THE AUTOMOBILE GIRLS IN THE BERKSHIRES
The Ghost of Lost Man's Trail
LAURA DENT CRANE
Author of The Automobile Girls at Newport, The Automobile Girls Along the Hudson, Etc., Etc.
Philadelphia Henry Altemus Company
Copyright, 1910, by Howard E. Altemus
CHAPTER PAGE I. The Reunion 7 II. New Light on Old Papers 20 III. Happiness, and Another Scheme 28 IV. In the Heart of the Berkshires 45 V. A Day in the Woods 58 VI. "The Great White Also" 66 VII. Mollie Follows the Trail 76 VIII. End of the Search 90 IX. Spirit of the Forest 95 X. A Knock at the Door 107 XI. The Coon Hunt 120 XII. The Wounded Bird 128 XIII. The Wigwam 135 XIV. Give Way to Miss Sallie! 144 XV. Society in Lenox 152 XVI. At the Ambassador's 166 XVII. A Visit to Eunice 181 XVIII. Plans for the Society Circus 190 XIX. The Old Gray Goose 198 XX. Barbara and Beauty 206 XXI. Eunice and Mr. Winthrop Latham 215 XXII. The Automobile Wins 230 XXIII. The Recognition 240 XXIV. What to Do with Eunice 251
The Automobile Girls in the Berkshires
"Mollie Thurston, we are lost!" cried Barbara dramatically.
The two sisters were in the depth of a New Jersey woods one afternoon in early September.
"Well, what if we are!" laughed Mollie, leaning over to add a cluster of wild asters to her great bunch of golden rod. "We have two hours ahead of us. Surely such clever woodsmen as we are can find our way out of woods which are but a few miles from home. Suppose we should explore a real forest some day. Wouldn't it be too heavenly! Come on, lazy Barbara! We shall reach a clearing in a few moments."
"You lack sympathy, Miss Mollie Thurston; that's your trouble."
Barbara was laughing, yet she anxiously scanned the marshy ground as she picked her way along.
"I wouldn't mind being lost in these woods a bit more than you do, if I were not so horribly afraid of snakes. Oh, my! this place looks full of 'em."
"They are not poisonous, Bab, or I might be more sympathetic," said Mollie reassuringly. "The snakes in these woods are harmless. How can a girl as brave as you are be such a goose about a poor, wriggly little 'sarpint,' that couldn't harm you if it tried."
"O-o-o!" shivered Bab. "One's own pet fear has nothing to do with sense or nonsense. Kindly remember your own feelings toward the timid mouse! Just the same, I should like to play 'Maid Marian' for a while and dwell in the heart of a woodland glen. If ever I have a chance to go on a camping trip, I shall get rid of my fear of snakes, somehow."
"Bab," said Mollie, after a moment's pause, "hasn't it been dreadfully dull since Ruth and her father went away? Do you think they will ever come back? I can hardly believe it has been only three weeks since they left Kingsbridge, and only six weeks since we came back from Newport. Anyhow I am glad Grace Carter is home again from her visit to her brother."
"Cheer up, Mollie, do!" encouraged Bab. "Ruth has promised to pay us a visit before she goes home to Chicago, and she is a girl of her word, as you and I well know. I am expecting a letter from her every day."
"Well," Mollie ejaculated in heart-felt tones, "I know I am nearly dead to see her. Grace and I were talking of it only yesterday."
"Mollie, I don't want to be a croaker," began Bab, after a little hesitation, "but have you noticed that mother seems worried about something? When I was talking yesterday about how crazy I was to go to Vassar some day, mother looked as though she wanted to cry. I stopped there and then. She has seemed so gay and cheerful until recently. I wonder whether she is worried about money."
Mollie nodded her head and frowned. "Now you speak of it, Bab, I believe I have noticed that she seems depressed at times. I think she is tired out and needs a complete change. She had a long letter from Cousin Betty in St. Paul yesterday, asking her to make a visit. I think mother should accept. You and I are certainly big enough to look after ourselves until school commences. Let's beg her to go."
"All right, Mollie, we will," said her older sister, "but if the family funds are even lower than usual, where is the money to come from for such an expensive trip? Just the same, I shall question mother, and find out what's the matter."
Bab was walking on bravely, trying to forget her horror of snakes.
"I am sure," she thought, "that I can feel my feet trembling inside my boots; I am so afraid of stepping on one of the wretched little pests."
It had rained the day before, and the ground under the thick tangle of trees and underbrush being unusually marshy, the girls had to pick their way carefully. Mollie walked ahead while they were talking. Barbara jumping from the twisted root of one tree to another half a yard away, felt something writhe and wriggle under her foot. Without stopping to look down, she shrieked—"A snake! a snake!"—and ran blindly forward. Before Mollie had time to look around, Barbara caught her foot under a root and tumbled headlong into the wet mud.
"Bab," cried Mollie, "you certainly have gone and done it this time! How wet and muddy you are!"
She picked up a stick and raked in the leaves near her sister.
"See, here's what you have made such a fuss about, a tiny garter snake, that couldn't hurt a thing. You've crushed the thing with your heel."
Mollie turned suddenly. "Barbara, what is the matter with you?" she asked, as she caught a glimpse of her sister's face. "Why don't you get up? Can I help you?" She leaned over her sister.
Poor Bab's face was white as a sheet, and she was trembling.
"Yes, do help me if you can," she answered. "I can't get up by myself. I'm afraid I have turned my ankle. Here, take my hand. Sitting here in this mud I feel as if I had fallen into a nest of snakes."
Mollie gave Bab both her hands. Setting her teeth, Bab tried to rise, but, with a groan, sat down again. The second time Mollie pulled with all her might. Barbara, summoning her courage, rose slowly to her feet. Without speaking she leaned against the trunk of the nearest tree.
"Wait here, dear," urged Mollie, more worried than she would show. "I will try and find you a stick. Then if you lean on me and use the stick in the other hand, perhaps we can get along all right."
They were several miles from home and in another hour the dusk would be upon them. So the two girls struggled bravely on through the thick woods, though it was difficult to walk abreast in the narrow path. Barbara insisted she was better with each step, but Mollie knew otherwise. With every foot of ground they covered Bab limped more and more painfully. Now and then when her injured foot pressed too heavily on the rough ground, she caught her breath and swallowed a groan. Mollie realized they would not get home before midnight at the rate they were now moving.
"Rest here, Bab," she insisted, when they came to an opening in the woods where the shade was less dense. "I think I see a place over there that must lead into a road. I will run on ahead and find some one to come back to help you."
Bab was glad to sit down. Her foot was swelling and growing more painful every moment; her pulses were throbbing. She was almost crying, but she would never mention surrender; she was not sorry, however, when Mollie suggested that she should rest.
Mollie sped through the woods as fast as she could run. As soon as her back was turned, Bab closed her eyes. "How glad I am to rest," she thought gratefully.
In the half hour that Barbara Thurston waited alone her mind wandered to many of her own hopes and fears. First, she couldn't help worrying over her mother. Then, she thought of her own ambition. More than anything in the world she longed to go to Vassar College. In two years more she would be ready to enter, but where was the money to come from? Barbara realized that her mother would never be able to pay her expenses from their small income; nevertheless, she meant to go. The Kingsbridge High School offered a scholarship at Vassar to the girl who passed the best final examinations during the four years of its course. Barbara had won the highest honors in her freshman and sophomore years, but she had two more winters of hard work ahead of her.
"I wonder," she thought at last, "if I can persuade Ruth to go to college with me?" Then she must have fallen into a little doze.
Readers of the preceding volume, "The Automobile Girls at Newport," will remember how the famous little club, known as "The Automobile Girls" came to be organized, and they are familiar with the exciting and humorous incidents of that journey in Ruth Stuart's motor car. There were many adventures along the way, including mysterious encounters with a gentlemanly young rascal, known to the police as "The Boy Raffles." The same "Raffles" afterwards turned up at Newport, where the girls for several weeks led a life of thrilling interest. "The Automobile Girls" it was who caught "Raffles" red-handed, and who saved Bab's snobbish cousin, Gladys Le Baron, from falling in love with him.
Six weeks before, on their return from the trip to Newport, "The Automobile Girls" had disbanded. Mr. Stuart had given a dinner in their honor, and at the close of the meal, he formally presented each of the girls with a miniature model of Ruth's motor car, forming pins of red enamel about the size of a dime.
"You must wear them forever," Ruth insisted, almost in tears. "Who knows what luck they may bring to us? Remember this isn't a real breaking up of 'The Automobile Girls'; it is only an 'auf wiedersehen.'"
The morning after Mr. Stuart's dinner, Grace left Kingsbridge to visit her brother. Later, Mr. Stuart and his sister, Miss Stuart, bore Ruth away to spend several weeks with some relatives in northern New York.
Ruth confided to Bab her grief at leaving them.
"I perfectly hate to go," she protested. "Just think, Bab, how soon I shall have to go back to Chicago, and leave you here in New Jersey. Other people are well enough in their places, but they are not my Barbara, Mollie and Grace!"
It was after this confidence, that Bab made Ruth solemnly promise to pay them a visit before she returned home.
Barbara opened her eyes suddenly. Had she been asleep and dreamed of Ruth? She could almost hear her voice and laugh. Some one was coming along the path. She could hear the dead leaves crunch under flying feet.
"Barbara, my Barbara!" Was it Mollie's voice calling her?
"Here I am," cried Bab faintly.
Through the trees running straight toward her, her eyes shining, her cheeks aglow, was Ruth Stuart. Barbara tried to leap up.
"Sit down, you poor dear, do," Ruth commanded. "What have you done to your silly little self? Never mind; here is your friend and always devoted slave come to your rescue."
"Where did you come from?" inquired Bab, weakly.
"Out of the everywhere into the here. Father and Mollie will be along in a few seconds and explain to you. I simply couldn't wait for them. Another dear friend of yours is up the road desiring to offer you assistance. You may recall 'Mr. A. Bubble.'"
Ruth took out the flask of beef tea which she always carried on a motor trip, and made Barbara drink a few swallows. "Now," she declared, "I will try to tell you how I happen to be here. Three days ago I told father I simply couldn't bear to be away from Kingsbridge twenty-four hours longer. So he and I decided that as soon as manners would permit we should put the automobile in commission and fly to you as fast as we could. And here we are! Besides, just think how quickly the holiday time is passing. I have another scheme—but here come Mollie and father!"
Mr. Stuart and Mollie were approaching quickly.
"Let me help you, Barbara," said Mr. Stuart, putting his strong arm around the injured girl and nearly lifting her from the ground. "Can you manage to walk? Ruth, you help from the other side. It is not far to the road, and once we get you there, the auto will soon take you home to that little mother of yours."
"I declare I would just like to kiss 'Mr. A. Bubble,' if I knew an appropriate place," declared Barbara, when she was at last safely stowed away in the automobile. Her lame foot was propped up on soft cushions while close beside her sat her beloved Ruth holding her hand. Mollie was sitting in front with Mr. Stuart.
"Tell me," Barbara continued, "no one has properly explained it to me how you happened to be at the right place just at the right moment? And how did Mollie find you to tell you I was concealed in the woods with a sprained ankle? It's too much for me. Please explain?"
"Not so fast, Miss Thurston, if you please," pleaded Mr. Stuart. "Ruth and I would like to be regarded as angels dropped from the sky, but the truth must be told! She and I were speeding along this very road, a little faster than is perfectly proper, as we were hoping to make our way before dusk to the home of a charming lady, Mrs. Thurston, who lives with her two attractive daughters, in Laurel Cottage, Kingsbridge. What did we see? A small, excited girl ahead of us, who seemed to be trying to run faster than our auto could travel. Nevertheless, we caught up with her. Who do you think she was? Miss Mollie Thurston! We were all so surprised that it must have taken us quite a minute to explain matters to each other."
"You can imagine," added Mistress Mollie from the front seat, "how jolly glad I was!"
For some time Mrs. Thurston had been anxiously awaiting her daughters' return. She was standing at the gate of her home, when a familiar chug, chug, chug, sounded up the road. "I must be dreaming," she thought. "I am so worried at the girls being out late that I imagine I hear Ruth's automobile bringing them home to me. How lonely it has been for us all since Ruth and her father went away!"
"Chug, chug, chug," the noise sounded louder than ever. A splash of red appeared at the turn of the road, a siren whistle blew, and a well-known, crimson motor car rapidly approached her gate. Mrs. Thurston rubbed her eyes. It was the Stuart's automobile and no other. Sitting enthroned in it was that gentleman and his daughter. And, could it be possible? Barbara and Mollie, as well!
Mrs. Thurston's gentle face glowed with pleasure. Switfly as a girl she threw open her gate and was waiting on the sidewalk when the car stopped in front of her with a flourish.
"I am so delighted to see you," she said, extending her hand to Mr. Stuart and kissing Ruth on both cheeks. "Where did you find my daughters? But what's the matter with you, Bab?" she asked, as she noticed her child's pale cheeks.
"Nothing, now, mother," said Bab, hopping up, but sitting down again just as promptly. "I have sprained my ankle a little, not very much. I would like to get into the house to take off my shoe. It pinches until I feel like the mean sister trying to squeeze her foot into Cinderella's slipper."
"Come on in with me, every one of you," she pleaded. "Dear Mr. Stuart, you are not going to take Ruth up to the hotel with you for even one night. Remember, you promised she was to visit us, as soon as you returned."
"Do let me stay, father," coaxed Ruth, dancing after them. "I have no trunk to worry about at present. Aunt Sallie is coming back, day after to-morrow, and she is to bring my trunk with her. Father and I traveled all the way in the automobile."
Mrs. Thurston followed Mr. Stuart out as he was saying good-bye. He had agreed to leave Ruth with them. "Mr. Stuart, you can go to your hotel, if you wish to engage your room, but you must come back and have tea with us. We have hot rolls, honey, and fresh milk for supper. There is no use in your denying that is your favorite evening meal."
"I don't want to deny it, Mrs. Thurston," was Mr. Stuart's answer, as he stepped into his car. "I will come back with pleasure. On my way to the hotel I shall call at the doctor's and ask him to come around and look after Bab's foot."
NEW LIGHT ON OLD PAPERS
"Mother, you are worried about something," said Barbara to her mother early the next morning as they sat alone in their little dining room, which was bright with the September sun.
Mrs. Thurston started nervously. She had been thinking so deeply that Bab's voice had startled her.
Mollie and Ruth had rushed off early to find Grace and bring her back with them. Susan, the maid, was in the yard hanging up her dish towels. Mrs. Thurston had supposed Bab was deep in reading the history of David Copperfield, which lay open on her lap.
"You don't answer me, mother," complained Barbara, as she saw her mother's face flush under her gaze. "You might as well ''fess up' and be done with it. I know there is something wrong."
Mrs. Thurston hesitated; then she answered quietly: "You are right, Bab, dear. I am very much worried and it is about money. But I did not want you children to know of it until I was obliged to tell you. Barbara, half of our income is gone!"
"Oh, mother!" cried Barbara, "what do you mean?"
"Well, dear," said her mother quietly, "the money has not entirely gone yet. But I fear it soon will go. Your uncle wrote me that some stock he bought for me had been going down, down, until finally it will cease paying dividends altogether and be of no value. How shall we manage then? I have been lying awake at night trying to plan. You know it takes every cent we have to live in even the simplest way. Oh, Bab, what shall we do?"
Barbara looked grave. "Did Uncle Ralph write you about this?"
"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Thurston, "two or three weeks ago. I have had it on my mind ever since. Your uncle used to own some of this same stock, but he wrote me he had sold out some time ago."
"It is strange he didn't tell us to sell at the same time," Barbara reflected. "What does Uncle Ralph propose that we do? He is so rich I think he might show some interest in you, poor dear. You are his only sister, especially since he has made all his money out of the business father founded."
"Your Uncle Ralph suggests," Mrs. Thurston faltered, "that we find some work to do. But you and Mollie must be educated, and I am so ignorant of business."
Barbara's cheeks were crimson and her brown eyes flashed. "I think, mother," she said quietly, "it will be just as well for us to learn a little more about Uncle Ralph's management of our business. I am going to consult Mr. Stuart; I am sure he will give us good advice; he is such a clear-headed business man. Don't you worry, mother, dear, for I am sure things will turn out all right."
Mrs. Thurston rose to go out to market.
"Before you go, mother," Barbara begged, "will you please let me see the roll of father's business papers you have stored away in the trunk in the attic. Oh, I know they are of no value, but just the same I am curious to see them."
"Well, if you are so determined, all right," sighed Mrs. Thurston.
Before she left the house she handed Barbara a roll of old papers tied with a crimson cord.
Bab sat pondering with the papers in her lap. She was more frightened at her mother's news than she would show. They were mere girls, she and Mollie, and their little mother had no knowledge of business. She shook herself impatiently. Barbara was an optimist—things would turn out all right.
Soon Bab wrinkled her forehead and tried to settle down to her work; the papers were altogether incomprehensible to her. Most of them were old business contracts. Yet, here was one that seemed a bit different. It was in Uncle Ralph Le Baron's handwriting, but so faded that it was difficult to read. Slowly Bab deciphered it: "On demand, I promise to pay to John Thurston the sum of five thousand dollars for value received." To this was appended her uncle's well-known signature, Ralph Le Baron.
"Well," sighed Barbara, as she started to tie the papers together again, "I suppose Uncle Ralph settled this debt a long time ago."
Suddenly a big, cheerful presence darkened the doorway.
"Hello, Bab!" called Mr. Stuart. "Why are you alone?"
"The girls have gone up to the Squire's for Grace," Bab explained, "and mother is at market. But do please come in and wait for them. Ruth told me to keep you; she wants to ask you about something very important."
"May I inquire what you are doing, Barbara?" Mr. Stuart queried, taking a seat. "Are you preparing to be a lawyer's clerk that you spend your spare hours poring over musty business papers?"
Barbara blushed. "I am almost ashamed to tell you, Mr. Stuart, but you and Ruth have been so awfully good to us, I think I shall just ask you one more favor. These are some business papers my father left when he died. No one has ever looked them over. I have always wondered if they could be of any value. Of course I know it is foolish of me to even dream of such a thing. But would you mind glancing at them, please?"
Barbara handed the roll of documents to her friend with such a pretty look of pleading in her brown eyes that a much harder hearted man than Mr. Stuart could not have refused her.
"Certainly; I shall be glad to have a look at them," Mr. Stuart answered.
Tick, tock, tick, tock. The only sound in the room was the soft refrain of the old clock on the mantel. Barbara held her breath, but she knew she was foolish to feel so excited.
Mr. Stuart examined the papers closely. One after another he read them through. This big western man who had made a fortune by his own brains and ability, was devoting the same care to Barbara's apparently worthless papers that he would give to his own important business affairs. Suddenly he looked up. He held in his hand the promissory note signed by Ralph Le Baron acknowledging his debt for five thousand dollars to his brother-in-law, John Thurston.
"I presume," Mr. Stuart said quietly to Bab, "that your uncle settled this debt years ago; but if he did, why was the note never canceled?"
At this moment Mr. Stuart and Barbara heard a rustle of skirts, and looking up they saw Mrs. Thurston, her arms full of bundles, and her face white. "What do you mean?" she said in a strange, hard voice. "What money should have been paid by my brother years ago? Please explain."
"Why," said Mr. Stuart, so quietly you could have heard a pin drop in the stillness of the little room, "I mean, of course, this five thousand dollars, which, as I see by the date, your brother borrowed from your husband eleven years ago. Let me see, that was one year before your husband's death!"
Mrs. Thurston sank into a chair. Mr. Stuart reached her just in time to save her from falling. He took the bundles from her hand and waited. For a minute Mrs. Thurston could not speak.
Barbara felt her heart pounding away and her pulses throbbing; but she made no sound.
"Was this money paid you by your brother when he settled your estate?" Mr. Stuart repeated his question.
"No!" faltered Mrs. Thurston.
"Have you any memorandum among your husband's papers which would prove that the money was returned to him before his death?"
Mrs. Thurston shook her head. Barbara was staring at her mother with wide open brown eyes, her cheeks paling, then flushing. Here was a mystery!
"My brother," said Mrs. Thurston finally, "settled my affairs for me at the time of my husband's sudden death. I was too crushed to realize what was taking place, and I had no idea that we would be brought to poverty. But I know I saw no such paper as you mention. Until this minute, I never heard that my brother borrowed any money from my husband. Oh, it simply can't be true——"
"What can't be true, mother?" inquired Bab at last. Her mother did not answer.
Mr. Stuart quietly folded up the mysterious paper and put it in his pocket. "It may be that Mr. Le Baron can explain this situation at once," he said. "He is staying at the same hotel with me. If you will permit me I will inquire into the matter for you. Now don't worry yourselves about it any more," Mr. Stuart ended, resuming his natural manner.
To himself he told a different story. "This looks bad, very bad!" he thought. "If Ralph Le Baron had paid this money back he would have seen that the note was returned to him. I know him well enough for that. If he never has paid it, can he be forced to do so now?" reflected Mr. Stuart, looking at the matter from all sides. "He has never been asked for the money before, and I do not believe the law requires a debt to be paid after six years, if no claim has been previously made for it, and it is now eleven years since the note was made. I must look into the matter. A man who could rob his widowed sister and nieces of five thousand dollars would be guilty of any crime. I shall make it hot for him unless he can tell a straight story."
"Why is everybody looking so serious?" called out a gay voice, and Ruth, followed by Mollie and Grace, entered the room.
The little group within the room started guiltily.
"There is mystery in the very air," declaimed Ruth, "you are trying to conceal something!"
"You are a goose," replied her father fondly, then nodding reassuringly to Bab and her mother. "Who knows what a day may bring forth?" he said.
HAPPINESS, AND ANOTHER SCHEME
The next morning Mr. Stuart left his hotel and went into New York with Mr. Le Baron. They left Kingsbridge at eight o'clock, and did not return until six. Half an hour later Mr. Stuart called at Laurel Cottage for Mrs. Thurston in his automobile.
"We will take Miss Barbara with us to the hotel," he said to her mother, "if you feel it will not injure her ankle. She need do no walking. I should prefer that she be with you when you have an interview with your brother. He is to see you at the hotel to-night. You will dine with me first."
Barbara's foot being better, she and her mother asked no questions, but with trembling fingers made ready to go.
"What do you mean," demanded Ruth and Mollie, "by going off on such a mysterious errand? Why, Mr. Stuart," asked Ruth, "are Mollie and I not also invited to dinner?"
Mr. Stuart was obdurate. He offered no explanations. When Ruth whispered something in his ear, he answered quietly: "That will keep," and Ruth said no more.
Mr. and Mrs. Le Baron bowed coldly to Mrs. Thurston and Barbara, when entering the hotel dining room that night, they found the mother and daughter dining with Mr. Stuart. But Gladys Le Baron stopped for a moment at the able to inquire after Bab's foot. She was not the haughty girl she once had been. Since her return from Newport she had seemed strangely fond of Bab.
Barbara and her mother never knew how they got through their meal. But Mr. Stuart was a tower of strength.
"We will not discuss business matters," he explained, "until we go upstairs to my sitting room. Mr. Le Baron will join us there at half-past eight."
When Ralph Le Baron entered Mr. Stuart's apartment to keep his appointment, he did not look into his sister's face. He merely inquired coldly: "How are you, Mollie?" and sat down near the small wood fire which was burning cosily in the open grate. Not once did he glance at Barbara, though she kept her eyes fixed steadily on him. He was a tall, thin man, with high cheek bones and a nose like an eagle's.
"Mrs. Thurston," began Mr. Stuart, "your brother does not claim that he paid to you or your husband the five thousand dollars which he undoubtedly borrowed. When I first spoke to him of the matter he declared he had never been loaned any such sum. He had great difficulty in recalling the incident until I showed him his note which I still have in my pocket. He explained afterwards, however, that the matter had passed entirely out of his mind after your husband's death."
Mrs. Thurston looked at her brother questioningly. "It seems very strange to me, Ralph, that you could have forgotten," she declared. "But perhaps it is all for the best! We need the money more now than we ever have before."
Mr. Le Baron did not answer his sister.
"I think you will find it the wisest plan, Mr. Le Baron," continued Mr. Stuart, breaking the silence, "to pay over this money to Mrs. Thurston and her daughters as soon as you conveniently can."
Ralph Le Baron knit his brows. Barbara was watching him closely. There was no love lost between Bab and her uncle. She had long looked for some difficulty to arise out of his management of her mother's affairs, but nothing so serious as this.
Mr. Le Baron's voice sounded cold and hard as steel.
"Do not deceive yourselves," he said, with a sneer. "I mean you, Mollie, and Mr. Stuart, who seems to be taking an unusual interest in your affairs. I have not the slightest intention of ever paying back the money!"
Mrs. Thurston's manner changed. She spoke firmly. "I should be exceedingly sorry, Ralph, to have any trouble with you over the matter; but the law must compel you to pay your debt."
"Not so fast, sister," smiled Mr. Le Baron, sarcastically. "You are coming into a remarkable business knowledge all at once, but you do not yet know quite enough. The law does not compel me after six years to pay a debt which has not been presented to me within that time. Perhaps you have never heard of the statute of limitation. Perhaps your friend, Mr. Stuart, will make it clear to you. You should have asked me for this money five or six years ago. The New York law does not require a debt to be paid unless a request has been made for its settlement within six years after the time it was contracted. The money was loaned to me by your husband eleven years ago, as we all know by the date on the note. I have no further concern in the matter."
"Great heavens, man!" cried Mr. Stuart, breaking in fiercely, "you cannot mean to play your own sister such a low-down, scoundrelly trick! You will not pay back the money to her which you confess to owing, simply because she has not asked you for it before! How could she ask for it when you alone knew of the debt and kept the matter a secret? I am not so sure how your law would stand in such a case. A pretty story it will make to tell to the men who respect your business integrity. Mrs. Thurston shall have a lawyer to inquire into the situation immediately!"
A low knock sounded at the door. Before anyone could answer, Gladys Le Baron walked smilingly into the room. She looked in surprise at her father's dark, revengeful face.
"Is anything the matter?" she inquired, her face sobering in an instant. "I wondered why father ran off by himself to see Aunt Mollie and Bab. I thought you would like to have me join you——"
"Go back to your apartment at once, Gladys!" interrupted her father sternly.
Mr. Stuart turned upon him. "Ralph Le Baron, I am going to do something, to-night, that I never expected to do in my life. I am going to expose a father to his own child. Wait here a minute, Gladys."
Mr. Stuart then told Gladys the whole story. She stood listening in utter silence, her face crimson with blushes. Barbara could only look at her cousin through a mist of tears. When Mr. Stuart had ended his story, he said: "I am sorry indeed to tell you this, Gladys, but you must have learned it some day. I do not know whether your father is right in regard to the law in this matter, but Mrs. Thurston will carry the case to court."
Gladys went over to her father, who had never raised his eyes to look at her, while Mr. Stuart was speaking, nor did he make any denial.
"Is it true, father?" she asked him at last.
"It is in a measure true, Gladys," her father answered, "but it is purely a matter of business, which you cannot be expected to understand."
Gladys put her head down on the arm of the sofa, where she now sat by her father, and wept bitterly. There was no other sound in the room, except an occasional suppressed sob from Mrs. Thurston. Bab was far too excited and too angry to cry!
Finally Gladys raised her head. "Father, on my sixteenth birthday, you settled five thousand dollars on me in my own name!" She spoke in a low voice. "If you do not feel that you ought to pay back to Aunt Mollie the money you borrowed from Uncle John, won't you please let me give her this money of mine? I must do it, father. I can't understand the business side of it, but it just seems to me we owe her the money and that's all there is to it! I have been horrid and haughty many times, but I can't bear that we should seem—dishonest!"
Poor Gladys whispered this last dreadful word under her breath. Then she put her arms round her father and kissed him. "You are not angry with me?" she asked him.
If there was one person in the world Ralph Le Baron truly loved it was his only child, Gladys. Not for ten times five thousand dollars would he have had her a witness to the scene which had just passed between him and his sister. He meant, of course, to tell her and his wife what had happened, but he meant to put his own interpretation on the affair before they heard of it from anyone else.
Did his better nature move him? Perhaps it did. He looked around the room and answered testily: "The law certainly does not require that I return this money to my sister, and business is business with me. But since my daughter Gladys and my sister seem to look upon the matter as a case of sentiment, why I——" He spoke slowly. It was hard work for him to get the words out. "I will waive strictly business principles on this occasion, and return the money to my sister."
"O Ralph!" cried Mrs. Thurston, as though a great load was lifted from her mind. Barbara rejoiced. But in her heart of hearts she thought it was hard to have her uncle act as though he were doing them a favor when he was only paying them their just dues.
A few minutes later Gladys and her father withdrew from the room. "I am so glad," whispered Gladys to Bab, as she passed her cousin on her way out.
Barbara held her hand just long enough to murmur gently: "Gladys, dear, if I once did you a kindness, I think you have repaid me a thousand-fold."
It was after ten o'clock when "Mr. A. Bubble" bore the travelers home to Laurel Cottage. Mollie and Ruth were waiting in the sitting room, with a fire burning cheerily in the grate and the candles lit over the mantelpiece. In front of the fire, they had mounted twelve marshmallows, which they were toasting to a beautiful brown on twelve hatpins.
"We thought you were never coming back, Mummy," said Mollie, taking off her mother's light wrap. "What has happened to you?" she asked as she viewed her mother's shining eyes.
"Good news indeed, Mollie baby!" her mother answered. "We are five thousand dollars richer than we were when we left home. Now, perhaps Bab can go to Vassar, and things will be a little easier for us, even if the other money has gone. Mr. Stuart thinks we ought to have twenty-five dollars a month income from the five thousand dollars! Isn't it too wonderful?"
"Have a marshmallow, everyone, do," said Ruth, extending her hatpins. They were comfortably seated around the fire and the subject of the money had been dropped. "I want all of you to be eating marshmallows except me, so I can do all the talking. I think I have been a perfect angel. Father, you know I have kept a secret to myself for three whole days. Of course, I told Mollie to-night, when you left us by ourselves, but that doesn't count."
Mollie's cheeks were glowing and her eyes dancing in the soft firelight. "Oh, yes," she added naughtily, "Ruth and I can keep good news to ourselves as well as other people. At least," she continued wistfully, her eyes turning to her mother, "I hope it is good news."
"Mrs. Thurston," inquired Ruth, "don't you dearly love 'The Automobile Girls'?"
Mrs. Thurston smiled. "I most certainly do," she replied.
"Then all is well!" Ruth made her a low curtsey. "Anyone who truly loves 'The Auto-Girls' cannot fail to rejoice at my news. Mrs. Thurston, we cannot bear to be disbanded. We must get together again before I go home to Chicago. Mollie told me she and Bab wanted you to go on a visit to a cousin in St. Paul, but they feared you would not consent to leave them alone. Here's where I come in! I want you to let me take care of your babies, while you go on your trip."
Ruth gave an impudent pull at Mollie's curls, as she went on with her request. "Father and I have planned another per-fect-ly grand trip for 'The Automobile Girls!' Now please don't anybody object until I have finished. Here, eat another marshmallow! This trip is not to be in the least like the other one. What I want is to go for a month on a camping party in the Berkshire Hills!"
"Hear! Hear!" called out Bab, hopping up, and forgetting all about her sprained ankle.
"I have just had this letter from Aunt Sallie, father," continued Ruth. "She is game! Of course, she started out by saying she thought the trip was perfect nonsense; she knew we would have pneumonia and various other diseases if we attempted it, but she ended by declaring that, of course, she could not be left behind if we were determined on the frolic. She is a darling! So, now, Mrs. Thurston, if only you will consent, in a few days we want dear old 'Bubble,' to make a start for the Berkshires. This is the perfect time of the year and the mountains will be simply glorious! Oh, I can't talk any more, I am so out of breath! Do go on please, father."
"Mrs. Thurston, our plan is not so wild as it sounds. Ruth will take the girls in her car up into the Berkshires. I have discovered that on one of the mountains some distance from the regular line of travel, is a well built log cabin. It has big fireplaces in it, and can be made thoroughly comfortable for September. Early in October, Ruth wants to go with the girls to the hotel at Lenox, for a week or two of the autumn sports there. The automobile can travel comfortably over most of the Berkshire roads."
Mr. Stuart's tones were as persuasive as Ruth's. "But, when the girls come to the chosen place, they can store the car in some suitable garage, and take the trails up the sides of the mountain, either on horseback or afoot."
"But Barbara's foot," insisted Mrs. Thurston weakly, in the first pause that gave her an opportunity to speak.
"Oh, Bab's ankle will be all right, mother!" Mollie cried. "We have spoken to the doctor, and he says Bab will be jumping about as lively as a cricket in a few days."
"Mrs. Thurston," said Mr. Stuart, speaking in his heartiest voice, "I want to be allowed the floor in this conversation. I have something to propose on my own account. A party of friends of my sister's and mine are going west on a sight seeing trip. Among them is a railroad president and his wife, and their private car is to be used for the tour. It would give me great pleasure to have you meet them and make your journey to St. Paul in their company. My sister wishes to assure you that you will find them thoroughly congenial and will no doubt enjoy the trip. To tell the truth, Miss Stuart has already written our friends to expect you, for I had determined that you should go at all events.
"As for our daughters," he continued, "I am greatly interested in this camping scheme for them. I know, from my own experience, that nothing can be made more delightful than our modern fashion of 'roughing it.' I intend to make the necessary arrangements, and properly equip this camping party myself. I shall even run up to the Berkshires for a day or two, to look over the ground. I want to engage a guide for the party, and a woman to do the cooking. Then I must see if the little log cabin is all the circular says it is. It is rented out to camping parties all through the year. Come, Mrs. Thurston," questioned Mr. Stuart, "don't you think this is a good scheme for everyone?"
"Right you are, Mr. Stuart!" Bab called out rapturously. By this time Mollie and Ruth were both on the floor, with their arms around Mrs. Thurston.
"We do so want to lead 'the simple life,' dear Mrs. Thurston," Ruth begged. "Think how splendid for us to have a month out of doors before we go back to hard work at school." Ruth made a wry face. She was not fond of study, like Barbara. "We may spend a week or so in Lenox, to please Aunt Sallie. But most of the time we want to be right in the mountains. Let me see—there is Greylock, and Monument Mountain, and hosts of others not too far from Lenox. At least, we shall be able to see them from our mountain top. And we must escort Bab over to Rattlesnake Mountain, in honor of her well known fondness for those charming pets."
"Oh, I'll look after Bab," Mollie spoke in superior tones.
"Mother," said Barbara earnestly, "you must accept Mr. Stuart's charming invitation, even if you think it wiser for us not to go on the camping trip with Ruth. I know you need a change. You have had so much worry, and now your mind is at rest."
"Ruth," said Mrs. Thurston, looking as bright and happy as one of the girls, "accept my best wishes for the 'Robin Hood Band' of 'Automobile Girls!' I am sure they will soon rival that celebrated set of woodsmen. Only, I beg of you, confine your adventures strictly within the limits of the law."
"Then you mean that Bab and Mollie may go!" cried Ruth in tones of rapture. "But we don't intend to play at being an outlaw band. Kindly regard us as early Puritan settlers in the New England hills, compelled to seek protection from the Indians in our log hut. I wish we could run across a few Indians up there; we shall be right on their old camping grounds. There are still some Indian trails in the mountains, but the Berkshires are so highly civilized, these days, we shall never find even a trace of a red man, or a red woman either!"
"When do we start, Ruth?" asked Mollie. "I should like to be off to-morrow. Remember how fast the time is going. School begins the middle of October."
"What about Grace?" asked Bab thoughtfully. "It would hardly be a real 'Automobile Girls' party if one of their number should be left out."
"Oh, it is all right about Grace, of course!" Ruth answered. "Goodness me! Haven't I told you? We have already talked our plan over with Squire Carter, who is delighted to have Grace go. He says a month out of doors will do wonders for her. He only wished he was not too old to join us."
One week later, Miss Sallie Stuart and the quartette of "Automobile Girls" gathered at the station to speed Mrs. Thurston on her journey. Mr. Stuart was to accompany her as far as New York City, and see her safely established among his friends.
"Be good children, all of you," urged Mrs. Thurston at the last minute. "And remember to keep your feet dry."
"In case the camping outfit is not thoroughly satisfactory, Sallie," counseled Mr. Stuart, "telegraph to New York for whatever you like. I believe everything is O. K. Remember to keep your camp fires always burning. You are to have the most trustworthy guide in the Berkshires, as well as his wife, to look after you, and you will never be far from civilization if you wish to go, Sallie?" he ended, for Miss Sallie was looking dismal at the idea of parting.
Miss Sallie nodded her head. "You know my views, Robert. If you will permit Ruth to follow any wild fancy that pops into her head, at least, I shall be near to see that she gets into as little mischief as possible."
Mr. Stuart's last whisper before the train started was for Bab. "Don't worry about your little mother," he said. "We will see that things are well with her. That copper stock she owns is looking up again. She is not to sell out."
Mr. Stuart turned to find Ruth for his last kiss. "Remember, daughter," he declared, "I rely on you and Bab to keep cool heads and clear brains in any emergency."
As the train moved off, Mr. Stuart and Mrs. Thurston watched for a few moments a circle of waving hands. A little later their car swung around a curve and Kingsbridge was lost to view.
"The Automobile Girls" and Miss Sallie then repaired to the hotel. Grace, Mollie and Bab were to be Ruth's guests until they started for the Berkshires. All was in readiness.
The week before, Mr. Stuart had taken the girls to New York for a few days' shopping. If ever there were young women fitted up in the proper styles for mountain climbing they were. Each girl was presented with two pairs of thick, high boots and leather leggins. Ruth insisted that her heavy wool dress be made of the Stuart plaid. She then had a tam o'shanter designed from the same Scotch tartan. But Ruth's proudest possession was a short Norfolk jacket made of the same leather as her leggins, and a knapsack to carry over her shoulders. Attired in her woodland costume, she looked not unlike "Rosalind" in Shakespeare's play, when that maid comes into the woods disguised as a boy to seek for her father.
Barbara's suit was of dark brown corduroy, with jacket and cap to match. Grace would choose nothing but her favorite dark blue. But her costume was the most striking of them all, for, with her blue skirt and blouse, she was to wear a coat of hunter's pink and a smart, little hat of the same bright scarlet shade. Mr. Stuart selected the costume for Mistress Mollie. She at least, he insisted, should be arrayed in the proper shade of Lincoln green; and like a veritable "Maid Marian" she appeared.
For once Miss Sallie was entirely satisfied with their selection of costumes. "For me," she argued in her most decided manner, "the most necessary garments are half a dozen pairs of overshoes, and the same number of mackintoshes and umbrellas. I shall also take an extra trunk of warm flannels. If the fall rains begin while we are camping in the mountains we shall surely be washed down into the valley before we can make our escape."
IN THE HEART OF THE BERKSHIRES
A crimson automobile was climbing the steep inclines of the Berkshire Hills. Now it rose to the crest of a road. Again it dipped into a valley. It looked like a scarlet autumn leaf blown down from one of the giant forest trees that guarded the slopes of the mountains.
Mollie Thurston stood up in the back of the motor car, waving a long green veil.
"Isn't the scenery just too perfect for words?" she called to Ruth.
The day was wonderful; the September sun shone warm and golden through the shadows of dancing, many-colored leaves. "The Automobile Girls" had left summer behind them in Kingsbridge. Three days of traveling found them in the early autumn glory of the Berkshire woods.
Ruth did not answer Mollie's question.
"My dear child, wake up!" commanded Miss Sallie, leaning over to give her niece a gentle poke with her violet parasol. "Have you grown suddenly deaf? Can you not hear when you are spoken to?"
Ruth glanced up from her steering wheel. "Did some one speak to me?" she queried. "I am so sorry I did not hear. I am afraid I am both deaf and dumb to-day. But we simply must get to our mountain by noon. Driving a car over these mountain roads isn't the easiest task in the world."
Barbara laughed back over her shoulder at the occupants of the end seat in the car. "Miss Sallie Stuart," she said in solemn tones, "please, let our chauffeur alone! Suppose the dark descends upon us in the woods and you have 'nary' a place to lay your head!"
"Then I should immediately find a hotel and ask for a room and a bath," protested Miss Stuart, who did not favor the idea of the log cabin in the woods. "Remember, children, you may pretend as hard as you like that we are a thousand miles from civilization; but, unless we are perfectly comfortable in the woods, I shall take you to the best hotel in Lenox. From there you may do your mountaineering in a respectable way."
"All the more need for you to hurry, Ruth," whispered Bab in her friend's ear. "I feel sure we shall find the guides and wagons waiting for us at the foot of the hill. If we get an early enough start up the mountain we can get fairly settled by night time."
Ruth nodded with her eyes straight in front of her. She kept her car moving swiftly ahead.
"Barbara, it is quite idle to talk to Ruth," broke in Miss Sallie, who had not heard just what Bab had said. "She is her father's daughter. Once her mind is made up to accomplish a thing, she will do it or die! So we might as well resign ourselves to our fate. She will reach 'her mountain,' as she calls it, by noon, even if we have to jump a few of these embankments to succeed."
Miss Sallie was growing tired.
"Why did I ever allow myself to be brought on such a wild expedition after the experiences you girls led me into in Newport!" she said.
"Now, Miss Sallie!" said Grace Carter gently—Grace was always the peacemaker—"you know you love these glorious woods as much as we do. Think how jolly things will be when we go down into Lenox after it grows too cold to stay in camp. Who knows but you will turn out the best sportsman in the lot? And we shall probably have our guide teach you to shoot before we are through this trip."
Miss Stuart sniffed indignantly. Then she laughed at the thought of her plump fingers pulling the trigger of a gun. "What is our guide's outlandish name?" she inquired in milder tones.
"Naki, and his wife is called Ceally," Grace answered. "You remember Mr. Stuart explained they were originally French Canadians, but they have been living in these mountains for a number of years. Because they used to be guides up in the Canadian forests they don't know any other trade to follow in these peaceful woods."
"These woods were by no means always peaceful, my lady Grace!" asserted Bab. "You can't even be perfectly sure they are peaceful now. Why," she went on in thrilling tones, "these hillsides once ran red with the blood of our ancestors and of the friendly Indian tribes who fought with them against the French."
"Oh, come! come! No more American history!" remarked Mollie. "Beg pardon, but I do object to Bab's school-teacher manner. Did you ever see anything so lovely as these hills are now? The scenery around here is like the enchanted forests of Arcady."
"Oh, Miss Sallie, girls, look!" called Grace. From the high crest of a hill "The Automobile Girls" gazed down upon one of the loveliest valleys in the Berkshires. Afar off they could see the narrow Housatonic River winding its way past villages and fields, from the hillsides, which gave it the Indian name; for Housatonic means "a stream over the mountains." Nestling in the valleys lay a chain of silver lakes.
Ruth paused an instant. "Over there ahead of us is 'our mountain.' I think we can reach it in an hour or so."
While they were pursuing their journey, another small party was gathering on the slope of the hill opposite. A long, lean man burned to the color and texture of leather sat on the front seat of a wagon drawn by two strong mountain horses. By his side was his wife, almost as thin and brown; behind them, piled up in the wagon, were trunks, rolls of steamer rugs, kitchen utensils, making altogether as odd an assortment of goods as if the couple were peddlers.
Strolling around near them was a younger man, evidently the driver of a well filled grocery wagon. His horse stood patiently cropping the fine, hillside grass. Farther up the roadside a chauffeur nibbled a spear of mint. He had no car near him, but his costume was unmistakable. Evidently something was in the air. Somebody or something was being waited for.
Soon after twelve o'clock, there was a whirr along the road. The cart horses raised their ears, and without a motion from their drivers, moved farther to the right side of the path. Berkshire Hills horses, in whatever station of life, needed no further notice. An automobile was approaching!
"Here they come!" cried the grocer's boy, jumping back into his wagon. The chauffeur dropped his piece of mint and gazed down the road. Now at least there was something worth seeing!
"Hip! hip! hurrah!" "The Automobile Girls" landed with a flourish beside the wagons. Their laughter woke the sleeping echoes in the hills.
"Are you Naki and Ceally?" cried Ruth, jumping out of the car and running forward with her hand extended. "And are these our things you have in the wagon? I am so sorry we are a few minutes late; but these mountain roads take longer to drive over than I had expected. I hope I haven't kept you waiting very long."
"No'm," said the guide, sliding slowly down from his perch on the camping outfit. He emptied the pipe he had been comfortably smoking. "Time enough," he answered. Naki was a man of few words.
The chauffeur had walked over to Ruth's car and was assisting Miss Sallie to descend. "You are to take this car into Lenox, I believe," Miss Stuart began. "My niece will explain matters to you more fully. I am told we cannot take the car any further up this side of the hill. Where is the carriage in which we are to drive?"
"Oh, Aunt Sallie!" cried Ruth in consternation. "What are we to do? When Naki wrote there would be seats in his wagon for those of us who wished to drive up the hill, I am afraid he meant those seats in front by him and his wife."
The guide looked perfectly solemn, even when he beheld Miss Sallie's face. Imagine, if you can, Miss Sallie Stuart, nervous, as she was, perched on top of a rickety wagon! Add the fact that she was to be driven up an unexplored hillside by the side of the two queer, brown people to whom they were confiding their fates!
"We don't ride 'longside of you, Miss," explained Naki to Ruth. "I leads the horses up and my wife walks by their side. There's room for three of you up there on the front seat. It's more comfortable than it looks. The other two of you had better walk or you can ride in the grocery wagon. The man's coming along behind us with the provisions."
Miss Sallie had not spoken again. Her expression was that of a martyr.
"Do you think you can manage, Miss Sallie?" Bab pleaded.
Ruth was explaining matters to the chauffeur. He was to take the car to Lenox. Every afternoon at one o'clock he was to return with it to this fork in the road and wait for half an hour. If "The Automobile Girls" decided on a trip to one of the nearby towns, they would join him at this place; for here the good road ended and the trail up the hillside began. The camp was a long way from any town, but an automobile defies distance.
Miss Stuart looked truly miserable when she saw their car disappear down the foot of the hill. Then she looked around her carefully. The place was entirely deserted.
"Very well," she declared, resignedly. "I suppose there is nothing for me to do but to climb up into that wretched wagon."
Ruth, Barbara, Grace, Mollie, Naki and his wife all assisted her to mount over the wheel to the seat of honor. Violet cushions were piled back of her, Grace sat on one side of her, Mollie on the other. Ruth and Barbara were determined to walk.
"We are dreadfully tired sitting still, Aunt Sallie," Ruth begged. "Please let us follow the wagon!"
"Certainly, you can walk if you are able. In fact, you have no way to ride except in the grocery wagon, where you would probably get mixed up with the pickles and preserves," responded Miss Stuart. "Walk by all means!"
The cavalcade started.
"Let's pretend," proposed Bab to Ruth, "that we are starting out on what the Indians called 'the long walk.'"
"Surely, Bab, it's a long walk, all right. But why introduce the Indians?"
The girls were climbing up the steep path ahead of the wagon. Bab laughed. "Oh, I read somewhere," she explained, "that the Indians used to sell their land that way. Suppose you and I were early settlers, who were trying to purchase this hillside from the Indians. They would tell us we could have, for a fixed sum, as much land as we could cover in the 'long walk.' That would mean that we were to walk along quietly from sunrise to sunset, sitting down occasionally to smoke a pipe of peace, to break bread, and to drink water. That reminds me, are we ever going to break bread again? I am starving!"
But Ruth was not sympathetic at the moment. "It is curious," she replied. "These mountains are so full of Indian legends, we shall think, hear and dream of nothing but Indians in the next few weeks. The names of all the places around were once Indian. I suppose we shall do almost everything except see an Indian. The last of them has vanished from here. Oh, Bab, do look at Aunt Sallie!"
Miss Stuart had forgotten her fright. Fortunately, she did not realize how absurd she appeared.
"Ruth!" she called from her throne on the wagon seat. "Here is a perfectly good place for our lunch. There is water near and view enough, I am sure. I must be given food before I am taken another step up these hills. I am famished!"
The party found a clear space in the woods. In a short time Naki had built a fire of pine twigs, and Ceally had a giant pot of coffee boiling over it. Its delicious perfume mingled with the fresh mountain air.
"I declare I haven't been so hungry since I was a girl," Miss Sallie avowed. She was seated on a log, with a sandwich in one hand and a cup of coffee on the ground by her. Her hat was on one side of her head, and her pompadour drooped dejectedly, but Miss Sallie was blissfully unconscious. The color in her cheeks shone as fresh and rosy as the tints in the cheeks of any other of "The Automobile Girls."
Mollie flitted around like the spirit of the woods. Nothing could induce her to keep still. "Do let me get the water," she coaxed the guide. Like a flash she was off and back bearing a heavy bucket. "Here, Ruth," she volunteered, pouring a stream of water into the tiny silver cup that Ruth always carried. Ruth was just in time. With a jump to one side, she escaped, but the splash descended on unsuspecting Bab, who Was nibbling a doughnut.
In her ardor at playing waitress in the woods Mollie had turned her bucket upside down. Instead of dispensing nectar, this little cup-bearer to "The Automobile Girls" had nearly drowned one of them.
"It's a blessed thing you are my sister," cried Bab.
Mollie apologized, dabbing at Bab with her small pocket handkerchief. "You can tell me exactly what you think of me. Ruth and Grace might be too polite. I am so sorry; I was trying to be useful."
"Go over to the fire, Barbara, and dry your dress," advised Miss Sallie. "It is just as well you have on a thick suit. We must learn to expect occasional mishaps."
Barbara winked solemnly at Ruth as she arose from the table. Miss Sallie was sure to be in a good humor when she talked in this philosophical fashion.
For an hour after luncheon the camping party continued their climb. Finally Ruth and Bab, who were in front, came to a sudden stop. "Hurrah!" they shouted, turning to wave their handkerchiefs to the occupants of the wagon.
Mollie nearly pitched out of the wagon in her excitement, but Grace and Miss Sallie clutched at her skirts in time.
"Have we arrived?" Mollie cried. "Oh, do stop the wagon!" The little log cabin in the woods was now plainly in view.
"It's the gingerbread house, I know it is," exclaimed Grace, making a flying leap over the wheel of the cart. "The logs are the soft, brown color of good gingerbread, and the little windows must be made of sugar frosting."
In a clearing on top of a hillside stood the "hut," as the girls christened it in an instant. A circle of pine and cedar trees hid it from sight. All around it were thick woods. Higher hills rose at the back of it. A roaring brook tumbled down the hillside fifty feet from their cabin door.
By nightfall the little house in the woods was made thoroughly livable. The girls hammered and worked, assisted by Naki and his wife. Miss Sallie sat by the big fire in the living room and gave directions. Adjoining this big room, which ran across one side of the cabin, were two bedrooms. Farther back Naki and Ceally shared a small chamber that connected with the kitchen.
Just before supper time Ruth took Miss Sallie by the arm; Grace, Barbara and Mollie followed them; around and around their new home "The Automobile Girls" marched.
"See your elegance!" said Ruth to her aunt, pointing to a mirror, which hung by a nail over Miss Sallie's rough pine wood dressing table. Her favorite toilet articles were already laid out upon it, her wrapper hung over the back of a chair.
"Most noble lady," continued Ruth, "behold what miracles your willing slaves have performed for your comfort! Everything is here for your convenience except your perfumed bath."
"Don't speak of a bath, child!" cried Miss Sallie, with a real shudder of horror. "It is the lack of a proper bathtub that makes this camping business truly awful!"
"Come, Miss Sallie," called Barbara, quick to change the subject. "I want you to see the wonderful sunset." Overhead Miss Sallie beheld a golden radiance that bathed the hilltop in a wonderful light. In the west the sun was sinking behind a line of blue mountains.
That evening the girls sat around an open campfire piled high with pine logs. It was a cool night, and although they were tired, no one would suggest going in to bed. Every now and then Mollie would tumble forward and awake with a start. She was half listening, half dreaming as Grace's lovely voice floated out through the still night air, singing, while she strummed idly her guitar:
"Lovely moon that softly glides, Through the realms where God abides."
"I wonder," said Mollie to Grace, as she finally followed her into bed, "what wonderful adventures we shall have in this forest? Perhaps we shall awaken a wood nymph and teach her to become a mortal maid. Do you suppose she would like the change?"
A DAY IN THE WOODS
Mollie crept to the door of their hut at sunrise next morning. She thought she heard light footfalls outside their door. The other girls were fast asleep, worn out by the long trip of the day before. Yet when Mollie peeped outside no one was in sight; all was silence.
Only the birds had begun to stir in their nests and call their morning greetings across from one tree top to another. As far as Mollie could see stretched the unbroken forest. A narrow path ran down the hill between the trees. A steeper incline rose back of them and this was broken with deep ravines. Mollie could neither see nor hear anyone. Yet it seemed to her that she was not alone. She had a sense of some unknown presence.
She crept back into the room and put on her crimson dressing gown and slippers. She was bent on making a discovery. It could not be Naki or his wife, whose light footfalls she had heard moving swiftly around the house. They were nowhere to be seen. She was nervous about going out, as Miss Sallie had made dreadful suggestions about wolves and wild cats, yet she slipped out on the tiny porch. Far away through the trees and up the steep hillside she saw flying like a deer, a thin, brown creature. Was it human or a sprite? Mollie could not guess. She caught a glimpse of it, but it had been impossible to observe it accurately, so fast it flew. There was only a whirr of flying feet, and a flash of brown and scarlet to be seen. Could it be the famous ghost of Lost Man's Trail?
At this same moment Naki came around from the back of the house. "I thought I heard some one," he grumbled, looking suspiciously at Mollie.
"Yes, so did I," she answered. "And I saw some one or something fly up the steep side of that hill."
Naki did not answer. Mollie thought he looked at her queerly.
"You must have been mistaken, Miss," he declared. "Nothing could have gone up that ravine over yonder. There's only an Indian trail back there. Nobody travels much over that hill. It's all cliffs and dangerous."
Mollie shook her pretty head. She did not argue, but she knew what she had seen.
"I am going to try climbing it, some day, just the same," she thought to herself, "but of course, I must get used to finding my way about first. I must find out just what I saw this morning."
"Where have you been, Mollie?" asked Grace, opening her eyes as Mollie came back to bed.
"What's up?" called Ruth from the next room, where she slept with Miss Sallie.
"Oh, nothing," Mollie answered, fearful of being thought superstitious. "I thought I heard a sound at the door, but I was mistaken."
"Girls," Ruth demanded later, as they sat over their breakfast, "is there anything in the world so good to eat as bacon fried by Ceally over an open fire?" Ruth helped herself to all that was left on the dish.
"Ruth Stuart!" called Barbara. "How dare you take all the bacon, when you have just declared it was so delicious? Miss Sallie, make her divide with me."
Miss Stuart looked up from her eggs and toast: "What are you children quarreling about?" she asked placidly. "Suppose you bring us another dish of bacon, Ceally. The mountain air certainly creates an appetite. I am sure I don't see what benefit I am to get from 'roughing it!' The one thing I hoped to do by living outdoors was to reduce my figure, but, if my appetite continues at the present rate, I shall certainly not lose an ounce."
"Don't you be too sure, auntie," Ruth demurred. "Wait till we get through with you to-day. Think you can climb the hill back of us?"
Mollie interrupted. "Naki warns us against that particular hill. He says it is unpopular for climbing because of its cliffs and ravines. But he hints that there is an Indian trail over it, so I am dying to explore it. Aren't you, Bab?"
"Well, it's not for me!" laughed Ruth hastily. "I am not any too devoted to scaling cliffs, you may remember."
"What's the programme for to-day?" Grace asked.
"Somebody must go down the hill with me this afternoon," Ruth answered. "The automobile is to meet us there you know, to take us to a postoffice to mail our letters to our beloved families. This morning we can just poke round the camp. I want Naki to teach us how to make a camp fire."
Mollie looked down at her dainty hands. "It is rather dirty work, isn't it?" she asked.
"Not a bit of it, Mollie," put in Bab. "Don't be finicky, or we shall put you out of camp. It's a good thing to know how to build a first-class fire. Suppose one of us should be lost in the woods some day!"
"We will suppose no such thing," protested Miss Stuart.
Early in the afternoon Miss Sallie and the four girls started down the hill. Bab, Mollie and Miss Stuart were to go only a part of the way with Ruth and Grace, the two girls continuing their walk until they met the chauffeur, who was to bring the motor car up to the point of the road where Ruth had told him to meet her.
Mollie and Bab begged off from the excursion. "I don't want to know," Bab argued, "how near we still are to civilization. If I go to town with you to-day, no matter how long the drive is, it will take away a part of the romance of living in the hills."
Miss Stuart was not much of a walker. Before they had gone half a mile she decided that it was high time to turn back.
"Good-bye girls," she called to Ruth and Grace, who were hurrying on. "Do not stay too late. You must be back by dusk, or I shall be most uneasy. At five-thirty I shall expect you in camp. These are my orders." Miss Sallie turned to Bab and Mollie. "Seriously, children," she explained, "I think I shall establish military rules. If one of you stays out after dusk, I believe I shall shut you up in the guard house for twenty-four hours."
"But where is the guard house please, Miss Sallie?" inquired Mollie meekly.
Miss Sallie laughed. "In this case the guard house means only the cabin. The girl who fails to appear when the roll is called in the evening must remain within the limits of the camp all the following day."
Bab and Mollie left Miss Stuart before the log fire in the living room of their hut. Miss Sallie, who had a taste for romance in the lives of other people, was deep in the reading of a new novel. A part of the camping supplies had been a collection of new books for her.
"Come on, Mollie," cried Bab gayly. "Let's go over in the woods and gather some pine and cedar branches for our fire this evening." Barbara walked ahead, pulling a small wagon behind her with all the ardor of a young boy. "You see," she avowed to Mollie, "I don't have to remember I am sixteen, or a girl, while we are living in the woods. I can be just as independent as I like."
The two sisters were deep in their task. The little wagon was piled high with evergreens. Suddenly Mollie started. She thought she heard a voice calling from somewhere above their heads. "Hi, there! Hello! Hello!"
"Did you hear some one calling?" asked Mollie.
"Why, no," responded Barbara. "What is the matter with you, Mollie? This morning you heard a 'spook' outside the door, this afternoon you believe you hear a voice calling you. Beware, child! Perhaps you are already afflicted with the wood madness, and may see that wonderful ghost."
"Hi, there! Hi, there!" A voice was surely floating down from the sky.
This time Bab stared. Mollie looked triumphant. As far as they could see around them, there was no other human creature. And the sound did not come from the ground. Mollie was right. The noise was from overhead. But it was so far off and faint, it could not come from the trees above them.
Bab and Mollie ran out into an open space. There was a strange, rattling, swinging noise above their heads, as though a pair of mammoth wings were beating in the sky. The two girls looked up. There, about twenty yards above the tops of the highest trees was the strangest object ever seen by Mollie and Bab!
"What on earth is it?" Bab breathed faintly. The voice sounded more distinctly this time. "Is there some one down there in the woods?"
Bab caught the words. The sound was coming from a megaphone from the strange ship in the air. But Mollie and Bab had no megaphone at their command through which to answer back—only two frightened girl voices.
"Yes, yes!" they called together as loud as they could shout. The sound was ridiculous even to their own ears, and was lost in the vast spaces of the forest. The strange vehicle over their heads was gliding a little closer to the ground. Bab and Mollie could faintly see the figure of a man—two men—when they looked again.
This time the voice came through the megaphone: "Can you get me help? I have broken the rudder of my balloon. We cannot alight without assistance. If we come too close to the ground we will catch in the trees. I want some one to pull us down with ropes."
"Well," Mollie spoke to herself, "it is a relief to know that that object is an airship, not some hideous hobgoblin. I would like to know, Bab, how you and I are to get the thing to the ground?"
"Run, fly, Molliekins!" cried Bab, whose mind was always quick in action. "Go to the cabin for Naki and Ceally. Tell them to come here as fast as they can tear. We can manage together."
Mollie was off in a flash.
Barbara's voice could now be heard by the men in the balloon above her. "Drop me a line," she called to them, "before you float too far away. I will tie you to a tree."
Bab had realized that with a broken rudder it was impossible for the dirigible balloon to remain poised in the air.
A long coil of rope floated down from the sky. Barbara caught it and ran to a tree which was bare of branches. Then she knotted the rope with all her skill and strength. There was nothing to do, now, but wait. Bab fastened her gaze upon the strange white bird she had captured, which hung fluttering and quivering in the sky above her.
"THE GREAT WHITE ALSO"
Two minutes later Naki came running along the path. Even his solemn face was aglow with excitement. Ceally was close behind him. Just after them danced Mollie, who was followed by Miss Sallie. The latter had deserted her novel at the critical moment of the story. She must discover what Mollie was talking about. The child was too excited to explain.
When the little party reached the clearing where Bab stood it was easy to see what had happened. An aerial navigator had come to grief and was calling for assistance.
As Naki joined Bab, the aeronauts dropped more ropes from their basket, which hung beneath the great balloon. The big guide seized hold of one; his wife grabbed another; before Miss Sallie could stop her, Bab was swinging on a third.
"Great heavens child, let go!" Miss Sallie called out in tones of intense alarm. "You will be rising up in the air in another moment!"
"Oh, no!" laughed Bab out of breath. "There's no danger now. Don't you smell something horrible?"
The delicious air of the woods was being permeated with a detestable odor. The great balloon above their heads was shrinking. It was growing smaller and smaller. The gas was being allowed slowly to escape from it.
"Why, it looks like an enormous slug," cried Mollie, "now that we can see the thing closely."
By this time the balloon had neared the ground. Two men sprang over the sides of the basket, both alighting on their feet. Half a moment later the older of the two was bowing politely to Miss Sallie and wiping his glasses. Landing from a balloon on top of a mountain was apparently an ordinary occurrence with him. His companion was busy with the airship, which now lay on one side on the ground. It was shuddering and exhaling deep breaths.
"Madam," said the aeronaut addressing Miss Sallie, but looking at Barbara, who stood by her side. "More than I can express I thank you for your assistance. We were, I think, in rather a dangerous position and we might very easily have been killed. At best, in trying to alight without help, I should have torn my balloon in the branches of the trees. Perhaps you ladies would like to examine the balloon more thoroughly. This is my nephew, Reginald Latham."
A young man arose from the ground. He wore a close fitting tan costume, a cap with a visor and short trousers.
He brought his heels together with a click, and bowed low to Miss Sallie. Then he extended his hand to Mollie and Barbara. "It was immensely clever of you," he spoke, with a slightly foreign accent, "to have helped us out of our difficulty. Tying us to the tree, while we were obliged to wait, really saved the situation. I do not think the balloon is injured at all, except for the broken rudder."
The young man spoke of his balloon as tenderly as though it were a cherished friend. He looked about twenty-three or four years old. He was thin and dark, with clever eyes; but an expression of restlessness and discontent spoiled an otherwise interesting face.
"I am Winthrop Latham," his uncle continued. "I have a summer place down here, but my nephew and I spend most of our time, both summer and winter in Lenox. We have a house in my grounds where we are both working on models for airships."
Mr. Latham paused. It was natural that he should expect some explanation. What was a handsome, middle-aged woman doing on top of a mountain? Why were her only companions two charming young girls and a rough looking man and his wife?
"I suppose," Miss Stuart replied, laughing, "that you are almost as much surprised at our appearance as we are at yours! I am sure no thanks are necessary for our part in your rescue! We were delighted to assist in such a novel and up-to-date adventure." Miss Sallie looked smilingly at Mollie and Barbara. She was rather enjoying their unusual experience. Moreover, she had heard of Mr. Latham's beautiful home in Lenox. And was assured they were in the best of company.
"We are camping on this hill for a few weeks," she continued. "I am Miss Stuart, of Chicago. My niece and I, and three girl friends, are the entire camping party, except for our guide and his wife. Won't you come to our hut? Can we be of any assistance to you?"
"Indeed, you can!" heartily declared Mr. Latham, who was evidently an old bachelor of about fifty-five years of age, with charming manners. "I wonder if you will take care of my balloon for me until my nephew can get down the hill to send a wagon up for it. That very inferior looking object you now see collapsed on the ground is really my latest treasure. It is one of the best dirigible balloons invented up to the present time."
Barbara was already down on her hands and knees beside the balloon. As her new acquaintance explained the details of its construction to her, his face burned with enthusiasm. Mollie, watching him, thought he looked almost handsome. Nevertheless she didn't like Reginald Latham. Bab, however, was delighted. She had a thirst for information and here was a young man who could intelligently talk to her about the most marvelous inventions of the century, the airship and the aeroplane.
"I think," Bab volunteered, "if the balloon can be folded without harming it, we might carry it to the house in our small express wagon. We could each hold up a side of it, and it would be better than carrying it altogether."
The queer procession started for the cabin. Miss Sallie and Mollie walked on in front. Mr. Latham, Reginald Latham, Naki and Ceally, each supported a corner of the balloon, while Bab solemnly dragged the express wagon. Her pile of evergreens had been rudely dumped out on the ground.
"Well, for goodness sake!" Ruth and Grace stood at the door of their cabin, transfixed with surprise. "What on earth has happened this time?"
"Let nothing surprise you, girls, in this world of strange adventure," called Barbara. She had forgotten the strangers when she saw the amazed faces of Ruth and Grace. "Sometimes it is the stay-at-homes who have the exciting experiences come to them."
"Do come in and have tea with us, Mr. Latham!" urged Miss Stuart. "Naki will go down to a farmhouse, only a mile or so away, where he keeps his horses, and will bring up his wagon to take your balloon home for you. You really must explain matters to my niece and her friend, Miss Carter, or they will perish with curiosity! If traveling in the air makes one as hungry as living on a hilltop, the tea may be acceptable for its own sake."
"Of course I want to come into your castle," laughed Mr. Latham. "I feel so certain I have run across a party of fairies that I must peep into your dwelling to see if you are real people."
"You are not ahead of us, Mr. Latham," laughed Barbara, "Mollie and I thought you were angels calling down to us from the sky."
"I hope, Miss Stuart," begged their visitor, as he was making his adieus, "that you will soon come down from your high retreat and bring these young ladies to see my place in Lenox. Reginald and I promise not to talk airships incessantly. But, if you refuse to descend the hill very soon, my nephew and I shall climb up to see you. Next time I promise to appear in a more conventional fashion."
That night, when the girls were undressing, Mollie announced unexpectedly: "I don't like that Reginald Latham."
"Why not, Mollie?" asked Bab. "He is a very interesting fellow. His mother is a German and he has been educated in Germany. His father, who was Mr. Latham's younger brother, is dead. I think Reginald is his uncle's heir. He told me he and his uncle mean to devote all their time to inventing airships. He studied about them in Germany, even before he came to live with his uncle three years ago."
"Mercy!" Mollie ejaculated. "Then he is even more queer than I thought him. What a useless life for a man of his age. I don't like him even if he is ever so clever, and though his uncle is a dear. Girls, if I tell you something will you promise me not to laugh? Cross your heart and body. I won't tell you unless you do."
"Oh, then we have no choice, Mollie," laughed Grace.
"You may laugh a little," relented Mollie, who was giggling softly to herself. "Do you know what I suddenly thought, when Bab and I saw that great white object come sailing over our heads this afternoon? Like a flash it popped into my mind. Here comes 'The Great White Also!'"
Barbara shrieked with laughter in spite of her promise. "Oh, you funny Mollie!" she exclaimed.
"What is the child talking about?" inquired the puzzled Ruth. "The Great White Also! What utter nonsense!"
Mollie blushed. "Do you remember," she asked, "a paragraph in the first geography you studied at school? It read: 'The brown bear, the black bear, and the great white also inhabit the northern regions of North America.' Well, when I was small child I always thought 'the great white also' was some strange kind of animal. For a long time I wondered and wondered what it could be. Finally I asked mother and Bab to explain the sentence to me. Of course they thought it a lovely joke; but, just the same, I never could get over my first impression. It flashed into my head this afternoon, when I saw that strange white thing struggling in the air—at last here comes 'The Great White Also!' Wasn't it too absurd? I have been laughing to myself ever since."
"Children, what on earth is the matter?" inquired Miss Sallie, appearing at the bedroom door in her dressing gown. "You will waken the dead with your racket. Ruth, come to bed, at once, and tell me what you are laughing about."
MOLLIE FOLLOWS THE TRAIL
"Mollie have you seen my red sweater?" called Grace a few days later. "I can't find it anywhere; yet I am sure I left it out here on this bench last night. Naki and Ceally haven't seen it. Horrid thing! It has taken wings and flown away just when I wanted it. Do come with us. Ruth, Bab and I are going over into the forest to try to learn to shoot. Naki is to teach us."
"Does Miss Sallie know?" asked Mollie, who was not in a good humor. Bab had been lecturing her for her sudden dislike of Reginald Latham. It seemed to Mistress Barbara unreasonable that Mollie had taken such an unaccountable prejudice against a young man whom they had barely met.
"You talk, Mollie, as if he were a villain in a play," Bab protested.
Mollie knew she had been obstinate. All she had answered was: "Well, he would probably be a villain, if he had the opportunity. I hope I shan't see him again. I don't see, Bab, why you should be so interested in him. He's lots older than you are."
"I am not interested in him," Bab retorted indignantly. And the two sisters had separated.
"Of course, Miss Sallie knows we are going to practise shooting?" mimicked Grace. "What is the matter with Miss Mollie Thurston this morning? Don't you know Mr. Stuart sent us a rifle. He told us learning to shoot might prove a useful part of our education. Do come on with us Mollie."
"No, thank you," Mollie declared. "I hate the noise of a gun. Oh, I am not afraid, Grace Carter, so you needn't tease; but I prefer more ladylike amusements. I am going for a walk."
"Don't go too far by yourself, Mollie," pleaded Grace, who didn't mind Mollie's tantrums. "You don't know your way about these hills, yet, and it isn't safe to wander any distance. How I wish I could find my coat."
"Here, take Aunt Sallie's," cried Ruth, appearing suddenly in the doorway. "It is not such a charming color as your scarlet one, and it may be a trifle large, but it will keep you warm. Coming, child?" she asked Mollie.
Mollie shook her head. Without waiting for Bab to join them she started on her walk. The child wanted to be alone. Besides being in a bad humor she had several things to think about. She certainly would not tell Bab and the other girls, just to be laughed at; but again that morning she had heard a light noise outside their window. It didn't sound like an animal. Mollie wrinkled her pretty forehead, and a puzzled expression crept into her blue eyes. How absurd even to dream of a thief, here on their beautiful hillside far away from the rest of the world. And, she, a great girl of fourteen, knew better than to believe in ghosts.
Mollie slipped down the path and crossed the gully that divided the nearer hill from the higher one back of it. Already her bad humor was disappearing. She had no idea of going far from their cabin; another day she might persuade the girls to explore this mysterious hill, with its lost Indian trail; but she should not attempt it alone. This morning she wanted only to creep away for an hour or so into the woodland quiet.
Mollie Thurston had a curious passion for the woods. When she was alone in them she would stand still a long time, calling to the birds, and she delighted in having them steal near and shyly listen to the sweet sounds she made in return for theirs. No one knew of this accomplishment of Mollie's, not even Bab.
Up the steep hillside Mollie clambered. Below her she could hear the pop, pop, pop, of a rifle. The girls were evidently taking their lesson in target practice from Naki.
"I suppose I am fairly safe up here," Mollie chuckled, "but I wouldn't care to be too near those shooting experts. I know they will hit everything near them except their target."
She sat down on the root of an old tree that jutted out from an overhanging bank, and drew a sheet of paper from her pocket. She would write to her mother of their rescue of an airship. Mollie bit the end of her pencil—she was not in a writing mood. Why had she taken such a dislike to Reginald Latham? He had been polite enough, and was rather good-looking. It was Bab's habit to feel prejudices, not hers. She wouldn't say anything to her mother about him, but certainly Bab seemed to like him unusually well.