Chapter II.
 

Gladys, as the leader, had the road map with her with the route marked out which we were to follow. We hastened to the end of the street, expecting to catch sight of the Striped Beetle just around the corner, but it was nowhere to be seen. We stopped at a store and asked if they had seen it come by and they said, yes, it had just passed and had turned to the left up --th Street. We followed swiftly, thinking to come upon the girls each moment, but there was no sign of them.

"They surely have discovered by this time that we are not behind them and must be waiting for us," said Nyoda. "I can't understand it."

"Gladys is probably trying to see if we can trail her through the city to the motor road," said Sahwah. "You know how much we talked about being self-reliant? We'll probably find her where the road branches out from the city, waiting with a stop watch to see how long it took us to find her."

"We'll get there," said Nyoda grimly, her sporting blood up.

Everywhere along the road people told us about the brown car that had gone just ahead of us and pointed out the direction it had taken. Every time we turned a corner we expected to hear the laughter of the girls who were leading us such a merry chase, but we didn't. Soon we were out of the city and on the country road once more, and we were quite a bit puzzled not to find them waiting for us. We certainly thought the joke was to have ended here. But a man walking along the road had seen the car go by half an hour before.

"Half an hour!" we echoed. "Gladys must have been speeding to have gotten so far ahead of us." Of course, the Striped Beetle is a six- cylinder car and more powerful than the Glow-worm, which is a four, and then they hadn't stopped at every corner to ask the way, so it wasn't so strange after all that Gladys was so far ahead.

"We'll make some speed on this road," said Nyoda resolutely, "and if we don't catch Lady Gladys before she gets to Ft. Wayne, I'll know the reason why. This is the road to Bryan, isn't it?" she asked, with her hand on the starting-lever.

"No," said the man. "This here road goes through Napoleon and Defiance. It gets to Ft. Wayne all right, but it doesn't go through Bryan."

Nyoda stopped in surprise. "The southern route?" she said, wonderingly. "Why, we decided on the northern. Whatever could have made Gladys change her mind without letting us know? Are you sure it was a brown car with four girls dressed just like us?"

The man was positive. It was the suits and the veils all alike that had caught his eye in the first place. He didn't generally remember much about the cars that went past. There were too many of them. But these girls looked so fine in their tan suits that he just had to look twice at them. They were laughing fit to kill and all waved their handkerchiefs at him as they passed.

We looked at each other in astonishment. It was undoubtedly the Striped Beetle that was going along the southern route and we couldn't understand it.

"Do you suppose," I said, "that Gladys could have misunderstood when you were playing 'John Kempo' and thought it was the southern route that won?"

"She must have," said Nyoda. "It's not impossible. We were all laughing and talking so much nonsense at the time that it was hard to think straight. But it doesn't make any difference," she added, "this route is as good as the northern, and we are right behind them and I mean to catch up before we get to Ft. Wayne." I knew what Nyoda was thinking about. The man had said the girls in the car were laughing fit to kill, and that looked very much as if there were some joke on foot. We knew very well they were running away from us and were going to lead us a chase to Ft. Wayne.

As we started off in pursuit I looked around from the tonneau, where I was then sitting, and saw a red roadster not far behind us. There was one man in it and he was the Frog I had seen goggling at Nyoda in the dining-room at Toledo.

We were not so terribly surprised when we did not find the Striped Beetle at Napoleon where we stopped for gasoline. We knew now that they would not let us catch them before we got to Ft. Wayne. We inquired at the service station and found that the brown car had stopped for gasoline nearly an hour before. Clearly they were not losing any time on the road. Neither were we gaining on them at that rate. Nyoda looked thoughtful as she started out once more. I knew she was meditating a lecture for Gladys when she caught up with her, about running away from us. Nyoda was responsible for the welfare of seven girls and how could she fulfil her trust if she had only three under her eye? And I knew as well as I knew anything that Gladys would forfeit her right to be leader by that little prank and for the rest of the trip would follow meekly along behind us. Nyoda would never in the world stand for her going off like that. But by the puzzled frown on her face I knew that she didn't understand it any more than I did. Gladys was the last one in the world to do such a thing. There must be some reason.

From my seat I could see that the Frog, who had also stopped for gasoline when we did, was not far behind us. The car he was in looked like a racing car, with a very long hood in front, and he could easily have gotten ahead of us. I wondered for a long time why he did not do so, and then suddenly I had a premonition. He was following us, or rather Nyoda. Something had told me when I first saw him that we should see him again. I made a horrible face at him behind my veil and wished something would happen to his car.

As we were passing through the village of S---- a chicken started up right under our front wheels, uttering a startled and startling squawk. Nyoda swerved to one side and ran squarely into a tree. There was a bump and a grating sound somewhere beneath us and then the nice cheerful humming of the motor stopped. Nyoda got out of the car to see what had been damaged.

"As far as I can see, only the lamp bracket is bent," she said, but when she tried to start the car again it wouldn't start.

"Maybe the driving spider has caught the flywheel," said Sahwah, trying to be funny.

Just then the red roadster did pass us, going slowly, and the Frog kept his eyes riveted on Nyoda all the while. She never looked at him. She had unbuttoned the roof over the engine and was poking her fingers down into the dragon's mouth, but undoubtedly the trouble wasn't there. There was a repair shop not far away--all of the towns along the touring routes which have an eye to business have some sort of one--and Nyoda repaired thither and fetched a man who tinkered knowingly with the regions underneath the Glow-worm and then reported in a dust choked voice that one of the gears was "on the blink". Just what part of a car's vital organs a gear is I don't know, but I judged it was an important one because Nyoda looked serious.

"What will we do?" she said, tragically.

"Can fix you up in the shop," said the man, wiping his forehead with a blue and white handkerchief. "We have a dismantled car of the same make there and can take a gear out of that."

So the Glow-worm was trundled up the street into the shop, and we were told that the damage would be fixed by the next morning. The next morning! We looked at each other in consternation.

"But we must get to Ft. Wayne to-night," said Nyoda, in a tone of finality.

"Sorry, ladies," said the foreman of the repair shop, "but it can't be done." Then we realized that we would have to stay in S---- all night. Here was a pretty mess. And Gladys and Hinpoha and the other two waiting for us in Ft. Wayne.

"We'll have to let them know," said Nyoda. "They'll worry when they see we're not coming."

"Let them worry," said Sahwah, darkly. "It serves them right for what they did to us."

But, of course, we had to let them know. So Nyoda wired the little hotel where we had planned to stay--and what a good time we were going to have!--and told the girls to stay there for the night and to please wait for us in the morning and not leave us again. Of course, the message was much more condensed than that, but Nyoda got it all in.

Then there was nothing else for us to do but make the best of a bad bargain and hunt up the one hotel in S---- and prepare to spend the night. But when we got there it was crowded. There was a big wedding in town that night, we were informed, and the out-of-town guests had filled the hotel. They were already two in a room and there was no hope of doubling up. Seeing our dismay at this news, the clerk bethought himself of a woman in the village who had a very large house and often let rooms to tourists when the hotel was full. She had once been very wealthy, but had lost everything but the house and now made her living by keeping boarders.

We thanked him and hurried off to the address to which he had directed us. We were very hot and tired and dusty and amazingly hungry. It was already six o'clock in the evening, and with the difference in time between our city and this we had been on the road a long day. We were glad after all that the hotel had not been able to accommodate us when we saw this house. The hotel was on the main street and the rooms must have been small and stuffy; anything but comfortable on this hot night. But this house stood far back from the street in an immense shady yard, one of those enormous brick houses that well-to-do people were fond of building about thirty-five years ago, with large rooms and high ceilings and enough space inside them to quarter a regiment. We blessed the good fortune which had led our feet to this hospitable looking door, which, in times gone by, must have opened to admit throngs of distinguished people.

There was no door-bell, but a big bronze knocker, and in answer to it a young girl, presumably the "hired girl", let us into the hall. She took our coming as a matter of course, so we judged they were prepared for tourists that day, knowing that the hotel was full on account of the wedding. Without a word she led us up-stairs and we breathed a sigh of relief when we thought of a bath and supper. The house must have been the home of fashionable people in its time, for the furnishings, though old, were still luxurious. The carpet on the stairs was still thick and soft to our feet, and the curtains I could see on the windows were of a fine quality. At the head of the stairs there was an oil painting of a woman in the dress of a by-gone day. The servant opened the door of a room at the front end of the long up-stairs hall and we passed in.

We had known instinctively as soon as we entered the place that the lady of the house was a woman of refinement and culture, notwithstanding the reduced circumstances which made it necessary for her to rent out rooms in this big mansion of a house in order to make her living. "I should think she'd rent it or sell it," said practical Sahwah.

"She probably can't bear to part with these things, which remind her of her former life," I said, sentimentally.

We were all anxious to see the woman who had been the mistress of so much splendor in days gone by and could not give up the house. The bedroom we were shown to was luxurious compared to what I had been used to at home. The bed was a mahogany four-poster covered with a spread of lace, and the rug on the floor was a faded oriental. Opening out of the bedroom was a bath with a shower and we made a dash to get under the cooling flood. I have never seen such towels as were stacked up on that little white table in the bathroom. They were all heavily embroidered with initials and the fringe on them was every bit of six inches long.

"The fringe for me!" exclaimed Sahwah, when she saw them. She seized a whole pile of them at once, using only the fringe for drying, and putting on affected aristocratic airs that made us shriek with laughter. We had been dressing all over the two rooms and the floor was strewn with towels and articles of clothing. Suddenly the door of the bedroom opened and a woman stood in the room. She was a gray-haired woman of about fifty, very handsome and proud-looking, and dressed in a gown of plum-colored satin. She said nothing; just looked at us. I glanced around at the others. There was Sahwah, her kimono wrapped loosely around her, patting her feet dry with the fringe of a dozen towels; Nyoda stood in front of the dressing-table with a towel wrapped around her, combing her hair: I was sitting on the floor putting my shoes on, while through the bathroom door came the sounds of the shower turned on full force, with an occasional shriek from Nakwisi when she got it too cold. Suddenly I felt unaccountably foolish. Nyoda and Sahwah looked up and saw the woman the next instant. She stood looking at us, her eyes nearly popping out of her head, her face purple, leaning against the foot of the bed for support. Nobody said a word. As Sahwah expressed it afterward, "Silence reigned, and we stood there in the rain."

"How did--how did you get in?" the woman gasped faintly, after a silence of a full minute. We knew something was wrong. We could feel it in the marrow of our bones.

Nyoda, holding her towel closely around her, answered in as dignified a manner as possible. "We were directed to your house from the hotel as a place where we could spend the night, and your maid admitted us and brought us in here. Is there anything the matter?"

The woman stood staring as if fascinated at the towels which were lying all over the floor. At that moment Nakwisi opened the door of the bath and emerged in her dressing-gown, the open door behind her revealing splashes of water all over the room and more towels on the floor. The woman put her hand to her throat as if she were choking. She tried to speak but evidently could not.

"Isn't this Mrs. Butler's house?" asked Nyoda, with growing misgiving. "Don't you take in tourists when the hotel is filled?"

The woman swallowed convulsively and found her voice. "No," she said, emphatically, "this is not Mrs. Butler's house, and I don't take in tourists when the hotel is filled. This is the McAlpine residence and my husband is State Senator McAlpine. My daughter is getting married to-night and we have a houseful of wedding guests. We had two special trains, one from Chicago and one from New York, bringing guests. If my maid let you in she thought you were some of them." Then she looked around the room and seemed on the verge of apoplexy once more. "But how did you get in here?" she cried, wildly. "This is the bridal chamber!"

I suddenly felt weak in the back-bone, and thought my head was going to drop into my lap. The towel fell from Nyoda's shoulders and she stood there like a statue with her long hair around her. Sahwah stopped still with her foot on the stool and the handful of towels in her hand. For one moment we remained as if turned to stone and then Sahwah buried her face in the towels with a muffled shriek. If embarrassment ever killed people I know not one of us would have survived. Nyoda apologised profusely for our intrusion, which, after all, was not our fault, as we soon found. The hotel man had told us number 65 South Vine Street when it was number 65 North Vine Street he had meant.

We got dressed faster than we ever had before in our lives and packed up our scattered belongings, leaving the rooms nearly as tidy as they were when we came in. Mrs. McAlpine had withdrawn into the next room, and through the closed door we could hear the sound of excited talking and knew that she was telling the story to someone. When she had finished we heard a man's voice raised in a regular bellow. Evidently it had struck him as funny.

"No!" we heard him chortle. "You don't mean it! Got put into the bridal chamber, ha, ha! When you wouldn't let me put a foot into it! Took a bath and used up all the wedding towels that you wouldn't even let me touch! Oh, ha! ha! ha!" The very house seemed to shake with the violence of his mirth. Senator McAlpine, for we judged it was he, must have had a sense of humor. "Where are they?" we heard him shout. "Let me see them!"

But at the thought of facing that battery of laughter we fled in haste. Feeling unutterably small and ridiculous, we crept down-stairs and out of the front door, past numbers of people who were arriving. Once out on the sidewalk we leaned against the ornamental iron fence and laughed until we cried. The more we thought about it the funnier it seemed. What a tale we would have to tell the other girls when we met them in the morning!

As we had had our bath there only remained supper, and we certainly did justice to it when we finally arrived at Mrs. Butler's house on North Vine Street. It was after eight o'clock and we were ravenous. The rooms we had in that house, while they were nothing compared to what we almost had, were still very comfortable, and we were in such high spirits that any place at all would have looked good to us. Our long day in the open air had made us sleepy and it was not long before we were all touring in the Car of Dreams.

While we were eating breakfast in Mrs. Butler's big, airy dining-room we heard a boy arrive at the kitchen door and ask for the "automobile ladies." He had been sent out from the telegraph office and the hotel clerk had told him where we were. He handed Nyoda a message. As she read it a surprised and puzzled look came into her face.

"What is it, Nyoda?" we all cried.

She handed us the bit of yellow paper. It was what is called a service message from the telegraph company, and read: "Message sent Gladys Evans Potter Hotel Ft. Wayne undelivered. No such party registered."