Chapter VI. The Mysterious Man
 

For a moment Cora and the Robinson twins looked alternately at one another, and then at the figure of the frail girl on the bed. She seemed to be weeping, but when she took her hands down from her eyes, there was no trace of tears in them--only a wild, and rather haunting look in her face.

"Is she--do you think she is raving--a little out of her mind?" whispered Belle.

"Hush!" cautioned Cora, but Inez did not seem to have heard.

"I pray your pardon--I should not inflict my emotions on you thus," the lace seller said, with a pretty foreign accent. Only now and then did she mispronounce words--occasionally those with the hard (to her) "th" sound.

"We shall be only too glad to help you," said Cora, gently.

"I do not know zat you can help me, Senorita," the girl murmured, "and yet I need help--so much."

She was silent a moment, as though trying to think of the most simple manner in which to tell her story.

"You said your father was a--a prisoner," hesitated Bess, gently. "Did he--"

"He did nozing, Senorita!" burst out the girl. "He was thrown into a vile prison for what you call 'politics.' Yet in our country politics are not what zey are here--so open, with all ze papairs printing so much about zem. Spanish politics are more in ze dark--what you call under the hand."

She seemed uncertain whether she had used the right word.

"Underhanded--yes," encouraged Cora, with a smile.

"He had enemies," proceeded the girl. "Oh, zose politic--zose intrigues--I know nozzing of zem--but zey are terrible!" She spread her hands before her face with a natural, tragic gesture.

"But I must not tire you, Senoritas," she resumed. "My father, he was arrested on ze political charges. We lived on Sea Horse Island-L, it is a Spanish possession of ze West Indies. We were happy zere (it is one grand, beautiful place). Ze waters of ze bay are so blue--so blue--ah!"

She seemed lost in a flood of happy memories, and then, as swiftly, she apologized for giving away to her feelings.

"I should not tire you," she said.

"Oh, but we just love to hear about it," said Belle, eagerly. "We are going there--to waters blue--"

"That I might go wiz you--but no, it is impossible!" the lace seller sighed.

"Tell us your story--perhaps we can help you," suggested Cora.

"I will make for you as little weariness as I can, Senoritas; and, believe me, I am truly grateful to you," she said. "I do not even dare dream zat I could go to my father," sighed Inez, "but perhaps you will be of so great kindness as to take him a message from me. I cannot mail it--he is not allowed to receive letters zat are not read, and we have no secret cipher we might use."

"If we can get a letter to him, rest assured we shall do so," promised Belle, though her sister rather raised her eyebrows at the rashness of the pledge.

"I cannot go into all ze details of ze politics, for I know zem not," went on the Spaniard. "All I painfully know is zat my father was thrown into prison, and our family and home broken up. My mother and I came to New York--to relatives, but alas! my, poor mother died. I was left alone. I was desolate.

"I had learned to make lace, and my friends thought I could sell it, so I began to make zat my trade. I thought I could save enough to go back to my father, and the beloved island--perhaps to free him."

"How did you hope to do that?" asked Cora.

"Because, in New York, I found one of his political party--himself an exile, who gave me what you call documents--I know not ze term--"

"Evidence?" suggested Belle.

"Zat is it. Evidence! I have evidence, zat would free my father, if I could get it to him. But I fear to send it by mail, for it would be taken--captured by his enemies."

"It's rather complicated--isn't it?" suggested Cora.

"Yes, Senorita--more so even zan I am telling you. Of myself I know but little, save zat if I can get ze certain papairs to my father, he might go free. But how am I to go to Sea Horse Island, when I have not even money to buy me food to keep from starving? I ask you--how can I? And yet I should not trouble you wiz my troubles, Senoritas."

"Oh, but we want to help you!" declared Cora, warmly.

"Surely," added Belle. "Perhaps I had better speak to my father. He may know of someone on Sea Horse Island, where he is going to gather orchids."

"No, no, Senorita! If you please--not to speak yet!" broke in the Spanish girl suddenly. "It must be a secret--yet. I have enemies even here."

"Enemies?" echoed Cora.

"Yes. Zey followed me from New York. Listen, I haf not yet tell you all. I make ze lace in New York, but it so big a city--and so many lace sellers--not of my country. It is hard for me to make even a pittance. Some of my friends, zey say to go out in ze country. So I go. But I weary you--yes?" and with a quick, bird-like glance she asked the question.

"Oh, no, indeed!" answered Cora. Then the girl told of traveling out of New York City, into the surrounding towns, plying her humble calling. She made a bare living, that was all, dwelling in the cheapest places, and subsisting on the coarsest food in order to save her money for her father's cause. Then came a sad day when she was robbed--in one of her, stopping places, of her little horde. She told of it with tears in her eyes.

"The poor girl!" murmured Bess, with an instinctive movement toward her pretty, silver purse.

Inez Ralcanto, for such she said was her name, her father being Senor Rafael Ralcanto, was heartbroken and well nigh discouraged at her loss. But to live she must continue, and so she did. She made barely enough to live on, by selling her laces, and since reaching Chelton the day-before, she had not sold a penny's worth. Her money was exhausted, and she was nearly on the verge of fainting when she applied at the Kimball home. Cora's mother had seemed interested in the lace, which really was beautifully worked, and while showing it on the porch, the girl had overheard the mention of her home island. The rest is known to the reader.

"And so I am so silly as to faint!" said Inez, with a little tinkling laugh. "But I faint in good hands--I am so grateful to you!" she went on, warmly, her olive checks flushing.

"And you want to go to Sea Horse Island?" asked Belle.

"I want--Oh! so much, Senorita. But I know it is a vain hope. But you are good and kind. If you could take zese papairs wiz you--and manage to get zem to my father--he could tell you how to help him. For it is all politics--he had committed no--what you call crime--not a soul has he wronged. Oh, my poor father!"

"And these papers?" asked Cora. "'What are they?"

"I know not, Senorita. I am not versed in such zings. A fellow patriot of my father gave them to me."

"Have you them with you?" asked Bess.

The girl started up in bed, and clutched at her breast. A wild look came over her face.

"I had zem in New York--I bring zem away wiz me. Zat man--he is ze enemy of my father and his party. He know I have zem, and he try to entrap me. But I am too--what you call foxy, for him! I slip through his fingernails. Ze papairs--in my valise--Oh, where is it? I--when I faint--I have it at my feet--"

"It was on the porch!" exclaimed Mrs. Kimball. "I forgot all about it in the excitement. It was full of lace--Oh, if some one has taken it!"

"And my papairs--zat could free my father!" cried the girl.

A shout came from the front of the house.

"That's Walter's voice!" exclaimed Cora, starting up.

"Here, drop that satchel!" came the call.

The girls swept to the window in time to see a small man running down the drive, closely pursued by Walter Pennington. And, as the man fled, he dropped a valise from which trailed a length of lace. The girl, Inez, caught a reflection of the scene in a mirror of the bedroom.

"Zat is him--ze mysterious man!" she cried.

"Oh, if he has taken my papairs!" and she seemed about to leap from the bed.