Chapter XVI. A Terrible Night

"The boat is gone!" Cora almost gasped. Then the girl, the sick frail creature, did a remarkable thing--she came to the rescue of the stronger one.

"No matter," she said calmly. "I feel so much better with a girl to speak to, that if you will put up with my strange life for a night, perhaps it will be all right in the morning. There," as Cora showed by her change of color that she felt it would be a risk, "lots of people think sleeping, out of doors is the very best sort of life. Don't you want to try it?"' and her arm stole around Cora's waist.

"Why, of course we can only try, but I am afraid that you will suffer, Laurel. You are very weak," said Cora.

"No, I was only frightened," and she made an effort to show that she did really feel better. "Now, when we go back we must not let father know that we are still on the island."

Cora did not question this. That the girl had a good reason for keeping her presence a secret from her father she felt certain. But to turn back to those woods! And night so near!

"I suppose there is absolutely no way of getting a boat?" Cora questioned.

"Even my canoe is gone. That awful man is to blame," replied the girl.

"Did he take it?" asked Cora.

"When I refused to go with him, he said I might die here," replied Laurel. "That was to get more money from father. Oh, you cannot know how I have wished to speak with some one!" and her big, brown eyes filled with tears.

"And I am so glad I did come," Cora assured her, "even if our first night must be a lonely one. I am used to queer experiences."

"Then I will have no fear in showing you how I have lived here. Of course, it was for father."

They retraced their steps, and in spite of all the assurances that each pledged to the other it was surely lonely.

"Shall we go to your little pine cave?" Cora asked.

"I think it would be better not to," replied Laurel, "for indeed, one never knows what that man might do. He might come back just to frighten me."

"And he saw how ill you were?"

"Oh, most men think girls get ill to order. Very likely he thought I was acting," and the strange girl almost laughed.

"Our folks will be frightened about me," Cora said. "Are there no means of getting away from here?"

"There is not a person on this island that I know of," replied Laurel. "Of course, Brentano took your boat."

"Brentano?" Cora repeated.

"Yes. Did you not know his name?"

"He seems to have a collection of names. One calls him Tony, another Jones, and now it is Brentano."

"But we knew him abroad. That is his name."

Cora wondered, but did not feel inclined to ask further questions then. It was almost dark, and under the pine trees shadows fell in gloomy foreboding.

"Hark!" exclaimed Cora. "I thought I heard an engine!"

They listened. "Yes it is an engine," replied Laurel, "but I am afraid it is over at Far Island."

"Couldn't we shout?"

"I would rather not. You see father wants to stay here," she said hesitatingly.

"You mean if any one came for us they would know we were not alone here?"

"They might suspect. Or they might just happen to see father."

Cora was sorry. She wanted so much to call to the possible passerby, but she saw that the other girl had some very strong motive in wishing to leave the island secretly.

"Do you never go away from here?" she asked.

"Only when I am forced to, as I was the day of the race. He made me race, threatening to expose father if I did not."

"And then he said that you were deaf and dumb," added Cora indignantly.

"I did not mind that at all. In fact it was the easiest way for me to get out of meeting people." Laurel sighed heavily. "I do wonder when our lives will change," she said finally.

"Let us hope very soon," Cora said. "I, of course, do not know your story, but I feel that in some way that man is wronging you."

"Yes, he has been our evil genius ever since he crossed our path. You see father's mind is not entirely clear, and I do not myself know what to believe."

In the distance they could now see the lights of several boats, and behind the great hill that made Far Island look like some strange mountain place, the sun was all but lost in the forest blackness.

"Oh," sighed Laurel suddenly. "I feel faint again."

She sank down before Cora could support her. And they were away from the little hut where the water was! Away from every thing but the pitiless night!

"Oh, how dreadful," moaned Cora. "What shall I do?"

For a long time Laurel lay there so still that Cora feared she might really die. Then at last, she managed to sit up and grasp Cora's hand.

"I have never been ill in my life," she said. "It was all from that shock the day he compelled me to go in the race."

"Then you have every chance of getting perfectly well again," Cora assured her. "If that dreadful man had only left my boat."

"Perhaps in the morning we may be able to go," Laurel said. "Now that I have made up my mind I feel it will be better for father as well as for me, for if anything happened to me I fear he would die."

A light in the distance for a time gave them hope that a boat might be coming to the island, but, like a number of others, it turned toward the pleasure end of the lake.

"I guess we will have to make the best of it for to-night," Cora sighed. "Shall I try to find the hut and get you some food?"

"And you have not eaten! In my misery I forgot you. Of course--there now--I am better, and we will have to make our way to the pine hut. But if that man comes back!" and she shuddered.

"Why does he hold such power over you?" asked Cora, as she put her arm protectingly around her companion. "Does he supply you with your things out here?"

"We supply him," replied the girl bitterly. "He is never satisfied but always demanding more, until father will soon have nothing left."

Cora was mystified but this was no time for the strange story. She must help the girl to the pine hut.

"I believe you are more weak for want of food than from illness," Cora said. "I hope we find something to eat."

"Oh, yes, he brought things, but he should have done so before. I am weak for food."

It was difficult to find the way back now in the darkness, but the two lonely, frightened girls trudged on. At last Laurel was able to feel the stone on the path that gave the clue to her little hut.

"Does Brentano know you?" she asked Cora suddenly.

"I know him. I have been to his shack, and I have heard a lot about him from a housekeeper who left Peters. Do you know he is a handwriting expert?"

"A hand-writing expert!" gasped the girl. "Does that mean he could copy a signature?"

"Perfectly," replied Cora, "but how you tremble? What is it now?"

"Girl! girl!" she gasped. "What that may mean to us! Oh, I must find father! He will know. I must signal to him."

"Please do not to-night," begged Cora, fearing a new collapse from the excitement. "Wait until daylight. Here, now we shall get our food."

They were within the pine hut and had lighted a lantern. A loaf of bread and some salt meat were easy to find in the rudely-made box that served for a closet.

"I am actually starved," Cora remarked, with an effort to be pleasant. "I guess your pine trees make one hungry."

"Hark!" breathed Laurel. "I heard a step!"

The next moment Cora stood at the entrance to the hut, and waited. The step was coming closer and closer! And it was plainly that of a man!

"Oh, what can it be?" gasped Laurel. "Or who is it?"

"I--I don't know," whispered Cora, her voice trembling in spite of herself. "But we must be brave, Laurel, brave."

"Oh, yes, I will be! Oh I how glad I am that some one is with me-- that you are here!"

Cora felt the other's frail body trembling as she put her own strong arms around the shrinking girl. Then Cora peered from the door of the hut. Still that stealthy footstep till the approach of that unknown. Cora felt as if she must scream, yet she held her fears in check--not so much for her own sake as for the other.

Suddenly there was a crash in the underbrush, the crackling of brushes, the breaking of twigs.

"He--he's fallen!" gasped Laurel.

"Tripped over something," added Cora. "Oh, maybe he will turn back now."

Them was silence for a moment and then, to the relief of the girls, they heard footsteps in retreat. Their unwelcome visitor was going away.

"Oh, he's gone! He's gone!" gasped Laurel in delight.

"Maybe it wasn't a man at all," suggested the practical Cora. "It might have been a bear--or--er some animal."

"There are no bears on this island," replied her companion with a wan smile--no animals bigger than coons, and they couldn't make so much a noise. Besides, I heard him grunt, or moan, as he fell. So it must have been a man."

"Well, he's gone," rejoined Cora, "and, now that he's left us alone I'm going to hope that he didn't hurt himself. He interrupted our supper and now it's time we finished it," and in the dim light of the lantern they ate the coarse food and waited--waited for what would happen next.