Chapter XVI. Mary's Letter
 

For a moment there was silence. Then Cora asked:

"Who does he say took it?"

"That's just it," went on her brother. "He doesn't say."

"Does he know?"

"He declares he does."

"Then why won't he tell?"

"You can search me. I don't know. He hasn't even told the police, I understand. He merely made that remark to Walter, and I heard about it."

"Oh, Jack, are you sure that's all there is to it?" asked his sister.

"Sure. I'd tell you more if I knew."

At first they thought he was teasing, and the girls, with, all the wiles of which they were capable, besought him to explain, but he could not, and, finally, they accepted his word as final.

"Well, it's very strange," commented Cora. "I hope it will be all cleared up soon--for all our sakes."

"So do I," joined in Belle.

Cora again referred to the proposed purchase of a car for the twins, and though they were disappointed that they could not have it at once, Cora was rather glad, as she felt it would be a chance for Paul to get the order. Jack was appealed to, and gave the two sisters so many points about autos that they declared they felt quite bewildered.

"Well, I think we'd better be leaving, Cora, dear," said Elizabeth at length, and the good-bys were said, with many whispered promises made to come over the next day to finish up the party plans.

"Cora," said Jack, when the pretty twins had gone down the path, "I want a chance to talk to you. You've been so busy of late that I haven't had an opportunity."

"In just a minute, Bud," interrupted his sister, feeling in her sleeve for the unread letter. "I must run upstairs for just a moment. Then I'll be right down."

"Yes, and then some one else will come in, and it will be the same thing over to-morrow. No, sis, you're not treating me right," and Jack's tone betrayed some grievance.

But Cora decided that she must read her letter, and she promised that she would soon return to the porch.

"I know it's from Mary Downs," she told herself as she glided up the stairs to the privacy of her oven room. "And I never could read it before any one."

She hastily tore open the envelope. Yes, the letter was signed with Mary's name, and it was dated from Silver Falls.

Cora's heart beat expectantly. She had hoped, ever since the day of the eventful ride, that Mary might be able to furnish some clue to the missing money. She was such an observing girl. Cora began to read the letter. It ran:

"MY DEAR MISS KIMBALL: I was so sorry to leave you without having a chance to thank you for the pleasant time you gave me, but I was called away unexpectedly that same afternoon. It would only bore you to hear all the details. I simply had to come here, and here I am still. It was most unfortunate, for Madam Julia will never forgive me, and even to her I dislike to tell the reason for the hurried trip. In fact, I think she would not understand it. Well, enough about that.

"I just want to thank you for the lovely time you gave me, and I am so sorry I cannot talk with you, for I have read of the loss of Mr. Foster's money, and surely it was a very strange thing to happen. If I had a chance I might be able to give you a clue but it would not be wise to write it. I expect to be back in Chelton soon, and then I will tell you what I think about it, for I know I can trust you.

"With kindest regards,

"MARY DOWNS.

"P.S.--I was greatly surprised yesterday to meet Mr. Wilcox, or, rather, to see him pass in a new automobile. He did not see me. I did not want him to.

M. D."

"Of all things!" exclaimed Cora, dropping the letter into her lap. "Just like every other girl on earth. Tells you what she wants you to know, but never says a word about what you want to find out. I've a good mind to let Jack read this letter. He might know what would be best to do."

Then she hesitated. Cora always did hesitate before taking an important step, just as she always stopped and looked around when leaving her room--to see if she had forgotten anything, or if she had left it all right.

"But it does look strange," she reasoned. "Yet I would trust Mary. She has such an honest face. I will just tell Jack the whole thing."

Picking up the letter she hurried back to the porch.

There sat Walter Pennington and Ed Foster with her brother. Concealing one expression of surprise, and another of disappointment that Jack was not alone, Cora greeted the young men pleasantly and invited them in to dinner, an invitation which Jack, in his rough-and-ready fashion had given by asking his chums to stay to dine.

Mrs. Kimball was preparing for a little trip, and though very busy she warmly greeted her son's friends, and entertained them, as she knew so well how to.

"You young folks are so taken up with your motors," she said as she took her place at the head of the table, "that we older and less fortunate people scarcely get a chance to speak to you. Cora is so enthusiastic over her car and its swift motion that our maid declares she will soon turn into a bird and fly."

"A dove," whispered Walter, just loud enough to be heard by every one, but softly enough to disguise the platitude.

Cora laughed lightly. Walter had a very taking way of saying things. He seemed to know exactly how to be nice without being silly.

The dinner over, the young people went to the porch. Mary's letter was in Cora's belt, and the edge of the envelope, scratching her hand as she sat down reminded her of her anxiety concerning the contents. Should she tell all the boys? Ed ought to know, that was her first thought. Surely Jack ought to know of it, and, as for Walter--well, he ought to know also, for he had found the empty pocketbook.

Ed was making some remark to Jack about the lost money. Cora listened to see if it had any reference to what her brother had told her that morning. She crushed the letter in her hands.

"I've just had a note," she began, "from my friend Mary Downs."

"What I From the pretty runaway?" exclaimed Jack. "So that letter was from her, eh? No wonder I didn't recognize the hand."

"She did not run away, Jack," objected his sister, and there was a warning note in her voice.

"Oh, no, of course not. But, anyway, she vas pretty. Wasn't she, boys?"

"A hummer!" declared Walter, adjusting a porch steamer chair for Cora.

"Well, if you want to hear about the letter--" began the girl.

"Hear about it? Why, we want to read it for ourselves!" cried Jack, and he tried to take it from his sister's hand. Cora struggled to retain it, and finding that she was being bested, threw it over Jack's head to Walter. He grabbed it, and defied his chum to touch it.

"Now, easy, fellows," begged Ed in his quiet way. "If there happens to be news from Mistress Mary, though she be quite contrary, pray let us hear it."

"That's what I say," added Walter, handing Cora the missive. "Now, Jack, I'm going to stand on guard, and if you interfere again--"

"Oh, go ahead. I'll get it, anyway, later, when sis is asleep."

"No, you'll not!" declared his sister. "But this is the news," she went on guardedly. "Mary intimates that she knows something about the money."

"Is that so?" cried Ed eagerly.

"Oh, every one is intimating that," declared Jack in some contempt. "Is that all? What we want is an intimation that makes good, eh, Ed?"

"Yes, I suppose so. But what does Mary say?" and he looked sharply at Cora.

"I think I had better read the letter," she said, "for, like all girls, or most of them, at least, she only hints at the most important statement."

"Go ahead," ordered Jack. "I'll listen and close my eyes to call up a picture of pretty Mary. She's pretty, she's witty, she's all a girl--"

He began to sing.

Cora jumped up.

"If any one wants to hear this letter he has got to keep--" she began.

"I'll be good," promised Jack contritely.

Walter gently slipped his arm around Cora's waist. Ed, towering above Walter, put his arm around his chum and Jack's sister. Jack managed to edge under her arm.

"Well, we're a happy family now," said Jack. "You may read the letter, Cora. We each have you all to ourselves."

With a quick move Cora freed herself.

"Oh, you might know she'd duck," pouted Jack, "just as we were getting comfortable. Keep your old letter. I won't listen to it now," and he moved away.

"I've forgotten something in my machine!" exclaimed Ed suddenly with a sly wink at Cora. "I'll just run and get it, if you'll excuse me."

Cora knew exactly what he intended to do. Quickly, as he came back in his runabout, she ran down the piazza steps, and was in the machine before either Walter or Jack realized what was taking place.

"Now I'll hear the letter without being interrupted!" exclaimed Ed as he put on speed and escaped with the laughing girl, who waved the missive above her head.