Brice nodded, absently, as if wearied with the exertion of their talk. His eyes had left Milo’s, and had concentrated on the man’s big and hairy hands. As Milo spoke of the supposititious criminals who desired his possessions enough to do murder for them, his fists clenched, tightly. And to Brice’s memory came a wise old adage:
“When you think a man is lying to you, don’t watch his face. Any poker-player can make his face a mask. Watch his hands. Ten to one, if he is lying, he’ll clench them.”
Brice noted the tightening of the heavy fists. And he was convinced. Yet, he told himself, in disgust, that even a child of six would scarce have needed such confirmation that the clumsily blurted tale was a lie.
He nodded again, as Milo looked at him with a shade of anxiety.
The momentary silence was broken by footsteps on the stairs. Claire was descending. Brice gathered his feet under him and sat upright. It was easier, now, to do this, and his head had recovered its feeling of normality, though it still ached ferociously.
At the same instant, through the open doorway, from across the lawn in the direction of the secret path, came the quaveringly sweet trill of a mocking bird’s song. Despite himself, Gavin’s glance turned toward the doorway.
“That’s just a mocker,” Milo explained, loudly, his face reddening as he looked in perturbation at his guest. “Sweet, isn’t he? They often sing, off and on, for an hour or two after dark.”
“I know they do,” said Gavin (though he did not say it aloud). “But in Florida, the very earliest mocking bird doesn’t sing till around the first of March. And this isn’t quite the middle of February. There’s not a mocking bird on the Peninsula that is singing, yet. The very dulcet whistler, out yonder, ought to make a closer study of ornithology. He—”
Brice’s unspoken thought was shattered. For, unnoticed by him, Milo Standish had drawn forth, with tender care, an exquisitely carved and colored meerschaum pipe from a case on the smoking-stand, and was picking up the fat tobacco jar.
THE STRANGER FROM NOWHERE
For a moment, Brice stared agape and helplessly flustered, as Standish proceeded to thrust his meerschaum’s rich-hued bowl into the tobacco jar. Then, apparently galvanized into action by the approach of Claire from the stairway, he stepped rapidly forward to meet her.
As though his shaky powers were not equal to the task he reeled, lurched with all his might against the unprepared Standish and, to regain his balance, took two plunging steps forward.
He had struck Milo at such an angle as to rap the latter’s right elbow with a numbing force that sent the pipe flying half way across the hall. The tobacco jar must have gone too, had not one of Gavin’s outflung hands caught it in mid-air, as a quarterback might catch a football.