Laura Crane.

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





You dear, dear girl, said Mollie with a half sob. How splendid of you!

Then the three girls surrounded Marian and hugged her until they were almost as wet as she was.

I didnt do anything remarkable, she averred, almost shyly. I went into the water after Barbara before I realized what I was doing. I just had to catch hold of her arm, because I saw that she was going under. You girls are perfectly sweet to me and I am happier to-day than Ive ever been before.

Marian, called the cold tones of her mother. Go up to the hotel at once and change your clothing. Your appearance is disgraceful.

Mrs. De Lancey Smythe stalked majestically over to the little group, frowning her displeasure. Whatever possessed you and Miss Thurston to rush madly into the water after a child you never saw before? she said to Marian, whose happy face had darkened at her mothers first word. Really, Marian, dear, you are at times past understanding.

Mrs. Smythe, said Barbara coldly. We could never have been so heartless as to stand on the shore and wait for some one else to rescue that little child. I felt it my duty to make some effort and I am sure that Marian did.

Really, Miss Thurston, retorted Mrs. Smythe, I addressed my remark to Marian.

Yes, said Bab, her eyes flashing, but you included me in it, therefore I felt justified in answering it.

For a moment there was a tense silence. Bab stood looking composedly into the angry eyes of Mrs. De Lancey Smythe. Then Ruth said, with superb indifference. Oh, come on, girls, dont waste your whole morning, here. Bab, youll catch cold. Hurry right up to the hotel with Marian. Good-bye, Marian, well see you later.

Utterly ignoring Mrs. Smythe, Ruth turned on her heel and accompanied by Grace and Mollie continued the stroll along the beach.

My Id hate to meet Mrs. De Lancey Smythe alone on a dark night, remarked Mollie, with a giggle. Didnt she look ready to scratch Babs eyes out, though.

She found her match in Mistress Barbara, observed Grace. She cant intimidate our Bab.

Bab hurried along the beach toward the hotel full of sympathy for the luckless Marian, and vowing within herself to be a true friend to the girl who had been cheated of her girlhood.

CHAPTER VI
THE COUNTESS SOPHIA

To be at luncheon with a real countess? What bliss!

Not one of the Automobile Girls doubted, for an instant, the genuineness of the Countess Sophia von Stolberg. Mrs. De Lancey Smythes calumnies carried no weight with the Automobile Girls.

To-day the countess was more gentle, more beautiful than she had seemed at first. And there was less formality in her manner.

Mollie, who sat at her left at the luncheon table, quite lost the feeling of awe that had taken possession of her the afternoon before.

Opposite the countess, at the other end of the table, sat the formidable Madame de Villiers, the old lady with the hooked nose and the bird-like eyes.

She, too, seemed to feel more amiable, for she watched her young guests with an amused smile.

Do you know what I believe Madame de Villiers was thinking all the time we were at luncheon? Ruth asked her friends, when they were discussing their visit the following day. The amused look on her face seemed to say: This is just another of the countesss pranks, asking these strangers to luncheon. But if they amuse her why not!

Madame de Villiers, however, found Miss Sallie Stuart much to her liking. Perhaps this was because Miss Sallie was not in the least afraid of her, nor inclined to shrink from her, as so many people did.

The story of the mornings adventure had been told. The countess leaned admiringly over the great bunch of yellow daffodils in the centre of the table and smiled at Bab. Barbaras brown curls were still damp from their recent wetting. Were there no men on that part of the beach when the baby was drowning? Why did you have to risk your life in that way? the countess asked.

There were no men near, Ruth replied. You see, it was very early in the morning. Only the nurse girls and children were abroad.

There was one man present! exclaimed Mollie, with a spark of anger in her usually gentle blue eyes. But he was a coward and ran away.

The Count de Sonde! Oh, yes, continued Ruth, I had forgotten him.

The countess look startled.

The Count de Sonde! she repeated in a puzzled fashion. He refused to help? He ran away? An expression of incredulity crossed her face.

He most certainly did run, Mollie declared firmly. I almost fell on my knees to beg him to save Bab. But he did not even take time to refuse me. He simply ran away, so as to live to fight another day, I suppose.

The Count de Sonde! the young countess returned. Ah, yes, he is the young Frenchman who was here yesterday. Then he is not a friend of yours?

Certainly not, Countess Sophia, explained Mr. Stuart. The young man is only a chance acquaintance, whom my friend Mr. Warren rescued from a difficulty yesterday.

I, also, am but a chance acquaintance, smiled the young countess.

Only you were the rescuer, and he was the rescued! exclaimed Mollie quickly, looking fondly at her pretty hostess, who pressed her hand under the table.

We are not in the least interested in the count, Ruth remarked bluntly. We are civil to him because we are trying to help some one.

The countess looked puzzled.

Mr. Stuart laughed. My dear Countess, he explained, the Automobile Girls are not exactly Knights of the Round Table, but they have a kind of league of their own. I think they have formed a sort of Helping Hand Society. They have a pretty good theory that there is no reason why boys should enjoy all the adventures and thrilling experiences. If there is anything to be done, why, do it! Isnt that the motto, girls? I think the countess would be amazed if she knew what you have been through in the way of adventure. Now, they have undertaken to look after a misguided maiden. And I think they are rather piling on the horrors in her case.

Now, Father, youve no right to tease, protested Ruth. You are the very person who made us promise to stand by Maud Warren through thick and thin.

So I did, agreed Mr. Stuart. But I had no romantic notions that Maud was to be protected from the Count de Sonde. I only consented to have you persuade Maud from certain undesirable associates by showing her how much more desirable you are. Now, I plainly see the object of your protective association has changed.

Now, Father, you are teasing, exclaimed his daughter.

How can you accuse me of any such thing? replied Mr. Stuart, his eyes twinkling.

He always teases, Ruth explained to the countess and Madame de Villiers. Its second nature to him. He cant help it. But putting aside all jesting, I am going to speak very plainly about several things. I am sorry to be obliged to backbite, but really and truly we dont like Mrs. De Lancey Smythe. She is the most disagreeable person we know, and we are going to try gradually to wean Maud Warren from her. Maud thinks that she is wonderful and a great society leader, but I think if one made careful inquiry into the matter, one would find her name among those missing from the social world.

Ruth, my dear, expostulated Miss Stuart. You are entirely too impetuous!

Do allow her to go on, Miss Stuart, begged Madame de Villiers. She is one after my own heart. It is refreshing to find some one who is not afraid to speak plainly.

Well, continued Ruth, highly elated at receiving the approbation of the stern old woman. We are going to checkmate Mrs. D. L. S. at her own game. She is trying to throw Maud in line with her own schemes. Enter the Automobile Girls. Exit the enemy. The first battle was fought on the beach this morning, and the situation was strongly defended to the last word by General Barbara Thurston.

What do you mean, Ruth? interrupted her father gravely.

Then Ruth launched forth with the account of Mrs. De Lancey Smythes rudeness to Bab and Babs reply. Marian is all right, concluded Ruth, but her mother is an entirely different proposition.

So it would seem, murmured the countess thoughtfully. But suppose the count is really an eligible person, and has fallen in love, in earnest with Miss Warren, and suppose that Miss Warren truly loves him, what then? Would Mr. Warren still be opposed to the marriage?

I dont know, replied Ruth doubtfully. But you see Maud is a girl, and Mr. Warren feels that she is too young to know her own mind. He is afraid that the counts title has dazzled her, and he does not like foreigners. He thinks we may be able to disabuse Maud of some of her sentimental ideas. Last night we four girls organized a secret society for the suppression of fortune hunters, and we thought perhaps you might help us

Ruth, my dear child! protested Miss Sallie greatly shocked.

But old Madame de Villiers eyes gleamed with amusement.

Indeed, I shall be most happy to become a member of your secret society, rejoined the countess. How exciting! It must be a real secret society, if we are to be serious. Let me see? We should arrange signals and plan a campaign. If I am right, Miss Maud Warren needs to be treated very delicately and carefully, or she is likely to rebel. Is this not so?

That is just what we agreed last night, Ruth confessed.

But how are we going to prove that Count de Sonde is a fortune-hunter? argued Mollie. For all we know, he may be immensely rich as well as illustrious.

Oh, we shall have to prove that the count is not really in love with Mademoiselle Warren, answered the countess, pinching Mollies cheek. She was entering into their little game with a curious zest.

Or you might prove that he is not a count, interposed Madame de Villiers, with an inscrutable expression on her grim old face.

Do you believe that he is an impostor, Madame de Villiers? inquired Miss Sallie.

For a brief instant the countesss eyes met those of Madame de Villiers.

The old lady shrugged her shoulders and lifted her eyebrows in answer to Miss Sallies question: The world is so full of impostors, and Europe so full of counts, she said.

The countess blushed hotly. There was an awkward silence.

Miss Sallie was sorry she had spoken. But why should such an idle question cause annoyance? The young count was surely a stranger to her two hostesses. There was nothing to indicate that the young man was in earnest about Maud Warren. He had simply paid her casual attentions for the past few days.

Shall you and I become members of this secret society, Madame de Villiers? inquired Miss Stuart, to divert the conversation. I suppose we had better be content with the posts of confidential agents. Because I assure you there is no limit to what this society may do.

And I should prefer to be scout, guardsman, or messenger, agreed Mr. Stuart. I, too, shrink from being an active member of such a vigorous organization.

Then let us leave these faithless people behind, girls, proposed the young countess. Let us run away to the old boathouse and plan our campaign. We are not sure that we may safely confide to you our secret signals, our hand clasps and our code, she protested to the older people.

Madame de Villiers now led the way into the drawing room.

But the young countess ran lightly out of the house, followed by her four girl guests. Well arrange our secrets while our elders take their coffee on the balcony, she suggested.

When the countess and the Automobile Girls had disappeared, Madame de Villiers smiled a little apologetically at Miss Stuart and her brother. The countess is only a girl herself, she explained. Of course, she is several years older than your girls. Yet, in many ways, she is still simply a child.

She is very beautiful and charming, replied Miss Sallie cordially. You see how she has fascinated our girls.

So she does everyone, replied Madame de Villiers, shaking her head somewhat sadly.

In the meantime the five conspirators were absorbed in devising their signals. They were only joking, of course. Yet, somehow, the young countess entered so seriously into their make-believe that the girls almost forgot they were not in earnest. One thing they conscientiously agreed upon Maud Warren was to be constantly invited to share their pleasures with, or without, her objectionable friends.

Must the Count de Sonde be permitted always to come along with us and Maud? Grace queried. She had been taking little part in the conversation, for she had been industriously writing down a list of signals for their new organization.

We must have him, if Maud wont come without him, replied Ruth. Maud must be won over to our side by flattering attentions. Suppose we start out being friends with her, by having another luncheon at our hotel. Will you come, Countess?

The countess shook her head gently. I am sorry, she replied a little soberly. I she hesitated a moment. I fear you will think me rude. But I have made it a rule never to appear at the hotels. I will do anything else. Suppose we give a picnic? Is not that what you call it in English?

A picnic would be delightful, agreed Ruth politely. But she could not help wondering why the countess was not willing to appear, as she expressed it, at the hotels.

The signals are ready! cried Grace. There are two handshakes. The one which denotes danger is like this: Press the forefinger of one hand into the palm of the other persons hand when you shake hands.

That is very clever! exclaimed the countess. She clasped Mollies little hand. Now, Mademoiselle Mollie, when you feel my finger press your palm like this, you will know that I am greatly in need of your help.

A white ribbon bow worn on the left shoulder, means that a secret meeting must be called at once! Grace declaimed.

And a blue ribbon bow, worn instead of a white one, proclaims: I have important information to communicate, added the Countess Sophia. But I should have a special signal by which to summon you. Let me see. I must be able to signal you from a distance. If I fasten a red flag to one of these posts in the day time you must know that I want to see you very much.

But what about a night signal? asked Grace, who was taking the signals very seriously.

The countess laughed. If ever you should happen to see a bright light shining in the tower of my villa, come to me at once. I shall be in great danger. Now, is not that exciting? she cried, clasping her hands and smiling at the little company.

At this moment there came a sound of oars dipping in the water. A boat glided from under the pavilion, which was built out over the water. The boat must have been hugging the shore until it reached the boathouse. Then it made for the open water. In the boat was one man. And immediately the countess and the four Automobile Girls recognized him. He was the Frenchman, Monsier Duval!

I wonder if he has been eavesdropping? asked Ruth indignantly.

Oh well, he has heard nothing but make-believe, the countess replied lightly, as she led her guests back to the villa.

CHAPTER VII
TEA IN THE COCOANUT GROVE

Their beloved red automobile, companion in so many adventures and faithful friend in time of need, did not accompany the Automobile Girls to Palm Beach. But Mr. Stuart engaged another larger motor car with a chauffeur to run it, as soon as he arrived at the famous southern resort. He preferred Ruth to have a chauffeur at her command in case she needed him.

There was room in the new automobile for ten persons, and Mr. Stuart, Miss Sallie, the four Automobile Girls, the Countess Sophia and Madame de Villiers seated themselves in its cavernous depths. Then the car spun out along the famous Shell Road, lined on each side with the tall, delicate yucca plants. A fragrant southern breeze fanned the faces of the happy party. The sunlight was dazzling, the sky a deep blue. All about were masses of tropical vegetation that glittered in the sunshine.

This place is truly heavenly, exclaimed the Countess Sophia von Stolberg. She leaned back in the automobile and closed her eyes. How could one help being happy, surrounded by all this beauty? I am indeed very happy to-day. Are you not happy, Cousine? she murmured, taking Madame de Villierss hand and looking at her with a tender, loving expression. The older womans stern face softened.

Very happy, my dear, she declared. This is not a place to remember ones troubles.

The countesss face clouded at the word troubles. She began to say something in German, but checked herself. She was far too well-bred to speak any language but English before her new friends.

Yes; this is a small sized heaven, agreed Bab. A kind of oasis in a desert, for over there are the Everglades.

And what are the Everglades? inquired the countess.

The guide-book says they are trackless jungle, explained Bab. They are full of wild animals; wild cats, and panthers, and deer. They have poisonous snakes in them, too. Very few white men ever venture in the Everglades, but the Indians have trails through them. They often kill deer in the jungle and sell them at the hotel.

It would not be pleasant to be lost in such a place, suggested Mollie. She was thinking of her own experience when she was lost in the forest in the Berkshire Hills.

And it would not be easy to find you in the Everglades either, little sister, rejoined Bab. So please beware! Never go into the Everglades alone.

Oh, dont worry, laughed Mollie. Being lost once was enough for me.

If you ever do disappear, Mademoiselle Mollie, the secret society will never rest until it finds you. We must be very faithful to each other, dear fellow members? laughed the countess.

I am sure we agree to that, declared Ruth.

Walking along the road ahead of them, Barbara espied two figures.

Do you know, she demanded, I believe those two people just in front of us are Maud Warren and her count.

It really was Maud loitering along the road accompanied by the count.

Stop our car, Robert, ordered Miss Sallie.

Maud explained that her motor car had broken down some distance up the road. She and the count had decided to walk on. They hoped to be picked up by friends.

Do you mean you were out motoring alone with the Count de Sonde? inquired Miss Stuart severely.

Why not? answered Maud, looking insolently at Miss Sallie.

Ah it is in this free America that one needs no chaperons, said Madame de Villiers innocently, but with a gleam of mischief in her eyes.

Maud made no reply. Two angry spots glowed in her cheeks.

The countess now made up her mind to intercede. She did not wish Maud to fly into a rage.

I have had a visit from your friends, the Automobile Girls, Miss Warren, she said graciously. Perhaps you will join them when they come to see me again.

Maud favored the countess with a chilly stare.

Could it be that Mrs. De Lancey Smythe had been whispering tales about the countess in Mauds ears? And had this stupid girl believed what she had heard? Ruth felt her heart thump with the embarrassment of the situation. What was Maud going to say? Strangely enough Madame de Villiers face held the same look of fear that Ruths did. Why should Madame de Villiers look frightened instead of angry?

But Maud never uttered the insult her lips were trying to frame. Spoiled and undisciplined child that she was, when she turned her sneering face toward the countess the words suddenly failed her. For the first time Maud felt that money, after all, counted for little. There was something about this plainly dressed woman that suddenly made her feel mean and ashamed. Maud looked deep into the countesss beautiful eyes, then answered with unaccustomed meekness. Thank you so much. I should like to come to see you.

In the meantime naughty Mollie was taking a slight revenge upon the count.

You are quite athletic, are you not? she asked him innocently, her baby blue eyes fastened on his.

I, athletic? exclaimed the little count in surprise. Not very, Mademoiselle. Why do you ask?

Because you run so well, Mollie answered, with a far-away look.

You refer to this morning, I perceive, Mademoiselle, expostulated the count. I do not swim; therefore I ran for help. But there was no danger. Your sister was never in deep water. Yet it was a most effective scene. Doubtless the young lady will enjoy being a heroine.

Mollie flushed. Barbara would have been in danger if Marian had not helped to pull her and the child out of the water. And, by the way, Marian does not swim either.

Ah, Mademoiselle Marian? I saw her later, laughed the count. How droll was her appearance and that of your sister also.

Mollie heartily disgusted with the little count turned her back on him.

Get into the motor car, both of you, ordered Miss Sallie firmly.

A few minutes later their automobile reached the entrance to the cocoanut grove.

Papa, let us stop here and have tea? asked Ruth.





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