Chapter XIII. The Missing Lunch.
 

"Oh, but these shoes are so comfortable!"

"I'm glad of that, Grace."

"Though I didn't really delay you much; did I?"

"No, I wasn't complaining," and Betty put a caressing hand on the arm of her companion.

"We'll be able to make up for lost time now," said Mollie, as she shifted her little valise from one hand to the other. "Your aunt was certainly generous in the matter of lunch, Betty," she went on.

"Yes, she said this country air would give us good appetites."

"I'm sure I don't need any," spoke Amy. "I've been hungry ever since we started."

The four girls were again on the broad highway that was splashed and spotted with the streaks of the early sun as it slanted through the elms and maples along the road. They had spent two nights at the home of Betty's aunt, that lady having insisted on a little longer visit than was at first planned. She made the girls royally welcome, as did her husband. Grace's shoes had been sent to her at Rockford, having been telephoned for.

"But if we stay another day and night here," said Betty, "not that we're not glad to, Aunt Sallie--why we can't keep up to our schedule in walking, and we must cover so many miles each day."

"You see it's in the constitution of our club," added Grace. "We can't violate that."

"Oh, come now!" insisted Mr. Palmer. "You can stay longer just as well as not. As for walking, why we've got some of the finest walks going, right around Rockford here. You'd better stay. We don't very often see you, Betty, and your aunt isn't half talked out yet," and he solemnly winked over the head of his wife.

"The idea!" she exclaimed. "As if I'd talked half as much as you had."

And so the girls had remained. They had greatly enjoyed the visit. In anticipation of their coming Mrs. Palmer had prepared "enough for a regiment of hungry boys," to quote her husband, and had invited a number of the neighboring young people to meet the members of the Camping and Tramping Club.

The dainty rooms of the country house, with their quaint, old-fashioned, striped wall paper, the big four-poster beds, a relic of a by-gone generation, the mahogany dressers with their shining mirrors, and the delightful home-like atmosphere--all had combined to make the stay of the girls most pleasant.

The day after their arrival by carriage they had gone on a long walk, visiting a picturesque little glen not far from the village, being accompanied by a number of girls whose acquaintance Betty and her chums had made. Some of them Betty had met before.

The idea of a walking club was enthusiastically received by the country girls, and they at once resolved to form one like the organization started by Betty Nelson. In fact they named it after her, in spite of her protests.

In the afternoon the girls went for a drive in Mr. Palmer's big carriage, visiting places of local interest. And in the evening there was an old-fashioned "surprise party"--a real surprise too, by the way, for Betty and her chums had never dreamed of it. It was a most delightful time.

Mr. and Mrs. Palmer had tried to persuade their niece and her chums to stay still longer, but they were firm in their determination to cover the two hundred miles--more or less--in the specified time.

So they had started off, and the snatches of conversation with which I begun this chapter might have been heard as the four walked along the pleasant country road.

"We've had very good luck so far," said Mollie, as she skipped a few steps in advance on the greensward. "Not a bit of rain."

"Don't boast!" cautioned Betty. "It will be perfectly terrible if it rains. We simply can't walk if it does."

"I don't see why not," spoke Mollie, trying to catch Amy in a waltz hug and whirl her about.

"My, isn't she getting giddy!" mocked Grace.

"I feel so good!" cried Mollie, whose volatile nature seemed fairly bubbling over on this beautiful day. And indeed it was a day to call forth all the latent energies of the most phlegmatic person. The very air tingled with life that the sunshine coaxed into being, and the gentle wind further fanned it to rapidity of action. "Oh, I do feel so happy!" cried Mollie.

"I guess we all do," spoke Grace, but even as she said this she could not refrain from covertly glancing at Amy, over whose face there seemed a shade of--well, just what it was Grace could not decide. It might have been disappointment, or perhaps an unsatisfied longing. Clearly the mystery over her past had made an impression on the character of this sweet, quiet girl. But for all that she did not inflict her mood on her chums. She must have become conscious of Grace's quick scrutiny, for with a laugh she ran to her, and soon the two were bobbing about on the uneven turf in what they were pleased to term a "dance."

"Your aunt was certainly good to us," murmured Mollie, a little later. "I'm just dying to see what she has put up for our lunch." For Mrs. Palmer had insisted, as has been said, on packing one of the little valises the girls carried with a noon-day meal to be eaten on the road. Mollie was entrusted with this, her belongings having been divided among her chums.

"Oh," suddenly cried Grace, a moment later, "I forgot something!"

"You mean you left it at my aunt's house?" asked Betty, coming to a stop in the road.

"No, I forgot to get some of those lovely chocolates that new drug store sells. They were delicious. For a country town I never ate better."

"Grace, you are hopeless!" sighed Betty. "Come along, girls, do, or she'll insist on going back for them. And we must get to Middleville on time. It won't do to fall back in our schedule any more."

"I sent a postal to my cousin from your aunt's house," said Amy, at whose relatives the girls were to spend the night. "I told her we surely would be there."

"And so we will," said Betty. "Gracious, I forgot to mail this card to Nettie French," and she produced a souvenir card from her pocket.

"Never mind, you can put it in the next post-office we come to," suggested Grace. "Oh, dear! I'm so provoked about those chocolates. I'm positively famished, and I don't suppose it is anywhere near lunch time?" and she looked at her watch. "No, only ten o'clock," and she sighed.

Laughing at her, the girls stepped on. For a time the road ran along a pleasant little river, on which a number of canoes and boats could be seen.

"Oh, for a good row!" exclaimed Mollie.

"We'll have plenty of chances this summer," said Betty. "It has hardly begun."

"I wonder where we will spend our vacation?" spoke Mollie.

"We'll talk about that later," said Betty. "I hope we can be together, and somewhere near the water."

"If we only could get a motor boat!" sighed Grace. "Oh, Bet, if no one claims that five hundred dollars maybe we can get a little launch with it, and camp at Rainbow Lake."

"I'm only afraid some one will claim it," spoke Betty. "I dropped papa a card, telling him to send me a line in case a claimant did appear."

"Oh, let's sit down and rest," proposed Mollie, a little later. "There's a perfect dream of a view from here and it's so cool and shady."

The others were agreeable, so they stopped beneath some big trees in a grassy spot near the bank of the little stream. Grace took advantage of the stop to mend a pair of stockings she was carrying with her. It was so comfortable that they remained nearly an hour and would have stayed longer only the Little Captain, with a look at her watch, decided that they must get under way again.

"Now it's noon!" exclaimed Grace, when they had covered two miles after their rest. "Mollie, open the lunch and let's see what it contains."

There was a startled cry from Mollie. A clasping of her hands, a raising of her almost tragic eyes, and she exclaimed:

"Oh, girls, forgive me! I forgot the lunch! I left it back there where we rested in the shade!"