Laura Crane.

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





Bab could have turned and run downstairs again. The intruder would never have heard her. But, although Barbara shook with fear for a moment, she placed her wraps softly on the floor and stepped noiselessly back into the room. The man was still unaware of her presence. Babs eyes roved about the room in search of a weapon. Her hand resting for an instant on the dressing table, came in touch with something metallic and cold. It was a silver shoe horn, but Barbara gripped it eagerly, then she fastened her gaze upon the intruder. He was an old man with a shock of gray hair and a thick beard, that partially concealed the outline of his face. His lips were drawn back until his teeth showed and in his bent attitude he reminded Bab of a gigantic ape. Under the concentration of her gaze the strange apparition looked up and saw her as she stood unflinching, watching with alert eyes his slightest movement. Without uttering a sound the man began to move slowly toward her, his fierce eyes never for a moment leaving her face.

What are you doing here? Bab demanded bravely. You are a thief!

Instead of running away from him the girl started toward the man. As she did so she raised the shoe horn and pointed it at him. Had the light in the room not been turned low he must have discovered the trick. As it was the faint light, glinting on the polished metal gave it the appearance of a revolver. The ape-like figure began backing slowly toward the balcony. At the window he paused, as if debating whether he dared take the chance of leaping upon her. Bab settled the question for him by making a threatening move with the supposed weapon. The thief whirled, sprang out on the balcony and dropped to the ground.

Barbara ran to the window. She saw that he had disappeared, then the room began to whirl about her. She thought she was going to faint, for she felt her strength rapidly leaving her.

With a great effort she threw off the weakness that was overcoming her and looked out across the lawn.

During the early part of the evening a large motor boat cruiser, after having put her owner ashore at Palm Beach had dropped down and come to anchor for the night hard by the boathouse belonging to the villa occupied by Countess Sophia. Lights were twinkling from the port holes of the boat and her anchor light swayed listlessly at the stern. There were no other signs of life aboard the boat on the bow of which one at close range might have made out the word Restless in raised gold letters.

Barbara wondered if their terrible visitor had come from the boat lying there quietly on the moonlit waters.

Just then the buzz of excited voices was borne to her ears. She heard the Countess Sophias clear tones, then an excited little scream, mingled with the deep voice of Madame de Villiers raised in angry expostulation.

Still gripping her shoe horn Bab raced down the stairs, and parted the porti?res that hung between the drawing room and hall.

What she saw was like the tableau from a melodrama.

Crowded close to the piano stood the Countess Sophia, while directly in front of her stood Madame de Villiers, thoroughly enraged and brandishing her gold-headed cane at two men who seemed about to seize the young countess. Clustered in a frightened group at one side of the room stood Miss Stuart, Mollie and Grace. Ruth was nowhere to be seen.

One of the men made a sudden stealthy move toward the countess.

Stand back, commanded Madame de Villiers.

Just then Ruths clear tones were heard outside the villa. Theyre in that room! Oh, hurry please!

There was a sound of running feet and into the room darted two young men clad in white yachting clothes, and wearing officers caps.

Were just in time, called one of the newcomers. This is something in our line of sport. Stand aside, girls. Well soon have these fellows on the run.

With this he grasped one of the men by the collar and dragging him to the open hall door, picked him up and threw him off the veranda onto the drive where he landed with a thud. A moment later his companion had disposed of the other offender in like manner.

Watch them, Joe, ordered the taller of the two yachtsmen. If they try to enter the house again, call me. I guess we can give them all theyre looking for. Im going inside to see if there are any more rascals who need attention.

Oh you brave boys! exclaimed Madame de Villiers as the young man entered the drawing-room where the women were huddled together talking excitedly.

I think the credit belongs to the young woman who had the presence of mind to go for help, smiled the youth, bowing to Ruth.

I had to do something! exclaimed Ruth. I saw your boat early in the evening, and when those two men came in here and began threatening the countess I felt that the only thing to do was to see if some one on the yacht would help us.

Did you see the other man? asked Barbara anxiously. He was old and white-haired and looked exactly like an ape. He was upstairs on the balcony, while I was in the countesss room getting our wraps. Then I forgot my handkerchief. When I went back for it he was in the room. I frightened him away with a shoe horn. He thought it was a revolver. He dropped to the ground from the balcony and ran towards the yacht. I thought perhaps he belonged on the boat.

Not with us, declared the yachtsman. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Captain Tom Halstead and my friend out there on the veranda, is Joseph Dawson, engineer of the motor yacht Restless which lies at anchor just off the shore. We belong to the Motor Boat Club boys, but I doubt if you have ever heard of us before.

Although Tom Halstead and Joe Dawson were strangers to the Automobile Girls they are well known to the majority of our readers. Born and brought up on the Maine coast the ocean was their play ground from early boyhood and their fondness for the sea led them to later perfect themselves in the handling of motor boats. These two youths with a number of other sturdy young men comprised the famous club of young yacht skippers and engineers, organized by a Boston broker and headed by Halstead as fleet captain, with Dawson as fleet engineer.

The reason for the appearance of the yacht Restless at this particular place and time is set forth in The Motor Boat Club in Florida, the fifth volume of the Motor Boat Club Series. That the two young men had responded instantly to Ruths call for help was in itself the best proof of the manliness and courage of the Motor Boat boys.

The countess who in the meantime had recovered from the first shock of the recent disturbance now presented Miss Stuart, Madame de Villiers and the Automobile Girls to Tom Halstead. A moment later Joe Dawson entered the room, and more introductions followed.

Well, theyve gone, declared Dawson. They picked themselves up very slowly and painfully and fairly slunk down the drive. I dont imagine they will trouble you again to-night. However wed better appoint ourselves as special watchmen about the grounds until morning. I do not wish to seem inquisitive but was the motive of these rascals common robbery?

The men did not wish money, replied the countess slowly. They wished to steal a certain paper I have in my possession in order to destroy it. That is why the old man was searching my writing case. But he did not find the paper, for I carry it about my person. Forgive me for being so mysterious, and believe that my reason for secrecy is one of grave importance.

There is nothing to forgive, Madam, replied Captain Halstead courteously. We are only too glad to have been of service to you and beg that you will continue to accept our services at least until to-morrow. Then I would advise you to procure a special officer to remain at the villa in case you should be annoyed further by these villains.

Thank you, exclaimed the countess, with evident agitation. I hardly think we shall be troubled again. I do not wish an officer to come here.

We must return to the hotel, Countess, said Miss Stuart. It is growing late and my brother will become uneasy about us.

This time the women were assisted with their cloaks by the Motor Boat boys and no startling interruption occurred. Ruth ran down the drive a little ahead of the party to where her automobile stood. Then she uttered a sudden cry of dismay. All four tires had been cut.

Oh the rascals! she exclaimed. How dared they do such a contemptible thing? Well have to go back to the villa and telephone for another car. Father will be so worried!

An indignant babble of feminine voices ensued broken by the deeper tones of the two young men as the party turned to go back to the villa.

Just then a familiar sound was borne to their ears. It was the chug! chug! of a rapidly approaching automobile. A moment later the car rolled up the drive. Its Father! Ruth exclaimed. Oh, Im so glad.

What seems to be the trouble, Sallie? queried Mr. Stuart, springing from the car. Its after midnight. I grew worried when you didnt return to the hotel at eleven, so decided I had better come out after you. I rather think we exceeded the speed limit too, he laughed, turning to the chauffeur.

Then Ruth burst forth with an excited account of the nights adventure. Mr. Stuart looked grave. I shall send you an officer in the morning, Countess, he said.

These are the two young men who came so gallantly to our rescue, Mr. Stuart, said the countess, turning to the Motor Boat boys who stood modestly in the background.

Mr. Stuart shook hands with both young men, thanking them for their prompt response to the call for help. We should be pleased to have you dine with us to-morrow evening, he said.

Thank you, responded the young captain, but we shall weigh anchor in the morning.

After bidding farewell to the two young men and good night to Madame de Villiers and the Countess Sophia, the Automobile Girls and Miss Sallie stepped into the car in which Mr. Stuart had driven to the villa.

Ill send a man out to put that other car in shape to-morrow, he said to Ruth as they sped down the drive. But, hereafter when this valiant band, known as the Automobile Girls pays a visit to the Countess Sophia I shall insist upon accompanying them whether or not I am invited.

CHAPTER XIV
THE PLOT THICKENS

Maud Warren apologized to Miss Sallie. Mr. Warren had been greatly displeased when he heard of his daughters disobedience, and had reprimanded her in such severe terms, that she anxiously endeavored to conciliate Miss Stuart at the earliest opportunity. Miss Sallie, however received her effusive apology very coldly, and it was some time before Maud felt in the least comfortable in her society.

One evening soon after the eventful dinner with the countess, the Automobile Girls started out for a moonlight stroll accompanied by Miss Stuart, Mr. Stuart, Mr. Warren and Maud. Just as they were leaving the hotel Marian Smythe appeared on the veranda and was asked to join them.

Where have you been keeping yourself, Marian? asked Ruth.

Marian flushed.

Ive been very busy, she said hastily. Then as if anxious to change the subject: Have you been to the countesss villa lately?

No, replied Ruth quickly. Not since the dinner there. Have you heard anything about her?

No, answered Marian shortly, and relapsed into moody silence.

As they strolled leisurely along Barbara who had been walking ahead with Miss Stuart, dropped behind with Marian.

I want to ask you something, Marian, she began.

Little girls should never ask questions, said Marian lightly, but Barbara felt that her apparent unconcern was forced.

Have you heard about what happened at the villa the night we dined there? persisted Bab.

I have heard something about it, admitted Marian, in a low voice. It was an attempt to rob the countess, was it not?

You could hardly call it robbery, replied Barbara. The men took nothing. But they acted in a very mysterious manner, and there was one perfectly hideous old man who was a real burglar for I caught him going through the things in the countesss sleeping room, when I went up stairs after our wraps. I drove him from the room.

How did you ever do it, Bab? asked Marian. There was an expression of absolute terror in her eyes.

Youll laugh when I tell you, replied Bab. I drove him away with a shoe horn.

A shoe horn? repeated Marian questioningly. I dont understand.

He thought from the way I held it that I had a revolver in my hand, explained Barbara. You see it was silver and as the light in the room was turned low it looked like polished steel. At any rate it answered the purpose.

You are very brave, Bab, said Marian admiringly. Considering the man with whom you had to deal you showed wonderful courage.

What do you mean, Marian, by the man with whom I had to deal? Who is that frightful old man? asked Barbara, looking searchingly at the other girl. Why did you warn us not to dine with the countess? Did you know what was to happen? You must tell me, Marian, for I must know. If the countess or any of us is in danger it is your duty to tell me. Cant you trust me with your secret, Marian?

Marian shook her head. Her lip quivered, and her eyes filled with tears.

Barbara waited patiently for her to regain her self-control.

Bab, she said in a choked voice. I cant answer your questions. I dare not. I am a miserable victim of circumstances, and all I can say is that your danger is in being friendly with the countess. She has an enemy who will stop at nothing to gain his own end, and he will crush you, too, if you stand in his way.

Tell me, Marian, said Bab eagerly. Do you know anything about the countess?

Very little, was the reply, and that little I may not tell. But this I promise you, that no matter what may be the consequences to myself, I will warn you in time should any special danger threaten you girls or her. That is, if I have the slightest opportunity to do so.

Marian stretched out her hand and Bab clasped it. Thank you, dear Marian, she said. I know you will keep your word.

After an hours stroll the party repaired to the hotel veranda, where ices and cakes were served to them. Every one, with the exception of Maud Warren, was in high good humor. Even Marian emerged from the gloom that had enveloped her earlier in the evening, laughing and talking merrily with the Automobile Girls. Maud, however was in a distinctly rebellious state of mind. During their walk they had encountered the Count de Sonde and Monsieur Duval, and although Mr. Stuart and Mr. Warren had exchanged polite civilities with the two Frenchmen, they had not invited them to join the party. While Maud, still smarting inwardly from her fathers recent sharp censure, had not dared to brave Mr. Warrens certain anger by doing so. Her only means of retaliation lay in sulking, and this she did in the most approved fashion, refusing to take part in the conversation, and answering in monosyllables when addressed. Ruth and Barbara vainly tried to charm away her sulks by paying her special attention, but she merely curled her lip scornfully, and left the veranda soon after on plea of headache. Mr. Warren sighed heavily as he looked after her retreating figure, but made no comment. Yet his friends knew instinctively what was passing in his mind, and the Automobile Girls solemnly vowed each in her own heart to watch over Maud and save her if possible from the schemes of fortune-hunting nobility.

Is there anything more perfect than this Florida moonlight! asked Ruth, during a lull in the conversation, as she leaned back in her chair and gazed with half closed eyes at the silvery tropical world before her. Positively, I could sit out here all night!

It looks as though we were in a fair way to do so, replied her father, glancing at his watch. Half-past eleven. Time all children were in bed.

Really, Robert, I had no idea it was so late, said Miss Sallie, stifling a yawn. I believe I am sleepy. Come, girls, it is time for us to retire.

Oh, Aunt Sallie! exclaimed Ruth. How can you be so cruel?

I must be cruel to be kind, quoted Miss Stuart. If I allow you to moon out here until unseasonable hours, you will never get started on your picnic to-morrow, at seasonable ones.

She speaks the truth, said Ruth dramatically, I will arise and hie me to the hay, for come what may, I swear that I will picnic with the rosy morn.

I thought you were going to picnic with us, said Grace flippantly.

So I am, replied Ruth calmly. That statement was mere poetical license.

First find your poet, said Bab slyly.

Whereupon there was a chorus of giggles at Ruths expense, in which she good-naturedly joined.

Im really more tired than I thought I was, she yawned, a few moments later as she sat curled up in a big chair in the room adjoining Miss Stuarts which she and Barbara occupied.

Im tired and sleepy, too, responded Barbara. Its almost midnight. Well never get up early to-morrow morning. Oh, dear! she exclaimed a second later, Ive left my pink scarf down on the veranda. Its hanging over the back of the chair I sat in. Ill go down this minute and get it, before any one has had time to see it or take it away.

Suiting the action to the word Bab hurried out of the room, and along the corridor. She did not stop for an elevator but ran lightly down the two flights of stairs and out to the veranda. It was but the work of a moment to secure her scarf, which hung over the back of the chair, just as she had left it. The veranda was deserted except for a group of three people who stood at the far end in the shadow. Their backs were toward Bab and they were talking earnestly in low voices. Barbara stood petrified with astonishment, scarcely able to believe the evidence of her own eyes, for the group consisted of Monsieur Duval, Mrs. De Lancey Smythe and enveloped in the pale blue broadcloth cloak Bab had often seen her wear was the Countess Sophia.

CHAPTER XV
CAUGHT NAPPING

The following morning Barbara awoke with the feeling of one who has experienced a disagreeable dream. Was it a trick of her imagination, or had she really seen their beautiful young countess deep in conversation with Monsieur Duval and Mrs. De Lancey Smythe? True Bab had not seen her face, but her height, and carriage the blue cloak were unmistakable.

On her return to their room Bab had not mentioned her unpleasant discovery to Ruth. She could not bear to voice any actual charge against the Countess Sophia. Perhaps it will all be explained yet, she told herself, and with a wisdom far beyond her years, she resolved to be silent, at least for the present, about what she had seen.

When the launch which Mr. Stuart had chartered, with its freight of picnickers, had put out from shore and headed for the villa, where they were to pick up the countess and Madame de Villiers, Barbara had loyally decided to let not even the evidence of her own eyes sway her into condemning the countess unheard.

On their arrival at the villa they found the countess and Madame de Villiers ready and waiting for them, and the sailing party was soon comfortably seated in the roomy launch. Madame de Villiers occupied a wicker chair opposite Miss Sallie, while the young countess and the Automobile Girls had stretched a steamer rug over the roof of the small cabin, and lay upon it in picturesque attitudes under their sunshades.

There was a churning of the propeller, a shrill toot from the whistle, and the launch glided out over the water as smoothly as a canoe rides down stream.

Were off! cried Mr. Stuart joyously.

I believe you are just a great boy still, Robert, smiled Miss Sallie indulgently.

The days excursion had been arranged by Mr. Stuart. He was an enthusiastic fisherman, and on his return from the fishing expedition with Mr. Warren he at once began to plan a similar excursion for the Automobile Girls, extending his invitation to the countess and Madame de Villiers.

It was an ideal day for a picnic. The sun shone brilliantly down on Palm Beach, making it look like an enchanted land. The bathers were out in full force. A little farther up the beach countless flower-trimmed hats and many-hued parasols made gorgeous blots of color along the white sands. Overhead the sky was an intense blue, and the water reflected the blueness in its depths.

You can never understand how happy this makes me, declared the countess, bestowing an enchanting smile upon the little company. Mr. Stuart, we thank you for the many pleasures you have given Cousine and me. Someday I hope I may be able to do something for you.

Wait until the picnic is over before you thank me, Countess, replied her host. The fishing may bore you, especially if the fish dont bite.

Ah, well, laughed the countess, I could fish patiently all day, under a sky like this without complaining, if I were to catch nothing but a minnow.

Mr. Stuarts fishing party had made an early start. They were to land some miles up the coast, where those who were not of a mind to fish could make themselves comfortable on shore.





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