Chapter XXV. Awakened Memories
 

"Oh, where is Cora!" gasped Bess, as she landed at the island rock, and almost fell fainting into Jack's arms.

"Why, she is with Laurel--in the hut. What ever is the matter, Bess?"

"We thought--thought they had taken you all to jail! Oh, those horrible men! Those detectives!"

"You silly," exclaimed Jack, seeing that the poor girl was really exhausted from fright. "Don't you know better than that?"

"But they would not believe us! They made us tell them where you were, and Belle is sick in bed. Their boat passed ours as we were coming in. We had a delay. Oh, we've been so alarmed!"

"Poor Belle," Jack murmured. "Now, Bess, just step up here and make sure for yourself that Cora is just as intact as when you last saw her. I am here to speak for myself. If anything she is better for a night's rest in the open. We expect to start a camp on this plan. It can't be beat."

Ed motioned Jack aside. "Wasn't that the police boat?" he asked.

"Yes, and Cora and I gave them all the clues they wanted. None at all in other words. They're after Tony."

"Oh! and Cora, is she all right?" Ed questioned further.

"Splendid. Did you hear the latest?"

"Which?" asked Ed, significantly.

"Laurel's father is almost better. The hermit, you know."

"You don't say! Can he testify?" asked Ed.

"He may be able to if they require it. But the queer part is it seems to have been the shock that awakened his brain. I have read of such cases."

Ed was silent, for the girls were returning. Hazel had her brown arms around Cora while Bess looked at Laurel as if she expected every moment her chum might evaporate. Walter towed on behind the little party.

"I must go down to the landing, Jack," Cora said. "I expect a registered letter, and it is most important that I get it at once."

Now this was the very thing that Jack did not want her to do--to get into the crowd of curious ones that would be sure to be congregated about the landing.

"Could I not fetch it? You don't want to leave the girls when they have just come up," Jack interposed.

"I am afraid this time I will have to get my own mail," said Cora with a smile. "Ed can run me down and we will come straight back."

This was finally agreed upon, although Jack did not like the arrangements. He called Ed aside and warned him not to let Cora leave the boat, not to let her speak to anyone, and not to let any one intercept her. "You can tell about those lawyer fellows," he finished. "They might think it their legal duty to interview her, for they know she has been let into the hermit's secret."

Ed readily promised all Jack said, punctuating his remarks with a display of arm muscle which meant that anyone would have to pass pretty close to it to reach Cora while she was in his company. Then they left.

Jack sat down on the ledge near the water. He was not given to the "glooms" but surely he had had more than his share of serious business lately. How it would end was his cause for anxiety. So he was pondering when Laurel touched his arm.

"Father would like to speak to you," she said in a faint voice. "He seems to think he knows you."

Jack jumped up suddenly. "He spoke to me very rationally last night," he said; "perhaps that is what he means."

He followed Laurel into the hut. The old man had gotten up and was as nicely washed and fixed as a sick person is usually when loving hands hover around.

"Good morning, sir," Jack said pleasantly, taking the seat beneath the opening in the boughs that served as a window.

"Good morning, good morning, and a really good morning it is," said the older man. "I wanted to speak with you. Laurel dear, is there not water to fetch?"

Laurel took the cue and hurried out, leaving Jack alone with the hermit.

"Young man," he began, "something has happened to clear my brain. A shock some fifteen years ago, if I have not lost all track of time, almost, if not altogether, deprived me of my reason." He paused and put his hand to his brown forehead, in a motion that seemed more a matter of habit than of necessity. "Then I came here, or he brought me here. I was all alone. Little Laurel must have been a baby, when one morning I found her at my side. Dear, sweet little cherub. He told me since that her mother had died!"

Jack did not venture an interruption. It all seemed too sacred for the lips of strangers to break in upon.

"Then we lived here. That man--!" He clenched his fist and Jack feared the excitement might be bad for his weakened head.

"Don't let us talk of him," Jack advised. "Let us consider what is best to do now."

"My brave boy!" and the hermit put his arm on Jack's shoulder. "That is always the mighty question for right; what is best to do now?"

A flush had stolen into his sunken cheeks, but Jack could see that it was not years, but trouble, that had marred his handsome face.

"He said I would be convicted--of that... crime!" The words seemed to burn his throat, for he put, his hand up as if to, choke further utterance.

"A crime you never committed," Jack ventured, without having the slightest knowledge of what it might mean to his listener.

"Can you prove it? Can you prove it!" gasped the man and for the moment Jack was frightened. He felt he was again in the presence of the mad hermit of Fern Island.

"Of course we can prove it. My sister has gone now for the absolute proof!" Jack was daring more and more each second. "But you spoke of Breslin. You said you knew him."

"I do! Where is he! Breslin always believed in me, and he could save me now," replied the man.

"Well, listen and try to be calm, or Laurel will not let me talk further to you," Jack cautioned. "Last night you mentioned the name of a wealthy banker, for whom my best friend works. This friend is a mechanical genius and he runs a racer boat for Brendon Breslin, the banker!"

"Where? Here? On these shores?" and the man was panting.

"Only a short distance off. But I tell you, Mr.--?"

"Starr," volunteered the man.

"Mr. Starr, if you will only get strong enough you can do a, great deal for yourself and Laurel._ The night that you fell a man was on this Island. Did you know Jim Peters?"

"Jim Peters!" repeated the hermit. "Yes, he was here the night Laurel went away with that nice young lady who looks like you."

Jack started at that. The night Laurel went away was the night Jim Peters had quarreled with Tony and been hurt.

"Did he come to the hunt?" asked Jack.

"No, but the other man did. Brentano and he quarreled, and he drove Jim Peters down to his boat. I saw them for I was wandering about wishing for Laurel, and I remember it all."

"If that man, Brentano, you call him, chased Peters into the boat did he get in with him?" Jack asked anxiously.

"Yes, I saw them shove off, but Peters was ugly and wanted to come back."

"Did he?"

"I had to hide then, as they might have injured me if they caught me. I did not see the boat go out or come back. I went to one of my many hiding places," finished the old man with evident effort.

"Well, Mr. Starr, you have relieved my mind greatly, and I hope I have not taxed your brain too strongly. But the fact is the detectives are trying to find out about those men and every bit of information helps. The police, you know, like to clear things up to suit themselves," Jack said.

At the word "police," the man winced. Jack noticed the change of manner, and at once turned the subject to that of the health of his listener. He urged him to get up enough strength to leave the island, for Laurel's sake, as well as for his own.

"But I have lived here like a wild man," argued Mr. Starr, "in fact I fear I have grown to be one in ways and manners. Solitude may be good for some, but for those in distress--"

"Exactly. But you are not going to have any more solitude. You see we have invaded your camp, and when my sister Cora makes a discovery she always insists upon developing it. I never did see the beat of Cora for finding things out," and the pride in Jack's voice matched the toss of his handsome head.

"And my little girl will have a friend," mused the elder man. "Well, in moments when I could think, that torturing thought of my dragging her down with me was too much. It drove me back always to the old, old despair." The look of terror, that Jack noticed before came back into the haggard face. It was as if he feared to hope.

Laurel was at the door. Her face was a picture of happiness as she stood there gazing at her father. Her skin was as dark as the leaves that outlined the entrance to the hut; her eyes lighted up the rude archway: and her lithe figure completed the bronze statuette.

Jack's eyes fell upon her in unstinted admiration. Generations of culture are not easily undone even by the wild life of a forest.

"You are better every minute, father," she said simply, "I think the cure you need comes from pleasant company."

"None could be more pleasant than your own, my dear," he answered, "but now I want to go and see my birds. And I must feed that cripple rabbit. He was shot," to Jack, "but the leg is mending nicely. I missed him so, for he knew us so well and would eat from our hands. You see we established a little kingdom here. Laurel was queen and we, the birds and other life creatures, were all her subjects."

Laurel blushed through her tan. "Yes, he had to do something," she said, "else the days would have been too long."

The chug of a motor-boat interrupted them. "That's Cora," said Jack, and so it was.