Chapter XXVI. In Search of Honor
 

Cora brought back with her the letter promised by Brentano in his note of mystery. This time she confided in Laurel her scheme for unraveling the tangled skein in the web of dishonor that had been woven about the strange girl's father.

Ben had spoken to Cora at the Landing. He seemed to think that Cora might know more about the trouble between Peters and Tony than he had expected at first.

"But I don't, Ben," she insisted, while Ed was absent getting mail. "You give me credit for being better able to solve mysteries than I am. Is he worse hurt than they thought, Ben?"

"Much worse, miss. Of course, he's not dangerous, but the officers want Tony the worst way. Now if you could tell where to find him--"

"But I can't," she explained. "They came to me--"

And then she stopped suddenly. If Ben did not know of the visit of the detectives she was not going to tell him. She had had a faint suspicion that Ben might have sent them to her. But he evidently had not.

"Yes--yes," he said eagerly. "You were sayin', Miss Cora, that--"

"Oh, nothing, Ben," she answered quickly. "I think I am really so happy at having helped Laurel, that I don't know what I am saying."

"Yes, indeed you can well be, Miss," and Ben looked at her with what Cora thought a strange gaze. Still, she might be mistaken. Then she made some excuse to stroll away.

Walter had rambled off with Hazel and Bess. The day was now one of those so wonderful in August, when nature seems tired of her anxieties, and rests in a perfect ocean of content. The haze had cleared from the water, the hills were shimmering in the rival honors of sunlight and shadows, and Cedar Lake from far and near was glorious. Not a breeze broke the spell:

"No brisk fairy feet, bend the air, strangely sweet, For nature is wedding her lover!"

This line prompted Cora. Somehow the joy of relief was the one thing that had ever overcome her, and now, although nothing in all, the strange things that had happened around her, or had warped the life of Laurel and her father seemed really cleared away, still there was that odd look on old Ben's face, there was a new light in Laurel's eyes, and something like vigor in the voice of Mr. Starr. Oh, if he could and would only tell about that note! Then everything else might await time for adjustment.

Cora took Jack and Laurel down under the broken chestnut tree to tell them about the letter. It was best, she concluded not to mention it yet to Mr. Starr.

"You know," she began, "that Brentano, that is the man of many names," she explained to Jack, "promised to send me information that would clear Mr. Starr of his supposed crime."

Laurel drew a deep breath. The word crime made her almost shudder.

"And this is to-day's letter." She opened the bulky envelope. "He says so much about a girl's power of influence," Cora explained, as if not wanting to read that part of the letter. Then he says this:

"'I have some excuse for my folly. When I was a very little child my mother died. My farther was an expert mathematician employed by the Mexican government. From a tiny lad I watched him make those fascinating rows of figures, and I always wanted to know what they meant. He told me money, riches, gold, and I got to believe that the way to acquire money was to make figures, and do wonderful things with pen and ink. When I was twelve years old my father died, and I was left, with considerable money, in the care of an old nurse who idolized me. Poor old Maximina! She meant no wrong, but who was to guide me? Then the money was gone and the nurse was also gone. I had to follow some occupation, and a friend coming to America brought me with him. At fifteen I was a bank runner. It was there I met Mr. Starr, the respected first clerk of the bank. He liked me, talked to me and was my friend. Then I got in with a set of so called scientific cranks. I knew something about the ways of hypnotism, and when I wanted money the temptation came."

Cora stopped, for Laurel had clutched at Jack's arm. Her face was a faded yellow and her eyes were twitching.

"Shall we wait for the rest, Laurel?" Cora asked. "Perhaps it is--too painful for you now!"

"Oh, no! It is not pain, it is agony. This boy whom my father befriended!"

"But you see he was not born a scoundrel," Jack interrupted. "He is now trying to make amends."

"Yes," sighed Laurel, "please go on, Cora."

Cora read: "I have kept proofs of everything, but if the authorities refuse to accept these proofs I am willing to come back to America and give myself up. You will find the papers marked 'bank records' in a chest in the back kitchen of Peters shack. They are sealed in a big tin can marked 'red paint.' What are they saying about Peters? That must be a hard nut for the Lake people to crack, but since they know so much, or they think they know, it might be a good thing to let them find out how little they really do know. I am sorry for poor Peters. He got ugly, however, and it was his own fault?"

As Cora read these last few words her, eyes left the paper. What did he mean? Why did he not say more? He knew Peters' shack held the needed proofs of that forgery case. It would take many days to write to and hear from Mexico. All this was dashing before Cora's confused mind.

"The thing to do," spoke Jack, "is to go to the shack at once. When we find those papers we may believe the man."

"I believe him now," said Laurel, "for all that he says of my father I have heard in his ravings. Poor, dear father! And to think I was too young to help him!"

"It was evidently not a question of age," said Jack, "when one is hypnotized into the belief that he has committed a crime it would take scientific treatment to restore him to his correct view of the case. To remove you from the possibility of this, I suppose, is the very reason that Brentano brought you here."

"We cannot go for the papers to-day," Cora said, "for we must, if possible, get Mr. Starr either to the boys' bungalow, or to our camp. Which do you think, Jack?"

"We will take him to our bungalow, certainly. And it seems to me he is smart and bright enough for the trip now. If we wait later he might have some reaction," Jack replied.

Laurel agreed with him, and presently they broached the matter to Mr. Starr.

"But I cannot go just now," the hermit argued. "I have that little lame rabbit--"

"Why, father," and Laurel folded her arms around him, "don't you think it would be dreadful to disappoint our friends when they have waited the whole night? And they must want to get back to their comfortable quarters."

"Looking at it that way," he faltered, "I suppose I ought to. But how can a man leave the woods when he has been in them for ten years?"

"It must be hard," Cora agreed, "and if you want to come back we could arrange to build you a real camp out here, one in which Laurel might have some comforts. But first you must get strong. Just think of beef tea-broth--can't you smell it?"

"Girl! Girl!" he exclaimed with a real smile brightening his benevolent face, "you have a way! Laurel, we have no trunks to pack," he said, half grimly, "have we?"

"But we have things to take with us," 'and she jumped up so pleased, believing that he had almost, if not entirely, consented to go.

"Where's that rabbit?" asked Jack.

Walter and the girls were coming the other way.

"It's in a mossy bed just back of where Bess stands," said Laurel.

"Then he's the first thing to be packed," said Jack, walking straight for the path where the others stood.

From that time until the Petrel landed at the lower end of Cedar Lake Mr. Starr, the hermit, felt that he was in a dream. At the same time he allowed himself to be guided and managed with the simplicity of a child, for his awakened memory seemed stunned by this new turn of affairs. He was weak, of course, but with all the hands that now crowded around him his every need was well looked after.

"I'll get Dr. Rand," Ed volunteered. "They say he is wonderful on mental cases."

"But he needs rest first," insisted the busy Cora, for she and Laurel had gone directly to the boys' bungalow with Mr. Starr.

Between them all the illness seemed overwhelmed. In fact, the man's eyes, the safest signal of the brain, were as dear as those of the young persons who so eagerly watched his every move.

Dr. Rand came at once. He diagnosed the case as one of mental shock, and called the patient convalescent. A nurse however was called in to hurry the recovery, and this necessitated the renting of another bungalow for the boys.

There had never been more excitement around the wood camp. The boys ran this way and that, each anxious to outdo the other in the accomplishment of something important. Finally Cora suggested that they all go away to make sure that Mr. Starr would have real quiet.

"Can't we go for the papers? To the shack?" Laurel ventured.

"We might," Jack replied. "I see no reason why we should not."

"Let us three go," proposed Cora, "I mean you and Laurel and I, Jack. It might be best not to attract attention."

Once more the Petrel sailed up the lake, this time toward the Everglades. Cora thought of that day when she and Bess dared take the same journey, when the strange man sat at the willowed shore ostensibly making sketches. She thought now that his work then must have been the forging of a letter to hand the poor demented hermit of Fern Island.

"The shack is just over there, Jack," she said, pointing out the willows.

"There's another boat anchored there," Jack said. "It looks like an important craft too."

He had seen it before. It was the very boat in which the detective and the police officer sailed up to the far island the morning they came searching for evidence in the Jones' case.

"The path is narrow," Cora said, "but I happen to know it." She led the way.

"There are men!" exclaimed Laurel as they neared the shack.

Two men were trying to force open the low window. Cora drew back, for one of the men was in uniform.

"I suppose they have not finished the case," Jack ventured, and at that very moment he would have given a great deal to have had his sister and Laurel back at camp.

The men had not yet seen them. They forced open the window, and were now inside.

"Let us turn back," Jack suggested. "They may ask us questions--"

"But the papers," begged Laurel. "They mean so much to father. And what if those men should take them?"

"They will likely take everything they can lay their hands on," Jack answered, "and I suppose it will be best for us to go on."

"Certainly," Cora said, knowing well that it was on her account that Jack hesitated. "They cannot do more than ask questions."

But scarcely had she uttered the words than they saw the two men walk out of the shack, and one of them had the can marked "red paint!"