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23. The End of the Mystery
When they finally came in sight of the building Dennings was nowhere to be seen, and the boys came to a halt. When they were reasonably sure that he was not lurking somewhere about they made their way to the school and found that he had gone around to the front door. Not wishing to try the door they walked around to the back, keeping in the shadow. Vench went to the cellar window and pushed it open.

“Still able to get in here,” he whispered. “I’ll go first, because I know the way.”

Vench lowered himself through the window and dropped with a dull thud into the musty cellar. The other boys followed, Terry taking the precaution to close the window after him. For a moment they stood there, listening.

There was no sound from above, and Vench began to move away in the direction in which he remembered the stairs to be. Guided by the sound of his footsteps the cadets followed him, feeling their way gingerly. Vench struck his foot against the flight of wooden steps and began to ascend, and the others came after him.

At the top of the flight Cadet Vench stopped, feeling the door before him. He felt some anxiety that it might be locked, but it was not and he pushed it open. It swung back slowly and without sound, and they looked into the hall of the old school. It was black there, but to their surprise they heard voices in a side room.

Following Vench they tiptoed along the hall, prepared to fight things out if they were discovered. Opposite the room from which the faint light was streaming and from which the voices came was another room, and the four boys had no difficulty in slipping into it. And from this vantage point, safe in the darkness, they looked straight across the hall into a large room.

Dennings was in the room, with his back to them, a revolver in his hand. He was pointing it at two very frightened men, who cowered in a far corner near some dusty old portraits which hung on the wall. Vench started in surprise. One of the men was Paul Morro and the other was his companion.

The men had a single candle by which to work, and they had been engaged in cutting the canvas out of a picture when Dennings had surprised them. Morro had a sharp knife in his hand. A long bench had been placed under the picture, and the men were standing in front of it. As they listened Dennings was speaking, his revolver still pointed at the men.

“That’s a pretty queer story,” the man was saying. “I wonder if I am supposed to believe it?”

“Sir,” answered Paul Morro, “I am telling you the truth. My companion and I are French collectors, and we were tipped off that a valuable painting, stolen from France years ago, had been brought to this country and later had been given to this school as a present. We heard that the original canvas had been concealed under the canvas of a common picture, and acting on the hint we came to America to rescue the portrait and return it to its rightful home. Sometime ago we entered Locke Hall and slashed a picture that we suspected there, but it did not prove to be the one that we wanted.”

“I heard about that,” nodded Dennings, half convinced. “How did you fellows come to get in here?”

“We made inquiries about the school in town,” said Morro, “and we learned that this old building, which we had thought empty, had some furniture and paintings in it. A man who had repaired the roof a few years ago told us, and we decided that the portrait might be in here. So we forced a window and got into the place tonight. We were examining these pictures when you came in.”

“So I noticed,” said Dennings grimly.

“That is all there is to it, sir. We did not intend to steal anything except the portrait, and that is ours anyway. We’ll promise to leave and never come back if you will let us off.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Dennings thoughtfully, lowering the revolver. “Look here, I can use you two. I have a prisoner up on the third floor, and I’m going to take him out of here tonight. I want to get him across the lake and into my car, which is on the other side. If you two will help me get him out of here I don’t care if you cut up every picture in the school! What do you say?”

Morro glanced at his companion, who shrugged his shoulders. Morro then turned back to the man who was facing them.

“We will help you,” he promised.

Dennings thrust the revolver into a back pocket. “All right, come along. Bring your coats and the candle with you.”

Morro and his companion put on their coats, and Morro picked up the candle. Dennings took it from him and walked to the stairs, the men following. They tramped heavily up to the second floor, and the faint beam of the flickering candle disappeared from sight.

“Now we can go,” whispered Rhodes, when the sound of their footsteps died out. “But be careful and remember that Dennings has a gun. Wonder where that old man is?”

With Vench in the lead the four cadets climbed the stairs and found themselves in the hallway of the second floor. They had no difficulty in finding the stairs to the third floor, as Dennings had left the door open. It was with painful care that they ascended and stopped just outside the room into which Dennings had gone.

A single lamp burned in this room and they could see Don standing beside the table, facing Dennings. Back of the man stood the two Frenchmen, obviously ill at ease. Dennings, firmly believing that he was safe, was speaking to Don.

“Get your coat and hat on, Mercer,” he was saying. “We’re going to take you away from here. It’s getting a bit too hot for comfort.”

“Where am I going?” asked Don without moving.

“Never mind that,” snapped Dennings. “We took your friend the colonel for a long ride and we are going to take you on one. Don’t waste time; hurry up.”

Rhodes gripped the arms of the cadets in quick succession. “Let’s go!” he hissed, and darted into the room.

At the sound of his footsteps Dennings swung around, his hand sliding toward his rear pocket. But Rhodes was upon him before he could reach it, and Terry was with him. Each of them grasped the arms of the man and Jim threw one arm around his throat. Don uttered a cry at seeing them and rushed to their aid.

Vench had paused to speak to the astonished Frenchmen. His eyes glittering, he thrust his determined chin close to Morro’s face.

“Beat it, Paul,” he warned. “You and your friend get out of here, and don’t come near this school again! I know enough about you now to put you in prison for a long time, so get a move on and get out. And keep your mouth closed!”

Morro looked just once to where Rhodes was taking the revolver from the man they had overpowered and then moved. He seized the arm of his companion and pulled him after him. They found the stairs and ran down them.

Vench turned his attention to Dennings, but that was not necessary. The man had been overpowered and his revolver taken away from him. He had offered a brief and savage struggle, but the suddenness of the attack had proved his undoing, and he was powerless. Glaring and cursing he lay on his back, looking with blazing eyes at his young captors.

“Well, Mr. Dennings,” said Don. “I guess that I am not going on a trip after all. You will take the only trip.”

“I’ll fix you kids for this!” roared Dennings.

“What shall we do now?” asked Jim disregarding Dennings.

“You fellows tie him up and bring him over to the school,” suggested Rhodes. “I’ll go back, find out where the major is, and call up the colonel and tell him to get up here, that we have them both.”

“Oh, have you got the colonel?” cried Don. Dennings’ eyes bulged in astonishment.

“Yes,” said Vench, as Rhodes took up the candle and went out. “We rescued him and he is now down in the hotel. Well, let’s get busy on this fellow. If we can’t find any rope we’ll use our belts and take him over to the school. I guess this will break up their precious ring.”

While the boys were strapping Dennings’ hands back of him with their belts Rhodes was hurrying across the campus in the direction of Locke Hall. The cadets were still skating on the lake and the whole school had the look of regularity about it. No one was near Clanhammer Hall and he reached Locke in safety.

Rhodes hurried to the office, keeping a sharp lookout for the major. He was not in the office, but Captain Chalmers was there. Rhodes considered, and then determined to enlist the aid of the teacher in capturing the major. But first he asked a question.

“Where is Major Tireson, sir?”

Chalmers answered without hesitation. “He just left for the station,” he said. “He said that he had to go away on business fo............
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