Chapter XX. Laurel's Flight
 

"What is it? What is it?" demanded the girls in chorus.

Cora made light of her actions as she hid the note, but in reality she had no idea of reading it before any one. What might it not contain?

"I get so few love letters," she remarked, "that I want a chance to enjoy them."

"Then as that's the case," said Ed, "it's us for the Bungle. Come on, boys," and he pretended offence, "Us is hurt."

"Now Ed, I said letters--not lovers," corrected Cora.

"The pen and ink!" demanded Ed. "I will to thee a letter indite," and he opened the small desk in the darkest corner of the room.

This was a signal for every boy to pretend to write a love letter to every girl. Jack could get nothing better than a feather from the Indian headpiece that hung on the wall. This he dipped in Belle's shoe dressing, and wrote a note on the back of Cora's best piece of sheet music. Walter sat on the floor poking his whittled stick into the dead embers in the fire-place, and managed to scratch something on a fan--it belonged to Bess. Paul did not much care for nonsense, but appropriately made Indian characters on the wooden bowl with his pen knife. The whole turned out more fun than was expected.

Walter proffered his love letter to Laurel, and she surprised them all by reading this:

"My Mountain Laurel:

Meet me when the buds come and we will wait for the blossoms.

Your Bending Bough."

The cue that Laurel furnished was taken up by the others and when Jack offered his "note" to Hazel she read.

"My Dear Burr:

Be patient and you will loose the green, Hazelnuts are never soft!

Yours,

The Fellow Who Fell Down Hill with Jill."

Cora read what Ed did not write:

"My Reef:

When stranded I know what to grab--Your larder is ever my rock of refuge.

Yours, Co-Ed."

Belle and Bess both partook of Paul's note, and as Paul was acknowledged the artist of them all the double missive was gladly accepted by the twins--as doubles.

Belle pretended to read:

"Two to one, or two in one,

Double the wish and double the fun."

The merry making that followed this little farce was of too varied a character to describe. Some of the boys insisted on standing on their heads while others took up a low mournful dirge that might have done credit to the days of the red men and wigwams.

Finally, Cora insisted that it was late--disgracefully late--for campers to have lights burning, and the boys were obliged to leave for their own quarters. Going out, Jack whispered to Cora:

"Ben told Paul to say to you that under no circumstances were you to go down to the landing to-morrow. I know he has some good reason for the warning. The row between Peters and Brentano may not have ended there," and he kissed her good night. "We have had a jolly time and to-morrow when I come you must let me see the mysterious love letter."

Cora promised, and then the lights were turned out.

Making sure that all, even Laurel, were sleeping Cora slipped out into the sitting room, relighted the lamp and unfolded the note that had been found in the canoe.

She felt her heart quicken. Why did she fear and yet long to know what that man had to tell her? She read:

"YOUNG LADY:

When you receive this I shall be too far away to further meet your daring, baffling challenge of my plans. What I intend to do I can not even tell myself, for everything seemed so easy of evil until you crossed my path. So easy was it that there was even no victory in the spoils. But first you came boldly to the den of poor Peters. Then you deliberately took from us that simple-minded, harmless old woman, Kate; next you did not call out when she gave you back your ring--not call out against us. All this to me was incomprehensible. Why should a young girl not fear us? Why should she not denounce us? Then you saved that little doll, Mabel Blake, until finally I began to wonder why I, a talented high-born Italian, should pretend to love crime when a mere girl could be a noble defender?

The difference made me feel like a coward, and I decided finally to go away. Before I left I had trouble with Peters. This hurried me and I have not time to write more now. I know you got back from the island--boys of your kin do not wait long to find their sisters. By to-morrow noon, if all goes well with me on the journey, I shall be able to write that to poor little Laurel which will release her from her bondage. I will send the letter care of you. Thank the boys for use of their canoe.

BRENTANO."

For some moments Cora sat looking blankly at that fine foreign paper. What a splendid hand! What direct diction!

And her conduct had influenced him to turn away from his evil ways. She had done nothing more than others, except perhaps she had more courage, born of better and more complete experience. She sighed a sigh of satisfaction as she again hid the paper in her gown. Then with one great heart-beat of prayerful thanksgiving, she, too, sought "tired nature's sweet restorer."

It was the sound of dishes and the tinkle of pans that awoke Cora next morning. Day so soon! And all the others up!

"Now, we have fooled you," said Belle with a light laugh. "You have slept longest!"

Cora had been dreaming very heavily, and her sleep seemed but a reflection of the previous day's troubles. Now she was awake and instantly she remembered it all about Ben telling her not to go near the landing; then about the letter.

"Is Laurel up?" she asked.

"No, we let her sleep to keep you company," said Hazel, "and we are going to give you such a surprise for breakfast! Don't tell, girls."

Cora slipped into a robe and stepped across the room to peer into the little corner where Laurel had gone to her rest.

"Laurel is up," she declared. "She is not here!"

"Not there! Not in bed! Laurel--she has not gotten up yet," declared Belle, who with frying pan in hand had hurried from the kitchen when Cora spoke.

"She certainly is not in bed," again declared Cora. "You may see for yourselves."

"Laurel gone!" exclaimed more than one of the astonished girls.

"She may have gone out," suggested Hazel. "I thought I heard someone about very early."

Following this thought the girls looked around called, and again returned to the empty room.

"What is this?" asked Bess, seeing a piece of ribbon-tied paper floating from the night lamp.

Hazel was first to handle it. She saw that it was a note addressed to Cora.

"It's for you, Cora," she said as she snapped the fragile ribbon from its fastening.

Cora read aloud:

"Forgive me for going this way but I could not wait longer to know about my father. I will return before dark and bring with me the canoe I have borrowed. You may, trust me and need not be anxious.

Gratefully,

LAUREL STARR."

"Gone in the canoe!"

"I know why, girls," Cora admitted, "and if you will all come in here together I will tell you as much, as I myself know. The real story I have not yet been able to learn, but must do so very soon."

Then she told of the first discovery of the man on Fern Island, following with the account of her second and third visits there, and finally of how she found poor Laurel in such distress the night of her own exile. The loss of her boat they all knew about, and that part was a certain kind of clear mystery.

"Laurel has gone back to see about her father," she finished. "It is only natural, and I should have thought it strange had she not done so."

"Of course," added Bess, brushing away a tear. "Poor little wild Laurel had to go back, it was almost as cruel to keep her as to pen up a brown bunny."

In spite of the seriousness of the moment every one smiled. First Laurel was russet, now compared to a little brown rabbit.

"We had just gotten acquainted with her," murmured Belle. "I thought her so romantic."

"And I thought her so intelligent," put in the ever-studious Hazel. "Even Paul took the trouble to notice her."

"Well, we will have her back again," promised Cora. "I am positive she will keep her word. I think her a splendid girl. All she needs is the chance to get over the state of chronic fright she has been living in. Then she will be just as normal as any of us."

"Then, that being the case," said Hazel, with a jump, "I propose we keep normal by eating our breakfast. I am famished, and those boys almost emptied the ice-box."

"Nettie had to go away into town for eggs," Bess orated, "and therefore we had to do all the cooking."

"It smells all right," Cora said, as they pulled the chairs to the table. "Let us hope we will get through one meal without interruption. My appetite is positively canned."

"And I took the trouble to gather those morning glories," Belle announced. "I thought Laurel would like them."

"They are beautiful, Belle," said Cora, looking with admiration at the dainty green vines with their freshly-blown, colored bells that trailed from the glass bowl in the center of the table. "Nothing could be more artistic, and we enjoy them even if Laurel has missed them," Cora finished.

"But the food," demanded Hazel. "It is of that we sing. Food, food! Isn't it good; a girl is a loon who can't eat what she could," sang Hazel, with more mirth than English.

"Eggs, eggs, bacon and eggs."

"She eats all she can, then sits up and begs," sang Cora helping herself to that portion of the fare, and keeping time with the humming toast.

Bess was taking her third slice of bread. That inspired Belle.

"Bread, bread, Nettie's good bread--"

"When Bess took the loaf, we nearly fell dead," sang out Belle, rescuing the much-worn loaf from which Bess was trying to get a slice.

"The toasts are very well as far as they go," commented Cora, "but I notice that the food stuffs go farther."

"And the boys are coming at ten," remarked Hazel. "I'm glad I cooked. I don't have to wash the dishes."

"But the boys were going out in the canoe and now it's gone," Belle reminded them. "They were going to take the prize canoe, and the red one, and we would all then have a chance to float out together. Now, of course, we won't be able to go."

"We can go in our own boat," Cora said, "and really the lake is quite rough for canoeing this morning. When Laurel comes back she will likely bring her own boat and then we will have three in our fleet."

"Why couldn't you, and she come home in her canoe when you found your boat gone, Cora?" asked Bess suddenly.

"Hers was not at the dock--someone had borrowed it," Cora explained without explaining.

They had about finished their meal. Belle was already snatching the dishes, in spite of protests that there was some perfectly good eating which had not yet been eaten.

"There come the boys now," announced Hazel. "They look sort of-gloomy."

Cora glanced out of the window and saw Ed, Jack and Walter strolling along the path. She, too, thought they looked "gloomy," but it was not her practice to anticipate trouble.

The "hellos" were exchanged before the young men had time to enter the camp. Then Belle asked:

"Aren't we going canoeing?"

"Guess not to-day," replied Ed, his handsome black hair almost sparkling in the sunshine as he tossed his head in nonchalance. "We are still too cramped up. Had to sleep on the roof last night."

"Why?" demanded Cora.

"Choosin' that. My little joke," he replied, "Girls, I'm cuttin' up," and he tried to hide a serious air with a ridiculous remark. "But we'll do something. We'll go fishin"' he declared.

"We thought it best to keep out in the cove this morning," Jack was explaining to Cora. "There is so much going on around the landing."

"What is going on?" she asked rather nervously.

"Oh, that Peter's affair," replied her brother with assumed indifference. "They are looking him over to-day to see how much he's hurt."

"Oh!" said Cora vaguely. Then she went indoors from the porch to prepare for the fishing trip.