Chapter XXIII. A Night on the Isle
 

It was too late now for Cora to think of making her way to the pine hut without the boys, too dark, too late and too uncertain, so she agreed to allow Ed and Jack to go with her while Walter and the girls followed at some distance.

"There's a light," announced Jack, when they had covered the first hill.

"Yes, that's in the hut," Cora said.

Hurrying before her brother, Cora reached the thatched doorway. She pushed back the screen and saw Laurel leaning over the bed on the floor. As she entered Laurel motioned her not to speak. Then Cora saw that the girl was bending over her father.

"They shall not take me," he murmured. "I am innocent!"

"Hush, father dear," his daughter soothed. "'There is no one here, just your own Laurel," and she bathed his head with her wet handkerchief.

Cora instantly withdrew. She whispered to Jack, and he turned to meet the others, to prevent them coming nearer. Laurel followed her to the open air.

"Father is so changed!" she said under her breath, "while he seems worse, his mind is clearer, and I almost hope he will soon remember everything of the past."

"If his mind is clearer there is every hope for him," Cora replied. "I do hope, Laurel dear, that your exile and his will soon end."

Laurel put her hand to her head as if to check its throbbing. Yes, if it only would soon end!

"What happened?" asked Cora.

"He fell and struck his head on a rock," answered Laurel. "It was that night we were in the hut. It was he who came walking along in the darkness, and we thought it was some one else. He came to look for me after I signaled that time. It was my father!"

"He slipped and fell," she resumed in a moment. "We heard him, you remember, and then--then he went away--my poor father!"

Cora gasped in surprise. "Is he badly hurt?" she managed to ask.

"No, hardly at all. It was only a slight cut on his head, but the shock of it brought him to him self--restored his reason that was tottering. When he got up and staggered off his mind was nearly clear, but he did not dare come to the hut where we were for fear it might contain some of his enemies. He went looking for me, but I had gone with you.

"Since then he has talked of matters he has not mentioned in years and years. But he is not altogether better. Oh, Cora, if his mind would only become strong again, so he could dear up all the mystery!"

'The girls clung lovingly to each other. Then a moan from the hut suddenly called Laurel away, Cora knew Jack was waiting for her in the woods, and she hastened to him.

One whispered sentence to her brother was enough to explain it all to him.

"We must arrange to get him away from here--Laurel's father," he said, as he put his arms about Cora. "Do you think he is strong enough to be moved?"

"I'll ask Laurel," replied Cora joyfully. If only now both the hermit and his daughter could leave that awful island. The other girls stepped to the door in answer to Cora's signal.

"Oh, I am afraid he is too weak for that now," Laurel whispered. "But when he is able I will have him taken to a hospital. That man kept us in terror. Now he is gone and I feel almost free."

"You have heard that he is gone?" questioned Cora.

"I had a letter," replied the other simply, and this answer only served to make a new matter of query for Cora. But she could not ask it now.

"He is sleeping," said Laurel. "Look!"

Cora went over to the pallet and looked down at the man who lay there. Yes, he was noble looking in spite of the growth of his hair and beard, and Cora could see wherein his daughter resembled him. There seemed something like a benediction in that hut, and as the thought stole over her, Cora breathed a prayer that it should not come in the shape of death.

"He's lovely," Cora said to Laurel. "Let us go out and not disturb him."

Jack and the others were waiting silently outside. Cora spoke to her brother. He understood.

"You girls had better go back," he said, "Ed and I will stay here to help Laurel."

"Oh, no, I must stay too. Perhaps in the morning we can take him away," insisted Cora.

Bess and Belle clung together. They had a fear of "the wild man" and it had not yet been dispelled. Hazel tried to induce Laurel to go back to camp and allow her and Cora to care for the father, but of course such an appeal was useless. Laurel would not think of leaving the sick man. It was finally arranged that Cora and Jack should remain, and then reluctantly the others started off with the promise of returning very early the next morning.

"I have some things to eat," Laurel told them. "I thought poor father would like a change, and I got them when I was at the Point."

"Oh, you save them," Jack said. "We had a good supper, and will make out all right until morning. But now tell me where I can get you fresh water."

Cora knew, and she took the extra lantern and started off with her brother. They talked of many things as they stumbled on through the woods.

"There's the spring. Look out! Don't fall in. My isn't that water clear even in the lantern light!" exclaimed Cora suddenly.

Jack filled the pail easily and then they turned back.

"But Jack," Cora began again, "you know there is some mystery about Mr. Starr. That must be his name, for Laurel signed hers so in the note she left."

"Whatever the mystery is, I feet certain it is nothing disgraceful," Jack assured her. "Very likely it was some plot to injure them, concocted by that fellow Jones."

The unfailing reason of this astonished Cora. How could Jack have guessed so near the facts?

"At any rate I think the poor man will be able to be moved in the morning," she finished, as they made their way up the hill. "It will be a wonderful thing if, after all, it comes out all right; that he is a free man, and that his slight injury may restore his scattered faculties."

"Let us hope so," said Jack fervently.

Cora wanted to tell him about the letter from Jones otherwise Brentano, but there was not time to do so before they reached the hut, so she reasoned it would be best to postpone it.

Laurel was sitting, holding her father's injured head when they entered the hut. He was awake now, and looking with such great, hungry eyes into his daughter's face.

"Now we have fresh water, father," she said. "Do you know my friends?"

"The girl, yes," he said 'feebly. "But the boy?"

"Her brother," said Laurel quickly, delight showing in her voice. "Isn't it good to have friends, father?"

"Good, very good," he said. Then he dosed his eyes again, and neither Cora nor Jack ventured to speak.

"It does not seem possible that he can talk so rationally," Laurel whispered. "Oh, I have now such hopes that he will get well."

"Of course he will," Jack assured her. "But you girls had better get some rest. I will sit up and watch."

Cora added her entreaties to those of her brother, and Laurel finally agreed to throw herself down on the straw bed in the far corner of the hut. Cora found room at the other end of the same bed, and presently their young natures gave in to the urgent demands of rest. Jack sat alone watching the white faced man who tossed and turned, muttering incoherent words.

"I did not do it," he would say. "I never saw the note."

"There, you want a drink," said Jack kindly, pressing the tin cup to the trembling lips.

"But Breslin knows! Oh, if I could only find Breslin!"

"Breslin," Jack repeated, astonished.

"Yes, Brendon Breslin. He knows!"

"Brendon Breslin!" Jack said again. This was the name of the wealthy man for whom Paul Hastings ran the fast steam launch.

"Oh, my head!" moaned the man, closing his eyes in pain.

Jack realized that this remark about the millionaire might mean a sudden return of memory, and he resolved to test it further, even at the risk of giving the aching head more pain. For if the memory lapsed again it might never be awakened.

"What does Breslin know?" he asked, leaning very dose to the sick man.

To his surprise the hermit sat bolt upright. "He knows that I never forged the note. It was that sneaking office boy."

That was the story! This man had been made to believe he had forged a note. His exile on the island was because of the supposed crime!

"Of course he knows," Jack soothed. "And to-morrow he will come to see you."

But the sick man was either unconscious, or sleeping. He did not reply.