Chapter VIII. Premonitions
 

Betty kept her promise and called up the girls to tell them the news. Like the Little Captain, they had felt almost sure of the identity of the two Dempsey boys who had been killed in France, yet the confirmation of their fears came as a distinct shock.

They waited for a couple of days, undecided what to do, if indeed it was their place to do anything at all. Vaguely they felt the need of comforting the queer little professor in his hour of greatest trouble, and yet they were at a loss to know just how to go about it.

Meanwhile, the occupations that had ordinarily filled their days to overflowing with fun, seemed dull and uninteresting and they found their thoughts reverting again and again to the bereaved father in his lonely little cabin in the woods.

Percy Falconer had called at Betty's house the day after the incident on the river as had been arranged, and Betty had conceived the plan of having all her chums there to meet him.

Her hope was that the gay Percy, seeing four, where he had expected only one, would be overwhelmed with numbers and would flee the premises early-- to return no more.

Her faith in her plan was more than justified. Percy had always been a little afraid of the Outdoor Girls-- Betty in particular-- but it is probable that if he had been able to meet them one at a time, he might have come off victorious. As it was, he was routed, completely and ignominiously, leaving the girls to laugh at his discomfiture.

"There, I guess that is the end of that pest," Mollie had said when she had recovered a little from her mirth. "I imagine we won't see him around these parts again."

"I hope not," Betty had answered with a satisfied little yawn. "Wasn't he too funny in that checked suit and awful green necktie? Poor old Percy! I suppose he can't help it. He probably just grew that way,"

She had been comparing him all evening with her splendid, upstanding Allen, and poor Percy had certainly not gained by the comparison.

The amusing incident served to divert their minds somewhat from the thought of Professor Dempsey, but the picture of him haunted their minds so continually day and night that the Outdoor Girls finally decided that something must he done about it.

"I can't stand it any longer," Betty confided to them one morning when they stood on Mollie's porch discussing what course of action it would be best to take. "I have a queer feeling that the poor professor is in desperate need of friends, and I don't believe I'll be able to sleep another night until I find out something definite about him."

"Won't he think we are sort of 'butting in'?" asked Grace, hesitating a little. "He might think we came just out of curiosity."

"I don't think he would," said Mollie. "You know he invited us to come back some time when we could stay long enough for him to tell us something about those bugs and butterflies and things he sticks pins into

"That's the idea!" exclaimed Betty quickly. "We won't have to tell him we know anything about his trouble. If he tells us-- why, all right, but if he doesn't, of course we won't try to force a confidence. Anyway," she finished soberly, "we'll have the satisfaction of knowing we have done our best for him whether it really helps him any or not."

"And we owe him a very great deal," spoke up Amy softly. "He really saved our lives, you know."

So it was settled, and while the other three girls ran home to put on coats and hats and get ready for the drive, Mollie ran around to the garage and brought her big car to the front of the house.

She waved good-bye to her mother, who was trying rather wildly to keep Dodo and Paul from running under the wheels of the car and getting killed, and purred off down the street in the direction of Betty's house.

When she arrived there she was a little surprised to see that Betty was backing her fast little roadster down the drive.

To Betty the little car was almost alive, and she talked to it as she would have to some loved horse or dog. She scrubbed it and scoured it and shined it so that it always looked like a brand new car.

"Hey, look out!" cried Mollie, for Betty, not noticing her and being a little worried about the sound of the engine, had backed the small car down the drive and almost into Mollie's big one. "What kind of driving do you call that? Do you want to buy me a new mudguard?"

"Oh, pardon me," said Betty, laughing back at her. "You were so small and insignificant, I came near not seeing you."

"Well, you would have felt me in another minute," grumbled Mollie, as she shut off the engine and got out of the car. "What's the idea of your little peanut, anyway? Thought you were going to ride in a regular car."

"That's why I chose mine," Betty laughed back impishly, still intent on the sound of the engine.

It was part of their fun to be always throwing insults at each other's car but the thrusts were invariably good-natured.

Only once had there threatened to be any trouble between the chums on account of rivalry over the cars. That had been when Mollie had taken Betty's "dare" to a race and Betty's little roadster had won the day, racing like a streak of light along the country road and leaving Mollie's high-powered but more clumsy car far behind.

But Mollie had taken her defeat like the little sport she was-- even though it must be admitted she had been considerably disappointed and taken aback by her failure-- and in her ever since there had been a great respect for Betty's car.

But now she eyed with impatience the bent figure of the Little Captain as she still leaned over the wheel, her ear tuned to the purr of the engine.

"For goodness' sake, what's the matter with you?" she cried. "I thought you were the one who was in a hurry to be off and now look at you-- sitting there like----"

"Engine is missing," Betty informed her briskly. "Guess I had better have a look--"

"If you start fussing with bolts and screws now, you can count me out," said Mollie, resolutely climbing back into her car. "It is ten o'clock already, and we won't be home before night if we don't hurry."

"Oh, all right," laughed Betty. "But if the car gives out before we get back don't blame me, that's all."

"It would give me the greatest of pleasure," said Mollie with a diabolical chuckle as her machine moved off down the street, "to have every one in Deepdale see me towing your poor little flivver through the town."

"Huh," sang back Betty scornfully as the roadster responded eagerly to her touch, "they will have a great deal better chance of seeing me in the lead with your great big jumbo tottering feebly at the end of a rope."

They picked up Amy and Grace on the way and were soon flying swiftly down the road in the direction of Professor Dempsey's tree-surrounded home.

They were in rather good spirits at first, for now that they were really on the way to doing something, though they were not quite sure what, they felt relieved and almost gay.

But as the distance shortened between them and their destination, a strange depression that they could neither explain nor brush away settled down over them.

Once, Grace, who sat beside the Little Captain in the roadster, sighed rather dolefully and Betty looked at her out of the corner of her eye.

"Do you feel that way too, Gracie?" the latter asked.

"What way?" asked Grace uncertainly. "That sigh, do you mean?"

"Yes," nodded Betty. "You sounded rather mournful and that is exactly the way I feel. What's the matter with us, anyway? Where are our spirits?"

"I suppose we couldn't expect to feel joyful," said Grace after a little pause. "We aren't going, so far as I can see, on a very happy errand, you know."

"But I don't think it is that alone," said Betty, with a shake of her head. "I feel as if we were going to see something perfectly dreadful--"

"Betty," Grace looked at her in sudden alarm, her eyes wide, "you don't suppose that the professor could have done anything-- anything rash, do you?"

"You mean----" said Betty, hesitating before the ugly word. "Oh, Grace, you don't mean-- suicide, do you?"

Grace nodded and tried hard not to look as frightened as she felt.

"No, I-- I don't think so," said Betty, grasping the wheel with hands that somehow seemed suddenly weak. "If I thought anything like that had happened I wouldn't have the courage to go on."

"Well, I don't believe I have-- the courage, I mean," said Grace, irresolutely. "Don't you think we had better go back, Betty? It's so lonesome here and-- and-- everything----"

Her voice was rising to something like a wail, and Betty, striving to throttle her own misgivings, spoke in a voice that was intended to be reassuring.

"We wouldn't think very much of ourselves if we turned back now," she said. "And probably we are worrying a great deal about nothing. He didn't seem like the kind of man who would do a thing like that."

Grace said no more about turning back, and they were silent for the rest of the way. But instead of lightening, the cloud of depression became deeper and more foreboding until even the stout Little Captain began almost to wish that they had not come.