THE MOTOR GIRLS SERIES
by MARGARET PENROSE
Author of the highly successful "Dorothy Dale Series" 12mo. Illustrated. Price per volume, 75 cents, postpaid.
Since the enormous success or our "Motor Boys Series," by Clarence Young, we have been asked to get out a similar series for girls. No one is better equipped to furnish these tales than Mrs. Penrose, who, besides being an able writer, is an expert automobilist.
THE MOTOR GIRLS ON A TOUR
I A SPOILED DINNER.
II THE WOODLAND CONFERENCE.
III "NO BOYS!"
IV THE STRANGE PROMISE.
V A LITTLE BROWN WREN
VI THE HOLD-UP
VII A CHANCE MEETING.
VIII JACK AND CLIP
IX THE MYSTERIOUS RIDE.
X "THEY'RE OFF!"
XI THOSE DREADFUL BOYS.
XII THE GIRL IN THE DITCH
XIII AT THE GROTTO
XIV THE PROMISE BOOK LOST
XV ROB ROLAND
XVI A STRANGE MESSAGE
XVII THE ROAD TO BREAKWATER
XVIII THE CLUE.
XIX PAUL AND HAZEL
XX AT THE MAHOGANY SHOP
XXII THE CHILDREN'S COURT
XXIII THE MOTOR GIRLS ON THE WATCH.
XXIV CORA'S RESOLVE.
XXV A WILD RUN
XXVI LEGAL STRATEGY
XXVII AGAINST THE LAW
XXIX MERRY MOTOR MAIDS
XXX THE PROMISE KEPT
THE MOTOR GIRLS ON A TOUR
A SPOILED DINNER
The big maroon car glided along in such perfect rhythm that Cora Kimball, the fair driver of the Whirlwind, heard scarcely a sound of its mechanical workings. To her the car went noiselessly - the perfection of its motion was akin to the very music of silence.
Hazel Hastings was simply sumptuous in the tonneau - she had spread every available frill and flounce, but there was still plenty of unoccupied space on the luxuriously cushioned "throne."
It seemed a pity to passers-by that two girls should ride alone on that splendid morning in the handsome machine - so many of those afoot would have been glad of a chance to occupy the empty seats.
Directly following the Whirlwind came another car - the little silver Flyaway. In this also were two girls, the Robinson twins, Elizabeth and Isabel, otherwise Belle and Bess. Chelton folks were becoming accustomed to the sight of these girls in their cars, and a run of the motor girls was now looked upon as a daily occurrence. Bess Robinson guided her car with unmistakable skill - Cora Kimball was considered an expert driver.
Sputtering and chugging close to the Flyaway came a second runabout. In this were a girl and a boy, or, more properly speaking, a young lady and a young gentleman. As they neared the motor girls Bess called back to Belle:
"There come Sid and Ida. I thought they were not on speaking terms."
"They were not, but they are now," answered Belle with a light laugh. "Why should a girl turn her back on a young man with a brand new machine?"
"It runs like a locomotive," murmured Bess, as, at that moment, the other car shot by, the occupants bowing indifferently to the Robinson girls as the machines came abreast.
Cora turned and shook her head significantly when the third car had forged ahead. She, too, seemed surprised that Ida Giles should be riding with Sid Wilcox. Then Bess rolled up alongside the Whirlwiind.
"My, but they are going!" she called to Cora. "I thought Ida said she would never ride with Sid again."
"Why not?" flashed Cora merrily. "Isn't Sid's car new and - yellow?"
"Like a dandelion," put in Belle, who was noted for her aesthetic tendencies. "And, precisely like a dandelion, I fancy that machine would collapse without rhyme or reason. Did you every try a bunch of dandelions on the table?"
The girls all laughed. No one but Belle Robinson would ever try such an experiment. Everybody knew the ingratitude of the yellow field flower.
"I can never bear anything of that color since my valentine luncheon," declared Belle bravely. "That's why I predict disaster for Sid's new car."
"They have dropped something!" exclaimed Hazel as she peered ahead at the disappearing runabout.
Bess had taken the lead.
"Let's put on speed," she suggested, and, pulling the lever, her car shot ahead, and was soon within close range of the yellow runabout.
"Be careful!" called her sister. "You will run over - "
It was too late. At that moment the Flyaway dashed over something - the pieces flew in all directions.
"Their lunch-hamper!" exclaimed Belle.
The runabout had turned to one side, and then stopped. Bess jammed on the brakes and also came to a standstill.
"Well!" growled Sid Wilcox, approaching the wreck in the road.
"I - couldn't stop," faltered Bess remorsefully.
"I guess you didn't try," snapped Ida Giles, her cheeks aflame almost to the tint of her fiery tresses.
"I really did," declared Bess. "I would not have spoiled your hamper for anything."
"And your lunch was in it?" gasped Belle. "We're awfully sorry!"
Bent and crippled enameled dishes from the lately fine and completely equipped auto-hamper were scattered about in all directions. Here and there a piece of pie could be identified, while the chicken sandwiches were mostly recognizable by the fact that a newly arrived yellow dog persistently gnawed at one or two particular mud spots.
"Oh, we can go to a hotel for dinner," announced the young man, getting back into his car.
"But they ought to pay for the hamper," grumbled Ida, loud enough for the Robinson girls to make sure of her remark.
"We will, of course," called Bess, just as Cora and Hazel came up, and then the Wilcox runabout darted off again.
"Table d'hote?" called Cora, laughing.
"No, a la carte," replied Bess, picking up a piece of damaged celery, putting it on a slice of uninjured bread and proffering it to Hazel.
"What a shame!" sighed Hazel. "Their picnic will be spoiled."
"But look at the picnic we've had," put in Belle. "You should have seen Ida's face. A veritable fireless cooker."
"And Sid - he supplied the salt hay," declared Bess. "I felt as if I were smothered in a ton of it."
"And that was the peace-offering hamper," declared Cora, alighting from her car and closely viewing the wreck. "Jack told me that Ida gave Sid a handsome hamper for the new car."
"I told you that the yellow machine would turn - "
"Dandelion," Hazel interrupted Belle. "Well, I agree with you that was an ungrateful trick. To demolish the lunch, of all other available things to do, on a day like this!"
"Souvenirs?" suggested Cora, removing her glove to dig out of the mud a knife, and then a fork.
"Oh, forget it!" exclaimed Bess. "I am sure I want to. Let's get going again, if we are to make the Woodbine Way in time to plan the tour. I'm just crazy about the trip," and the enthusiastic girl expended some of her pent-up energies on the crank at the front of the Flyaway.
Cora was also cranking up. "Yes," she said, "we had best be on the road again. We are due at the park at twelve. I expect Maud will have the family tree along and urge us to stop overnight at every gnarl on the 'trunk.'"
"We might have asked Ida and Sid," reflected Belle aloud, sympathetically.
"Yes," Bess almost shouted, "and have them veto every single plan. Besides, there are to be no boys on this trip; Lady Isabel please take notice!"
"As if I wanted boys!" sneered her sister.
"As if you could have them if you did!" fired back Bess in that tantalizing way that only sisters understand, only sisters enjoy, and only sisters know how to operate successfully.
"Peace! peace!" called Cora. "If Belle wants boys she may have them. I am chairman of the acting committee, and if boys do not act I would like to know exactly what they do."
"No boys!" faltered Hazel, who, not owning a machine, had not as yet heard all the details of the proposed three-days' tour of the motor girls.
"Nary a one!" returned Bess, now about to start.
"If we had boys along," explained Cora, "they would claim the glory of every spill, every skid, every upset and every 'busted tire.' We want some little glory ourselves," and at this she threw in the clutch, and, with a gentle effort, the Whirlwind rolled off, followed closely by the Flyaway.
"I suppose Sid and Ida are licking their fingers just about now," remarked the good-natured Bess.
"Very likely," rejoined her sister, "for I fancv their meal was made up of buckwheat cakes and molasses, as Sid had to pay for it."
"Oh, I meant sheer deliciousness," corrected her sister. "I 'fawncy'" - and she imitated the dainty tones used by Belle - "they have had - "
"Backbiting and detraction," called Cora, who had been close enough to hear the sisters' remarks. "I would not have been in your place at that table, Bess, for a great deal."
Bess tossed her head about indifferently. She evidently knew what to expect from Ida and Sid.
"Now for a straight run!" announced Cora, throwing in third speed. "We must make the bridge by the quarter whistle or the Maud Morris family tree may have been consumed for luncheon. I particularly want a peg at that tree."
"We're off!" called Bess, following with additional speed.
Then the Whirlwind and the Flyaway dashed off, over the country roads, past scurrying chicks and barking dogs, past old farmers who turned in to give "them blamed things" plenty of room, out along Woodbine to the pretty little park where the plans for the first official run of the motor girls were soon to be perfected.
THE WOODLAND CONFERENCE
In the first volume of this series, entitled "The Motor Girls; Or, A Mystery of the Road," we became acquainted with these vivacious young ladies. Cora Kimball, the first to own her own motor-car, the Whirlwind, was the only daughter of Mrs. Grace Kimball, a wealthy widow of the little town of Chelton. Jack Kimball, Cora's brother, a typical college boy, had plenty to do in unraveling the mystery of the road, while his chums, Walter Pennington and Edward Foster, were each such attractive young men that even to the end it was difficult to guess which one would carry off the highest honors socially - with Cora as judge, of course.
It was Ed Foster who lost the money, a small fortune, and it was the rather unpleasant Sid Wilcox, and perhaps unfortunate Ida Giles, who finally cleared up the mystery, happily enough, all things considered, although in spite of the other girls' opportune intention it was not possible to reflect any degree of credit upon those responsible for the troubles and trials which that mystery involved.
Speaking of the young men, Paul Hastings, a young chauffeur, should not be overlooked. Paul was a very agreeable youth indeed, and his sister, Hazel, a most interesting young lady, with very special qualities of talent and learning.
"Among those present" in the first volume were the attractive Robinson twins, Bess inclined to rather more weight than height, and Belle, the tall, graceful creature, who delighted in the aesthetic and reveled in "nerves."
Mr. Perry Robinson, the girls' father, was a wealthy railroad magnate, devoted to carriage rides, and not caring for motors, but not too "set" to allow his daughters the entire ownership of the pretty new runabout - the Flyaway.
Cora, Hazel, Bess and Belle were flying over the country roads in their cars, making for Woodbine Park, where they were to hold a preliminary meet to arrange for a tour on the road.
Past the bridge at the appointed time, they reached the wooded park exactly at twelve - the hour set for the rest and luncheon, to be followed by the "business meeting."
"There come Daisy and Maud," called Cora, as along the winding road she discerned another car approaching.
"And there are Clip and Ray," added Belle, shutting off the gasoline and preparing to bring her machine to a standstill.
"I think it a shame to call Cecilia Thayer Clip," objected Belle. "She is no more of a romp than - "
"Any boy," interrupted Bess. "Well, the boys call her Clip, and it's handy."
By this time the new car was up in line with the others.
"'Lo, there!" called Cecilia, jerking her machine to a stop in the manner deplored by skilled mechanicians.
"Look out!" cautioned Cora. "You'll 'bust' something."
Cecilia had bounded out on the road.
"Stiff as a stick!" she exclaimed with a rather becoming twist of her agile form. "I never make that road without absorbing every bump on the thoroughfare."
Cecilia was not altogether pretty, for she had the "accent on her nose," as Cora put it, but she was dashing, and, at a glance, one might easily guess why she had been called Clip.
Rachel Stuart was a striking blonde, tall to a fault, pink and white to bisqueness and, withal, evidently conscious of her charms. Even while motoring she affected the pastel tints, and this morning looked radiant in her immense blue scarf and her well-matched blue linen coat.
"You look," said Cora to Cecilia, as the latter continued to shake herself out of the absorbed bumps, "like nothing so much as like a 'strained' nurse - Jack's variety."
"Exactly that!" admitted Cecilia. "I have been searching high and low for a cheap and economical rig to drive in, and I have just hit upon this." She pirouetted wonderfully. "All ready made - the 'strained' nurse variety, sure enough. How do you like it?"
"Very becoming," decided Bess.
"And very practical," announced Belle.
"Sweet," declared Cora.
"When you say a good thing, stop," ordered Cecilia, just as Ray was about to give her verdict.
"And now to the woods," suggested Cora. "We may as well put our machines up in the open near the grove. We can see them there, and make sure that no one is tempted to investigate them."
It was a level stretch over the field to the grove. Cora led the way and the others followed. Lunch baskets and boxes were quickly gathered up from the machines, and, with the keenness of appetite common to young and healthy, and "painful" to our fair motorists (for Cecilia declared her appetite "hurt"), the party scampered off to an appropriate spot where the lunch might be enjoyed.
"And there are to be no boys?" asked Maud Morris, she with the "imploring look," as Cecilia put it, although Maud was familiarly known as a very sweet girl.
"No boys!" echoed Bess, between uncertain mouthfuls.
Daisy Bennet turned her head away in evident disapproval.
"No boys," she repeated faintly. Daisy did everything faintly. She was a perfectly healthy young girl, but a little affected otherwise - too fond of paper-covered books, and perhaps too fond of other sorts of romance. But we must not condemn Daisy - her mother had the health-traveling habit, and what was Daisy to do with herself?
Cora handed around some lettuce sandwiches.
"I am just as keen on boys as any of you," she admitted, "but for a real motor girl tour it is apparent that boys will have to be tabooed."
Bess grunted, Belle sighed, Cecilia bit her tongue, Ray raised her eyebrows, Hazel made a "minute" of the report.
"And silence ensued," commented Cecilia, reaching back of Maud and securing a dainty morsel from the lunch-box of the latter.
"Water?" called Bess.
"Yes," chimed in Cecilia, "go and fetch some."
"The spring is away down the other side of the hill," objected Bess.
"You need the exercise," declared Cecilia.
"Clip, you go fetch some," suggested Cora, "and I'll give you half my pie."
Without another word Clip was on her feet, had upset Daisy's improvised table of sticks and paper napkins in her haste to secure the water bottle, and was now running over the hill toward the spring.
Presently she stopped as if listening to something. Then she turned and hurried back to the party on the grass. Her face was white with alarm.
"Oh!" she gasped. "I heard the awfullest groans! Some one must be either dying for a drink, or dying from a drink. The groans were wet!"
Cora jumped up, as did some of the others.
"Come on," said Cora. "I'm not afraid. Some one may need help."
"Oh, they do - I am sure," panted Cecilia. "All kinds of help, I should say. The moans were chromatic."
"Listen!" commanded Cora, as the sounds came over the hill. Low, then fierce growls and groans, tapering down to grunts and exclamation marks sounded through the grove.
"Oh!" screamed Belle.
"What can it be?" exclaimed Daisy.
"Almost anything," suggested Cora. "But we had best be specific," and she started in the direction of the mysterious sounds.
Cecilia followed, as did Bess, while the others held off in evident fear.
Although it was high noon, in the grove the heavy spruce and cedar trees darkened the place, and the farther the girls penetrated into the depths of the wood, the deeper did the shadows close in around them. Cora picked up a stout stick as she advanced.
"Get me one," begged Cecilia. "We may encounter a bear."
"Human?" asked Cora with a laugh.
"Preferably," answered Cecilia, keeping very close to Cora.
The noises had ceased. The girls halted, waiting for a sound to give them the clue of direction.
"He's dead!" gasped Cecilia. "It was the drink - he got the drink, and then died!"
"As long as he got it," whispered Cora. She was anxious to catch another "groan."
"There!" exclaimed Bess, as a sound, faint but decisive, was heard from a hollow ahead.
"Where?" asked Cora, purposely misunderstanding Bess.
"Here!" called Cecilia, who, with sudden resolve, had snatched the stick from Cora's hand, and now darted forward.
She went straight for the spring.
Such shouting and such laughing!
There, hidden in the thicket near the spring, were discovered Jack Kimball and Walter Pennington, while the chuckles and other noises emerging from mysterious parts of the wood indicated the presence of human beings, although the sounds had a queer similarity to that made by furry beasts.
"Oh, Clip! Spare me!" called Jack, as Cecilia actually undertook to punish physically the offending young man. "I really did not think you would be scared - in fact, I had an idea you were scare- immune "
"I am," declared the girl; "but the idea of me wasting sympathy! I might have discovered the dead man of all my life-long dreams - had to appear in court, and all the other delightful consequences of finding a man under suspicious circumstances; and there you are not even sick. Jack Kimball, how could you? You might at least have had the politeness to be deadly ill."
Walter crawled out from the thicket.
"I thought I smelled eating," he remarked, "and I suggested that we postpone the wild and woolly until we had investigated."
"Oh, come on," called Cora. "We may as well allow you to move on. - You have actually interrupted the plans for our first official run.'
"Good!" exclaimed Ed Foster, who, with some other young chaps, had collected themselves from the various haunts. "Any boys?"
"Boys!" echoed Cora.
"B-o-y-s!" drawled Maud, "chucking the imploring look," as Cecilia whispered to Cora.
"We have been discussing the question," declared Bess, as they all started toward the lunch spread on the grass, "and we have now fully decided. The answer is: No boys!"
This verdict brought forth the expected chorus of groans from the young men.
"Indeed, you may be glad to get a fellow when you find yourselves in a good and proper smashup," declared Jack, "and I predict a smash-up about every other mile."
The sight of the tempting lunch and that of the other young ladies who had not undertaken the march to the spring, was the signal for a "grand rush" - and that was about all.
When the boys extricated themselves from the "rush" there was not a crumb visible.
"We had all we wished," faltered the circumspect Ray Stuart. "You were entirely welcome - might have saved, at least, the dishes."
"Oh," breathed Ed, "it is so much pleasanter to poach - don't spoil it."
Ed cast a most appreciative glance at Ray. She expected it, of course, and accepted it with a smile.
Clip was talking earnestly to Jack, Cora was being entertained by Walter, who, at the same time, managed to keep up a running conversation with the group of girls now busy putting away the lunch things.
"We had a dreadful accident coming out," said Belle. "Bess ran over - "
"A square meal in a square basket," interrupted Bess. "I demolished the hamper that Ida Giles had bestowed on Sidney Wilcox. It was a peace offering, I believe."
"And you should have seen the kind of 'pieces' Bess made of it," commented Hazel with a merry laugh.
"Hush!" hissed Ed with his finger to his lips.
"Something tells me that the demolished hamper forbodes evil. You will regret the day, Miss Elizabeth, that you spilled Sid Wilcox's-"
"Pumpkin pie," finished Cora. "I never saw such pumpkiny pumpkin pie in my life. I can smell it yet!"
"Mrs. Giles' famous home-made," quoted Walter. "Well, it might have been worse - they might have eaten that pie."
"Say, fellows," said Jack suddenly, "this is all very pretty - the girls, I mean, of course - but does it smite any one of you young rustics that we have an engagement - ahem! At three-thirty, wasn't it?"
"Precisely," declared Ed. "So much obliged for the feed; and do we make a party call?"
"Of course," answered the pretty Ray, attempting to tie her huge scarf, without having any idea of doing so. "We shall expect - "
"The bunch?" interrupted Jack, knowing Ray's preference for the handsome Ed.
"How - "
"Naughty," simpered Cecilia. "Jack, how can you use slang in the presence of ladies?" and she assumed the characteristic "tough" walk, which had always been one of Clip's most laughable capers.
"Loidies!" echoed Jack, tilting his cap and striking an attitude appropriate to that assumed by Cecilia. He slipped his arm within hers, and the pair "strutted off," in the fashion identified with the burlesque stage.
"Here! here!" called more than one young lady. "Come back here, Clip! There are to be no boys!"
"This isn't a boy," called back Cecilia, keeping up the performance. "He's only a - "
"Don't you dare!" threatened Jack.
The girls began to gather the things up from the grass.
"Now don't hurry," remarked Ed coolly. "The fact is, we are not going your way."
"Don't want us!" almost gasped Ray.
"Shook!" groaned Bess.
"Not at all," Walter hurried to add, "but the real truth is - well, let me see. What's the real truth?"
Jack was fetching Cecilia back. At some secret sign the young men actually took to their heels, and ran away before the girls realized what was happening. But from a distance they waved a cheerful adieu.
"What do you think of that!" exclaimed Hazel.
"Oh, they are just up to some frolic, and could not take us in," said Cora. "If we were not so busy with our plans we might follow them. But I propose continuing the business meeting."
With some reluctance, for the time had been greatly enlivened by the appearance of the young men on the scene, the girls once more got to discussing the details of their proposed three days' tour.
As Cora had predicted, Maud wanted the stops along the way made at the homes of her various and varied relatives. Daisy feared her mother would insist upon a chaperone, and this almost absorbed Daisy's chance of being eligible. Ray thought the motors should flaunt flags - pretty light blue affairs - but Bess declared it would be infinitely more important to carry plenty of gasoline.
So the girls planned and plotted, until, in the northwest, a great black cloud came stealing over the silent blue, gathering fury as it came, and coming very quickly at that.
"A storm!" shouted Belle. "Oh, I do hope it won't be the thundering kind!"
There was a swirl of the leaves around them, and the wind gave a warning howl. All ran for the cars.
"A tornado, likely," said Hazel. "And, oh, dear! this is just about the time that Paul will be bringing the mail over. I am so nervous since his firm undertook the mail route between New City and Cartown. This is such a lonely road for an auto in a storm - especially when every one knows Paul carries the mail."
Hazel was greatly agitated, but the other girls endeavored to reassure her.
"Why, Paul will be all right," declared Cora, surprised at Hazel's alarm. "What could happen to him? Why is a storm in the afternoon of such consequence?"
"Oh, I don't know," sighed Hazel; "but having to manage a car, and be personally responsible for the big mailbag - there is so much important mail between Cartown and New City - I have been nervous about it ever since Paul began carrying it."
"But it makes him all the more important to his firm," said Cora convincingly, "and I am sure he will be all right."
"You read too many wild-west stories," commented Bess, who was still alongside the Whirlwind with her Flyaway. "There are no stagecoach hold-ups these days."
"I hope not," returned Hazel with a forced laugh.
Quickly the storm was gathering. With some apprehension Cora directed the line of cars.
"You lead, Daisy," she said, "as your clothes are most perishable."
"Indeed," shouted Cecilia, "my 'strained' nurse suit will have to go to the laundry if it gets wet, and that adds to the price - reduces my bargain."
"Well, hurry, at any rate," commanded Cora. "I know of a barn we may be able to make."
"We ought to meet Paul at the bridge," remarked Hazel, evidently unable to dismiss her concern for her brother.
"Now, Hazel," exclaimed Cora, her voice carrying something of vexation, "one would think you suspected - "
"You don't really think those boys would play a trick on him?" interrupted Hazel. "Somehow I didn't like the way they looked - as if they were plotting something."
Cora laughed heartily. "Why, you precious baby!" she managed to say; "do you think boys of their caliber would tamper with the mail? To say nothing of putting so nice a boy as Paul to inconvenience?"
"Oh, of course; forgive me, Cora. I should not have asked that. But you know what Paul and I are to each other!"
"Yes, I know," said Cora with marked emphasis. "You are each the other's little brother and sister. But it's nice, Hazel, very nice, and I forgive you the fling at Jack."
"And Ed?" asked Hazel mischievously.
"And Walter," added Cora, ignoring the personal.
"Oh, mercy!" yelled Belle. "We're going to have another fire and brimstone thunderstorm! Cora, make for that farmhouse!"
"Yes," called Cora, "I guess it will be all wind, and it won't hurt the machines. Turn for the cottage, girls!"
Blinding and brutal, the wind and sand attacked the eyes and ears of the motor girls, in spite of all the hoods and goggles. It was one of those tearing windstorms, that often come in summer, seemingly bent on raising everything on earth heavenward except the sand - that always sought refuge under eyelids - the average grain of sand would rather get in a girl's eye than help to make up a reputable mountain.
The line of cars made straight for the little farmhouse. It was sheltered in a clump of pines quite near the roadside.
Bess drew up first. Belle was out, and upon the steps of the porch. She had even struck the brass knocker before the others could bring their machines to a stop.
"Belle is frightened," said Ray, taking her time to leave Cecilia's auto.
"Well, we had a great storm one day - and Belle has the reflex action," explained Cora, referring to an exciting incident told of in the first book of this series.
The door of the cottage opened.
"Come on, girls!" called Belle. "We may come in - the lady says."
"Now - now for an adventure!" whispered Cecilia. "I can see it through the closed blinds! I see it under the knocker. I feel it in my gloves! Yes, young ladies, there is going to be something doing inside that cottage!"
THE STRANGE PROMISE
When the eight young ladies marched into the little cottage it must be admitted that each had her misgivings. What would any one think of such a procession?
But Belle, whether from actual fright of the storm, or from some intuitive knowledge of the circumstances, seemed to be assured that they were all welcome.
A dark-eyed woman greeted them.
"Why, come right in," she insisted. "We haven't much room, but we are all glad to see you."
"Careful," whispered the mischievous Clip to Cora. "There's a trap door some place, I'll bet."
"Hush!" commanded Cora under her breath. "You will be suspected if not overheard."
The woman gathered up some sewing from an old-fashioned sofa. Cora saw instantly that the piece of furniture was of the most desirable pattern and quality, an antique mahogany gem of the colonial style.
"There will be room for most of us on your beautiful couch," said Cora, taking her place, and indicating that the others might follow. "What a handsome piece of furniture!"
"Yes," replied the woman with a sigh, "that is one of my family heirlooms. We are very fond of old furniture."
"Look out!" whispered the irrepressible Clip. "Perhaps the trap is in the sofa!"
Bess giggled helplessly.
Belle, with her self-confidence, peculiar to this particular occasion, took her place over by the window in a huge, straight-back chair - the kind built with "storm doors at the back."
The sad-eyed woman smiled with her lips, but her eyes "remained at half mast," as Clip put it.
"It is so delightful to meet a lot of healthy young ladies," began the woman, betraying a certain culture and unmistakable education. "I have a little daughter, who is not healthy of body, but her mind is the joy of our lives in this isolated place. She will ask to see you directly, and that is why I tell you of her infirmity. We never speak of it to her - she almost thinks herself in health. I am glad you came - for her sake."
Without waiting for a reply the woman opened a small door and disappeared:
"Now!" gasped Clip. "Now be prepared! We will be fed piece by piece, one by one, to the yellow dwarf - "
"Will you hush!" insisted Belle. "I am sure you ought to respect-"
"Oh, I do, Belle, dear! I respect your pretty self, and shall hate terribly to see you torn limb from - "
The opening of the door cut short Clip's nonsense.
The woman wheeled a child's invalid chair into the room. Sitting in this chair the girls beheld a child - that sort of child which heaven in making a cripple of seems to hold some special claim on. The lines of some amateur poet flashed across the mind of Cora:
"Does heaven in sending such as these, From Nature hold a claim? To keep them nearer to The Gates, To call them in again?"
These lines had always appealed to Cora in spite of their faulty rhyme, and, in glancing at the little girl in the chair, she understood why.
"This is my daughter Wren," said the woman, "and I should have introduced myself. I am Mrs. Salvey Mrs. Ruth Salvey."
The girls gracefully acknowledged the introductions. Clip had surrendered - she was "all eyes on the little girl"; too absorbed to speak. She had left her place on the sofa, and now stood beside the invalid's chair.
"How do you do, Wren?" she managed to say finally, taking the small, white, slim hand within her own. "Aren't you frightened of - this invasion?"
"Oh, no, indeed," said the child sweetly. "I am perfectly delighted. Mother has been telling me all day we would have some pleasant surprise before night. I thought when I saw the storm coming that that was the surprise - I love storms, grandfather's kind - but now I know it is this."
Every girl in the room instantly felt the charm of this child. She was almost bewitching.
Her eyes had the same "unfathomable depths" that marked those of Mrs. Salvey, but the child did not otherwise resemble her mother. It was evident that the name Wren fitted her well - so small, so sweet, so timid, and with such a whispering voice!
Then, her eyes were brown, her hair was brown and, in spite of ill-health, there was a gleam of color in her delicate cheeks.
"What's this?" asked Cora, stepping over to the child and touching a book in her lap.
"Oh, that - that is my story," replied Wren. "I want to tell you all about it. Will you have time to wait?" and she looked toward the window, through which could be seen the silent automobiles.
"Indeed, we will," replied Cora. "I am so anxious to hear all about it, and I am sure the others are. Do tell us, Wren," and Cora found a chair quite close to the one on wheels.
Cecilia was fairly "devouring the child." The others were plainly much interested. Belle, who evidently regarded the affair as her own particular "find," retained the slim hand of the invalid in that of her own healthy palm. Mrs. Salvey was smiling now - even the great sad eyes were throwing out a light, although the light did come from dark and uncertain depths.
Wren opened her book.
"This is my promise book," she began. "I have to tell you a long story about it. Then I will ask each of you to make me a promise - it is a very strange promise," she intoned most seriously. "But I know some day it will be kept. Some day all these promises will unite in one grand, great demand. Then Fate will have to answer."
A LITTLE BROWN WREN
The girls were awestricken.
Daisy, Maud, Hazel and Ray seemed to shrink closer together on the old mahogany sofa. Cora and the Robinson girls with Cecilia were grouped closely about the sick child.
"It's all about grandfather," she began. "I had the dearest, darlingest grandfather, and since he went away I am so lonely. Only for mother," she added, with something like an apology. "Of course, I am never really lonely with mother."
Mrs. Salvey shook her head. Then she picked up the discarded sewing.
"You see," went on Wren, "we used to live with grandfather in a beautiful cottage right near the river. He was a sea captain, and couldn't live away from the waves. Then I was strong enough to play on the sands."
Wren stopped. At the mention of her infirmity a cloud covered her young face. Presently she brightened up and resumed:
"But I am going to be strong again. When I find - "
She tossed her head back and seemed to see something beyond. For a moment no one spoke. The silence was, akin to reverence.
"Then," sighed the child, "when we lived by the ocean grandfather went out in a terrible storm - he said he had to go. And he never came back."
"Oh!" gasped Cora involuntarily.
Cecilia bent so close to Wren that her breath stirred the brown ringlets over the child's ears.
"But, of course," declared the child vehemently, "he will come back. If not here - in some other world."
"Dear," said Mrs. Salvey, "you had better make your story a little short. I am sure the young ladies will want to get over the roads before nightfall."
"Oh, it is quite early yet," declared Cecilia falsely, for the mantel clock pointed to six.
"I'll hurry," promised Wren. "You see, this is the important part of it all. When we lived with grandpa he made a beautiful table - I even helped him to make it. There were tiny pieces of wood all inlaid with anchors, oars and sea emblems. I used to dip them in the hot glue for grandpa. Well, there were some secret drawers in that table, and grandpa told me that if anything should happen to him we must explore the table. Well, we went away - it was the time of my own father's death - and when we came back the table was gone."
"Who took it?" demanded Cecilia sharply.
"Everything was sold - at auction - and no one could tell us anything about the table."
"You see," said Mrs. Salvey, "Wren thinks if we can find that table we will come into our own. Father was very fond of daughter, and the other relatives were so numerous that when the estate was equally divided it left very little for us. We thought the table might contain a will - "
"I know it did," declared Wren. "Didn't grandpa show it to me once? And now I want you each to sign the promise in my book. I shall read it over for you."
The child drew herself up straight, and held the book high between her hands. Then she read
"'I, the undersigned, promise most sacredly to do all in my power to help discover the whereabouts of an antique inlaid table that has on either side carved a large anchor, and which has the initials cut on each end, W. S. and R. S.'
These were mine and grandpa's initials," she explained. "I was called Wren because his name was Renton." She resumed reading the promise:
"'If ever I do discover this table I also promise to notify Wren Salvey immediately.' Then you sign," she said. "There are pen and ink. Mother always keeps them in the sitting-room for me."
Belle took the book. Pages were already filled with signatures.
"You must have a great many callers," she remarked, taking up the pen to sign.
"Oh, I take my book with me every time I go out," said Wren. "Sometimes mother takes me where there are a lot of people. I love to talk to folks."
"Of course you do," said Cora, filled with admiration for the mother who so humored the sick child. "And with all those promises, as you say, they must some day become a great, grand call, and so be answered."
"I hope you will hear the voice," said Wren fervently, and the day came when Cora remembered the child's prayer.
The girls added their names to the long list. Wren required that they repeat the promise individually, and, indeed, it became a most solemn proceeding.
The storm had entirely subsided. It was time to be on the road again, and Cora stood up first to take her leave.
"We really must go," she said. "We have had a most delightful hour. We shall never forget Wren, and, perhaps, some day we may return to fulfil our promise."
"I really feel that you will," declared the child. "I have never before met such - nice young ladies," and she blushed consciously. "I shall repeat your names many times - so that they will echo when I sleep."
Cecilia put her lips to the child's forehead. She did not dare trust herself to speak.
"I am sure you will dream about us - we are such an army," said Daisy with a laugh. "Try to forget that we are just girls - "
"She's an angel," interrupted Cecilia. "Don't get her mixed up with mere girls."
Wren laughed - such a dainty little laugh. She looked at Daisy.
"You are all - lovely," she declared, "and I always like blue eyes!"
Mrs. Salvey added her felicitations to those of her little daughter. "This has indeed been a most enjoyable visit," she said, "and I hope you will all try to keep your strange promise. I believe where one is so serious as is Wren something good is sure to result. If we could find that table - "
"Perhaps you will," said Cora pleasantly. "We are about to start on a long trip. We will make numbers of stops, and I assure you we will never forget to look for the table. I am sure it will give us a very pleasant duty to keep our eyes open."
"Indeed, it will," declared Cecilia warmly. "I only hope I shall be the lucky one - for I feel a sort of premonition that some one in this party really will be the means of bringing little Wren the good news. I have a mental picture of the table. I shall know it instantly."
"It would be very easy to recognize it," said Mrs. Salvey, opening the door as her visitors filed out. "The inlaid anchors are most conspicuous on the leaves."
Outside Cecilia renewed her antics. "Stick a hatpin in me - somebody do!" she exclaimed. "But not yours, Ray. I never could stand for that college, even in a stick."
Ray smiled and hurried into her car. The fair chauffeurs cranked up quickly, for it was almost dusk, and there was considerable road to cover between the place and Chelton.
"We must make speed now," called Bess. "I have a dinner date, be it known."
"I'm in a hurry, too," shouted Maud. "I have an engagement to be tried on - my new auto cloak. I have to have that on time."
The machines were speeding along merrily. It was pleasant after the rain, and the twilight lent enchantment to the delights of motoring.
"Why do you suppose Hazel was so anxious about Paul?" Bess asked Belle. "She could talk of nothing else, even when we were at the cottage."
"Well," replied the prudent Belle, "Hazel knows. There must be some danger or she would not talk of it. Perhaps Paul has had some warning."
Dashing over the country roads, the motor girls sent their machines ahead at fast speed, unwilling to stop to light up, and anxious to make the town before the twilight faded into nightfall.
Suddenly Cora, who was in the lead, grabbed the emergency brake and quickly shut off the power.
"What's that?" she asked. "Something straight ahead. Don't you see it, Hazel?"
Hazel stood up and peered into the gathering darkness.
"Yes; it looks like an auto. Perhaps some one got disabled, and had to leave the machine," she replied.
"Perhaps," returned Cora, going along carefully.
"It is an auto," declared Hazel presently, as they were almost upon the object in the roadway.
"The auto stage!" exclaimed Cora. "Don't be frightened, Hazel," she hurried to say. "Paul is not in it. He must have gone on with the mail."
Hazel sank down in the cushions and covered her eyes. Somehow she could not bear to look at the deserted auto stage.
The other girls were coming along cautiously - they saw that something was the matter.
The standing machine was directly in the road; it instantly struck Cora that this was strange. Who could have been so careless as to leave an unlighted auto in the roadway, and night coming on?
She turned her wheel to guide the Whirlwind to one side, and then stopped. Bess was next, and she shut off the power from the Flyaway.
"What is it?" asked Bess anxiously. Belle did not venture to leave the machine, but Hazel had bounded out of the Whirlwind almost before Cora had time to stop it.
"Oh," exclaimed Hazel, "there are Paul's gloves. Where can he be?"
"Perhaps playing a trick on us," suggested Cora, although she had little faith in the possibility. "I am sure he would not go far off and leave this expensive machine here."
By this time all the other girls had reached the spot, and were now deliberating upon the abandoned auto. Suddenly a call - shrill and distinct - startled them.
"That's Paul!" shrieked Hazel, turning instantly and dashing off in the direction from which the voice had come. Cora, Bess, Maud and Cecilia followed her. Over the wet fields, through briars and underbrush the girls ran, while the call was repeated; this time there being no possibility of mistake - it was Paul shouting.
Breathless, the girls hurried on. With a sister's instinct Hazel never stumbled, but seemed to get over every obstacle like some wood sprite called to duty.
"Oh, I'm all right, girls! Take your time!" came the voice in the woods.
"All right!" repeated Hazel in uncertain tones.
"Oh, look!" shrieked Cecilia. "Didn't I tell you it was a joke? Look!"
What a sight! There, sitting on something like a stool, with a big cotton umbrella opened over his head, his eyes blinded with something dark, and his hands and feet made secure, was Paul Hastings, the chauffeur of the auto stage.
"Whatever does this means?" asked Cora, hurrying to Hazel, who was now madly snatching the black silk handkerchief from her brother's eyes.
"A prisoner of war," replied Paul rather unsteadily. "Glad you came, girls - there, sis, in my back pocket, you will find a knife. Just cut those carpet rags off my feet and hands."
Cecilia found the pocket knife, and, more quickly than any boy might have done it, she severed the bonds, and Paul stretched out - free.
"Well," he exclaimed, "this is about the limit!"
"Did the boys do it?" asked Cora.
"Boys! Not a bit of it," replied Paul. "It was a regular hold-up. And the mail! I must get that, if they have left it on the road. Did you see the car? Is it all right?"
"It appeared to be," said Cora. "It was the car that brought us to a standstill. It's in the middle of the road."
Paul shook himself as if expecting to find some damage to limb or muscle. Then he turned toward the open path.
"Tell us about it," demanded Cecilia. "Wasn't it a joke?"
"Joke!" he reiterated. "Well, I should say not! Would you call it a joke to have two masked men jump in front of a running car, and flash something shiny? Then to have them climb in, cover my eyes and tell me I would be all right, and not to worry!"
"Oh," sighed Hazel, "I felt something would happen to you, Paul, dear. You must give up this position."
"Well, we will see about that," he replied. "Perhaps I won't have anything to say about it - if the mailpouch is gone."
"Then they brought you out here?" asked Cecilia, determined to hear all the story.
"Carried me like a baby," replied Paul, "and in sheer humane consideration they put me near the road, so that my call might be heard."
"And the umbrella?" asked Cora.
"Oh, they went to a barn for that. It was raining, and my polite friends did not want me to take cold."
His tone was bitterly cutting; taking cold would evidently have been of small account to him.
"And they sat you upon that log?" put in Maud.
"Like any ordinary bump," he rejoined. "I never knew the misery of a bump on a log before."
"And, you are not hurt?" Hazel pressed close to his side and looked up lovingly at the tall boy.
"Not in the least - that is, physically. But I am seriously hurt mentally."
Cora could not but recognize how handsome Paul was. The excitement seemed to fire his whole being, and throw some subtle human phosphorus - a light from his burning brain certainly brightened in his eyes and even in his cheeks.
"Come along, girls," he said hurriedly. "Never mind the paraphernalia. Some lonely goat might like the rags. Let's get out on the road."
His anxiety was of course for the mail. That leather bag meant more to him than the mere transference of Uncle Sam's freight - it meant his honor - his position.
Over the rough fields the girls followed him. Hazel clung to his hand like a little sister indeed, while the others were content to keep as close as the uncertain footing would allow.
Presently they reached the road, then the stage coach. The other girls, who had not run to Paul's rescue, were standing around breathless.
Paul jumped into the car - thrust his hand into the box under the floor, where he always put the government pouch.
He brought up the mailbag.
A CHANCE MEETING
Paul lost no time in reaching Cartown with the belated mail, and so was obliged to leave the girls an the road with scant ceremony, hardly pausing to discuss why he had been bound when no apparent robbery had been perpetrated.
Hazel appeared so agitated that Cora insisted upon her returning to the Kimball home to dinner, and also had succeeded in getting a promise from Paul that he would come there as early in the evening as it would be possible for him to do so.
Then, when the mail car was lost sight of, and the motor girls started again on their homeward way, Clip insisted upon leading.
"I know the variety of bandit," she declared, "and I want to meet him personally. He is sure to fall dead in love with me on the spot. And, oh, girls! Think of it! Me and the bandit!"
Even Hazel laughed. The suggestion called up a picture of the disgraceful Clip in robber uniform, with the proverbial red handkerchief on her head, and all the rest of the disreputable accessories. Clip would "look the part."
But the Thayer machine was not noted for its beauty or service - it had the reputation of bolting always at the "psychological moment," and when Clip dashed forward to meet her fate, the fate of the Turtle (as her car was called) intercepted her.
With a jerk the Turtle tossed up its head, bounced Clip off her seat, and then stopped.
"Oh!" exclaimed the girl. "Isn't this the utmost! And I about to meet my bandit! Now I suppose I will have to leave Turtle here to afford the foe a means of escape. I say, girls, isn't that the utmost?"
She jumped out of the car and, with a superficial glance at the fractious machine, waited for Cora's car.
"Come on, Ray," she said to her companion. "No use sitting there. That car will never, move unless it is dragged. I know her. No use monkeying with tools. When she stops, she stops, and we may as well make up our minds to it."
"But," argued Ray, "you have not even attempted to find out what is the matter. Perhaps we could fix it up - "
"No use attempting. I would find the whole thing the matter. Just feel," she suggested, putting her ungloved hand on the radiator. "You could make beef stew on any of her lids. Oh, I know this kind of hot box! I've boiled the water, and the cylinders are stuck."
By this time the other girls had come along. Cora insisted upon looking over the disabled machine, and, while she did so, Clip deliberately made herself comfortable in the Whirlwind.
"Get in with Daisy," she called to Ray. "This will do me."
"Can't we tow it?" asked Cora. "Why should you leave your machine out here? And it is almost dark!"
"That's the reason," replied Clip. "It is almost dark, and I prefer to leave the machine here as a little token of my love to the bandit. Suppose I want to be 'run in' for traveling without a glimmer'?"
Cora saw that argument was useless. Reluctantly she turned from the Turtle. Ray climbed in with Daisy and Maud. Bess and Belle were ready to start "from the seat," without cranking up. Cora gave the Whirlwind a few turns.
"I hope we get home without any further trouble," came from the folds of Ray's blue veil. "I think we have had enough for one day."
"Enough!" echoed Clip. "Why, I could stand ten times that much! I love trouble - in the abstract."
"Suppose you call this the abstract," almost sneered Daisy, who evidently did not relish being crowded.
"Certainly I do," declared Clip. "Just gaze on the abstracted Turtle!"
"Who's that?" whispered Hazel nervously. A step could be heard in the roadway.
"My bandit!" breathed Clip. "Oh, my darling, desperate bandit!"
"Hush!" cautioned Cora, for she felt the possibility of Paul's captors being about still. Then two figures appeared from the sharp turn in the road. Cora wanted to start, but hesitated. The figures came closer. They were those of two well-dressed men; that was easily discernable.
Clip put her hand over her heart.
"Oh-h=h!" she groaned audibly. "Isn't he handsome!"
Hazel clutched at her sleeve. "Do stop!" she begged. "They may be - "
"They are!" answered Clip, and, as the, men halted beside the Turtle, she deliberately jumped out and approached them.
The other girls were spellbound. Cora, too, left her place - she knew Cecilia's recklessness and felt it her duty to stand by her.
The two strange men looked first at the girls and then at the car.
"Had an accident?" asked the taller of the two politely.
"Oh, no, it's chronic," answered Clip flippantly, much to Cora's dismay.
The men were evidently gentlemen. They were well dressed, and had the mannerisms of culture.
"Perhaps I can help you," suggested one, taking from his pocket a wrench. "I always carry tools - meet so many 'chronics,' " and he laughed lightly.
"Come on," called Hazel from the Whirlwind. "You know, Paul will be waiting, Cora."
At this the men both started. He with the wrench ceased his attempt to open the motor hood. The other looked toward Hazel.
"Oh, I see," he said with affected ease. "Your friend promised to meet you, and you are late."
"My brother," said Hazel curtly.
"Paul Hastings," said Cora quickly, before she knew why.
"Oh!" almost whistled the taller man. "I see; of the Whitehall Company?"
"Do you know him?" demanded Cora rather sharply.
"Slight-ly," drawled the stout man, he with the wrench.
"Well, we had best not detain you, young ladies," said the other, "as you have so important an engagement," and with that they both turned off.
"What do you think of that?" exclaimed Cora.
"The utmost!" replied Clip, in her favorite way of expressing "the limit."
"They knew Paul!" gasped Hazel.
"Seemed to," answered Cora evasively. She had her opinions and doubts as to who these gentlemen might be.
"Just my luck," murmured Clip. "I rather liked the tall fellow, but I noticed that the other carried a gold filigree fountain pen, had a perfectly dear watch charm, and he talked like a lawyer."
"Oh, my!" exclaimed Cora. "You did size him up. I only noticed that he was a joint short on his right-hand thumb."
"That, my dear, is termed a professional thumb-mark. We will know him if we meet him in the dark," said Clip.
Cora laughed. She felt, however, more serious than she cared to have the others know. "Well, let's be off this time," she said. "We will hardly make town before dark now."
JACK AND CLIP
"A deliberate trick of Cecilia's," murmured Daisy.
"She pretends to be so off-hand," answered Maud. "I have always noticed that that sort of girl is the greatest schemer."
"To leave her car out on the road, and then boldly ask Jack Kimball to go with her to fetch it. Who ever heard of such a thing? I wonder Cora tolerates her."
"Cora is what some people call 'easy,' " said Daisy with uncertain meaning. "She takes her chances in choosing friends."
"Did they fetch the car back?"
"I saw it at the garage this morning. I do hope it cannot be fixed. I mean," Maud hurried to say, "I hope she will not hamper us with it on our tour. It is only fit for the junkman."
Daisy and Maud were walking toward the post office. It was the morning after the adventure on the road, and the two girls had heard from Ray Stuart something of the news they were now discussing. The hold-up of Paul Hastings was to them not so important as the fact that Cecilia Thayer had gone over to Kimball's and actually asked Jack Kimball to take her out Woodbine way to tow home the balky Turtle.
But, precisely as her friend had said, Clip was a schemer. In the first place, she had no idea of detaining her companions on the lonely road to "monkey with the machine," so soon after Paul's hold-up. Next, she had no idea of leaving the car there at the mercy of fate. Instead, she deliberately went over to Kimball's after dinner, asked Jack to take her out Woodbine way, and incidentally suggested that he take along a gun. Jack had two good friends, each opposite the other in type. Bess Robinson was very much admired by him; and Cecilia Thayer, she who always played the tomboy to the extent of affording a good time for others when she could actually disguise a serious reason in the joke, she who affected the "strained" nurse costume for fun, when it was a real necessity - Jack Kimball liked Cecilia Thayer. Her rather limited means often forced her to make sport of circumstances, but, in every case, Cecilia "won out." She was, the boys said, "no knocker."
So it happened as Daisy related. Clip did ask Jack to go with her to fetch home the car. It also happened that they encountered Sid Wilcox on the way. He seemed to be returning alone in his auto from Cartown. Sid told Ida, Ida told Ray, Ray told Daisy and Daisy told Maud.
Daisy and Maud were inseparable chums. They agreed on everything - from admiration for Jack Kimball and Walter Pennington, to dislike for Cecilia Thayer, and something akin to jealousy for the Robinson girls. Cora was beyond criticism - they simply "regarded her."
"And," spoke Daisy, as they turned into the green, "I do believe that the boys played that trick on Paul. I thought when they hurried so to get away that they were up to something."
"Queer joke," commented Maud.
"Didn't you think those strange men acted suspiciously?" asked Daisy.
"How could they do otherwise when Cecilia acted as she did? I never saw a girl so forward."
"I suppose she will have some boys tagging after us on our tour, if her car is fixable," went on Daisy in sarcastic tones. "Likely she will find some excuse for stopping at hotels, and such places. Mother insisted I should not go to any public eating place unless we have some older person along. But Cecilia - she is old or young, just as it suits her."
"There's Bess and Belle!" exclaimed Maud, as the Robinson twins' runabout swerved into the avenue.
"And there are Jack - and Cecilia!" Daisy fairly gasped the words.
At that instant the two last named persons, in Jack's little car, came up to the turn. Cecilia looked almost pretty - even her critics admitted that, secretly. Of course, Jack was always handsome.
"I wonder how Bess feels," remarked Daisy with scornfully curled lip.
"She thinks a lot of Jack," replied Maud, as both bowed to the occupants of the runabout.
"Where do you suppose they are going?" went on Daisy.
"Oh, probably to see about having the old car fixed up. Of course, when she got Jack to fetch it she will manage to have him attend to the rest."
Bess and Belle were now abreast of the girls on the sidewalk. The twins bowed pleasantly, while the others nodded in return.
"I wish mother had not gone to town this morning," said Daisy. "I would just like to see where they are all going."
"Your mother took the car?"
"Yes; and she won't be home until evening. Well, I declare if there isn't Cora and - "
"Walter Pennington," finished Maud. "She is almost as changeable as her brother."
"Isn't it too mean that we have to walk," complained Daisy. "I have a mind to go over to the garage and ask for a car. Father often gets one."
"Oh, yes. Doctors are always having breakdowns. Do you suppose you could get one?"
"Well, I am going to try, at any rate," and Daisy Bennet quickened her pace, while Maud Morris hurried along with her companion. It was but a few minutes' walk to the garage, and when the girls reached the entrance they were surprised to find the three automobiles, Jack's, Cora's and the twins' pulled up outside.
"Oh, I can't go in now," demurred Daisy. "We will have to wait until they go. Funny they should be taking a morning run, without asking us along."
Paul Hastings was talking to the Robinson girls. It was evident that he was much excited. Cora was on the sidewalk, and Cecilia was beside her. Jack stood off to one side with Walter.
"Some important consultation," whispered Daisy. "I'll wager it's about the hold-up."
"Of course, father knows you had nothing to do with it," Bess was saying to Paul, "but he is positive the papers were in that mail. Corn, thought it best we should let you know right away."
"Forewarned is forearmed," said Paul. Then Daisy and Maud came up to the group.
"My!" exclaimed Daisy. "Quite a gathering."
"Yes," answered Clip. "We are glad you came. Now our meeting is complete. We want evidence. Tell us all you know about the strange men. You had a good chance to observe. You were not in the little quadrille on the road."
"Why," stammered Daisy, "I thought them very nice-looking men. They were well dressed, and - "
"That's it," interrupted Jack. "They were nice men, well dressed. What else do you expect young ladies to observe? Clip, your suspicions are not borne out by facts. Not a girl in the party but yourself saw - what was it? The corner of the missing blue envelope in the upper right-hand pocket - "
"Jack Kimball! You know perfectly well I never said such a thing. I did see something blue, but it might have been - "
"A captured shadow from Daisy's eyes," said Walter dryly.
"What happened?" breathed Maud. Then Walter realized what a girl's eyes may do in the matter of "imploring." He deliberately stepped over to Maud's side.
"Oh, some valuable papers were taken from the mailbag," volunteered Clip. "And we thought the strange men might have found them."
"You cheerful fibber," whispered Jack. "Come on, if you expect to get to Cartown to-day."
"How can we, now?" asked Clip in an undertone.
"Just jump in and go," replied Jack. "Why should we explain?"
Jack cranked up his car, and in her usual deliberate way, Cecilia Thayer stepped into the runabout, pulled on her gloves, smoothed out the robe, and then said: "Good morning!"
Jack and Clip left the others standing in surprise and, perhaps, disappointment. Only Cora guessed where they were actually going.
THE MYSTERIOUS RIDE
The fact that Cecilia Thayer could be old or young, as had been remarked by one of her companions, was not a mere saying. The Thayers were strangers in Chelton, and Cecilia was now only home from school on a vacation. It was generally understood that the girl was not exactly a daughter of the small household, but perhaps a niece, or some relative, who made her home with the people. She never invited her friends to her home, but this was not considered strange, as her means plainly were not equal to the circumstances of those with whom she associated.
Not that Cecilia sought this class, because she was constantly sought by them - she was a brilliant, happy young girl, and, as such, was a most desirable adjunct to the Chelton younger set.
It was, of course, Cora Kimball who "took her up," and that fact was sufficient to vouch for all
The girl and Jack were well on the road to Woodbine the morning of the little meeting by the garage, when, with a very different expression of countenance to that shown to the party by the roadside, Cecilia grasped at the arm of the young man beside her.
"It's awfully good of you, Jack," she said, "and I suppose I am taking desperate chances."
"Good! The idea! It's a privilege," he answered warmly.
"You suspect, of course."
"I have suspected," he said with a light laugh.
"And if the girls find out?"
"What of it? Is it a disgrace to - "
"Hush! I haven't qualified yet, and when I do I'm going to spring it on them." She tossed her head back defiantly. "Won't some of them howl!"
Jack laughed outright. "You're a brick, Clip," he exclaimed. "You can count on Cora, too. Does she know?"
"I haven't told her, but I imagine she has guessed. You are a great family at guessing."
"Which way?" he inquired, nodding toward a fork in the road.
"To the left. Isn't it too mean that our old lumber wagon gave way? I never had more need of it. It's just splendid of you to help me out this way."
"And good of you to let me," he replied with a keen glance at the girl's bright face.
"Of course I had no idea of going on the girls' trip. I only went in for the arrangements for the fun of the thing. I seem to need an awful lot of fun," she finished with a sigh that ended like a groan.
"Oh, we all do, more or less," spoke Jack. "Only some of us are more upright than others in the way we acknowledge it."
They were turning up to the Salvey cottage. Cecilia pointed it out.
"You must expect to sign the promise book," she said. "That is a condition of admittance."
"So Cora told me. Well, I'll sign. Can't tell which name may win the prize."
"Of course I'll see Wren first. But before we go she will insist upon seeing you. And - don't mind her extravagances about me. You know, she sees so few people that she thinks I am just wonderful."
"I agree with her. But you can count upon my discretion, if that is what you want, Clip."
"You're 'immense,' Jack!" exclaimed the girl, her smile apologizing for the vulgarity of the expression. "If I had a brother like you - "
"Hush! Your brother! Why, Clip "
"Here we are," she interrupted; and she prepared to get out as Jack stopped the car. "Suppose you stay outside until I call you?"
"Oh, if I must. But be sure to call. I've had Cora play that trick, and forget the cue."
"Oh, she'll have to see you," and with that Cecilia jumped out of the car, and presently touched the brass knocker of the little cottage.
Jack was left to his own thoughts. Wasn't she a girl, though? So like Cora in her impulses. Well, a girl has to be impulsive to get ahead - she is so ridiculously hampered by conventionalities.
It seemed a long time before Clip reappeared at the door, and beckoned him to come in. Then the room he entered smelled strongly of antiseptics, and the crippled child sat in a chair made sweet and fresh with snowy pillows. Wren had her promise book in her hands. Briefly Cecilia introduced Jack, while the child eyed him keenly, as do those deprived of the usual means of making sure of their friends.
"You know about my promise," she said shyly. "Grandpa's will is lost in an old table, and will you promise to help find it?"
"Indeed I will," said Jack warmly, taking the pen offered. "I have a weakness for hunting old furniture, and I hope it will be my good fortune to find the table."
"How much you are like your sister," said Wren, referring to Cora, "but not a bit like your cousin."
This caused both Jack and Cecilia to laugh - she Jack's cousin!
Mrs. Salvey patted the child's head. "She is so much better lately," she said, "since she has been friends with Miss Thayer."
"Her friendship is wonderful," said Jack, handing back the book. "It does me all sorts of good."
Cecilia was pulling on her gloves. She picked up the small black satchel (her hand bag, she called it), and started for the door.
"That hand bag smells like - "
"Fresh eggs," she interrupted Jack. "Understand, young man, I had to come out here to get one dozen of strictly fresh eggs."
For a moment she looked intently at Jack, as if determined to put him on his honor without further explanation. He took her hand and assisted her into the car. As he did so she felt the assurance that Jack Kimball was her friend.
Then they started back to Chelton.
"Isn't it too mean? I never thought that Cecilia would act so. I think Jack knows why."
Bess Robinson was talking to Cora. Her voice betrayed something other than disappointment. Bess now called Cecilia by her full name - the affectionate "Clip" had been laid aside. Besides this she hesitated when Jack's name was needed in her conversation. The fact was perfectly evident. Jack's attention to Cecilia, their runaway ride, and the consequent talk, had rather hurt Bess. Jack had always been a very good friend to her.
"But Clip simply can't come," said Cora. "Her machine is out of order, and, besides this, she is called away to look after some sick relative."
"Cora Kimball!" exclaimed Bess. "You're a perfect baby. Sick relative! Why, every one sickens a relative when they want to go away in a hurry. It might be interesting to know who else has a made-up sick relative who demands, say, Jack's immediate attention."
"Why, Bess! I'm surprised that you should speak so bitterly. You know perfectly well that Jack's going to the races. You heard them make all the arrangements - Jack, Ed and Walter. Besides - " Cora stopped. She tossed back her pretty head as if too disgusted to speak. She was packing the last of her touring things into the hampers of the Whirlwind. She would have everything ready for the early start next morning. Bess Robinson had run over for final instructions, when Cora announced that Cecilia Thayer could not go with them on the motor girls' tour. This information drove all other details from the mind of Bess. And now Cora was locking her boxes.
"Oh, I suppose we will get along very well without her," said Bess finally. "In fact, it may be better that she does not come, for she is bound to be doing things that are risky."
"Well, we will miss her, I'm sure," said Cora, "for she is such good company. But we will have to manage."
"Has Belle all your tools packed? Don't forget candles; they are so handy when anything happens after dark. I always fetch them. They poke under little places so nicely."
"Oh, I fancy Belle has managed to take along the candelabra. At least, I think I can count on the glass candlesticks. Poor Belle! I wonder will she ever leave off that sort of thing. She cares more or an 'effect' than for a good square meal," answered Bess.
"Alt kinds make a world," replied Cora. "Suppose she were as sensible as you or I? Why, as well take away the flowers, and plant kindling wood.
Bess laughed. Cora turned up the path with her. "I met Ray," said Bess, "buying a new veil, of course. I would hate to be as pretty as Ray, and have so much trouble to keep up the reputation. That's the worst of pretty girls. They really have to keep pretty."
"And Daisy? Was she buying a new novel to read en route? They might both do better to 'chip in' and buy a new kit of tools," said Cora.
At precisely eight forty-five o'clock the next morning the Whirlwind drew up in front of the post-office. The start was to be made from that point, and Cora was first to arrive. With her were Hazel Hastings, and Gertrude Adams, a school friend of Cora's.
Two minutes later the Flyaway puffed into sight with the Robinson twins smiling serenely from her two-part seat.
Scarcely had the occupants of the two car exchanged greetings than Daisy Bennet and Maud Morris drove up in the Bennet runabout, called the Breeze. On account of the change of plan, Ray Stuart was to ride with Cora, instead of with Clip, as was at first proposed. Ray met the girls at the post-office. As predicted, she did look like a brand new bisque statue. She wore a soft silk coat, of light green pongee, the same shade hood, over which "rested," one might say, a long white chiffon veil. It reposed on the hood, where two secret pins held it, but otherwise the veil was mingled with Ray's expression and the surrounding atmosphere. The girls sighed as they beheld her. She had been waiting for some minutes in the post-office, and needless to say there were others waiting, too - not altogether engrossed in reading the latest mail.
Cora stepped out of the Whirlwind and opened the tonneau door for Ray. Hazel and she were to ride within the car, while Gertrude shared the seat with Cora. Cora wore her regular motor togs. The close-fitting pongee coat showed off well her perfect figure, and with the French bonnet, that nestled so snugly to her black tresses there was no semblance to the flaring, loose effect so common to motorists. She looked more like a Paris model than a girl equipped for a tour. But Cora had that way - she was always "classy," as the boys expressed it, or in perfect style, as the girls would admit.
Hazel usually affected strong shades - she was dark and could wear reds and browns to good advantage. It so happened that the motor girls afforded a peculiar variety, no two wearing similar outfits. Timid little Maud Morris was in white, and Daisy was in linen. The Robinson girls wore their regular uniform - Bess in Havana-brown and Belle in true-blue. So it will be seen that such an array of beauty and clothes could not help but attract attention, to say nothing of the several automobiles that made up the procession in front of the post-office.
At the last moment Belle had to run into a store to make some trifling purchases, while Daisy sent two extra postcards, and Ray needed something from the drug store.
Finally all was ready. It was just nine o'clock.
"Ready!" called Cora.
A blast on a bugle startled them. Then -
What was it?
It looked like a hay wagon, but it came along at the speed of a fine auto.
"The boys!" called the girls in one breath.
Sure enough, there were Jack, Walter, Ed and some others of their chums, piled up on a veritable hay rack, and they wore all sorts of farmer clothes. The hay rack evidently set upon the body of are automobile.
And Jack on the "monkey seat," blowing that bugle!
"Start!" called Cora.
"They're off!" shouted the chorus from the hay wagon, and then Chelton folks were treated to a sight the like of which they had never before witnessed.
It was the first official tour of the original motor girls.
THOSE DREADFUL BOYS
"No BOYS, eh?" shouted Ed from his "perch" in the hay.
"Aren't they dreadful?" exclaimed Daisy with doubtful sincerity.
"Hope mother doesn't hear of it," replied Maud. "She would be sure to worry."
Cora laughed, and Bess fairly panted. Belle tossed something into the hay wagon as it passed - it made a practice of passing each machine in turn, and then doing it all over again.
Every one in Chelton and the near-by places rushed out as the procession went along. It was like a circus - many folks really did believe that a "railroad show" had come to town unannounced.
The girls had planned to have dinner at a pretty little tea-house on the outskirts of Hollyville. But the boys had no intention of turning back, it seemed, and imagine those boys in the tea-house, kept by a couple of enterprising college girls!
"Hey there!" called Jack. "When do we eat? There's the noon whistles."
"Yon don't eat," replied Cora.
"Don't, eh? Well, look out for your commissary department," answered Jack. "We came prepared to fight."
"Oh," sighed Daisy, "do you suppose they will spoil all our boxes?"
"I'm sure I don't know," replied the noncommital Maud.
But Hazel said: "What do you suppose they are up to?"
"Trust them for fun," answered Cora. "I will simply trounce Jack if he attempts to overhaul our stores."
Hazel laughed merrily. "If only Paul were along," she ventured. "And, Cora, do you know that mailbag business is not by any means settled?" she asked.
"I know that, girlie," said Cora with polite seriousness, "but all troubles are tabooed on this ride, you know. Gertrude," to the girl who had been looking and listening, "I appoint you monitor of this car. The first girl to bring in troubles is to be fined."
"Very well," replied Gertrude, "I shall be glad to have something to do. I feel like a stranger with those boys."
"That's because you do not know them," ventured Ray. "They are perfectly splendid boys."
"Make a note of that," called Cora. "Gertrude, that is one mark in favor of Ray."
The procession was winding along a pretty country road. Trees closed in from side to side, and deep gutters outlined the driveway from the footpath.
The boys had actually ceased their antics for the time, and it occurred to more than one girl that this respite might have been more advantageous if it had been put into operation in the city streets - the decorum was wasted in the woods. But boys have a queer reasoning code - where girls are concerned.
"Don't you suppose they will turn back before we reach the Glen?" called Bess to Cora. Their machines were running quite close together.
"If they don't leave us we will drive past the teahouse, and come back later," said Cora.
"But what will the college girls think? They will be sure to have a nice lunch ready."
"When Tillie sees Ed Foster she will cease to think. She knows Ed," and Cora laughed significantly.
"Oh, look!" shouted Hazel. "A flock of sheep. And directly in the track. The boys - "
At that moment every one saw the sheep. The hay wagon made a spurt and dashed straight through the frightened herd, scattering them right and left, like feathers blown by the wind.
Daisy and Maud came next. They had time to jam down the brakes, but it would have been wiser to have dashed through the flock without loss of time, for an angry ram turned as the car slacked speed, and when Daisy and Maud saw him jump toward them, they also jumped out into the gutter, deserting their car.
A big, woolly ram leaped up from the midst of the flock, and actually landed in the runaway automobile. The improvised hay wagon was quickly steered to one side, just as Daisy's car, with the horned beast at the wheel, plunged past.
The machine, in charge of the queer mechanician, plunged straight ahead, and after a moment's hesitation on the part of their drivers, the other cars were quickly sent after it.
The boys shouted lustily. As if the frightened and angry ram cared for the harmony of a college quartet. Wasn't it ridiculous to see the ram positively driving the car?
By some strange instinct the animal had raised its fore legs to the rim of the steering wheel, standing upright on his hind ones, which were jamming the brake and clutch pedals.
"Oh l" screamed the girls in a chorus. "There comes a runabout! He'll collide with it!"
A runabout, coming in the opposite direction, and headed straight for the ram, could be seen down the road. The driver was a girl, that was evident, but she was so muffled in hood, veil and cloak that her features were not discernible.
"Stop it!" screamed Gertrude. "She'll be killed."
The ram evidently saw the other car coming, and tried to leap out, but its fore feet had gone through the spaces between the spokes of the steering wheel. The girl in the runabout was sending her car from side to side, in a frantic endeavor to avoid a collision. It seemed to be a choice with her, whether she should smash into the ram's car, or tilt into the roadside ditch.
Suddenly the girl stood up. The eyes of the motor girls and their boy companions were on her. She gave a scream, and then - something happened. From the rear cars came a scream. Then - the Breeze was stopped - the ram was gone, and the runabout was ditched.
Where and who was the unfortunate driver?
THE GIRL IN THE DITCH
When all the machines had been stopped there was a wild rush to the rescue - Bess and Belle with Gertrude hurrying back to where Daisy and Maud had been left, while Cora, Ray and Hazel ran forward to the side of the strange runabout. The boys divided themselves - some going in each direction.
Presently Cora shouted
"Jack! Jack! Hurry! It's Clip! And she is unconscious!"
Jack was not far away, and at his sister's call he hurried to her. Ray had taken Cecilia's head in her lap, while Cora was trying to lift the unconscious girl from her bent-up posture in the narrow, roadside, grass-grown ditch.
"Oh, the poor dear!" sighed Cora. "To think that our sport should have - "
Cecilia was opening her eyes.
"Clip! Clip, dear!" whispered Cora. "Try to - wake up!"
Cecilia did try - she put her hand to her dazed eyes.
"Here! Let me lift her," commanded Jack, slipping down on the other side into the deep grass and without any apparent effort lifting Cecilia up. With one long step he reached the road. Then for a moment he seemed uncertain - should he lay the girl down, or carry her to a machine?
"Oh, I can stand," she said faintly. "I am much better now. What - happened?"
"You happened," answered Jack, so dismissing the question. "Just keep still, and we will have you around directly. This is where you beat the motor girls." He was now helping her to her feet. "You may ride back with the motor boys."
"Are you better?" asked Ray anxiously, stroking Cecilia's white hand, which had been divested of its glove. "Wasn't it dreadful?"
"Very," sighed Cecilia. "And my poor little machine! Jack, how can I ever - "
"You can never," he insisted with a wink. "I never saw such a rambunctious ram. Didn't he ramify, though?"
"What in the world was it?" asked Cecilia. She was sitting on the grass and seemed almost prepared to laugh. "I thought I must be seeing things. Then I - "
"Felt things," said Jack. "That's the regular course of the disease. Here come the others. Hello, Daisy has the veil tied up, and Maud is limping."
"What happened to them?" asked Cecilia.
"Same thing that happened to you," replied Jack. "The ram. That was the most happening thing I have seen in some time."
Maud was limping, and had Ed's arm. Daisy kept her hand to her face, and she clung to Walter. Hazel flashed a meaning look to Cora. The girls might not be very badly injured, but they needed help - that sort of help.
"Well!" exclaimed Cora. "You look as if something did happen."
"Oh, I'm all scratched," fluttered Daisy. "That is, my face feels like a grater." She took her handkerchief from the abused face. A few harmless scratches were discernible.
"Not so bad," said Jack. "Just the correct lines, I believe, for - let me see - intellectuality."
"Oh, you needn't joke," snapped Daisy. "I suppose Cecelia - is - badly hurt!"
She said this with the evident intention of drawing attention to Jack's attitude toward Cecilia.
"Now, Daisy," said Jack good-naturedly, "if you want to dump in the ditch again, and will only give me the chance, I will be perfectly delighted to fish you out: I fancy I would get you first shot."
"Oh, you need not bother," interrupted Walter. "I can take care of Miss Bennet."
At this he spread his handkerchief most carefully on the grass, and, with mock concern, assisted Daisy to the low seat.
Ed followed suit, adding to the handkerchief cushion his cap - to make the grass softer for Maud.
"But however did you happen along, Cecilia?" asked Belle, who now added her dainty self to the line of girls on the roadside.
"Now, here!" called Jack. "No more happenings! I beg your pardon, Belle, but we have had such a surfeit of this happening business that we intend, in the language of the poets, to cut it out."
Cecilia gave Jack a grateful glance. Cora broke in promptly with a new thought - to divert attention.
"And you are the girls who wanted 'No Boys!'" exclaimed Walter. "I should just like to know what you would have done without us?"
"There! Didn't I tell you?" said Cora. "They are actually claiming the glory of the whole thing. I suppose, Walter, you hired the ram to do the proper thing in initiating the motor girls in the art of touring?"
"Wouldn't he make a hit, though, at some of our college affairs!" exclaimed Ed. "I wonder if we could buy the beast? Here comes the owner now."
The girls looked alarmed. Suppose the farmer should blame them for the disappearance of the ram!
"I'll do the talking," suggested Walter. "If you say anything, Jack, there might be a row."
"Humph!" said Jack. "I suppose you know just how to deal with ram owners."
The farmer was quite up to them now. He was not an ill-natured-looking man, and as he approached he touched his big straw hat.
"No one hurt?" he asked, much to the girls' relief.
"Oh, no, thank you," said Cora, before Walter could open his mouth. "I hope you have not lost the sheep."
"Lose him! Couldn't do that if you chucked him in the mill-pond and let the dam loose on him. Only yesterday the plagued thing went for my wife. Yes, sir, and he 'most knocked her down. When I seed your steam wagons comin' along I knowed there would be trouble. He's that pesky!"
The man looked at the disabled machine.
"Busted?" he asked.
"Some," replied Walter. "But I guess we can manage. Would you like to sell that ram?"
"Sell him? What for? To kill folks as try to feed him? I bought him from a fellow who always wore an overcoat, and, bless me, that ram got so used to it if I haven't had to put my ulster on the hottest days this summer to do down to the pasture where he was chewin'."
The boys laughed heartily at this. Walter seemed keener than ever now on making a bargain.
"Well, you see," he said, "we might use the fellow for stunts - tricks. I think we might train him - "
A scream from Belle startled them.
"Oh!" she yelled. "There he comes! What shall we do?"
Without waiting for instructions, however, Belle, with the other girls, jumped up and started for a little cottage not far from the roadside. The ram was coming over the fields straight for the autos.
"Now wait," cautioned the farmer, as the boys made ready to confront the animal. "Just keep back until he gets near that machine. Then maybe we can git him."
"He's game sport, all right," said Walter. "He evidently hasn't had enough."
The brush and low trees along the road made it possible for the young men to hide, while the excited animal dashed through the tall grass out into the road.
He went straight for the hay wagon. With a bound he was in the decorated auto, like a beast in a cage, with the rack and hay trimmings surrounding him.
"Now we've got him," said the farmer; "that is, if we're careful."
"How?" whispered Ed.
"Someone must lasso him. "The farmer held out the rope in his hand, making a loop ready to throw over the ram's head.
The girls had reached the cottage, but were calling to the boys all sorts of warning and cautions.
"When he gets at the hay," said the farmer, "I guess he'll eat. That run likely whet up his appetite."
"More fun than a deer hunt," said Jack, laughing. "I wonder what will turn up next on this motor girls' tour."
"Get busy," said Ed, creeping toward the hay wagon. "Now, Walter - Oh, Glory be! If he isn't at my four-dollar gloves!"
Quick, like the well=trained athlete that he was, Ed grabbed the rope from the farmer, sprang to the hay rack and made a cast.
It landed true on the animal's horns.
"I've got him!" exclaimed the boy. "Now, fellows, quick! Make his legs fast."
No need to say "quick," for the boys were up and busy making fast the beast before the surprised farmer had a chance to exclaim.
"So you like the real thing in gloves?" asked Ed while pulling at the rope. "Well, I fancy you will make something real - perhaps a robe - for the best record of this trip. Oh, I say, fellows, let's buy the brute, have him done up properly, and offer his coat to the girl who comes home with a record."
Shouts of glee followed this suggestion, and the girls, seeing that the animal was made safe, were now running back from the cottage to add their voices to the excitement.
Clip insisted upon helping to tie the ram - she declared he had done his share toward making it uncomfortable for her - while Daisy, in her timid way, wanted to do something to the "saucy thing" for upsetting her, and Jack suggested that she "box his horrid ears."
Cora glanced at her watch.
"If it's all the same to the gentlemen," she said, "we will continue on our way. We have lost a full hour already."
"Lost!" repeated Walter meaningly.
"She said 'lost,'" faltered Ed with similar intent.
"Not actually lost," corrected Cora, "but at least dropped out of our itinerary."
"We were due ten miles ahead now," sighed Maud in her wistful way.
"Too bad, too bad," whimpered Jack, who was still pulling at the ram's rope. "But it was not our fault, girls. Now, Daisy, do you think you can run your machine without taking in any more circuses? We have examined your car, and it is intact - not so much as a footprint did the naughty beast leave."
Clip was looking over her runabout. It was not damaged, it seemed, and for this she was most grateful. Clip was not out for pleasure - you have guessed that - and it would have been highly inconvenient for that young lady to go back to town in the hay.
Jack left off at the ram's horn, and came to crank up for her.
"All right, Clip?" he asked with evident concern. "I don't want you to go over that lonely road if you do not feel just like it. I can go with you."
"You!" she exclaimed. "Why, Jack Kimball, what are you thinking about?" and she laughed airily. "If you want to finish the impression we started the other day, just take another ride with me. No, Jack, my dear boy, I am very much all right, and very much obliged. But I must hurry off. Whatever will my little brown Wren think of me?" She stepped into the car. "Good-by, girls," she called. "I am so sorry I delayed you, but so glad we met. Take care of the ram, boys, and am I eligible for the trophy? I am a motor girl, you know."
"Of course you are," said Jack, before the others could speak. "All motor girls are eligible."
"Ida Giles, too?" asked Bess. The moment she had spoken she could have bitten her tongue. Why could she never hide her feelings about Jack and Clip?
"And, girls," called Cecilia, who was starting now, "don't forget about your promise. Wren is counting on results."
"What promise?" asked Ed.
"Oh, don't you know?" replied Cora. "Well, I am afraid Jack will have to tell you. We really have not another moment. Are you ready, girls?"
"Why, our strange promise," put in Maud, who was glad to have a "real remark" to make to Ed. "We promised a little girl we would find an old table for her and we have just ransacked the farmer's house, hoping to find it.
Cora burst out laughing. Such an explanation!
"Why, I'll promise a 'little girl' that," said Ed, taking up Cora's laugh. "Any qualifications? Might it be a time-table?"
Maud pouted. She stepped into Cora's car, evidently disgusted with boys in general.
Gertrude had something to say to Walter, and was obliged to stand up on the hay rack to do so, as the young man would not let go the rope that held the ram.
There was a sudden hum of an auto, and Clip was gone.
"Thought she had a sick relative," murmured Bess.
"So she has," said Jack, who overheard the remark. "But she came near neglecting her this morning. That was a close call."
"Oh, yes," said Bess with a curled lip. "It seems to me everything Cecilia does is close."
"Bess Robinson!" exclaimed Jack. "Do you want me to hug you? You have been treating me shamefully for weeks past. Now, own up. What have I done?"
Jack knew how to restore Bess to good humor, and his success this time was marked.
"You ridiculous boy!" exclaimed Bess. "You know perfectly well what I mean."
And Jack did.
AT THE GROTTO
We have dropped something," said Cora as the party started off again.
"Yes," replied Gertrude, "I agree with Ray that the boys are jolly. We miss them already."
"Hush!" cautioned Cora. "We are to have nothing to do with boys on this trip."
She laughed at her own assertion.
"Nothing more to do with them?" asked Belle. Bess kept her machine within talking distance.
"Till the next time," replied Cora, throwing in the second speed gear. "But we will certainly have to hurry now. What on earth do you suppose Walter will do with that ram?"
"What on earth do you think the ram will do with Walter?" replied Ray.
"He paid the farmer three dollars for him, and the man declared he could have him for nothing," said Belle. "Now, that three dollars - "
"Would have bought orchids," interrupted Cora, teasing Belle for her sentimentality.
"Cora," spoke Hazel suddenly, "did you hear what Ed said to Jack about Paul's hold-up?"
"The forbidden topic," interrupted Gertrude. "Hazel, you don't want to lose the sheepskin for insubordination, do you?"
"But, Gertrude, please," begged Hazel quite seriously, "I really must speak to Cora. I will promise not to be blue, but you know I am very anxious about Paul."
"Then speak on, very briefly," replied Gertrude. "I will allow you exactly five minutes."
"Thanks," said Hazel. "Cora," she began again, "Ed told Jack that the papers lost from the mail belonged to Mr. Robinson, and have to do with a very valuable patent. Do you suppose the post-office will do anything to Paul?"
"Oh, you precious baby!" exclaimed Cora. "Don't you know that Paul has been entirely cleared? The mystery is simply who took the papers and otherwise left the mailbag intact?"
"Poor Paul!" sighed the sister.
"Poor Hazel!" added Cora. "A sister who is always worrying about a handsome brother is bound to lose him, eh, Gertrude?"
Gertrude blushed. She had only met Paul once, and at that time her remark was so positive that Cora had seized the opportunity of teasing the girl. That she never noticed boys was Gertrude's claim at college, and now Cora was delighted to have a chance of reversing the claim.
Daisy and Maud, who had been at some distance from the Whirlwind, now cut past Bess and Belle, making their way to the side of the big maroon car.
"Cora," called Daisy, "I forgot to tell you. I found this little satchel by the road where we stopped."