The Treasure-Train by Arthur B. Reeve
XI. The Gun-Runner
"With the treaty ratified, if the deal goes through we'll all be rich."
Something about the remark which rose over the babel of voices arrested Kennedy's attention. For one thing, it was a woman's voice, and it was not the sort of remark to be expected from a woman, at least not in such a place.
Craig had been working pretty hard and began to show the strain. We had taken an evening off and now had dropped in after the theater at the Burridge, one of the most frequented midnight resorts on Broadway.
At the table next to us--and the tables at the Burridge were so close that one almost rubbed elbows with those at the next--sat a party of four, two ladies in evening gowns and two men in immaculate black and white.
"I hope you are right, Leontine," returned one of the men, with an English accent. "The natural place for the islands is under the American flag, anyway."
"Yes," put in the other; "the people have voted for it before. They want it."
It was at the time that the American and Danish governments were negotiating about the transfer of the Danish West Indies, and quite evidently they were discussing the islands. The last speaker seemed to be a Dane, but the woman with him, evidently his wife, was not. It was a curious group, worth more than a passing glance. For a moment Craig watched them closely.
"That woman in blue," he whispered, "is a typical promoter."
I recognized the type which is becoming increasingly frequent in Wall Street as the competition in financial affairs grows keener and women enter business and professional life.
There were plenty of other types in the brilliantly lighted dining-room, and we did not dwell long on the study of our neighbors. A few moments later Kennedy left me and was visiting another table. It was a habit of his, for he had hundreds of friends and acquaintances, and the Burridge was the place to which every one came.
This time I saw that he had stopped before some one whom I recognized. It was Captain Marlowe of the American Shipping Trust, to whom Kennedy had been of great assistance at the time of the launching of his great ship, the Usona. Marlowe's daughter Marjorie was not with him, having not yet returned from her honeymoon trip, and he was accompanied by a man whose face was unfamiliar to me.
As I recognized who it was to whom Kennedy was speaking, I also rose and made my way over to the table. As I approached, the captain turned from Kennedy and greeted me cordially.
"Mr. Whitson," he introduced the man with him. "Mr. Whitson is sailing to-morrow for St. Thomas on the Arroyo. We're preparing to extend our steamship lines to the islands as soon as the formalities of the purchase are completed."
Marlowe turned again to Kennedy and went on with the remark he had evidently been making.
"Of course," I heard him say, "you know we have Mexico practically blockaded as far as arms and munitions go. Yet, Kennedy, through a secret channel I know that thousands of stands of arms and millions of rounds of ammunition are filtering in there. It's shameful. I can't imagine anything more traitorous. Whoever is at the bottom of it ought to swing. It isn't over the border that they are going. We know that. The troops are there. How is it, then?"
Marlowe looked at us as if he expected Kennedy to catch some one by pure reason. Kennedy said nothing, but it was not because he was not interested.
"Think it over," pursued Marlowe, who was a patriot above everything else. "Perhaps it will occur to you how you can be of the greatest service to the country. The thing is damnable-- damnable."
Neither Kennedy nor I having anything definite to contribute to the subject, the conversation drifted to the islands and Whitson's mission. Whitson proved to be very enthusiastic about it. He knew the islands well and had already made a trip there for Marlowe.
A few moments later we shook hands and returned to our own table. It was getting late and the only type that was left to study was the common Broadway midnight-life genus. We paid our check and were about to leave. For an instant we stopped at the coat-room to watch the late arrivals and the departing throng.
"Hello!" greeted a familiar voice beside us. "I've been looking all over town for you. They told me you had gone to the theater and I thought I might possibly find you here."
We turned. It was our old friend Burke, of the Secret Service, accompanied by a stranger.
"I'd like you to meet Mr. Sydney, the new special consular agent whom the government is sending to the Danish West Indies to investigate and report on trade conditions," he introduced. "We're off for St. Thomas on the Arroyo, which sails to-morrow noon."
"Great Scott!" ejaculated Kennedy. "Is everybody daffy over those little islands? What takes you down there, Burke?" Burke looked about hastily, then drew us aside into a recess in the lobby.
"I don't suppose you know," he explained, lowering his voice, "but since these negotiations began, the consular service has been keenly interested in the present state and the possibilities of the islands. The government sent one special agent there, named Dwight. Well, he died a few days ago. It was very suspicious, so much so that the authorities in the island investigated. Yet the doctors in the island have found no evidence of anything wrong, no poison. Still, it is very mysterious--and, you know," he hinted, "there are those who don't want us down there."
The Secret Service man paused as though he had put the case as briefly and pointedly as he could, then went on: "I've been assigned to accompany the new consul down there and investigate. I've no particular orders and the chief will honor any reasonable expense account--but--" He hesitated and stopped, looking keenly at Kennedy's face. I saw what he was driving at.
"Well--to come to the point--what I wanted to see you about, Kennedy, is to find out whether you would go with me. I think," he added, persuasively, "it would be quite worth your while. Besides, you look tired. You're working too hard. The change will do you good. And your conscience needn't trouble you. You'll be working, all right."
Burke had been quick to note the haggard expression on Kennedy's face and turn it into an argument to carry his point. Kennedy smiled as he read the other's enthusiasm. I would have added my own urging, only I knew that nothing but a sense of duty would weigh with Craig.
"I'd like to think the proposal over," he conceded, much to my surprise. "I'll let you know in the morning."
"Mind," wheedled Burke, "I won't take no for an answer. We need you."
The Secret Service man was evidently delighted by the reception Kennedy had given his scheme.
Just then I caught sight of the party of four getting their hats and wraps preparatory to leaving, and Kennedy eyed them sharply.
Marlowe and Whitson passed. As they did so I could not help seeing Whitson pause and shoot a quick glance at the four. It was a glance of suspicion and it was not lost on Craig. Did they know more of this Mexican gun-running business than Marlowe had hinted at? I watched Kennedy's face. Evidently his mind was at work on the same idea as mine.
Burke accompanied us almost all the way home, with Sydney adding his urging. I could tell that the whole combination of circumstances at the Burridge had had an effect on Kennedy.
I went to bed, tired, but through the night I knew Craig was engaged on some work about which he seemed to be somewhat secretive. When I saw him again in the laboratory, in the morning, he had before him a large packing-case of stout wood bound with steel bands.
"What's that?" I asked, mystified. He opened the lid, a sort of door, on which was a strong lock, and I looked inside.
"My traveling laboratory," he remarked, with pride.
I peered in more closely. It was a well-stocked armamentarium, as the doctors would have called it. I shall not make any attempt to describe its contents. They were too varied and too numerous, a little bit of everything, it seemed. In fact, Craig seemed to have epitomized the sciences and arts. It was not that he had anything so wonderful, or even comparable to the collection of his laboratory. But as I ran my eye over the box I would have wagered that from the contents he might have made shift to duplicate in some makeshift form almost anything that he might need. It was truly amazing, representing in miniature his study of crime for years.
"Then you are going with Burke to St. Thomas?" I queried, realizing the significance of it.
Kennedy nodded. "I've been thinking of what I would do if an important case ever called me away. Burke's proposal hurried me, that's all. And you are going, also," he added. "You have until noon to break the news to the Star."
I did not say anything more, fearful lest he might change his mind. I knew he needed the rest, and that no matter what the case was in the islands he could not work as hard as he was doing in New York.
Accordingly my own arrangements with the Star were easily made. I had a sort of roving commission, anyhow, since my close association with Kennedy. Moreover, the possibility of turning up something good in the islands, which were much in the news at the time, rather appealed to the managing editor. If Kennedy could arrange his affairs, I felt that the least I could do was to arrange my own.
Thus it came about that Craig and I found ourselves in the forenoon in a taxicab, on the front of which was loaded the precious box as well as our other hastily packed luggage, and we were on our way over to Brooklyn to the dock from which the Arroyo sailed.
Already the clearance papers had been obtained, and there was the usual last-moment confusion among the passengers as the hour for sailing approached. It seemed as if we had scarcely boarded the ship when Kennedy was as gay as a school-boy on an unexpected holiday. I realized at once what was the cause. The change of scene, the mere fact of cutting loose, were having their effect.
As we steamed slowly down the bay, I ran my eye over the other passengers at the rail, straining their eyes to catch the last glimpse of the towers of New York. There were Burke and Sydney, but they were not together, and, to all appearances, did not know each other. Sydney, of course, could not conceal his identity, nor did he wish to, no matter how beset with unseen perils might be his mission. But Burke was down on the passenger-list as, and had assumed the role of, a traveling salesman for a mythical novelty- house in Chicago. That evidently was part of the plan they had agreed on between themselves. Kennedy took the cue.
As I studied the various groups, I paused suddenly, surprised. There was the party which had sat at the table next to us at the Burridge the night before. Kennedy had already seen them and had been watching them furtively.
Just then Craig jogged my elbow. He had caught sight of Whitson edging his way in our direction. I saw what it was that Craig meant. He wanted purposely to avoid him. I wondered why, but soon I saw what he was up to. He wanted introductions to come about naturally, as they do on shipboard if one only waits.
On deck and in the lounging and smoking rooms it did not take long for him to contrive ways of meeting and getting acquainted with those he wished to know, without exciting suspicion. Thus, by the time we sat down to dinner in the saloon we were all getting fairly chummy.
We had met Burke quite as naturally as if we were total strangers. It was easy to make it appear that Whitson and Sydney were shipboard acquaintances. Nor was it difficult to secure an introduction to the other party of four. The girl whom we had heard addressed as Leontine seemed to be the leader of the group. Leontine Cowell was a striking personality. Her clear blue eyes directed a gaze at one which tested one's mettle to meet. I was never quite sure whether she remembered seeing us at the Burridge, whether she penetrated the parts we were playing. She was none the less feminine because she had aspirations in a commercial way. As Kennedy had first observed, she was well worth study.
Her companion, Barrett Burleigh, was a polished, deferential Englishman, one of those who seem to be citizens of the world rather than subjects of any particular country. I wondered what were the real relations of the two.
Jorgen Erickson was, as I had surmised, a Dane. He proved to be one of the largest planters in the island, already wealthy and destined to be wealthier if real estate advanced. The other woman, Nanette, was his wife. She was also a peculiarly interesting type, a Frenchwoman from Guadeloupe. Younger and more vivacious than her husband, her snappy black eyes betokened an attractive personality.
Leontine Cowell, it seemed, had been in the islands not long before, had secured options on some score of plantations at a low figure, and made no secret of her business. When the American flag at last flew over the islands she stood to win out of the increase of land values a considerable fortune.
Erickson also, in addition to his own holdings, had been an agent for some other planters and thus had met Leontine, who had been the means of interesting some American capital.
As for Burleigh, it seemed that he had made the acquaintance of Leontine in Wall Street. He had been in the Caribbean and the impending changes in the Danish West Indies had attracted his notice. Whether he had some money to invest in the speculation or hoped to profit by commissions derived from sales did not appear. But at any rate some common bond had thrown the quartet together.
I need not dwell on the little incidents of life on ship. It must have been the second day out that I observed Leontine and Sydney together on the promenade-deck. They seemed to be quite interested in each other, though I felt sure that Leontine was making a play for him. At any rate, Burleigh was jealous. Whatever might be the scheme, it was apparent that the young Englishman was head over heels in love with her.
What did it mean? Was she playing with Sydney, seeking to secure his influence to further her schemes? Or did it mask some deeper, more sinister motive? From what I had seen of Sydney, I could not think that he was the man to take such an affair seriously. I felt that he must be merely amusing himself.
Busy with my speculations, I was astonished soon after to realize that the triangle had become a hexagon, so to speak. Whitson and Nanette Erickson seemed to be much in each other's company. But, unlike Burleigh, Erickson seemed to be either oblivious or complacent.
Whatever it might all portend, I found that it did not worry Kennedy, although he observed closely. Burke, however, was considerably excited and even went so far as to speak to Sydney, over whom he felt a sort of guardianship. Sydney turned the matter off lightly. As for me, I determined to watch both of these women closely.
Kennedy spent much time not only in watching the passengers, but in going about the ship, talking to the captain and crew and every one who knew anything about the islands. In fact, he collected enough information in a few days to have satisfied any ordinary tourist for weeks.
Even the cargo did not escape his attention, and I found that he was especially interested in the rather heavy shipments of agricultural implements that were consigned to various planters in the islands. So great was his interest that I began to suspect that it had some bearing on the gun-running plot that had been hinted at by Marlowe.
It was the evening after one of Kennedy's busy days scouting about that he quietly summoned both Burke and Sydney to our cabin.
"There's something queer going on," announced Craig, when he was sure that we were all together without having been observed. "Frankly, I must confess that I don't understand it--yet."
"You needn't worry about me," interrupted Sydney, hastily. "I can take care of myself."
Kennedy smiled quietly. We knew what Sydney meant. He seemed to resent Burke's solicitude over his acquaintance with Leontine and was evidently warning us off. Kennedy, however, avoided the subject.
"I may as well tell you," he resumed, "that I was quite as much influenced by a rumor that arms were somehow getting into Mexican ports as I was by your appeal, Burke, in coming down here. So far I've found nothing that proves my case. But, as I said, there is something under the surface which I don't understand. We have all got to stick together, trust no one but ourselves, and, above all, keep our eyes open."
It was all that was said, but I was relieved to note that Sydney seemed greatly impressed. Still, half an hour later, I saw him sitting in a steamer-chair beside Leontine again, watching the beautiful play of the moonlight on the now almost tropical ocean after we had emerged from the Gulf Stream. I felt that it was rather dangerous, but at least he had had his warning.
Seeking Kennedy, I found him at last in the smoking-room, to my surprise talking with Erickson. I joined them, wondering how I was to convey to Craig what I had just seen without exciting suspicion. They were discussing the commercial and agricultural future of the islands under the American flag, especially the sugar industry, which had fallen into a low estate.
"I suppose," remarked Kennedy, casually, "that you are already modernizing your plant and that others are doing the same, getting ready for a revival."
Erickson received the remark stolidly. "No," he replied, slowly. "Some of us may be doing so, but as for me, I shall be quite content to sell if I can get my price."
"The planters are not putting in modern machinery, then?" queried Kennedy, innocently, while there flashed over me what he had discovered about shipments of agricultural implements.
Erickson shook his head. "Some of them may be. But for one that is, I know twenty whose only thought is to sell out and take a profit."
The conversation trailed off on other subjects and I knew that Kennedy had acquired the information which he sought. As neatly as I could I drew him apart from Erickson.
"Strange he should tell me that," ruminated Kennedy as we gained a quiet corner of the deck. "I know that there is a lot of stuff consigned to planters in the island, some even to himself."
"He must be lying, then," I hastened. "Perhaps these promoters are really plotters. By the way, what I wanted to tell you was that I saw Sydney and Leontine together again."
He was about to reply when the sound of some one approaching caused us to draw back farther into the shadow. It proved to be Whitson and Nanette.
"Then you do not like St. Thomas?" we heard Whitson remark, as if he were repeating something she had just said.
"There is nothing there," she replied. "Why, there aren't a hundred miles of good roads and not a dozen automobiles."
Evidently the swiftness of life in New York of which she had tasted was having its effect.
"St. Croix, where we have the plantation, is just as bad. Part of the time we live there, part of the time at Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas. But there is little difference. I hope Jorgen is able to sell. At least I should like to live a part of the year in the States."
"Would he like that, too?"
"Many of us would," she replied, quickly. "For many years things have been getting worse with us. Just now it seems a bit better because of the high price of sugar. But who knows how long that will last? Oh, I wish something would happen soon so that we might make enough money to live as I want to live. Think; here the best years of life are slipping away. Unless we do something soon, it will be too late! We must make our money soon."
There was an air of impatience in her tone, of restless dissatisfaction. I felt also that there was an element of danger, too, in a woman just passing from youth making a confidant of another man.
It was a mixed situation with the quartet whom we were watching. One thing was sufficiently evident. They were all desperately engaged in the pursuit of wealth. That was a common bond. Nor had I seen anything to indicate that they were over-scrupulous in that pursuit. Within half an hour I had seen Leontine with Sydney and Nanette with Whitson. Both Sydney as consular agent and Whitson through his influence with the shipping trust possessed great influence. Had the party thought it out and were they now playing the game with the main chance in view?
I looked inquiringly at Kennedy as the voices died away while the couple walked slowly down the deck. He said nothing, but he was evidently pondering deeply on some problem, perhaps that which the trend of affairs had raised in my own mind.
Our delay had not been long, but it had been sufficient to cause us to miss finding Leontine and Sydney. We did, however, run across Burke, bent evidently on watching, also.
"I don't like this business," he confessed, as we paused to compare experiences. "I've been thinking of that Mexican business you hinted at, Kennedy. You know the islands would be an ideal out-of-the-way spot from which to start gun-running expeditions to Mexico. I don't like this Leontine and Burleigh. They want to make money too bad."
Kennedy smiled. "Burleigh doesn't seem to approve of everything, though," he remarked.
"Perhaps not. That's one reason why I think it may be more dangerous for Sydney than he realizes. I know she's a fascinating girl. All the more reason to watch out for her. But I can't talk to Sydney," he sighed.
It was an enigma and I had not solved it, though I felt much as Burke did. Kennedy seemed to have determined to allow events to take their course, perhaps in the hope that developments would be quicker that way than by interfering with something which we did not understand.
In the smoking-room, after we left Burke, Kennedy and I came upon Erickson and Burleigh. They had just finished a game of poker with some of the other passengers, in which Burleigh's usual run of luck and skill had been with him.
"Lucky at cards, unlucky in love," remarked Burleigh as we approached.
He said it with an air of banter, yet I could not help feeling that there was a note of seriousness at the bottom of it. Had he known that Leontine had been with Sydney on the deck? His very success at poker had its effect on me. I found myself eying him as if he had been one of the transatlantic card sharps, perhaps an international crook. Yet when I considered I was forced to admit that I had nothing on which to base such a judgment.
Erickson presented a different problem, to my mind, There was indeed something queer about him. Either he had not been perfectly frank with us in regard to the improvement of his properties or he was concealing something much more sinister. Again and again my mind reverted to the hints that had been dropped by Marlowe, and I recalled the close scrutiny Whitson had given the four that night. So far, I had felt that in any such attempt we might count on Whitson playing a lone hand and perhaps finding out something to our advantage.
It was the morning of the last day of the voyage that most of the passengers gathered on the deck for the first glimpse of the land to which we had been journeying.
Before us lay the beautiful and picturesque harbor and town of Charlotte Amalie, one of the finest harbors in the West Indies, deep enough to float the largest vessels, with shipyards, dry- docks, and repair shops. From the deck it was a strikingly beautiful picture, formed by three spurs of mountains covered with the greenest of tropical foliage. From the edge of the dancing blue waves the town itself rose on the hills, presenting an entrancing panorama.
All was bustle and excitement as the anchor plunged into the water, for not only was this the end of our journey, but the arrival of the boat from New York was an event for the town.
There was much to watch, but I let nothing interfere with my observation of how the affair between Sydney and Leontine was progressing. To my surprise, I saw that this morning she was bestowing the favor of her smile rather on Burleigh. It was Sydney's turn now to feel the pangs of jealousy, and I must admit that he bore them with better grace than Burleigh, whatever that might indicate.
As I watched the two and recalled their intimacy at the Burridge the first night we had seen them, I almost began to wonder whether I might not have been wrong about Leontine. Had it been that I had distrusted the woman merely because I was suspicious of the type, both male and female? Had I been finding food for suspicion because I was myself suspicious?
Erickson was standing beside Sydney, while we were not far away. Evidently he had been saving up a speech for the occasion and now was prepared to deliver it.
"Mr. Sydney," he began, with a wave of his arm that seemed to include us all, "it is a pleasure to welcome you here to our island. Last night it occurred to me that we ought to do something to show that we appreciate it. You must come to dinner to-night at my villa here in the town. You are all invited, all of us who have become so enjoyably acquainted on this voyage which I shall never forget. Believe me when I say that it will be even more a tribute to you personally than because of the official position you are to hold among us."
It was a graceful invitation, more so than I had believed Erickson capable of framing. Sydney could do nothing less than thank him cordially and accept, as we all did. Indeed, I could see that Kennedy was delighted at the suggestion. It would give him an opportunity to observe them all under circumstances different enough to show something.
While we were thanking Erickson, I saw that Whitson had taken the occasion also to thank Mrs. Erickson, with whom he had been talking, just a bit apart from the group. He made no secret of his attentions, though I thought she was a bit embarrassed by them at such a time. Indeed, she started rather abruptly toward the group which was now intent on surveying the town, and as she did so, I noted that she had forgotten her hand-bag, which lay on a deck- chair near where they had been sitting.
I picked it up to restore it. Some uncontrollable curiosity prompted me and I hesitated. All were still looking at the town. I opened the bag. Inside was a little bottle of grayish liquid. What should I do? Any moment she or Whitson might turn around. Hastily I pulled off the cap of my fountain-pen and poured into it some of the liquid, replacing the cork in the bottle and dropping it back into the bag, while I disposed of the cap as best I could without spilling its contents.
Whether either she or any one else had observed me, I was not going to run any chances of being seen. I called a passing steward. "Mrs. Erickson forgot her bag," I said, pointing hastily to it. "You'll find her over there with Mr. Whitson." Then I mingled in the crowd to watch her. She did not seem to show any anxiety when she received it.
I lost no time in getting back to Kennedy and telling him what I had found, and a few moments later he made an excuse to go to our state-room, as eager as I was to know what had been in the little bottle.
First he poured out a drop of the liquid from the cap of my fountain-pen in some water. It did not dissolve. Successively he tried alcohol, ether, then pepsin. None of them had any effect on it. Finally, however, he managed to dissolve it in ammonia.
"Relatively high amount of sulphur," he muttered, after a few moments more of study. "Keratin, I believe."
"A poison?" I asked.
Kennedy shook his head. "No; harmless."
"Then what is it for?"
He shrugged his shoulders. He may have had some half-formed idea, but if he did it was still indefinite and he refused to commit himself. Instead, he placed the sample in his traveling laboratory, closed and locked it, and, with our luggage, the box was ready to be taken ashore.
Nearly every one had gone ashore by the time we returned to the deck. Whitson was there yet, talking to the captain, for the shipping at the port interested him. I wondered whether he, too, might be suspicious of those cases consigned to Erickson and others. If so, he said nothing of it.
By this time several vessels that looked as if they might be lighters, though fairly large, had pulled up. It seemed that they had been engaged to carry shipments of goods to the other islands of St. John and St. Croix.
Kennedy seemed eager now to get ashore, and we went, accompanied by Whitson, and after some difficulty established ourselves in a small hotel.
Most of the tourists were sightseeing, and, while we had no time for that, still we could not help doing so, in going about the town.
Charlotte Amalie, I may say, proved to be one of the most picturesque towns in the Windward Islands. The walls of the houses were mostly of a dazzling whiteness, though some were yellow, others gray, orange, blue. But the roofs were all of a generous bright red which showed up very effectively among the clumps of green trees. Indeed, the town seemed to be one of gaily tinted villas and palaces. There were no factories, no slums. Nature had provided against that and man had not violated the provision.
The people whom we met on the streets were mostly negroes, though there was a fair sprinkling of whites. What pleased us most was that nearly everywhere we went English was spoken. I had half expected Danish. But there was even very little Spanish spoken.
Burke was waiting for us, and in spite of his playing the role of traveling salesman managed to direct us about so that we might as quickly as possible pick up the thread of the mysterious death of Dwight. It did not take long to gather such meager information as there was about the autopsy that had followed the strange death of Sydney's predecessor.
We were able to find out little from either the authorities or the doctor who had investigated the case. Under the stress of suspicion, both the stomach and the contents of the stomach of the unfortunate man had been examined. No trace of anything out of the way had been found, and there the matter had rested, except for suspicion.
One of our first visits was to the American consulate. There Sydney, by virtue of his special commission, had, with characteristic energy, established himself with the consul. Naturally, he, too, had been making inquiries. But they had led nowhere. There seemed to be no clue to the mysterious death of Dwight, not even a hint as to the cause.
All that we were able to discover, after some hours of patient inquiry, was that Dwight had suffered from great prostration, marked cyanosis, convulsions, and coma. Whether it was the result of some strange disease or of a poison no one, not even the doctor, was prepared to say. All that was known was that the blow, if blow it had been, was swift, sudden, sure.
We ran across Whitson once or twice during the day, busily engaged renewing acquaintance with merchants and planters whom he had known before, but I do not recall having seen either Burleigh or Leontine, which, at the time, I thought rather strange, for the town was small and strangers were few. The more I thought of it the more firmly convinced I was that Dwight had discovered some secret which it was extremely inconvenient for somebody to have known. What was it? Was it connected with the rumors we had heard of gun-running to Mexico?
Erickson had invited us to come late in the afternoon to the dinner and we did not delay in getting there. His house proved to be a veritable palace on the side of one of the hills rising abruptly back of the shore. Flights of massive stone steps, quaint walls covered with creepers, balustrades overlooking charming gardens, arcades from which one looked out on splendid vistas and shady terraces combined to make it a veritable paradise such as can be found only in tropical and subtropical lands. Most wonderful of all was the picture of the other hills unfolded, especially of the two ruined pirates' castles belonging to semi- mythical personages, Bluebeard and Blackbeard.
The Ericksons were proud of their home, as well they might be, in spite of the complaints we had heard Nanette utter and the efforts of Erickson to sell his holdings. Mrs. Erickson proved to be a charming hostess and the host extended a hospitality such as one rarely meets. It quite made me uncomfortable to accept it at the same time that I knew we must view it all with suspicion. Nor did it make matters any better, but rather worse, to feel that there was some color of excuse for the suspicion.
Burleigh arrived proudly with Leontine, followed closely by Sydney. At once the game was on again, Leontine pitting one against the other. Whitson came, his attentions to Mrs. Erickson a trifle restrained, but still obvious. Burke and ourselves completed the party.
To the repeated urging of Erickson we made ourselves quite as much at home as we politely could. Kennedy and Burke, acting under his instructions, seemed to be ubiquitous. Yet, beyond a continuation of the drama that had been unfolded on the ship it did not seem to me at first that we were getting anywhere.
Kennedy and I were passing alone along a colonnade that opened off from the large dining-hall, when Craig paused and looked in through an open door at the massive table set for the dinner.
A servant had just completed setting out cocktails at the various places, pouring them from a huge tankard, for the purpose, which had been standing on a sideboard. Guests had been walking past through the colonnade ever since we arrived, but at the moment there was no one about, and even the servant had disappeared.
Kennedy stepped lightly into the dining-hall and looked about sharply. Instinctively I stepped to a window where I could hear any one approaching. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him narrowly scrutinizing the table. Finally he pulled from his pocket a clean linen handkerchief. Into an empty glass he poured the contents of one of the cocktail-glasses, straining the liquid through the handkerchief. Then he poured the filtrate, if I may call it such, back into the original glass. A second he treated in the same way, and a third. He had nearly completed the round of the table when I heard a light step.
My warning came only just in time. It was Burleigh. He saw us standing now in the colonnade, made some hasty remark, then walked on, as if in search for some one. Had it been interest in Leontine or in the dining-room that had drawn him thither?
Kennedy was now looking closely at the handkerchief, and I looked also. In the glasses had been innumerable little seeds as if from the fruit juice used in concocting the appetizer. The fine meshes of the linen had extracted them. What were they?
I took one in my fingers and crushed it between my nails. There was an unmistakable odor of bitter almonds. What did it mean?
We had no time now for speculation. Our prolonged absence might be noticed and we hastened to join the other guests after finishing the round of glasses in which he had been interrupted.
How, in my suppressed excitement, I managed to get through that dinner I do not know. It was a brilliant affair, yet I found that I had completely lost my appetite, as well one might after having observed Kennedy's sleuthing.
However, the dinner progressed, though each course that brought it nearer a conclusion afforded me an air of relief. I was quite ready when, over the coffee, Kennedy contrived to make some excuse for us, promising to call again and perhaps to visit the Erickson plantation.
In the secrecy of our room in the little hotel, Craig was soon deeply buried in making use of his traveling laboratory. As he worked I could no longer restrain my impatience. "What about that little bottle of keratin?" I asked, eagerly.
"Oh yes," he replied, not looking up from the tests he was making. "Well, keratin, you know, is also called epidermose. It is a scleroprotein present largely in cuticular structures such as hair, nails, horn. I believe it is usually prepared from pieces of horn steeped in pepsin, hydrochloric acid, and water for a long time. Then the residue is dissolved in ammonia and acetic acid."
"But what's its use?" I demanded. "You said it was harmless."
"Why, the pepsin of the stomach won't digest it," he returned. "For that reason its chief use is for coating what are known as 'enteric capsules.' Anything coated with keratin is carried on through the stomach into the intestines. It is used much in hot countries in order to introduce drugs into the intestines in the treatment of the tropical diseases that affect the intestines." He paused and devoted his entire attention to his work, but he had told me enough to assure me that at least the bottle of keratin I had found had proved to be a clue.
I waited as long as I could, then interrupted again. "What are the seeds?" I queried. "Have you found out yet?"
He paused as though he had not quite finished his hasty investigation, yet had found out enough to convince him. "There seem to be two kinds. I wish I had had time to keep each lot separate. Some of them are certainly quite harmless. But there are others, I find, that have been soaked in nitro-benzol, artificial oil of bitter almonds. Even a few drops, such as might be soaked up in this way, might be fatal. The new and interesting phase, to me, is that they were all carefully coated with keratin. Really, they are keratin-coated enteric capsules of nitro-benzol, a deadly poison."
I looked at him, aghast at what some of us had been rescued from by his prompt action.
"You see," he went on, excitedly, "that is why the autopsies probably showed nothing. These doctors down here sought for a poison in the stomach. But if the poison had been in the stomach the odor alone would have betrayed it. You smelt it when you crushed a seed. But the poisoning had been devised to avoid just that chance of discovery. There was no poison in the stomach. Death was delayed long enough, also, to divert suspicion from the real poisoner. Some one has been diabolically clever in covering up the crimes."
I could only gasp my amazement. "Then," I blurted out, "you think the Ericksons--"
Our door burst open. It was Burke, in wild excitement.
"Has anybody--died?" I managed to demand.
He seemed not to hear, but dashed to the window and threw it open. "Look!" he exclaimed.
We did. In the late twilight, through the open sash we could see the landlocked basin of the harbor. But it was not that at which Burke pointed. On the horizon an ugly dark cloud rose menacingly. In the strange, unearthly murkiness, I could see people of the town pouring out into the narrow streets, wildly, fearfully, with frantic cries and gesticulations.
For a moment I gazed at the sight blankly. Then I realized that sweeping on us was one of those sudden, deadly West-Indian hurricanes. Our harbor was sheltered from the north and east winds. But this wind was southern born, rare, oncoming in a fury against which we had no protection.
Hastily closing his armamentarium, Kennedy also hurried out on the street. The gale had become terrific already in the few minutes that had elapsed. From our terrace we could see the water, gray and olive, with huge white breakers, like gnashing teeth, coming on to rend and tear everything in their path. It was as though we stood in an amphitheater provided by nature for a great spectacle, the bold headlands standing out like the curves of a stadium.
I looked about. The Ericksons had just driven up with Burleigh and Leontine, as well as Whitson, all of whom were stopping at our hotel, and were about to take Sydney on to the consulate when the approach of the storm warned them to stay.
Leontine had hurried into the hotel, evidently fearful of the loss of something she treasured, and the rest were standing apart from the trees and buildings, where the formation of the land offered some protection. As we joined them I peered at the pale faces in the ghastly, unnatural light. Was it, in a sense, retribution?
Suddenly, without further warning, the storm broke. Trees were turned up by roots, like weeds, the buildings rocked as if they had been houses of cards. It was a wild, catastrophic spectacle.
"Leontine," I heard a voice mutter by my side, as a form catapulted itself past through the murkiness into the crazily swaying hotel. It was Burleigh. I turned to speak to Kennedy. He was gone. Where to find him I had no idea. The force of the wind was such that search was impossible. All we could do was to huddle back of such protection as the earth afforded against the million needles of rain that cut into our faces.
The wind almost blew me flat to the earth as, no longer able to stand the suspense, I stumbled toward the hotel, thinking perhaps he had gone to save his armamentarium, although if I had stopped to think I should have realized that that strong box was about the safest piece of property on the island.
I was literally picked up and hurled against an object in the darkness--a man. "In the room--more keratin--more seeds."
It was Kennedy. He had taken advantage of the confusion to make a search which otherwise might have been more difficult. Together we struggled back to our shelter.
Just then came a crash, as the hotel crumpled under the fierce stress of the storm. Out of the doorway struggled a figure just in time to clear the falling walls. It was Burleigh, a huge gash from a beam streaming blood down his forehead which the rain washed away almost as it oozed. In his arms, clinging about his neck, was Leontine, no longer the sophisticated, but in the face of this primeval danger just a woman. Burleigh staggered with his burden a little apart from us, and in spite of everything I could fancy him blessing the storm that had given him his opportunity.
Far from abating, the storm seemed increasing in fury, as though all the devils of the underworld were vexed at anything remaining undestroyed. It seemed as if even the hills on which the old pirates had once had their castles must be rocking.
"My God!" exclaimed a thick voice, as an arm shot out, pointing toward the harbor.
There was the Arroyo tugging at every extra mooring that could be impressed into service. The lighters had broken or been cut away and were scudding, destruction-bent, squarely at the shore almost below us. A moment and they had crashed on the beach, a mass of timbers and spars, while the pounding waves tore open and flung about heavy cases as though they were mere toys.
Then, almost as suddenly as it had come, the storm began to abate, the air cleared, and nothing remained but the fury of the waves.
"Look!" exclaimed Kennedy, pointing down at the strange wreckage that strewed the beach. "Does that look like agricultural machinery?" We strained our eyes. Kennedy did not pause. "The moment I heard that arms were getting into Mexico I suspected that somewhere here in the Caribbean munitions were being transhipped. Perhaps they have been sent to Atlantic ports ostensibly for the Allies. They have got down here disguised. Even before the storm exposed them I had reasoned it out. From this port, the key to the vast sweep of mainland, I reasoned that they were being taken over to secret points on the coast where big ships could not safely go. It was here that blockade-runners were refitted in our Civil War. It is here that this new gun-running plot has been laid."
He turned quickly to Sydney. "The only obstacle between the transfer of the arms and success was the activity of an American consulate. Those lighters were not to carry goods to other islands. They were really destined for Mexico. It was profitable. And the scheme for removing opposition was evidently safe."
Kennedy was holding up another bottle of keratin and some fruit seeds. "I found these in a room in the hotel," he added.
I did not comprehend. "But," I cut in, "the hand-bag--the dinner-- what of them?"
"A plant--a despicable trespass on hospitality--all part of a scheme to throw the guilt on some one else, worthy of a renegade and traitor."
Craig wheeled suddenly, then added, with an incisive gesture, "I suppose you know that there is reputed to have been on one of these hills the headquarters of the old pirate, Teach--'the mildest manner'd man that ever scuttled ship or cut a throat!'"
Kennedy paused, then added, quickly, "In respect to covering up your gun-running, Whitson, you are superior even to Teach!"