Chapter XIV. The Regatta
 

The two young men came on, apparently with the object of speaking to the girls. Evidently they had purposely sought them out.

"Oh, it is Miss Nelson, and her friends from the Gem!" exclaimed Mr. Stone, which might indicate that he had expected to meet some other party of picnic lovers.

"I hope we are not intruding," said Mr. Kennedy, "but we want to borrow some salt, if you have any."

Betty looked at them curiously. Was this a subterfuge-- a means to an acquaintance? Her manner stiffened a trifle, and she glanced at Aunt Kate.

"You see we came off on a little picnic like yourselves," explained Mr. Stone, "and Bob, here, forgot the salt."

"You told me you'd put it in yourself, Harry!" exclaimed the other, "and of course I thought you did."

"Well, be that as it may," said his friend, "we have no salt. We heard your voices over here and decided to be bold enough to ask for some. Do you remember us, Miss Nelson?"

"Oh, yes." Betty's manner softened. The explanation was sufficient. Clearly the young men had not resorted to this trick to scrape an acquaintance with the girls.

"Is there anything else you'd like?" asked impulsive Mollie. "Grace has plenty of candy, I think, and as for olives----" she tilted one empty bottle, and smiled. Mr. Kennedy smiled back in a frank manner. Betty decided that introductions would be in good form, since they had learned that the young men were "perfectly proper."

Names were exchanged, and Mr. Kennedy and his friend sat down on the grass. They did not seem in any special hurry about the salt, now that it was offered.

"We hope you haven't changed your minds about the race and regatta," spoke Mr. Stone, after some generalities had been exchanged. "By the way, I have the entry blanks for you," and he passed the papers to Betty, who accepted them with murmured thanks.

"We shall very likely enter both the pageant and the race," she said. "When do they take place?"

"The pageant will be held two nights hence. That will really open the carnival. The boats, decorated as suit the fancies of the owners, will form in line, and move about the lake, past the judges' stand. There will be prizes for the most beautifully decorated boat, the oddest, and also the worst, if you understand me. I mean by the last that some captains have decided to make their boats look like wrecks, striving after queer effects."

"I should not like that," said Betty, decidedly. "But if there is time, and we can do it, we might decorate?" and she looked at her chums questioningly.

"Surely," said Grace, and Mollie took the chance to whisper to her:

"Why don't you start some questions?"

"I will-- if I get a chance," was the answer.

Betty was finding out more about the carnival when the start would be made, the course and other details. The races would take place the day after the boat parade.

"There will be canoe and rowing races, as well as tub and 'upset' events," said Mr. Stone. "We are also planning to have a swimming and diving contest the latter part of the regatta week, but I don't suppose you young ladies would care to enter that."

"We all swim, and we have our bathing suits," said Mollie, indefinitely.

"Mollie dives beautifully!" exclaimed Amy.

"I do not-- that is, I'm not an expert at it," Mollie hastened to say. "But I love diving."

"Then why not enter?" asked Mr. Kennedy. "I am chairman of that committee. I'll put the names of you girls down, if you don't mind. It doesn't commit you to anything."

The girls had no formal objections.

"You are real out-door girls, I can see that!" complimented Mr. Stone. "You must like life in the woods and on the lake."

"Indeed they do," spoke Aunt Kate. "They walked-- I think it was two hundred miles, just before coming on this cruise; didn't you, Betty?"

"Yes, but we took it by easy stages," evaded the Little Captain.

"That was fine!" exclaimed Mr. Kennedy. "Well, Harry, if we're gong to eat we'd better take our salt and go."

"Won't you have some of our sandwiches?" asked Mollie, impulsive as usual. "We have more than we can eat," for they had brought along a most substantial lunch. Mollie looked at Betty and Aunt Kate. They registered no objections.

"You are very good," protested Mr. Kennedy, "but really we don't want to deprive you---- "

"It will be no deprivation," said Betty. "We will be glad not to have them wasted---- "

"Oh, then by all means let us be-- the wastebaskets!" exclaimed Mr. Stone, laughing.

"Oh, I didn't mean just that," and Betty blushed.

"I understand," he replied, and Aunt Kate passed over a plate of chicken sandwiches. Under cover of opening another bottle of olives, Mollie whispered to Grace:

"Ask him some questions-- start on motoring-- ask if they ever motored near Deepdale."

"I will," whispered Grace, and, as the two young men ate, she led the topic of talk to automobiles.

"Do you motor?" she asked, looking directly at Mr. Stone. She was certain now that at least he had been in the car that caused Prince to run away.

"Oh, yes, often," he answered. "Do you?"

"No, but I am very fond of horseback riding," she said. She was certain that Mr. Stone started.

"Indeed," said he, "that is something I never cared about. Frankly, I am afraid of horses. I saw one run away once, with a young lady, and---- "

"Do you mean that time we were speeding up to get out of the storm?" his friend interrupted, "and we hit a stone, swerved over toward the animal, and nearly struck it?"

"Yes, that was the time," answered Mr. Stone. Grace could hardly refrain from crying out that she was on that same horse.

"I have always wondered who that girl was," Mr. Stone went on, "and some day I mean to go back to the scene of the accident, and see if I can find out. I have an idea she blames us for her horse running away. But it was an accident, pure and simple; wasn't it, Bob?"

"It certainly was. You see it was this way," he explained, and Grace felt sure they would ask her why she was so pale, for the blood had left her cheeks on hearing that the young men were really those she had suspected. "Harry, here, and myself," went on Mr. Kennedy, "had been out for a little run, to transact some business. We were on a country road, and a storm was coming up. We put on speed, because we did not want to get wet, and I had to be at a telegraph office at a certain time to complete a deal by wire.

"Just ahead of us was a girl on a white horse. The animal seemed frightened at the storm, and just as we came racing past our car struck a stone, and was jolted right over toward the animal. I am not sure but what we hit it. Anyhow the horse bolted. The girl looked able to manage it, and as it was absolutely necessary for us to keep on, we did so."

"I looked back, and I thought I saw the horse stumble with the girl," put in Mr. Stone, "but I was not sure, and then the rain came pelting down, and the road was so bad that it took both of us to manage the car. We were late, too. But we meant to go back and see if any accident happened."

"Only when we got to the telegraph office," supplied his friend, "we were at once called to New York in haste, and so many things have come up since that we never got the chance. Tell me," he said earnestly, "you girls live in Deepdale. This happened not far from there. Did you ever hear of a girl on a white horse being seriously hurt?"

Grace made a motion to her chums to keep silent about the whole affair, and let her answer. She had her reasons.

"There was no report of any girl being seriously hurt at the time you mention," she said, a trifle coolly, "but a little child was knocked down by a horse-- a white horse. It may have been the one you scared."

"But unintentionally-- unintentionally! I hope you believe that!" said Mr. Stone earnestly.

"Oh-- yes-- of course," and Grace's voice was not quite so cold now. She could readily understand that the accident could have happened in just that way, and it was beginning to look so. Certainly, not knowing the girls, the young man could have no object in deceiving them,

"A little child knocked down, you say!" exclaimed Mr. Kennedy. "I hope it was not badly hurt. Who was it?"

"My----" began Mollie, and she was on the point of saying it was her sister Dodo, when from the lake there sounded the cry of:

"Fire! Fire! Fire!"

Then came a sharp explosion. Everyone arose, and Mr. Kennedy exclaimed excitedly:

"That must be an explosion on a motor boat. Come on, Harry. We may he needed!"

They rushed through the bushes toward the place whence the alarm came, the girls following as fast as they could.

"Don't let him know it was I, or that it was your sister who was hurt!" Grace cautioned her chums. "I am going to write to papa, and he can make an investigation. Their explanation sounds all right, but they may have the papers after all. I'm going to write to-day."

"I would," advised Aunt Kate." "It may amount to nothing, but it can do no harm to let your father know. And I think it wise not to let these young men know that you were in that runaway. If they really were not careless, as it seemed at first, you can tell them later, when you see how the investigation by Mr. Ford turns out."

"That will be best," spoke Betty. "Oh, see, it is a boat on fire!"

They had reached a place where they could see a small motor boat, not far from shore, wrapped in a pall of black smoke, through which could be observed flickering flames.

"There-- he's jumped!" cried Mollie, as a figure leaped from the burning craft. "He's safe, anyhow."

"There go Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Stone in their boat!" exclaimed Grace, as the slender racing craft shot out from shore.

Whatever may have been the faults of the young men as motorists, they knew how to act promptly in this case. As they passed the man who had leaped from the burning boat they tossed him a life preserver.

Then, nearing the burning boat, they halted their own, and began using a chemical extinguisher-- the only safe thing save sand with which to fight a gasoline blaze. The fire did not have a chance to get much headway, and it was soon out, another boat coming up and lending aid.

The man who had jumped was taken aboard this second boat, and his own, rather charred but not seriously damaged, was towed to shore. Later the girls learned that there had been some gasoline which leaked from his tank. He had been repairing his motor, which had stalled, when a spark from the electric wire set fire to the gasoline. There was a slight explosion, followed by the fire.

"And it came just in time to stop me from telling what might have spoiled your plans, Grace," said Mollie, when they went back to gather up their lunch baskets.

"Well, I haven't any plans. I am going to let father or Will make them, after I send the information," she answered, "But I think it best to let the two young men remain in ignorance, for a while."

"Oh, I do, too!" exclaimed Betty. "They will probably not refer to it again, being so busy over the regatta."

There was a busy time for the girls, too. They finally decided to convert the Gem, as nearly as possible under the circumstances, into a Venetian gondola. By building a light wooden framework about it, and tacking on muslin, this could be done without too much labor. Betty engaged the help of a man and boy, and with the girls to aid the work was soon well under way.

The girls saw little of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Stone-- save passing glimpses-- after the picnic. Grace telephoned to her father, who promised to at once look into the matter.

"I do hope we win a prize!" exclaimed Mollie, on the evening of the regatta. "The Gem looks lovely!"

"Yes, I think it is rather nice," admitted Betty.

The muslin, drawn tightly over the temporary frame, had been painted until in the dark the boat bore a striking resemblance to a gondola, even to the odd prow in front. It was arranged that Grace should stand at the stern with a long oar, or what was to pass for it, while Betty would run the motor and do the real steering. Mollie, Amy, and Aunt Kate were to be passengers. Mollie borrowed a guitar and there was to be music and singing as they took part in the water pageant.

"Well, it's time to start," announced Betty after supper. "We'll light the Chinese lanterns after we get to our place in line," for the boats were to be illuminated.

The Gem started off, being in the midst of many craft, all more or less decorated, that were to take part in the affair.