Laura Crane.

The Automobile Girls at Palm Beach: or, Proving Their Mettle Under Southern Skies





There is nothing like being prepared, said Ruth with a hysterical laugh, after ten minutes had passed, and the enemy had not shown himself. Im going to get a chair and be comfortable. Mollie followed suit, and the watchers sat valiantly alert, as the minutes dragged by.

Miss Thorne chattered voluably to and about her family, paying very little attention to her strangely-behaved guests, while Chloe, the old servant, huddled in one corner, her eyes rolling with fright at every sound she heard.

At last the welcome sound of mens voices was heard and Mr. Stuart, followed by the engineer and old Jim, entered at Mollies door.

What kind of desperado organization is this? he exclaimed, laughing in spite of himself at the ludicrous appearance this feminine vigilant committee made.

Its war to the knife, cried Ruth.

And the fork, too, I should say, laughed her father, also the teapot, and what on earth are you cherishing so fondly, Sallie?

Cayenne pepper, responded Miss Sallie, and I consider myself well armed, at that.

I should rather think so, agreed her brother. However you are all safe in laying down your arms, for we have searched diligently, and can find no trace of the intruder. He evidently heard the countess and made a quick get away. You must pardon us, Madam, for stirring up your quiet home in this manner, he said, bowing to Miss Thorne. I trust we shall meet with no further disagreeable adventures.

You have not disturbed either Lucy or me in the least, declared the demented old woman graciously. As for Papa and Mama they dearly love to have visitors. She smiled sweetly and at once began a one-sided conversation with her departed parents.

Do take us away from her, whispered Ruth to her father. She has been addressing the shades of her family ever since you left us, and its getting on our nerves.

With your kind permission, Miss Thorne, we shall retire, said Mr. Stuart, and the seven tired women gladly followed him through the shadowy hall and up the wide stairs, to their respective sleeping rooms.

CHAPTER XVII
THE MIDNIGHT INTRUDER

Once in their rooms the drooping spirits of the picnickers revived, somewhat. It was a fine night, the air warm and fragrant. The windows of the sleeping rooms were wide open and the moonlight streamed across the floor, filling the whole place with its soft radiance.

Oh look! cried Grace, going over to the open window. What a darling balcony! I believe the other rooms all open out on it too. Good-bye, she called to Mollie and the countess, as she stepped nimbly over the sill. Im going to make a call.

Grace had hardly disappeared, before the countess went quickly to the door, closed it, then came back to Mollie, her finger on her lip. Drawing Mollie over to one corner of the room, where they could not be observed from the outside, the countess whispered. Mademoiselle Mollie, I believe you love me and trust me, even more than do your friends, and because of this I am going to ask you to do me a very great favor.

Mollies blue eyes looked lovingly up into the dark eyes of the countess.

So fervent was her feeling of adoration for this fascinating stranger that she was prepared to grant any favor that lay within her power. I should dearly love to help you in any way I can, she said earnestly. You make me very, very happy.

The countess kissed her.

Dear child, she continued, the thing I am going to ask seems simple enough, but some day you will understand how much it means to me. Wait a moment, she added almost under her breath. There is some one whom I hold in such dread that, even in this desolate and far-away place, he or his confederate might be listening.

She looked about her cautiously, then went to the window and anxiously scanned the balcony. It was quite empty. Her eyes searched the long avenue leading to the grove that looked like a huge black spot in the moonlight. Then she returned to Mollie and said softly, I am not afraid of ghosts, and neither are you, Mollie, I am sure, because there are no such things; but this place fills me with foreboding. It is so lonesome, so utterly dismal. What was that? I thought I heard a noise below. Did you hear anything?

Perhaps it was Jim closing up for the night, replied Mollie, pressing close to the countess for comfort. But what was the favor? I will do anything for you.

This is it, answered the countess, her voice again dropping to a whisper. Will you, for a few days, carry a paper for me? It is a very dangerous paper, dangerous, that is, because some one else wishes it, but it is a very valuable one to me because I may need it, and if you will keep it safely hidden until I do need it, you will not only be doing me a service but Mademoiselle Warren also.

Mollie looked puzzled. The countesss words were shrouded in mystery.

Does it concern the Count de Sonde, too? she asked breathlessly.

Yes, replied the countess; it concerns him very intimately. Will you do this for me, little Mollie? I know now that the paper is not safe either in my house or on me. It would be quite safe with you, however. Even my enemy would never think of that, and, if anything should happen to me, you may produce the paper at once. Give it to Mr. Stuart. He will know what should be done.

The countess took from her dress a square, flat chamois bag which fastened with a clasp and evidently contained a document of some sort.

Fasten it into your dress with this pin, she said, and keep the pin as a memento of our friendship.

And the pin, as Mollie saw later, was no ordinary affair, but a broad gold band on which was a beautifully enameled coat of arms.

Is this another secret session? cried Ruths voice gayly from the window.

The two conspirators started nervously.

Come into our room, Ruth continued. Papa has sent up the luncheon hamper. There are still some sandwiches and fruit left; likewise a box of candy. We were too frightened to have appetites at supper, but I think a little food, now, will cheer us mightily.

This looks quite like a boarding-school spread, exclaimed Miss Sallie as they gathered around the feast. But it is really a good idea. I feel that this little midnight luncheon might help me keep up my courage until I get to sleep.

What a jolly little feast, cried the Countess Sophia. I am quite beginning to take heart again after that fearful ordeal below. I had a feeling all the time that the chairs were not really empty.

Goodness me! cried Grace, do change the subject, or we shall be afraid to go to bed at all.

And I move that we take to our couches at once, said Ruth, while we have the courage to do so. Madame de Villiers, are you not afraid to sleep alone?

Not in the least, my dear. I am not afraid of the most courageous ghost that ever walked. I believe I will retire at once. I am very tired.

Taking one of the candles which stood in a row on the mantel, making a cheerful illumination, the stately old woman bade them good night, and the tapping of her stick resounded through the empty hall.

Soon after Grace, Mollie and the countess stepped through the window, and down the balcony to their room.

Youd better close your shutters, called Grace over her shoulder. Were going to.

And lose all this glorious moonlight? asked Ruth. Never. This balcony is too high from the ground for any one to climb up, easily, and besides, old Jim is going to be on guard to-night. Aunt Sallie thinks we had better try to make ourselves comfortable without doing much undressing. Even if we dont sleep very well to-night, we can make up for it when we get back to the hotel. With these words Ruth blew out the candles and five minutes later, their shoes and outer clothing removed, she and Barbara and Miss Sallie were fast asleep.

Grace and Mollie, however, struggled vainly with the heavy wooden shutters, but try as they might they could not succeed in closing them tightly. After some subdued laughter and many exclamations they abandoned their task in disgust, and blowing out their candles prepared themselves for sleep.

At midnight Ruth awoke with a start. She had a distinct sensation that some one had been looking into her face. But the room was still flooded with moonlight, and she could see plainly that, except for her sleeping companions, no one was there. She turned over and closed her eyes again, but the sudden waking had driven sleep away.

Was that a noise?

Ruth held her breath and listened. There was not a sound except the regular breathing of Miss Sallie.

Ruth lay with every nerve strained to catch the lightest footfall. In a moment it came again, very faint but still distinct. Something some one moved somewhere.

She sat up in bed and touched Barbara lightly on the cheek.

Barbara opened her eyes slowly then sat up. Ruth pointed to the next room. The two girls listened intently. Again there was the sound, a soft, a very soft footfall on a creaking board.

Cautiously the two girls climbed from the bed and crept over to the door between the two rooms. On a small bed at the far side of the room lay the countess, sleeping soundly. Grace and Mollie also were fast asleep in the other bed. Suddenly Ruth gripped Babs arm. The eyes of both girls were riveted on the old fashioned dressing table in one corner of the room. Before it stood the same terrible old man that Bab had seen at the villa. He was examining minutely every thing on the dresser. Next he turned his attention to the girls walking suits which hung over the backs of the chairs. He searched the pockets of the coats, the linings, and even the hems of the skirts.

He is certainly looking for a paper, Barbara thought, as she watched him make his systematic search, and he certainly has something to do with the countesss affairs.

Barbaras mind reverted to the group she had seen on the hotel veranda, the night before. What was the explanation of it all? Was the countess really an impostor and why, when she evidently feared Monsieur Duval and ignored Mrs. De Lancey Smythe, did she hold interviews late at night with them? She had distinctly refused the Automobile Girls invitations to the hotel, yet she had not refused to meet others there. And what part could this ferocious looking old man possibly have in the drama?

All this passed rapidly through Babs mind as with her hand clasped tightly in Ruths the two girls watched the intruder with bated breath. To Bab there was something strangely familiar about him, his movements suggested some one she had seen before, yet she could find no place in her memory for him.

Failing to find what he desired, the old man again turned toward the countess a look of indescribable menace on his face. He took a step toward her then a sudden burst of weird music floated up from the gloomy drawing room. With a smothered exclamation the intruder whirled and making for the window swung himself over the ledge. Ruth clutched Barbara for support. She was trembling with fear.

Dont be frightened, dear, soothed Bab bravely. That isnt ghost music. Its only Miss Thorne playing the harp. Its an unearthly hour for music, but she couldnt have begun to play at a more opportune moment, either. I believe that frightful old man thought it was ghost music. Just listen to it. Its enough to give any one the creeps.

The demented old woman played on in a wailing minor key, and presently footsteps were heard coming down the hall. By this time Mollie, Grace and the countess were wide awake and seeing Bab and Ruth in their room demanded to know what had happened. A moment later Madame de Villiers and Miss Sallie, both fully dressed, entered the room.

No more sleep for me to-night, announced Miss Stuart firmly. I feel that the sooner morning comes and we get out of this house the better pleased I shall be.

At that instant a melancholy strain like the wail of a lost soul rose from down stairs. Then all was silent.

I begin to believe it is the departed spirit of her sister Lucy that executed that last passage, shuddered the countess. Come, my dears let us finish dressing. It will soon be morning and then surely some way will be provided for us to go back to Palm Beach.

Shall we tell her? whispered Ruth to Bab.

Wed better, nodded Bab. Then she will be constantly on her guard.

Listen, everyone, commanded Ruth. We are going to tell you something but you mustnt feel frightened. We think the countess should know it at once. You tell them about it, Bab.

Bab obediently began a recital of what had transpired after she and Ruth had been so suddenly wakened. The others listened in consternation to her story. The countess who turned very pale while Bab was speaking, looked appealingly at Madame de Villiers. The stern old woman was apparently much agitated. He shall not harm the Countess Sophia, she muttered, forgetful of those about her. I will protect her even from him.

Aunt Sallie, shall I call Father? asked Ruth a few moments later. The seven women were seated about the room in silent dejection.

No, Ruth, responded her aunt. We will not waken him. A man that can sleep through a concert such as we were favored with deserves to be left in peace. It is after four oclock now. I think well let him sleep until six, at least. Then after breakfast, perhaps, he will be able to devise some means by which we may return to the hotel.

It was a very tired and sleepy band of picnickers that gathered around the Thorne breakfast table that morning, and breakfast was not over when the honk of an automobile horn was heard and a large touring car rolled up the avenue.

Hurrah! shouted Ruth. Its Mr. Warren. Oh, but Im glad to see him.

It was indeed Mr. Warren, who, when the party did not return that night, had taken the fastest launch he could find and made for the picnic ground. He had discovered the note, as Mr. Stuart had hoped, had returned to the hotel where the history of Thorne house and its mistress was not unknown and had come for them himself after a few hours sleep.

I should be happy and honored if you would all come again, said Miss Thorne as she waved adieu to her guests from the front piazza, while Jim and Chloe bobbed and bowed and chuckled over the generous present they had each received from Mr. Stuart.

As the automobile rolled down the avenue they caught a last glimpse of the mistress of Thorne House still waving her handkerchief, and in every heart was a feeling of tender sympathy for the little old woman whose present was so irrevocably linked to the past.

CHAPTER XVIII
THE WATER F?TE


Roll along, roll along,
Oer the waters so blue,
Were afloat, were afloat
In our birch bark canoe,

sang Graces high sweet voice as their boat bobbed gayly up and down with the little rippling waves of the lake.

That is a pretty song, my dear child, exclaimed Miss Sallie Stuart, from a cushioned seat in the stern of the boat, but you should substitute naphtha launch for canoe. Nothing would induce me to ride in one.

The Count de Sonde is going to be at the f?te in a canoe, observed Maud Warren in the tone of one imparting a piece of valuable information. He asked me to go with him, but Papa was unreasonable, as usual.

In a canoe with that little foreigner! cried Miss Sallie in amazement. Does he know how to paddle?

The count is an expert boatman, replied Maud stiffly. She had mixed sensations of fear and dislike for Miss Sallie, although fear was the stronger sentiment of the two.

I imagine his swimming and his canoeing are about alike, said Ruth aside to Barbara; just paddling in shallow water.

The Automobile Girls were busily engaged in decorating their launch for the Venetian F?te, which was to take place that evening. The lake dotted with numbers of boats looked like an immense flower bed. Hundreds of craft of every land were anchored near the shore, each filled with gay parties of young people who were stringing up rows of Japanese lanterns, bunting and flags.

Theres not a boat on the lake that can compare with ours, cried Mollie proudly, as she tacked the end of a festoon of small banners to the awning-pole, while Barbara gave a finishing touch by crossing the silk flags of the Automobile Girls on the bow.

If only the lanterns dont catch fire this evening, said Miss Sallie.

What a pessimist you are, Auntie, dearest! exclaimed Ruth. We can easily pitch them in the water if they do, and still be very handsome with our banners and things.

Here comes the count, cried Maud, who had ignored the conversation of the others and was busily scanning the multitudes of boats in search of her admirer.

Her friends politely controlled a desire to laugh when they saw the count presently emerge from the boats along the shore in a small canoe that was decorated with one lantern hung from a bamboo stick in the bow, while the French flag waved triumphantly from the stern. The count, in white flannels, was working laboriously with the paddle. His little mustache twitched in an agony of exertion and occasionally he paused to wipe the perspiration from his brow.

The count is quite an athlete, isnt he, Maud? asked Mollie wickedly. I should think he might lead the parade to-night.

But Maud was not listening. Her whole attention was concentrated on the canoe, which was making straight for the launch.

Here I am, Count, she cried, waving her handkerchief to the young Frenchman, who, as soon as he espied the boat full of girls, had begun to paddle with a grand flourish, at the same time casting melting glances in the direction of Maud. But he had not calculated on the distance between the canoe and the launch, and a final, fancy stroke with the paddle, sent the frail little boat scurrying over the water.

It collided with the larger boat, and in an instant turned turtle, dragging the flag of the French ignominiously into the depths while the discomfited son of France, clung to the side of his boat, and wildly called for help.

At first the girls were speechless with laughter and the last of the De Sondes received neither sympathy nor aid. Even Maud joined in the merriment, while the enraged nobleman sputtered angrily in French and denounced America and everything in it as fit only for pigs.

Presently Barbara wiped the tears from her eyes and threw out a life preserver to the unfortunate man.

There, Count, she called, you cant sink as long as you hold on to that. Well see if we cant right your boat, and you can paddle back to shore.

Im sorry we cant offer you the hospitality of our boat, said Miss Sallie, but we are anchored, you see, and the engineer is ashore. Besides, I am afraid your wet clothing would spoil our decorations.

The count, however, was too enraged to remember any English. He shook his fist at the upturned canoe and poured forth a perfect torrent of maledictions against it.

Just then a passing launch paused and gave the needed assistance, taking the count on board and towing the canoe to shore. As the little boat was righted an envelope that had evidently fallen from the counts pocket, floated past them in the current.

You dropped something, called Barbara, but the launch had already started for shore and the count did not hear her. Using the crook of her parasol Ruth tried to fish it out. As she drew it to the side of the boat it sank out of sight but not before she had read the inscription on it, written in an angular foreign-looking handwriting: To Madame La Comtesse Sophia von Stolberg.

Barbara, too, saw it, and so did Mollie, whose face flushed crimson with the memory of what her beloved countess had said to her that night on the balcony of Thorne House. At that very moment, pinned inside of Mollies white silk blouse, was the dangerous paper which concerned the count very intimately.

Was it about that mysterious document that he was now writing to the countess?

For the first time Mollie felt the shadow of a doubt cross her mind. It was only a tiny speck of a doubt, but it left its impression, try as she would to shake it off.

Ruth and Barbara exchanged glances, but said nothing. They had seen enough to know that some sort of correspondence was being secretly carried on between the Countess von Stolberg and the Count de Sonde. If Maud were to marry the count she would deeply regret it, the Countess Sophia had said.

Strangely enough, this speech came back to each of the three girls at the same moment.

Ruth felt that perhaps they had rushed too quickly into an intimacy with the countess. For the first time Mollie was inclined to be a little suspicious. While Barbara who had even more evidence against the Countess Sophia tried vainly to fit together the pieces of this most mysterious puzzle.

Well, fair and beautiful ladies, are you quite ready for a sail on the Grand Canal? Have you your wraps and bonnets? Is Graces guitar on hand? called Mr. Stuart that evening, after dinner, rapping on three doors one after the other.





: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11