible posture–a posture which Nature neither intends nor permits. It told its own dreadful story, to the most uninitiated of the three onlookers at the window.

With dragging feet, Milo Standish turned back, and reentered the house, as he had gone out of it.

“I am a coward!” he said, heavily. “I could have saved him. Or we could have fought, back to back, till we were killed. It would have been a white man’s way of dying. I am a coward!”

He sank down in a chair and buried his bearded face in his hands. No one contradicted him or made any effort at comfort. Claire, deathly pale, still crouched forward, staring blindly at the moveless white figure at the head of the path.

“Peace to his soul!” said Brice, in a hushed voice, adding under his breath: “If he had one!”

Then, laying his hand gently on Claire’s arm, he drew her away from the window and shut the blinds on the sight which had so horrified them.

“Go and lie down, Miss Standish,” he bade her. “This has been an awful thing for you or any other woman to look on. Take a double dose of aromatic spirits of ammonia, and tell one of the maids to bring you some black coffee …. Do as I say, please!” he urged, as she looked mutely at him and made no move to obey. “You may need your strength and your nerve. And–try to think of anything but what you’ve just seen. Remember, he was an outlaw, a murderer, the man who wrecked your brother’s honorable life, a thorough-paced blackguard, a man who merits no one’s pity. More than that, he was one of Germany’s cleverest spies, during the war. His life was forfeit, then, for the injury he did his country. I am not heartless in speaking this way of a man who is dead. I do it, so that you may not feel the horror of his killing as you would if a decent man had died, like that. Now go, please.”

Tenderly, he led her to the foot of the stairs. The house man was just returning from the locking of the upstairs shutters. To him Brice gave the order for coffee to be taken to her room and for one of the maids to attend her there.

As she passed dazedly up the stairs, Gavin stood over the broken giant who still sat inert and huddled in his chair, face in hands.

“Buck up!” said Brice, impatiently. “If you can grieve for a man who made you his slave and–“

“Grieve for him?” repeated Standish, raising his haggard face. “Grieve for him? I thank God he’s dead. I hated him as I never hated any one else or thought I could hate any one! I hated him as we hate the man in whose power we are and who uses us as helpless pawns in his dirty game. I’d have killed him long ago, if I had had the nerve, and if he hadn’t made me believe he had a charmed life. His death means freedom to me- -glorious freedom! It’s for my own foul cowardice that I’m grieving. The cowardice that held me here while a man’s life might have been saved by me. That’s going to haunt me as long as I live.”

“Bosh!” scoffed Gavin. “You’ll get over it. Self-forgiveness is the easiest blessing to acquire. You’re better of it, already, or you couldn’t talk so glibly about it. Now, about this treasure-business: You know, of course, that you’ll have to drop it,–that you’ll have to give up every cent of it to the Government? If you can’t find the cache, up North, where Hade used to send it when he lugged it away from here, it is likely to go a bit hard with you. I’m going to do all I can to get you clear. Not for your own sake, but for your sister’s. But you’ll have to ‘come through, clean,’ if I’m to help you. Now, if you’ve got anything to say–“

He paused, invitingly. Milo gaped at him, the big bearded face working convulsively. Nerves wrenched, easily dominated by a stronger nature, the giant was struggling in vain to resume his pose of not understanding Brice’s allusions. Presently, with a sigh, that was more like a grunt of hopelessness, he thrust his fingers into an inner pocket of his waistcoat, and drew forth a somewhat tarnished silver dollar. This he held toward Gavin, in his wide palm.

Brice took the coin from him and inspected it with considerable interest. In spite of the tarnish and the ancient die and date, its edges were as sharp and its surface as unworn as though it had been minted that very year. Clearly, this dollar had jingled in no casual pockets, along with other coins, nor had it been sweated or marred by any sort of use.

“Do you know what that is?” asked Milo.

“Yes,” said Brice. “It is a United States silver dollar, dated ‘1804.’”

“Do you know its value?” pursued Milo. “But of course you don’t. You probably think it is worth its weight in silver and nothing more.”

“It is, and it isn’t,” returned Gavin. “If I were to take this dollar, to-night, to the right groups of numismatists, they would pay me anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 for it.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Standish, in visible surprise. “You know something about numismatics, then?”

“Just a little,” modestly admitted Brice. “In my work, one has to have a smattering of it. For instance–if I remember rightly–there are only three of these 1804 silver dollars generally known to be in existence. That is why collectors are ready to pay a fortune for authentic specimens of them, in good condition. Yes, a smattering of numismatics may come in handy, at times. So does sailor lore. It did, for instance, with a chap I used to know. He had read up, on this special dollar. He was dead-broke. He was passing the Gloucester waterfront, one day, and saw a dockful of rotting old schooners that were being sold at auction for firewood and for such bits of their metal as weren’t rusted to pieces. He read the catalog. Then he telegraphed to me to wire him a loan of one hundred dollars. For the catalog gave the date of one schooner’s building as 1804. He knew it used to be a hard-and-fast custom of ship-builders to put a silver dollar under the mainmast of every vessel they built, a dollar of that particular year. He bought the schooner for $70. He spent ten dollars in hiring men to rip out her mast. Under it was an 1804 dollar. He sold it for $3,600.”

“Since you know so much about the 1804 dollar,” went on Milo, catechizingly, “perhaps you know why it is so rare? Or perhaps you didn’t add a study of American history to your numismatics?”

“The commonly accepted story goes,” said Brice, taking no heed of the sneer, “that practically the whole issue of 1804 dollars went toward the payment of the Louisiana Purchase money, when Uncle Sam paid Napoleon Bonaparte’s government a trifle less than $15,000,000 (or under four cents an acre) for the richest part of the whole United States. Payment was made in half a dozen different forms,–in settlement of anti-French claims and in installment notes, and so forth. But something between a million and two million dollars of it is said to have been paid in silver.”

“Are you a schoolmaster, Mr. Brice?” queried Milo, who seemed unable to avoid sneering in futile fashion at the man who was dominating his wavering willpower.

“No, Mr. Standish,” coolly replied the other. “I am Gavin Brice, of the United States Secret Service.”

Standish’s bearded jaw dropped. He glanced furtively about him, like a trapped rat. Gavin continued, authoritatively:

“You’ve nothing to fear from me, as long as you play straight. And I’m here to see that you shall. Two hours ago, I was for renouncing my life-work and throwing over my job. Never mind why. I’ve changed my mind, now. I’m in this thing to the finish. With Hade out of the game, I can see my way through.”

“But–“

“Now I’ll finish the yarn you were so gradually leading up to with those schoolboy questions of yours. French statesmen claimed, last year, that something over a million dollars of the Louisiana purchase money was never paid to France. That was money, in the form of silver dollars, which went by sea. In skirting the Florida coast–probably on the way from some mint or treasury in the South–one or more of the treasure ships parted from their man-o’-war escorts in a hurricane, and went aground on the southeastern Florida reefs. The black pirate, Caesar, and his cutthroats did the rest.

“This was no petty haul, such as Caesar was accustomed to, and it seems to have taken his breath away. He and his crew carried it into Caesar’s Estuary–not Caesar’s Creek–an inlet, among the mangrove swamps. They took it there by night, and sank it in shallow water, under the bank. There they planned to have it until it might be safe to divide it and to scatter to Europe or to some place where they could live in safety and in splendor. Only a small picked crew of Caesar’s knew the hiding place. And, by some odd coincidence, every man of them died of prussic acid poisoning, at a booze-feast that Caesar invited them to, at his shack down on Caesar’s creek, a month later. Then, almost at once afterward, as you’ve probably heard, Caesar himself had the bad luck to die with extreme suddenness.

“The secret was lost. Dozens of pirates and of wreckers –ancestors of the conchs–knew about the treasure. But none of them could find it.

“There was a rumor that Caesar had written instructions about it, on the flyleaf of a jeweled prayer book that was part of some ship’s loot. But his heirs sold or hocked the prayer-book, at St. Augustine or Kingston or Havana, before this story reached them. None of them could have read it, anyhow. Then, last year, Rodney Hade happened upon that book, (with the jewels all pried out of the cover, long ago), in a negro cabin on Shirley Street, at Nassau, after hunting for it, off and on, for years. The Government had been hunting for it, too, but he got to it a week ahead of us. That was how we found who had it. And that is why we decided to watch him …. Do you want me to keep on prattling about these things, to convince you I’m what I say I am? Or have you had enough?

“For instance, do you want me to tell you how Hade wound his web around a blundering fool whose help and whose hidden path and tunnel and caches he needed, in order to make sure of the treasure? Or is it enough for me to say the dollars belong to the United States
Government, and that Uncle Sam means to have them back?”

Standish still gaped at him, with fallen jaw and bulging eyes. Gavin went on:

“Knowing Hade’s record and his cleverness as I do, I can guess how he was going to swing the hoard when he finished transporting all of it to safety. Probably, he’d clear up a good many thousand dollars by selling the coins, one at a time, secretly, to collectors who would think he was selling them the only 1804 dollar outside the three already known to be in existence. When that market was glutted, he was due to melt down the rest of the dollars into bar silver. Silver is high just now, you know. Worth almost double what once it was. The loot ought to have been much the biggest thing in his speckled career. How much of it he was intending to pass along to you, is another question. By the way–the three canvas bags he left out by the kiosk ought to do much toward whetting the Caesars’ appetite for the rest. It may even key them up to rushing the house before morning.”

“We’ll be ready for them!” spoke up Standish, harshly, as though glad to have a prospect of restoring his broken self-respect by such a clash.

“Quite so,” agreed Gavin, smiling at the man’s new ardor for battle. “It would be a pleasant little brush–if it weren’t for your sister. Miss Standish has seen about enough of that sort of thing for one night. If she weren’t a thoroughbred, with the nerves of a thoroughbred and the pluck as well, she’d be a wreck, from what has happened already. More of it might be seriously bad for her.”

Standish glowered. Then he lifted his bulky body from the low chair and crossed the hall to the telephone. Taking the receiver from the hook, he said sulkily to Brice:

“Maybe you’re right. I have a couple of night watchmen patrolling the road, above and below. I’ll phone to the agency to send me half a dozen more, to clear the grounds. I’d phone the police about it, but I don’t like–“

“Don’t like to lock the stable door after the horse is stolen?” suggested Brice. “Man, get it into that thick skull of yours that the time for secrecy is past! Your game is up. Hade is dead. Your one chance is to play out the rest of this hand with your cards on the table. The Government knows you are only the dupe. It will let you off, if the money is–“

“What in blue blazes is the matter with Central?” growled Milo, whanging the receiver-hook up and down in vexation. “Is she dead?”

Gavin went over to him and took the receiver out of his hand. Listening for a moment, he made answer:

“I don’t believe Central is dead. But I know this phone is. Our Caesar friends seem to be more sophisticated than I thought. They’ve cut the wires, from outside.”

“H’m!” grunted Milo. “That means we’ve got to play a lone hand. Well, I’m not sorry. I–“

“Not necessarily,” contradicted Gavin. “I’d rather have relied on the local watchmen, of course. But their absence needn’t bother us, overmuch.”

“What do you mean?”

Before Gavin could answer, a stifled cry from the hallway above brought both men to attention. It was followed by a sound of lightly running feet. And Claire Standish appeared at the stair-top. She was deathly pale, and her dark eyes were dilated with terror.

Gavin ran up the steps to meet her. For she swayed perilously as she made her way down toward the men.

“What is it?” demanded Milo, excitedly. “What’s happened?”

Claire struggled visibly to regain her composure. Then, speaking with forced calmness, she said:

“I’ve just seen a ghost! Rodney Hade’s ghost!”

The two looked at her in dumb incomprehension. Then, without a word, Milo wheeled and strode to the window from which they had watched the tragedy. Opening the shutter, he peered out into the moonlight.

“Hade’s still lying where he fell,” he reported, tersely. “They haven’t even bothered to move him. You were dreaming. If–“

“I wasn’t asleep,” she denied, a trace of color beginning to creep back into her blanched cheeks. “I had just lain down. I heard–or thought I heard–a sound on the veranda roof. I peeped out through the grill of the shutter. There, on the roof, not ten feet away from me, stood Rodney Hade. He was dressed in rags. But I recognized him. I saw his face, as clearly as I see yours. He–“

“One of the Caesars,” suggested Brice. “They found the lower windows barred and they sent some one up, to see if there was any ingress by an upper window. The porch is easy to climb, with all those vines. So is the whole house, for that matter. He–“

“It was Rodney Hade!” she insisted, shuddering. “I saw his face with the moonlight on it–“

“And with a few unbecoming scratches on it, too, from the underbrush and from those porch vines,” chimed in a suave voice from the top of the stairs. “Milo, next time you bar your house, I suggest you don’t forget and leave the cupola window open. If it was easy for me to climb up there from the veranda roof, it would be just as easy for any of our friends out yonder.”

Down the stairs–slowly, nonchalantly,–lounged Rodney Hade.

His classic mask of a face was marred by one or two scratches and by a smudge of dirt. But it was as calm and as eternally smiling as ever. In place of his wontedly correct, if garish, form of dress, he was clad in ragged calico shirt and soiled drill trousers whose lower portions were in ribbons. All of which formed a ludicrous contrast to his white buckskin yachting shoes and his corded white silk socks.

Claire and the two men stood staring up at him in utter incredulity. Bobby Burns broke the spell by bounding snarlingly toward the unkempt intruder.

Brice absentmindedly caught the dog’s collar as Bobby streaked past him on his punitive errand.

“Hade!” croaked Standish, his throat sanded with horror. ‘”‘Hade! I–we–we saw you–murdered!”

Hade laughed pleasantly.

“Perhaps the wish was father to the thought?” he hinted, with an indulgent twinkle in his perpetual smile. “I hate mysteries. Here’s an end to this one I was on my way along the path, when a young fellow came whirling around a bend and collided with me. The impact knocked him off his feet. I collared him. He didn’t want to talk. But,” the smile twisting upward at one corner of the mouth in a look which did not add to the beauty of the ascetic face, “I used persuasion. And I found what was going on here. I stripped off my outer clothes, and made him put them on. Then I put my yachting cap on him and pulled it low over his eyes. And I bandaged his mouth with my handkerchief, to gag him. Then I walked him along, ahead of me. I gave the signal. And I stuck my cigarette in his hand and shoved him through the screen of vines. They finished him, poor fool! I had no outer clothes of my own. So I went back and put on his. Then I slipped through that chuckle-headed aggregation out there and–here I am.”

As he finished speaking, he turned his icy smile upon Gavin Brice.

“Roke signaled a fruit boat, Mr. Brice,” said he, “and came over to where my yacht was lying, to tell me you had gotten loose. That was why I came here, tonight. He seems to think you know more than a man should know and yet stay alive. And, as a rule, he is apt to be right. He–“

“Miss Standish,” interposed Gavin, “would you mind very much, going into some other room? This isn’t a pleasant scene for you.”

“Stay where you are, for a minute, Claire!” commanded Milo, shaking off a lethargy of wonder which had settled upon him, at sight of his supposedly dead tyrant. “I want you to hear what I’ve got to say. And I want you to endorse it. I’ve had a half hour of freedom. And it’s meant too much to me, to let me go back into the hell I’ve lived through, this past few months.”

He wheeled about on the newcomer and addressed him, speaking loudly and rapidly in a voice hoarse with rage:

“Hade, I’m through! Get that? I’m through! You can foreclose on my home here, and you can get me sent to prison for that check I was insane enough to raise when I had no way out of the hole. But I’m through. It isn’t worth it. Nothing is worth having to cringe and cheat for. I’m through cringing to you. And I’m through cheating the United States Government. You weren’t content with making me do that. You tried, to-day, to make me a murderer–to make me your partner in the death of the man who had saved my life. When I found that out–when I learned what you could stoop to and could drag me to,–I swore to myself to cut free from you, for all time. Now, go ahead and do your dirtiest to me and to mine. What I said, goes. And it goes for my sister, too. Doesn’t it, dear girl?”

For answer, Claire caught her brother’s big hand in both of hers, and raised it to her lips. A light of happiness transfigured her face. Milo pulled away his hand, bashfully, his eyes misting at her wordless praise for his belatedly manly action.

“Good!” he approved, passing his arm about her and drawing her close to him. “I played the cur once, this evening. It’s good to know I’ve had enough pluck to do this one white thing, to help make up for it.”

He faced Gavin, head thrown back, giant shoulders squared, eyes alight.

“Mr. Brice,” he said, clearly. “Through you, I surrender to the United States Government. I’ll make a signed confession, any time you want it. I’m your prisoner.”

Gavin shook his head.

“The confession will be of great service, later,” said he, “and, as state’s evidence, it will clear you from any danger of punishment. But you’re not my prisoner. Thanks to your promise of a confession. I have a prisoner, here. But it is not you.”

“No?” suavely queried Hade, whose everlasting smile had not changed and whose black eyes remained as serene as ever, through the declaration of rebellion on the part of his satellite. “If Standish is not your prisoner, he’ll be the State of Florida’s prisoner, by this time to-morrow, when I have lodged his raised check with the District Attorney. Think that over, Standish, my dear friend. Seven years for forgery is not a joyous thing, even in a Florida prison. Here, in the community where your family’s name has been honored, it will come extra hard. And on Claire, here, too. Mightn’t it be better to think that over, a minute or so, before announcing your virtuous intent? Mightn’t–“

“Don’t listen to him, Milo!” cried the girl, seizing Standish’s hand again in an agony of appeal, and smiling encouragingly up into his sweating and irresolute face. “We’ll go through any disgrace, together. You and I. And after it’s all over, I’ll give up my whole life to making you happy, and helping you to get on your feet again.”

“There’ll be no need for that, Miss Standish,” said Brice. “Of course, Hade can foreclose his mortgage on your half- brother’s property and call in Standish’s notes,–if he’s in a position to do it, which I don’t think he will be. But, as for the raised check, why, he’s threatening Standish with an empty gun. Hade, if ever you get home again, look in the compartment of your strongbox where you put the red-sealed envelope with Standish’s check in it. The envelope is still there. So are the seals. The check is not. You can verify that, for yourself, later, perhaps. In the meantime, take my word for it.”

A cry of delight from Claire–a groan from Standish that carried with it a world of supreme relief–broke in upon Gavin’s recital. Paying no heed to either of his hosts, Brice walked across to the unmovedly smiling Hade, and placed one hand on the latter’s shoulder.

“Mr. Hade,” said he, quietly, “I am an officer of the Federal Secret Service. I place you under arrest, on charges of–“

With a hissing sound, like a striking snake’s, Rodney Hade shook off the detaining hand. In the same motion, he leaped backward, drawing from his torn pocket an automatic pistol.

Brice, unarmed, stood for an instant looking into the squat little weapon’s black muzzle, and at the gleaming black eyes in the ever-smiling white face behind it.

He was not afraid. Many times, before, had he faced leveled guns, and, like many another war-veteran, he had outgrown the normal man’s dread of such weapons.

But as he was gathering his strength for a spring at his opponent, trusting that the suddenness and unexpectedness of his onset might shake the other’s aim, Rodney Hade took the situation into his own hands.

Not at random had he made that backward leap. Still covering Gavin with his pistol, he flashed one hand behind him and pressed the switch-button which controlled the electric lights in the hallway and the adjoining rooms.

Black darkness filled the place. Brice sprang forward through the dark, to grapple with the man. But Hade was nowhere within reach of Brice’s outflung arms. Rodney had slipped, snakelike, to one side, foreseeing just such a move on the part of his foe.

Gavin strained his ears, to note the man’s direction. But Milo Standish was thrashing noisily about in an effort to locate and seize the fugitive. And the racket his huge body made in hitting against furniture and in caroming off the walls and doors, filled the hall with din.

Remembering at last the collie’s presence in that mass of darkness, Gavin shouted:

“Bobby! Bobby Burns! Take him!”

From somewhere in the gloom, there was a beast-snarl and a scurry of clawed feet on the polished floor. At the same time the front door flew wide.

Silhouetted against the bright moonlight, Brice had a momentary glimpse of Hade, darting out through the doorway, and of a tawny-and-white canine whirlwind flying at the man’s throat.

But Brice’s shout of command had been a fraction of a second too late. Swiftly as had the collie obeyed, Rodney Hade had already reached and silently unbarred the door, by the time the dog got under way. And, as Bobby Burns sprang, the door slammed shut in his face, leaving the collie growling and tearing at the unyielding panels.

Then it was that Claire found the electric switch, with her groping hands, and pressed the button. The hall and its adjoining rooms were flooded with light, revealing the redoubtable Bobby Burns hurling himself again and again at the closed door.

Gavin shoved the angry dog aside, and opened the portal. He sprang out, the dog beside him. And as they did so, both of them crashed into a veranda couch which Hade, in escaping, had thrust across the closed doorway in anticipation of just such a move.

Over went the couch, under the double impetus. By catching at the doorway frame, Gavin barely managed to save himself from a nasty fall. The dog disentangled himself from an avalanche of couch cushions and made furiously for the veranda steps.

But Brice summoned him back. He was not minded to let Bobby risk life from knife-cut or from strong, strangling hands, out there in the perilous shadows beyond the lawn. And he knew the futility of following Hade, himself, among merciless men and through labyrinths with whose’ windings Rodney was far more familiar than was he. So, reluctantly, he turned back into the house. A glance over the moonlit lawn revealed no sign of the fugitive.

“I’m sorry,” he said to Standish, as he shut the door behind him and patted the fidgetingly excited Bobby Burns on the head. “I may never have such a good chance at him again. And your promise of a confession was the thing that made me arrest him. Your evidence would have been enough to convict him. And that’s the only thing that could have convicted him or made it worth while to arrest him. He’s worked too skillfully to give us any other hold on him …. I was a thick-witted idiot not to think, sooner, of calling to Bobby. I’d stopped him, once, when he went for Hade, and of course he wouldn’t attack again, right away, without leave. A dog sees in the dark, ten times as well as any man does. Bobby was the solution. And I forgot to use him till it was too late. With a collie raging at his throat, Hade would have had plenty of trouble in getting away, or even in using his gun. Lord, but I’m a dunce!”

“You’re–you’re,–splendid!” denied Claire, her eyes soft and shining and her cheeks aglow. “You faced that pistol without one atom of fear. And I could see your muscles tensing for a spring, right at him, before the light went out.”

Gavin Brice’s heart hammered mightily against his ribs, at her eager praise. The look in her eyes went to his brain. Through his mind throbbed the exultant thought:

“She saw my muscles tense as he aimed at me. That means she was looking at me! Not at him. Not even at the pistol. She couldn’t have done that, unless–unless–“

“What’s to be done, now?” asked Milo, turning instinctively to Gavin for orders.

The question brought the dazedly joyous man back to his senses. With exaggerated matter-of-factness, he made reply:

“Why, the most sensible thing we can all do just now is to eat dinner. A square meal works wonders in bracing people up. Miss Standish, do you think you can rouse the maids to an effort to get us some sort of food? If not, we can forage for ourselves, in the icebox. What do you think?”

* * * * * * *

Two hours later–after a sketchy meal served by trembling-handed servants–the trio were seated in the music-room. Over and over, a dozen times, they had reviewed their position, from all angles. And they had come to the conclusion that the sanest thing to do was to wait in comfortable safety behind stoutly shuttered windows until the dawn of day should bring the place’s laborers back to work. Daylight, and the prospect of others’ presence on the grounds, was certain to disperse the Caesars. And it would be ample time then to go to Miami and to safer quarters, while Gavin should start the hunt after Rodney Hade. The two men had agreed to divide the night into watches.

“One of the torpedo-boat destroyers down yonder, off Miami, can ferret out Hade’s yacht and lay it by the heels, in no time,” explained Brice. “His house is watched, always, lately. And every port and railroad will be watched, too. The chief reason I want to get hold of him is to find where he has sent the treasure. You have no idea, either of you?”

“No,” answered Milo. “He explained to me that he was sending it North, to a place where nobody could possibly find it, and that, as soon as it was all there, he’d begin disposing of it. Then we were to have our settlement, after it was melted down and sold.”

“Who works with him? I mean, who helps him bring the stuff here? Who, besides you, I mean?”

“Why, his yacht-crew,” said Milo. “They’re all picked men of his own. Men he has known for years and has bound to himself in all sorts of ways. He has only eleven of them, for it’s a small yacht. But he says he owns the souls of each and every one of the lot. He pays them double wages and gives them a fat bonus on anything he employs them on. They’re nearly all of them men who have done time, and–“

“A sweet aggregation for this part of the twentieth century!” commented Gavin. “I wish I’d known about all that,” he added, musingly. “I supposed you and one or two men like Roke were the only–“

“Roke is more devoted to him than any dog could be,” said Claire. “He worships him. And, speaking of dogs, I left Bobby Burns in the kitchen, getting his supper. I forgot all about him.”

She set down Simon Cameron, who was drowsing in her lap, and got to her feet. As she did so, a light step sounded in the hallway, outside. Gavin jumped up and hurried past her.

He was just in time to see Rodney Hade cross the last yard or so of the hallway, and unlock and open the front door.

The man had evidently entered the house from above, though all the shutters were still barred and the door from the cupola had later been locked. Remembering the flimsy lock on that door, Gavin realized how Hade could have made an entrance.

But why Hade was now stealing to the front door and opening it, was more than his puzzled brain could grasp. All this flashed through Brice’s mind, as he caught sight of his enemy, and at the same time he was aware that Hade was no longer clad in rags, but wore a natty white yachting suit.

Before these impressions had had full time to register themselves on Gavin’s brain, he was in motion. This time, he was resolved, the prey should not slip through his fingers.

As Brice took the first forward-springing step, Hade finished unfastening the door and flung it wide.

In across the threshold poured a cascade of armed men. Hard-faced and tanned they were, one and all, and dressed as yacht sailors.

Then Gavin Brice knew what had happened, and that his own life was not worth a chipped plate.

CHAPTER X

THE GHOST TREE

Claire Standish had followed Brice to the curtained doorway of the library. She, too, had heard the light step in the hall. Its sound, and the galvanizing effect it had had on Gavin, aroused her sharp interest.

She reached the hallway just in time to see Hade swing open the door and admit the thronging group of sailors from his yacht.

But not even the sight of Hade, and these ruffians of his, astounded her as did the action of Gavin Brice.

Brice had been close behind Hade as the door swung wide. His incipient rush after his enemy had carried him thus far, when the tables had so suddenly been turned against him and the Standishes.

Now, without pausing in his onward dash, he leaped past Hade and straight among the in-pouring sailors.

Hade had not been aware of Brice’s presence in the hall. The sailors’ eyes were momentarily dazzled by the brightness of the lights. Thus, they did not take in the fact of the plunging figure, in time to check its flight.

Straight through their unprepared ranks Gavin Brice tore his way. So might a veteran football halfback smash a path through the rushline of a vastly inferior team.

Hade cried out to his men, and drew his pistol. But even as he did so, the momentarily glimpsed Gavin was lost to his view, amid the jostling and jostled sailors.

Past the loosely crowding men, Brice ripped his way, and out onto the veranda which he cleared at a bound. Then, running low, but still at top speed, he sped around the bottom of the porch, past the angle of the house and straight for the far side.

He did not make for the road, but for the enclosure into which he had peeped that morning, and for the thick shade which shut off the moon’s light.

Now, he ran with less caution. For, he knew the arrival of so formidable a body of men must have been enough to send the Caesars scattering for cover.

Before he reached the enclosure he veered abruptly to one side, dashing across a patch of moonlit turf, and heading for the giant live oak that stood gauntly in its center.

Under the “Ghost Tree’s” enormous shade he came to a stop, glancing back to see if the direction of his headlong flight had been noted. Above him towered the mighty corpse of what had once been an ancestral tree. He remembered how it had stood there, bleakly, under the morning sunlight,–its myriad spreading branches and twigs long since killed by the tons of parasitical gray moss which festooned its every inch of surface with long trailing masses of dead fluff.

Not idly had Brice studied that weird tree and its position. Now, standing beneath its black shade, he drew forth a matchbox he had taken from the smoking table after dinner.

Cautiously striking a match and shielding it in his cupped palms, he applied the bit of fire to the lowest hanging spray of the avalanche of dead gray moss.

A month of bone-dry weather had helped to make his action a success. The moss ignited at first touch of the match. Up along the festoon shot a tongue of red flame. The nearest adjoining branch’s burden of moss caught the fiery breath and burst into blaze.

With lightning speed, the fire roared upward, the branches to either side blazing as the outsputtering flames kissed them.

In a little more than a breath, the gigantic tree was a roaring sheet of red-and-gold-fire, a ninety-foot torch which sent its flood of lurid light to the skies above and made the earth for a radius of two hundred yards as bright as day.

Far out to sea that swirling tower of scarlet flame hurled its illumination. For miles on every hand it could be seen. The sound of its crackle and hiss and roar was deafening. The twigs, dry and dead, caught fire from the surrounding blaze of moss, and communicated their flame to the thicker branches and to the tree’s towering summit.

And thus the fierce vividness of blazing wood was added to the lighter glare of the inflammable moss.

The spectacle was incredibly beautiful, but still more awesome and terrifying. The crackle and snap of burning wood broke forth on the night air like the purr of fifty machine guns.

But Gavin Brice had not waited to gaze on what was perhaps the most marvelous display of pyrotechnics ever beheld on the Florida coast. At first touch of flame to the first festoon of moss, he had taken to his heels.

Claire Standish gazed in unbelieving horror at the seemingly panic flight of the man who had so strangely dominated her life and her brother’s, during these past few hours. He had faced death at Rodney Hade’s pistol, he had been lazily calm at the possibility of a rush from the Caesars. He had shown himself fearless, amusedly contemptuous of danger. Yet here be was fleeing for his very life and leaving the Standishes at the mercy of the merciless!

More,–unless she had deceived herself, grossly, Claire had seen in his eyes the lovelight that all his assumption of indifference had not been able to quench. She had surprised it there, not once but a score of times. And it had thrilled her, unaccountably. Yet, in spite of that, he was deserting her in her moment of direst peril!

Then, through her soul surged the gloriously, divinely, illogical Faith that is the God-given heritage of the woman who loves. And all at once she knew this man had not deserted her, that right blithely he would lay down his life for her. That, somehow or other, he had acted for her good. And a feeling of calm exultation filled her.

Hade stood in the doorway, barking sharp commands to several of his men, calling to them by name. And at each call, they obeyed, like dogs at their master’s bidding. They dashed off the veranda, in varying directions, at a lurching run, in belated pursuit of the fleeing Brice.

Then, for the first time, Hade faced about and confronted the unflinching girl and Standish who had lumbered dazedly out of the library and who stood blinking at Claire’s side.

Lifting his yachting cap, with exaggerated courtesy, Hade bowed to them. The eternal smile on his face was intensified, as he glanced from one to the other of the pair.

“Well,” he said, and his black eyes strayed as if by accident to Claire’s face, “our heroic friend seems to have cracked under the strain, eh? Cut and ran, like a rabbit. Frankly, my dear Milo, you’d do better to put your reliance on me. A man who will run away,–with a woman looking on, too–and leaving you both in the lurch, after promising to–“

There was a clatter on the veranda, and Roke’s enormous bulk shouldered its way through what was left of the group of sailors, his roustabout costume at ugly variance with their neat attire.

“Did you find him?” demanded Hade, turning at the sound.

“No!” panted Roke, in keen excitement. “But we’d better clear out, Boss! All Dade County’s liable to be here in another five minutes. The old Ghost Tree’s on fire. Listen! You can hear–“

He finished his staccato speech by lifting his hand for silence. And, in the instant’s hush could be heard the distant roar of a million flames.

“He didn’t desert us!” cried the girl, in ecstatic triumph. “I knew he didn’t! I knew it! He–“

But Hade did not stop to hear her. At a bound he reached the veranda and was on the lawn below, running around the side of the house with his men trailing at his heels.

Out in the open, he halted, staring aghast at the column of fire that soared heavenward and filled the night with lurid brightness. Back to him, one by one, came the four sailors he had sent in pursuit of Gavin. And, for a space, all stood gazing in silence at the awesome spectacle.

Roke broke the spell by tugging at Hade’s coat, and urging eagerly:

“Best get out, at the double-quick, Boss! This blaze is due to bring folks a-runnin’, an’–!”

“Well?” inquired Hade, impatiently. “What then? They’ll find us looking at a burning tree. Is there any law against that? I brought you and the crew ashore, to-night, to help shift some heavy furniture that came from up North last week. On the way, we saw this tree and stopped to look at it. Where’s the crime in that? You talk like a–“

“But if the Standishes blab–“

“They won’t. That Secret Service sneak has bolted. Without him to put backbone in them, they’ll eat out of my hand. Don’t worry. They–“

“Here comes some of the folks, now,” muttered Roke, as running figures began to appear from three sides. “We’d be safer to–“

His warning ended in a gurgle of dismay.

From three points the twenty-five or thirty new arrivals continued to run forward. But, at a word from some one in front of them, they changed their direction, and wheeled in triple column, almost with the precision of soldiers.

The shift of direction brought them converging, not upon the tree, but upon the group of sailors that stood around Hade. It was this odd change of course which had stricken Roke dumb.

And now he saw these oncomers were not farmhands or white-clad neighbors, and that there were no women among them. They were men in dark clothes, they were stalwart of build and determined of aspect.. There was a certain confident teamwork and air of professionalism about them that did not please Roke at all. Again, he caught at his master’s arm. But he was too late.

Out of nothingness, apparently, darted a small figure, directly behind the unsuspecting Hade. It was as though he had risen from the earth itself.

With lightning swiftness, he attached himself to Rodney’s throat and right arm, from behind. Hade gave a convulsive start, and, with his free hand reached back for his pistol. At the same time Roke seized the dwarfish stranger.

Then, two things happened, at once.

Roke wallowed backward, faint with pain and with one leg numb to the thigh, from an adroit smiting of his instep. The little assailant’s heel had come down with trained force on this nerve center. And, for the moment, Roke was not only in agony but powerless.

The second thing to happen was a deft twist from the imprisoning arm that was wrapped around Hade’s throat from behind. At the pressure, Rodney’s groping hand fell away from his pistol pocket, and he himself toppled, powerless, toward the ground, the skilled wrench of the carotid artery and the nerves at the side of the throat paralyzing him with pain.

Roke, rolling impotently on the earth, saw the little fellow swing Hade easily over his shoulder and start for the house. At the same time, he noted through his semi-delirium of agony that the stalwart men had borne down upon the knot of gaping sailors, and, at pistol-muzzle, had disarmed and handcuffed them.

It was all over in less than, fifteen seconds. But not before Roke’s beach combing wits could come to the aid of his tortured body. Doubling himself into a muscular ball, he rolled swiftly under the shadow of a sprawling magnolia sapling, crouching among the vine roots which surround it. There, unobserved, he lay, hugging the dark ground as scientifically as any Seminole, and moving not an eyelash.

From that point of vantage, he saw the dark-clothed men line up their sullen prisoners and march them off to the road, where, a furlong below, the fire revealed the dim outlines of several motor cars. Other men, at the direction of the same leader who had commanded the advance, trooped toward the house. And, as this leader passed near the magnolia, Roke knew him for Gavin Brice.

From the edge of the veranda, Claire and Standish had witnessed the odd drama. Wordless, stricken dumb with amazement, they gazed upon the fire-illumined scene. Then, toiling across the grass toward them came the little man who had overcome Rodney Hade. On his shoulders, as unconcernedly as if he were bearing a light sack, he carried the inert body of his victim. Straight past the staring brother and sister he went, and around the house to the front steps.

Milo started to follow. But Claire pointed toward a clump of men who were coming along not far behind the little burden-bearer. At their head, hurried some one whose figure was silhouetted against the waning tree-glare. And both the watchers recognized him.

Nearing the veranda, Brice spoke a few words to the men with him. They scattered, surrounding the house. Gavin came on alone. Seeing the man and girl above him, he put his hands up to the rail and vaulted lightly over it, landing on the floor beside them.

“Come!” he said, briefly, leading the way around the porch to the front door.

They followed, reaching the hallway just in time to see the little man deposit his burden on the couch. And both of them cried-out in astonishment. For the stripling who had reduced Rodney Hade to numb paralysis was Sato, their own recreant Japanese butler.

At sight of them, he straightened himself up from the couch and bowed. Then, in flawless English,–far different from the pigeon-talk he had always used for their benefit,–he said respectfully, to Gavin:

“I brought him here, as you said, sir. He’s coming around, all right. After the pressure is off the carotid, numbness doesn’t last more than two minutes.”

“Sato!” gasped Claire, unbelieving, while Milo gurgled, wordless. The erstwhile butler turned back to the slowly recovering Hade. Brice laughed at their crass astonishment.

“This is one of the best men in the Service,” he explained. “It was he who took a job under Hade and who got hold of that raised check. Hade passed him on to you, to spy for him. He–“

“But,” blithered Standish, “I saw him tackle Hade, before all the crew. He was playing with death. Yet, when you tackled him, this evening, he was scared helpless.”

“He was ‘scared’ into coming into the room and asking in Japanese for my orders,” rejoined Brice. “I gave the orders, when you thought I was airing my Jap knowledge by bawling him out. I told him to collect the men we’d posted, to phone for others, and to watch for the signal of the burning tree. If the Caesars weren’t going to attack in force, I saw no need in filling the house with Secret Service agents. But if they should attack, I knew I could slip out, as far as that tree, without their catching me. When Hade’s tea-party arrived, instead, I gave the signal. It was Sato who got my message across to the key, this morning, too. As for my pitching him out of here, this evening,–well, it was he who taught me all I know of jiu-jutsu. He used to be champion of Nagasaki. If he’d chosen to resist, he could have broken my neck in five seconds. Sato is a wonder at the game.”

The Jap grinned expansively at the praise. Then he glanced at Hade and reported:

“He’s getting back his powers of motion, sir. He’ll be all right in another half-minute.”

Rodney Hade sat up, with galvanic suddenness, rubbing his misused throat and darting a swift snakelike glance about him. His eye fell on the three men between him and the door. Then, at each of the two hallway windows, he saw other men posted, on the veranda. And he understood the stark helplessness of his situation. Once more the masklike smile settled on his pallid face.

“Mr. Hade,” said Brice, “for the second time this evening, I beg to tell you you are my prisoner. So are your crew. The house is surrounded. Not by Caesars, this time, but by trained Secret Service men. I warn you against trying any charlatan tricks on them. They are apt to be hasty on the trigger, and they have orders to shoot if–“

“My dear Brice,” expostulated Hade, a trifle wearily, “if we were playing poker, and you held four aces to my two deuces- -would you waste breath in explaining to me that I was hopelessly beaten? I’m no fool. I gather that you’ve marched my men off to jail. May I ask why you made an exception of me? Why did you bring me back here?”

“Can’t you imagine?” asked Brice. “You say you’re no fool. Prove it. Prove it by -“

“By telling you where I have cached as much of the silver as we’ve jettisoned thus far?” supplemented Hade. “Of course, the heroic Standish will show you where the Caesar cache is, down there in the inlet. But I am the only man who knows where the three-quarter million or more dollars already salvaged, are salted down. And you brought me here to argue me into telling? May I ask what inducements you offer?”

“Certainly,” said Gavin, without a moment’s hesitation. “Though I wonder you have not guessed them.”

“Lighter sentence, naturally,” suggested Hade. “But is that all? Surely it’s a piker price for Uncle Sam to pay for a gift of nearly a million dollars. Can’t you better it?”

“I am not the court,” returned Brice, nettled. “But I think I can promise you a fifty per cent reduction in what would be the average sentence for such an offense, and a lighter job in prison than falls to the lot of most Federal criminals.”

“Good,” approved Hade, adding: “But not good enough. I’m still in the thirties. I’m tougher of constitution than I look. They can’t sentence me for more than a span of years. And when my term is up, I can enjoy the little batch of 1804 dollars I’ve laid by. I think I’ll take my chance, unless you care to raise the ante.”

Brice glanced around at the men who stood on the veranda. Then he lowered his voice, so as not to be heard by them.

“You are under courtmartial sentence of death as a spy, Mr. Hade,” he whispered. “The war is over. That sentence won’t be imposed, in full, I imagine, in times of peace. But your war record will earn you an extra sentence that will come close to keeping you in Atlanta Penitentiary for life. I believe I am the only member of the Department who knows that Major Heidenhoff of the Wilhelmstrasse and Rodney Hade are the same man. If I can be persuaded to keep that knowledge from my superiors, in return for full information as to where the 1804 dollars are cached–those you’ve already taken from the inlet–and if the mortgage papers on this place are destroyed –well–?”

“H’m!” mused Hade, his black eyes brooding and speculative. “H’m! That calls for a bit of rather careful weighing. How much time will you give me to think it over and decide? A week?”

“Just half an hour,” retorted Gavin. “My other men, who took your silly band of cutthroats to jail, ought to be back by then. I am waiting here till they report, and no longer. You have half an hour. And I advise you to make sane use of it.”

Hade got slowly to his feet. The smile was gone from his lips. His strange black eyes looked indescribably tired and old. There was a sag to his alert figure.

“It’s hard to plan a coup like mine,” he sighed, “and then to be bilked by a man with not one-tenth my brain. Luck was with you. Blind luck. Don’t imagine you’ve done this by your wits.”

As he spoke he shuffled heavily to the adjoining music-room, and let his dreary gaze stray toward its two windows. On the veranda, framed in the newly unshuttered window-space, stood four Secret Service men, grimly on guard.

Hade strode to one window after the other, with the cranky mien and action of a thwarted child, and slammed the shutters together, barring out the sinister sight of his guards. Gavin did not try to prevent him from this act of boyish spite. The master-mind’s reaction, in its hour of brokenness, roused his pity.

From the windows, Hade’s gloomy eyes strayed to the piano. On it lay a violin case. He picked it up and took out an age-mellowed violin.

“I think clearer when I play,” he said, glumly, to Brice. “And I’ve nearly a million dollars’ worth of thinking to do in this half hour. Is it forbidden to fiddle? Milo’s father paid $4,000 for this violin. It’s a genuine Strad. And it gives me peace and clear vision. May I play, or–?”

“Go ahead, if you want to,” vouchsafed Gavin, fancying he read the attempt of a charlatan to remain picturesque to the end. “Only get your thinking done, and come to a decision before the half hour is up. And, by the way, let me warn you again that those men out there have orders to shoot, if you make a move to escape.”

“No use in asking you to play my accompaniments, Claire?” asked Hade, in pathetic attempt at gayety as he walked to the hallway door. “No? I’m sorry. Nobody else ever played them as you do.”

He tried to smile. The effort was a failure. He yanked the curtains shut that hung between music room and hall. Then, at a gesture from Gavin, he pulled them halfway open again, and, standing in the doorway, drew his bow across the strings.

Gavin sat down on the long hall couch, a yard outside the music-room door, beside Claire and the still stupefied Milo. The Jap took up his position back of them, alert and tense as a fox terrier. The three Secret Service men in the front doorway stood at attention, yet evidently wondering at the prisoner’s queer freak.

From under the deftly wielded bow, the violin wailed forth into stray chords and phrases, wild, unearthly, discordant. Hade, his face bent over the instrument, swayed in time with its undisciplined rhythm.

Then, from dissonance and incoherence, the music merged into Gounod’s Ave Maria. And, from swaying, Hade began to walk. To and fro, urged by the melody, his feet strayed. Now he was in full view, between the half-open curtains. Now, he was hidden for an instant, and then he was crossing once more before the opening.

His playing was exquisite. More–it was authoritative, masterly, soaring. It gripped the hearers’ senses and heartstrings. The beauty and dreaminess of the Ave Maria flooded the air with loveliness. Brice listened, enthralled. Down Claire’s cheek rolled a teardrop, of whose existence she was not even aware.

The last notes of the melody throbbed away. Brice drew a long breath. Then, at once the violin spoke again. And now it sang forth into the night, in the Schubert Serenade,–gloriously sweet, a surge of passionate tenderness.

Back and forth, under the spell of his own music, wandered Hade. Then he stopped. Gavin leaned forward. He saw that Hade was leaning against the piano, as he played. His head was bowed over the instrument as though in reverence. His black eyes were dreamy and exalted. Gavin sat back on the couch and once more gave himself over to the mystic enthrallment of the music. The Serenade wailed itself into silence with one last hushedly exquisite tone. Brice drew a long breath, as of a man coming out of a trance.

Simon Cameron had jumped into Claire’s lap. But, receiving no attention from the music-rapt girl, the cat now dropped to the floor, and started toward the stairs.

At the same time, the violin sounded anew. And Gavin frowned in disappointment. For, no longer was it singing its heart out in the magic of an immortal melody. Instead, it swung into the once-popular strains of “Oh, Promise Me!”

And now it seemed as though Hade were wantonly making fun of his earlier beautiful playing and of the effect he must have known it had had upon his hearers. For he played heavily, monotonously, more like a dance-hall soloist than a master. And, as though his choice of an air were not sharp enough contrast to his other selections, he strummed amateurishly and without a shred of technique or of feeling.

Jarring as was the result upon Brice, it seemed even more so on Simon Cameron. The cat had stopped in his progress toward the stairs, and now stared round-eyed at the music-room doorway, his absurd little nostrils sniffing the air. Then, deliberately, Simon Cameron walked to the doorway and sat down there, his huge furry tail curled around round him, staring with idiotic intentness at the player.

Gavin noted the cat’s odd behavior. Simon Cameron was far too familiar with Hade’s presence in the house to give Rodney a second glance. Indeed, he had only jumped up into Claire’s lap, because the fascinatingly new Secret Service men at the front door smelt strongly of tobacco,–the smell a Persian cat hates above all others. But now, he was gazing in delighted interest at the violinist.

At the sight, a wild conjecture flashed into Gavin’s brain. With a sharp order to the Jap, he sprang up and rushed into the music room.

Leaning against the piano, playing the rebellious violin, was –Roke!

Rodney Hade had vanished.

The windows were still shuttered. No other door gave exit from the music room. There were no hangings, except the door-curtains, and there was no furniture behind which a child could hide unseen. Yet Hade was no longer there.

Roke laid aside his violin, at sight of Gavin and the Jap. At the former’s exclamation of amaze, two more of the Secret Service men left their post at the front door and ran in. The tramp of their hurrying feet made the guards outside the open windows of the music room fling wide the closed shutters. Clearly, Hade had not escaped past them.

Folding his arms, and grinning impudently at the astounded cordon of faces, Roke drawled:

“I just dropped in to say ‘Howdy’ to Mr. Standish. Nobody was around. So I made bold to pick up the fiddle and have a little spiel. I ain’t done any harm, and there’s nothing you-all can hold me on.”

For ten seconds nobody answered. Nobody spoke or moved. Then, Gavin Brice’s face went crimson with sudden fury at his own outwitting. He recalled the musical afternoon at Roustabout Key which his presence had interrupted, and Roke’s fanatical devotion to Hade.

“I begin to understand,” he said, his voice muffled in an attempt to subdue his anger. “You and Hade were fond of the violin, eh? And for some reason or other you long ago worked up a series of signals on it, as the mind-reader with the guitar-accompanist used to do in the vaudeville shows. Those discordant phrases he started off with were your signal to come to the rescue. And you came. But how did you come? And how did he go? Both by the same way, of course. But–there isn’t even a chimney-piece in the room.”

Once more, Roke grinned broadly. “I ain’t seen hide nor hair of Mr. Hade, not since this afternoon,” said he. “I been spendin’ the evenin’ over to Landon’s. Landon is a tryin’ to sell me his farm. Says the soil on it is so rich that he ships carloads of it up North, to use for fertilizer. Says–“

“Sato!” broke in Brice. “Can you make him talk? Miss Standish, will you please go somewhere else for five minutes? This is not going to be a pretty sight.”

As the girl turned, obediently yet reluctantly, from the room, the Jap, with a smile of perfect bliss on his yellow face, advanced toward Roke.

The big man wheeled, contemptuously, upon him. Sato sprang at him. With a hammerlike fist, Roke smote at the oncoming pigmy. The arm struck, to its full length. But it did not reach its mark, nor return to the striker’s side. By a queerly crablike shift of his wiry body, the Jap had eluded the blow, and had fastened upon the arm, above the elbow and at the wrist.

A cross-pull wrench of the Jap’s body brought a howl of pain from Roke and sent him floundering helplessly to his knees, while the merest leverage pressure from his conqueror held him there. But the Jap was doing more. The giant’s arm was bending backward and sideways at an impossible angle. Nor could its owner make a move to avert the growing unbearable torture. It was one of the simplest, yet one of the most effective and agonizing, holds in all jiujutsu.

Thirty seconds of it, and Roke’s bull-like endurance went to pieces under the strain. Raucously and blubberingly he screeched for mercy. The Jap continued happily to exert the cross-pull pressure.

“Will you speak up?” queried Brice, sickened at the sight, but steeling himself with the knowledge of the captive’s crimes and of the vast amount at stake.

Roke rolled his eyes horribly, grinding his yellowed teeth together to check his own cries. Then, sobbingly, he blurted:

“Yes! Lemme loose!”

“Not till you tell,” refused Gavin. “Quick, now!”

“Second panel from left-hand window,” moaned the stricken and anguished Roke. “Push beading up and then to right. He’s– he’s safe away, by now, anyway,” he blubbered, in self-justification of the confession which agony had wrung from him. “All you’ll get is the–the–“

And, the pain having eaten into his very brain, he yelled incoherently.

Ten minutes later, Milo Standish sought out his sister, in the upper room whither she had fled, in fear, to escape from the racket of Roke’s outcries.

“Listen!” he jabbered boyishly, in utter excitement. “Brice made him tell how Rodney got out! How d’you s’pose? One of the old panels, in the music room, slides back, and there’s a flight of stone steps down to a cellar that’s right alongside our regular cellar, with only a six inch cement-and-lath wall between. It leads out, to the tunnel. Right at that turn where the old-time shoring is. The shoring hides a little door. And we never dared move the props because we thought it held up the tunnel-roof. It’s all part of the old Indian-shelter stunts that this house’s builders were so daft about, a hundred years ago. Hade must have blundered on it or studied it out, one of those times when he used to go poking around in the tunnel, all by himself. And–“

“Did Mr. Brice find him?” interposed Claire.

“Not he!” said Milo, less buoyantly. “Rodney had a good ten minutes start of us. And with a start like that, they’ll never lay hands on him again. He’s got too much cleverness and he knows too many good hiding places. But Brice found the next best thing. You’d never guess! Rodney’s secret cache for the treasure was that walled-up cellar. It’s half full of canvas bags. Right under our feet, mind you, and we never knew a thing about it. I supposed he was shipping it North in some way. Roke says that Rodney kept it there because, when he got it all, he was going to foreclose and kick us out, and then dispose of it at his leisure. The swine!”

“Oh!”

“The crypt seems to have been a part of our own cellar till it was walled off. It–“

“But how in the world did Roke?”

“He was with the crew. Rodney and he went together to the yacht for them. The Secret Service men didn’t get him, in the round-up. He crept as close to the house as he dared. And he heard Rodney sounding the signal alphabet they had worked up, on the violin. He got into the tunnel and so to the cellar, and then sneaked up, and took Rodney’s place at fiddling. He seems to have been as willing to sacrifice himself for his master as any dog would have been. Or else he counted on Brice’s not having any evidence to hold him on.

“By the way, do you remember that conch, Davy, over at Roustabout Key? Brice says he’s a Secret Service man. He and Brice used to fish together, off the keys, when they were boys. Davy volunteered for the war. And Brice made good use of him, over there, and got him into the Secret Service when they came back. It’s all so queer–so–!”

“Is Mr. Brice still downstairs?” interrupted Claire, her eyes straying involuntarily toward the door of the room.

“No. He had to go. He left his good-byes for you. His work here is done. And he has to start for Washington on the 2 A.M. train from Miami. By the way, the best part of it all is that he says a fugitive from justice can’t bring legal proceedings in a civil court. So Rodney can never foreclose on us or take up those notes of mine. Lord, but that chap, Brice, is a wonder!”

Vital as was the news about the notes and the mortgage, Claire scarce heard it. In, her ears, and through the brain and heart of her, rang drearily the words:

“He had to go. He left his good-byes for you. His work here is done.”

His work was done! Yes. But was that to be all? Had the light in his eyes and the vibrant tremor in his voice as he talked with her–had these been part of his “work,” too? Was it all to end, like this,–and before it had begun?

To her own surprise and to her brother’s greater astonishment, the usually self-contained Claire Standish burst into a tempest of weeping.

“Poor, poor little girl!” soothed Milo. “It’s all been too much for you! No one could have stood up under such a strain. I’ll tell you what we’re going to do: We’re going to Miami, for a week or two, and have a jolly time and make you try to forget all this mystery and excitement. We’ll go to-morrow morning, if you say so.”

The Miami season was at its climax. The half-moon driveway outside the front entrance to the Royal Palm Hotel was crowded thick with waiting motor cars, whose occupants were at the hotel’s semi-weekly dance. On the brightlit front veranda men in white and in dinner-clothes and women in every hue of evening dress were passing to and fro. Elderly folk, sitting in deep porch chairs, watched through the long windows the gayly-moving dancers in the ballroom. Out through wide-open doors and windows pulsed the rhythmic music.

Above hung the great white stars in the blue-black Southern skies. The bay stretched glimmering and phosphorescent away from the palm-girt hotel gardens. The trade-winds set the myriad dry palm-fronds to rustling like the downpour of summer rain.

Up the steps from the gardens drifted promenaders and dancers, in groups or in twos and threes. Then, up the stairway moved a slender, white-clad figure, alone.

Claire Standish had sought to do as her brother had wished, and to forget, in the carefree life of the White City, the happenings she had been through. Dutifully she had come to Miami with him. Dutifully, for the past three days, she had joined him in such gayeties as he had suggested. Dutifully, to-night, she had come with him to this dance. And all the time her heart had been as heavy as lead.

Now, getting rid of her partner on some pretext, she had gone out into the softly illumined gardens to be alone with the yearning and heartache she could not shake off. Then, fearing lest Milo, or some other of the men she knew, might come in search of her and wonder at her desire to mope alone under the stars, she had turned back to the hotel.

As she mounted the last stair to the veranda, a man in dinner clothes stepped forward from one of the porch’s great white pillars, and advanced to meet her.

“There’s a corner table at the Cafe de la Paix, in Paris,” he greeted her, striving to control his voice and to speak lightly, “that every one on earth must pass by, sooner or later. The front veranda of the Royal Palm is like that. Soon or late, everybody crosses it. When I got back this afternoon, I heard you had left home and that you were somewhere in Miami. I couldn’t find you. So I came here–and waited.”

Claire had halted, at first sound of Gavin Brice’s pleasantly slow voice, and she stood facing him, wide-eyed and pale, her breath failing.

“I had to go to Washington to make my report,” said he, speaking low and fast. “I came back to you by the first train I could catch. Didn’t you know I would?”

“Yes,” she breathed, her gaze still lost in his. “Yes. I–I knew.”

And now she realized she had known, even while she had told herself she would never see him again.

“Come!” he said, gently, holding out his hand to her.

Unashamed, under the battery of a hundred curious eyes, she clasped the proffered hand. And, together, they turned back toward the sheltering dimness of the gardens.

THE END