Laura Crane.

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





You are right, Grace. This is a land of pleasure, returned Mr. Stuart. The only people who work are the employ?s in the hotels and the servants in the cottages.

Palm Beach is dedicated to pleasure, explained Ruth, because it was by accident that it came to be here at all. So it can just as well be spared for an earthly paradise.

Why is Palm Beach an accident? queried Mollie.

Years ago this was just a wild, desolate coast, Ruth went on. Even now the wilderness is only a mile away. There was a wreck out there, somewhere, on the other side of the peninsula, she pointed toward the ocean. A ship was loaded with cocoanuts, which were washed ashore. By and by the cocoanuts sprouted and grew into tall palm trees. So this barren shore was transformed into one of the most beautiful palm groves in the world.

Mr. Stuart pinched his daughters cheek. Youve been stealing a march on us, Mistress Ruth, he said. You have been reading a guide book.

Just then a shadow clouded the brilliant sunshine. The engineer of the launch glanced up uneasily.

You dont think it is going to rain, do you? asked Mr. Warren.

It would be a very unusual thing if it did, sir, replied the man, without committing himself.

A fresh wind had come up, bearing with it the fragrance of many flowers. It seemed to have blown over miles of lily beds and orange groves. Barbara closed her eyes as she breathed in the warm, scented air. How easy to forget all responsibilities, in an enchanted place like this! she thought. How easy just to drift along.

Papa, do tell the man to turn back, said Maud in a voice that broke unpleasantly into Babs reflections. Its getting a little chilly. And besides, we must have tea this afternoon in the cocoanut grove.

Very well, my dear, replied her father, turning to give his order to the engineer.

The launch swung around. Immediately the whole party spied another boat bobbing helplessly on the water. One of the men in it was leaning over examining the machinery of the frail craft. The other one, in white, stood at the side of the boat, scanning the water.

No other launches were in sight. The many pleasure boats which had dotted the lake with flecks of white, only a few minutes before, had now put in to shore. A black cloud had spread itself over the whole sky, casting a dark and ominous shadow over the lake.

As all the world knows at least the part of the world which lives on pleasure waters a strict etiquette prevails among these small boats. One boat always helps another in distress.

The engineer of Mr. Warrens launch did not wait for orders. He turned at once toward the drifting craft.

Is your engine broken? he asked, as the boats touched sides.

The young man in white was the Count de Sonde himself. He looked decidedly relieved at the appearance of the rescuers. He removed his Panama hat with a flourish and bowed low to the women.

The other man answered the boatman.

We are quite helpless, you see, the count ejaculated, shrugging his shoulders and raising his eyebrows at the same time. My friend can do nothing.

In the meantime the friend had arisen from the engine. He was examining the boatload of people with guarded interest.

How do you do, Count? How are you, Monsieur Duval? called Mrs. De Lancey Smythe.

It was not a time for conventional introductions. The boatman made a line fast from the small craft to the larger one. He meant to tow the smaller launch toward home.

But Mrs. De Lancey Smythe persisted. Mr. Warren and his friends must meet the Count de Sonde and Monsieur Duval.

Suddenly the heavens were shaken by a terrific clap of thunder.

Mrs. Smythe gave a little scream. I am always frightened during a storm, she averred. Mr. Stuart, would it be too much to ask you to assist me into the cabin?

Miss Sallie glanced rather contemptuously at the other woman, and wondered if her fright were real. Mr. Stuart rose and courteously assisted Mrs. De Lancey Smythe into the tiny cabin, just as a driving sheet of rain bore down upon them.

The Automobile Girls crouched in the centre of the boat. Maud and Marian followed Mrs. Smythe.

Make for the nearest boathouse! called Mr. Warren to his engineer. We cant get back to the hotel in such a storm as this.

The storm now burst in all its West Indian fury. The waters were churned into foam. The wind whistled and roared. The two small boats tossed about on the water like chips.

We are just in time! exclaimed Mr. Warren, as they at last reached the boathouse. In another five minutes I believe we should have been swamped. He helped the women from the boat to the pier.

What an escape! gasped Mrs. Smythe. Marian, my darling, are you all right?

Perfectly, Mama, replied her daughter rather scornfully. It was plain to the four Automobile Girls that Marian did not entirely approve of her mothers display of fear, and the tone in which she had answered told its own story.

The little company sought the shelter of the boathouse. The two foreigners went with them. In one of the men, Bab recognized the stranger she had noticed that morning on the hotel piazza. Mrs. De Lancey Smythe introduced him as Monsieur Duval.

We were very lucky to have met you, sir, Mr. Duval said to Mr. Stuart. Bab noticed that he spoke very good English, with only a slight foreign accent. I am afraid our boat would have sunk if you had not come to our rescue.

Mr. Stuart bowed politely, but coldly. He was wondering if his girls and Miss Sallie would have bad colds from their wetting. They were standing apart from the others, laughing at their plight.

The young Count de Sonde had joined Marian and her mother, as soon as he entered the boathouse, but Maud was with them. It was upon Maud that the count immediately bestowed his attention. He smiled upon her, until Mauds foolish head began to flutter. Just think of capturing the attentions of a real count so quickly! Mr. Warren saw his daughters delight and frowned slightly. Maud must not get any foolish ideas about foreigners in her head. He would put an end to that nonsense. He was about to stride over and take charge of affairs when a man servant in plain livery appeared on the path near the boathouse door. He had come from the pretty villa, which was only a hundred yards back from the boathouse, set in a thick grove of palms. The man carried a large bundle of wraps and umbrellas. He paused respectfully when he reached the steps leading to the pavilion.

My lady would be glad if you would seek shelter from the storm in her house, he said in broken English to Mr. Warren.

It was great fun to scamper through the pouring rain to the pretty villa. The foreign coats and capes kept everyone dry. Now that they were on land Mr. Warrens boat party had begun to regard their adventure somewhat lightly.

Once on the porch of the villa they were ushered into a large, low-ceilinged room at one end of which a fire of pine knots was burning brightly. The room was empty. The newcomers clustered about the blaze to dry their soaked shoes.

The room held very little furniture. Yet it appeared to Bab as one of the most beautiful rooms she had ever seen. A grand piano stood at one end, and a few graceful wicker chairs were scattered about the apartment. The room had an indescribable look of elegance. Was it the bare highly polished floor, with only the Persian rug to break its shining surface? Or was it the enormous bunch of daffodils in a cut glass bowl on the table that lent the place its charm? Bab did not know. On the mantelpiece between two tall brass candle-sticks stood a beautiful marble bust. Barbara afterwards learned that it was known as The Head of an Unknown Lady.

A handsome leather writing-case lay open on the table. It displayed on the inner side a large crest picked out in dull gold. The firelight shone on the gold outlines and threw them into dull relief.

Bab saw the Frenchman, Monsieur Duval, walk over to this table. He examined the crest intently for a moment, then turned away.

At this instant two women came in through the open door. The one, who was quite old, supported herself with a gold-headed mahogany cane. The other was young and very beautiful.

The older woman was rather terrifying in aspect. She had a hooked nose and her bright, beady little eyes regarded the company with a look of amused tolerance.

The younger woman came forward to meet her unknown guests without the slightest embarrassment or affectation. The Automobile Girls held their breath. Surely she was the most exquisite creature they had ever beheld.

CHAPTER III
THE FAIR UNKNOWN

I am afraid you must be very cold and wet, the young woman said, in a clear sweet voice, with an accent that the girls had never heard before. She was graceful with an elegance of manner that to imaginative Bab seemed almost regal.

Mr. Stuart went forward. It is most kind and hospitable of you to take us in like this, he declared. We would certainly have been very uncomfortable if we had stayed in the boathouse for such a length of time. We are deeply grateful to you.

Do sit down, the young woman answered. And wont you have some tea? It may warm you. She pressed an electric bell in the wall. A man servant appeared, and she gave him her orders in German.

The Automobile Girls clustered together in the window seat. Their unknown hostess sank into a low chair near them. Miss Sallie and Mrs. De Lancey Smythe were left to the mercy of the old lady with the beaked nose. Maud and the count withdrew to one corner of the room, where they chatted softly, the latter bent on displaying all his powers of fascination.

Are these your four daughters? asked the young mistress of the villa, turning to Mr. Stuart, after a friendly glance at the Automobile Girls.

No, Mr. Stuart replied, laughing and shaking his head. I am sorry to say I can boast of only one daughter. The three other girls are her friends. But they are all my girls. At least I call them my Automobile Girls!

Ah, replied the young woman apparently puzzled. How is it that you call them the Automobile Girls? Do young girls run motor cars in your country? Their independence is quite wonderful, I think.

Ruth is our chauffeur, explained Bab, who was looking closely at the beautiful face of her hostess. The latters dark brown hair was arranged in a braid and wound about her head like a coronet but it broke into little soft curls around her face. She had a small straight nose and the curve of her red lips was perfect. The coutour of her face was oval and her large dark eyes were touched with an undefinable sadness. She was tall and slender, and she wore a plain, white woolen frock that emphasized the lines of her graceful figure. The simplicity of her costume was not marred by a single ornament. Even her long, slender fingers were bare of rings.

She turned to pretty Mollie, taking one of her small hands in her own cool fingers. Do these little hands also run a motor car? the hostess asked.

Mollie looked long into the beautiful face. Somehow its hidden sadness touched her. Mollies blue eyes filled with tears. She felt strangely timid.

Why, you must not be afraid of me, dear one, said the young woman. She gazed into Mollies blue eyes appealingly, and softly pressed her hand. Im a girl like yourself, only I am much older. But I love younger girls very dearly. You must let me be your friend. To the amazement of the other girls this exquisite stranger bent over and kissed Mollie on the lips.

I should be very happy to have you for my friend, returned Mollie, a smile quivering through her tears. And I wasnt the least bit frightened. I think perhaps it was the storm that made me so silly. Bab sometimes calls me a cry baby.

Which one of you is Bab? And what a pretty name that is! exclaimed the young hostess.

Barbara stepped forward with a friendly smile. Mr. Stuart then presented Grace and Ruth.

But still their new friend did not reveal her identity.

She was a foreigner. There was no doubt of that. She had spoken in German to her servant. Perhaps she was German? She confessed that this was her first visit to America. The climate of New York had driven her south. Yet she did not mention her name or her country.

Presently the man servant returned to the room carrying a tea service. He was followed by a comely German maid, who carried a tray laden with buttered toast and a large dish of German cookies.

The man lit the candles and a lamp covered with a yellow shade.

A soft, mellow glow pervaded the beautiful room. There was a pleasant silence and all eyes were turned to their lovely young hostess, whose slender white hands busied themselves with the tea things.

A friendly cup of tea on a day like this, makes the whole world kin, she said, smiling brightly at her guests. It banishes sad thoughts and one grows cheerful, even though the weather behaves itself so badly.

We have a proverb, laughed Ruth, that says its an ill wind that blows no one good. We should really thank the weather for misbehaving.

Ah, that is broad flattery, cried their hostess with a silvery laugh. But oh so charming.

Do you not find it dull staying at an out-of-the-way place like this? broke in Mrs. De Lancey Smythe, looking about her with a patronizing air. I am quite sure I have never seen you at the Beach.

The Automobile Girls exchanged lightning glances. Mrs. Smythes abrupt remark jarred upon them, and simultaneously it occurred to them that she was distinctly underbred.

Marians face flushed, and she bit her lip. I think this quiet place must be enchanting, she said almost defiantly. I hate hotels.

Really, Marian, said her mother coldly. Your opinion has not been solicited.

Theyre going to quarrel, thought Barbara. How disagreeable that woman is. She is so snippy, and calculating and deceitful. I rather like Marian, though.

But their hostess averted any domestic altercation by saying sweetly. I am indeed a stranger, here, but I came for rest and quiet, therefore I have little desire to frequent the Beach or its hotels.

Quite true, responded Mrs. De Lancey Smythe, and hastily turning her attention to the imposing looking old woman with the gold headed cane she said, You are German, I presume.

Why German? replied the old lady, observing her questioner with a dangerous glitter in her small black eyes.

Mrs. De Lancey Smythe showed signs of confusion.

I thought you were Germans because you spoke German to your servant, she said, trying to look haughty and thus carry off what promised to be an unpleasant situation.

Ah, yes, returned her antagonist. But does it follow that one is of the same country as ones servants? We have also employed both French and English maids.

Mrs. De Lancey Smythe did not deem it wise to continue the conversation. She therefore turned her attention to Mr. Duval who had been listening to the conversation with a curious smile on his clever face.

Miss Sallie was delighted with the strange old woman. Her abruptness was amusing. Miss Stuart began discussing a number of current topics with her in an impersonal, well-bred manner, neither woman showing the slightest curiosity about the others personal affairs.

Count de Sonde! called Mrs. De Lancey Smythe suddenly.

There was an immediate lull in the conversation.

The young mistress of the villa stared at the Automobile Girls. Her face turned pale. She leaned back in her chair. Count de Sonde! she whispered to herself.

Mollie was at her new friends side in an instant. I am afraid you are ill, she suggested. Can I do anything for you?

No, no, dear child, replied the other. It was only a momentary faintness. But did I not hear some one call the Count de Sonde? Is he here?

Oh, yes, returned Mollie politely. He is that young man in white, who is now talking with Mrs. De Lancey Smythe.

Her hostess turned quickly. She looked a long time at the young count. Who is the other man near him? she next asked.

Mollie was again her informant. He is a Mr. Duval, she explained. He and the Count de Sonde are at the same hotel together.

At this moment, Maud Warren, who had noted her fathers displeased look, decided to join the Automobile Girls, who were grouped around their hostess.

Do you know, she said with an air of triumph, the Count de Sonde has invited Papa and me and the De Lancey Smythes to visit him at his chateau in France next summer?

The tea-cup of their hostess crashed to the floor. It broke into small pieces.

Dont trouble to pick up the pieces, she protested to Mr. Stuart. Johann will do it. I am very careless. So you expect to visit France next summer? she continued, turning her attention to Maud.

Yes, Papa and I shall go, Maud replied. It would be quite novel to visit a chateau.

Delightful. But where is the chateau of the De Sonde family? inquired the other young woman.

Maud hesitated. I am not sure that I know, she replied. I believe the count said it was in Brittany. The counts family is one of the oldest in France.

I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting the count, suggested Mauds hostess. Perhaps you will present him to me.

In a few moments the young count was leaning gracefully against the mantelpiece. He was talking with the beautiful stranger, whose name was still withheld from her visitors. A little later Monsieur Duval joined them.

Oh, yes, I hasten to assure you, it is quite, quite old, the count explained. He was talking of his family in Brittany.

How far back does your family go? went on his unknown questioner.

The count cleared his throat and choked over his fresh cup of tea.

My friends family goes back to the eleventh century, answered Duval quietly. The count was still coughing violently.

And you are the last of your line? continued his hostess. She was addressing the count. It is a pity for such an illustrious race to die out. I suppose you will marry?

She looked at the young man with such grave sweetness that he smiled uneasily and shifted his gaze.

I hope to marry some day, Mademoiselle, he mumbled.

You have some very old families in Germany also, have you not? inquired Monsieur Duval, looking searchingly at the young woman.

Did she pause a moment before she answered? Bab and Ruth both thought so.

In what European country are there not old families, Monsieur? she replied courteously. In Italy the old families trace their lineage to the gods of mythology. But I am interested in a young country like this America.

Then you should go to Chicago, if you wish to see a really American city, cried Ruth. Of course, Aunt Sallie and Father and I think our Chicago is greater than New York, because it is our home.

De Lancey Hall, in Virginia, is my family home, drawled Mrs. De Lancey Smythe, with a little insolent air of pride. The De Lanceys were a titled French family before they came to this country.

How very interesting! exclaimed the youthful hostess, in an enigmatic tone. Do people drop their titles in this great free country of yours? It is much better, I think. Titles mean but little anywhere. She ended her words with a little, serious frown.

The best heritage that I can lay claim to is that of being an American, exclaimed Ruth, with enthusiasm. America for the Americans! Three cheers for the red, white and blue!

You are a true patriot. Is it not so? laughed the hostess, patting Ruths shoulder. Your great free country is so wonderful. Its liberty is boundless. She sighed, and for a moment seemed wrapped in thought. Then turning to Mr. Stuart and Mr. Warren asked if they would have more tea.

No thank you, replied Mr. Stuart. In fact I believe we had better begin to think about getting back to our hotel. The rain has stopped, and we need trespass upon your hospitality no further.

It has been a pleasure to meet you and your Automobile Girls, the young woman replied. Then she added very softly so that Mr. Stuart and Mollie who stood with her hand clasped in that of the stranger, alone, heard: Wont you bring them to see me in the near future?

Oh how lovely! breathed Mollie.

We shall be very happy, indeed to come, Mr. Stuart replied.

I thank you for your charming hospitality, Mademoiselle, broke in the suave tones of Mr. Duval, who with the count at his heels had stepped unnoticed to the young womans side. Am I presumptuous in venturing to ask if it is your pleasure that we should know to whom we are indebted?

Ah to be sure. I have been what you call, very stupid, laughed the unknown. Pray pardon me. Gliding over to the side of the stern old woman, she took her hand. Permit me to present my very dear friend, Madame de Villiers. I am the Countess Sophia von Stolberg.





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