Chapter X. Mystery Upon Mystery
 

Cora, healthy though she was, did not sleep well that night. Jack did not return to the hall, and had left word with the doorkeeper that he could not get back in time to see his sister but would run up from his bungalow early the next morning. It was early now, and next morning, but Jack had not kept his word.

No one but Cora and Hazel had any idea that this might mean anything important.

"It was so strange, the way that man acted," said Hazel to Cora, as the two made their way to the spring for fresh water. "First he watched you, then when Mabel Blake appeared he kept his eye on her. And such eyes! I believe he could hypnotize any one."

"I hope he did not hypnotize Mabel," replied Cora.

"Or Jack," added Hazel.

"No fear of the latter," declared the sister. "Jack is too level-headed to take any cue in that direction."

"That's just the way I feel about Paul," spoke Hazel. "Isn't it lovely to have such splendid brothers?"

"Nothing could be more satisfactory," declared Cora, "unless it would be having a sister besides. I have often wondered what I should have done if I had not had such splendid girl friends. Do you feel as if a sister would have made your life more complete?"

"I have never thought of it," said Hazel.

"But Cora! Look at that woman!"

Almost creeping through the tall grass the form of a woman could be distinguished. She had evidently come from a boat that was lying along shore--a rowboat. Seeing the girls, the woman stood up.

"It's Kate Simpson!" exclaimed Cora, "and she seems to be looking for our camp!"

"Miss!" called the woman, her voice shaking. "Wait, wait for poor Kate! Oh! I'm droppin' down!"

"What is it, Kate?" asked Cora kindly. "You seem exhausted."

"Oh, indeed I am that," replied the woman, brushing the straggling hair from her forehead. "I am all but dead!"

"What has happened?" asked Cora further.

"I can't tell you here. They might find me, and they'd know the boat."

"We can hide the boat in the bushes, and you may come up to the camp," suggested Cora. "That boat is not hard to lift."

"If you only could, but I'm too done up to help," faltered the woman.

Cora and Hazel easily shifted the light canoe up into the deep grass. Kate got on her feet again, and, following the girls, all made their way to a spot entirely closed in with heavy hemlock trees.

"We may talk here," suggested Cora. "This is what we call our annex--the annex to our camp."

"It's better than the shack I've been living in," murmured the woman. "I'm done with that. Here," and she slipped her hand in her dress, carefully taking from a patched place in her skirt a small article. "This is yours--I know it!"

"My ring!"

Cora's eyes sparkled akin to the gem at which she was gazing. Hazel looked on dumbfounded.

"Yes, it's your ring, but don't ask me how I got it," said Kate, "though I'm pretty sure you can guess."

"I knew who had it, and I felt I would get it back," Cora replied, "but I never dreamed how I might recover it. Mother gave it to me on my last birthday."

"Well I'll tell you this much, miss," and Kate Simpson glanced furtively around her, to make sure that no one might be approaching. "If there ever was two bigger villains than Jim Peters and Tony whatever-his-other-name-is-if-he's-got one, then I never heard tell of them. They're up to some new trick every day and another new one every night. But the worst--"

She seemed afraid to go on. Evidently even a woman so used to hardship as this one could be frightened.

"The worst?" asked Cora.

"Is the one that goes on at Fern Island," almost whispered the strange creature.

"Goes on?" exclaimed Hazel, who had hitherto been silent, too interested to interrupt.

"Yes, miss, it goes on, and it will go on I'm afraid while them villains live."

There was a shout from the camp. The others were looking for Hazel and Cora. The familiar yodel was sent back, then Cora told Hazel:

"You run over, Hazel, and do something to interest them, while I take Kate up the back way. I want to get her some of those things the last maid left, and I want to refresh her a little."

"But I couldn't wait, dear," sighed Kate. "If I don't get a train or boat away from this place soon, they'll be sure to catch me."

"But you have done nothing wrong! Why shouldn't you go or come as you want to?" asked Cora.

"I can't tell you, miss, but them men seem to have some power and I want to get away from it. Where might I find a train or a boat?"

"If you have to go, I'll take you to the landing in my motor boat," replied Cora. "It has a canopy and you will not be seen on the water."

"If you could. I'd be very thankful. You see I'm not much used to the water, and rowing over from the shack nearly did me up."

"But I want to give you something for getting me my ring," insisted Cora. "It is quite valuable, you know."

"I heard them say so, and now that the other girl is gone I'll tell you this much. Never you go over to that shack again," and the woman raised a warning finger. "It was a good thing you met me instead of Jim Peters the day you did go over. They'll be like tigers when they find I've got the ring. It was last night that gave me the chance. They had been out very late, and Tony didn't have any letters to copy so he fell asleep and--and I slipped away with it. I slept a bit under a tree, but indeed I was glad to see daylight."

"And you have been out all night? You must not think of taking a journey without first having something to eat. If you are afraid to come up to camp I'll have something put in the boat for you," declared Cora. "But let me ask you, did you overhear anything about a girl named Miss Blake? I saw Jones leave a hall where she was singing last night, and I suspect he met her as she went out. My brother followed, but I have not seen him since. He stops at the boys' camp," Cora explained.

"Blake? So that was the pretty girl who sang. Well, she had better be careful that she doesn't join the ghosts at Fern Island," said the woman, mysteriously.

"I know the girl. She's from my home place. And that is why my brother went to see that nothing happened to her," Cora said.

"Well, you are good people, one can see that," declared Kate. "But wait. I can't read much, but I picked this up to wrap the ring in."

She handed Cora a soiled and crumpled telegram blank. Upon it was made out, in message form, these words:

"Can place your friend at twenty-five week. Answer at once."
BENEDICT.

Cora pondered for a moment. "Who could have sent Jones such a message?" she asked.

"Sent it?" repeated Kate. "He sends his own messages. He can copy any handwriting. I heard him say the trick worked," she finished.

The truth flashed into Cora's mind. That man somehow knew the Blakes. He was pretending to place little vain Mabel with some theatrical company. When he left the Casino it was to show her the bogus message. And Jack must have been somewhere around within hearing distance. Surely things were getting complicated and mysterious in the summer colony. But Cora had her ring back, and for the rest she felt certain that the "ghost" of Fern Island, also the wild looking girl of whom they had gotten a glimpse, were in some way being wronged by Jim Peters and his associate, the handwriting expert.