Chapter III. The Lace Seller
 

Cora, Bess and Belle were sitting on the broad, long porch of the Kimball home. It was the next day. To be exact, the day following the imparting of Cora's news to Bess, of her automobile mishaps, the day of the news which Bess retailed to her friend and chum, concerning the trip to the West Indies, and the still more news, if I may be permitted the expression, of Jack's sudden illness.

Cora and Bess had gone to the post-office to get the expected special delivery letter, stopping on their way to speak to Dr. Blake, who had agreed to meet any train on which the stricken Jack might be expected. But, as it happened, his services were not required that night, for Jack did not arrive.

To go back a little bit, from the point where we have left the three girls sitting on the porch, Cora and Bess did find the special delivery letter awaiting them in the post-office.

"And I'm glad you called for it," said Harry Moss, whose duty it was to deliver the blue stamped epistles, "for I've got a lot of 'em this afternoon, and your place is out of my route, Miss Cora."

"All right, Harry," spoke Cora, half-hearing. She was already tearing open the envelope, as the messenger rode off on his wheel, certainly at a pace to justify the old proverb that he was a rolling stone, even if he had already gathered moss.

"Is it from Walter?" asked Bess.

"Yes, and it isn't as bad as we feared. Jack over-trained, trying for a new position on the football eleven, and that, with some extra studies he undertook, reduced his already tingling nerves to a condition where he was not at all himself."

"A long rest and a change will set him up again in fine style," Walter wrote. "There is no need worrying, Cora," for he had written to her, rather than to Mrs. Kimball, relying on Cora's discretion to explain matters.

"I am bringing Jack home, and we'll come on the early afternoon train, Thursday. There is no great need of haste."

It was now Thursday, just after lunch, and the girls were waiting at Cora's house to go down with her, or, rather one of them (to be decided later) to meet Jack and Walter. There was no need of a physician to help Jack home, though Dr. Blake promised his services when the sufferer should have been safely quartered in his own room.

"Isn't it good of Wally to come home with him?" ventured Belle, thoughtfully gazing at her long, thin hands, that were still tanned by the summer's sun.

"Perfectly fine!" exclaimed Cora. "Oh, you can always depend on Wally," and her eyes lightened up.

"So you can, too, on Jack, for that matter," voiced Bess, warmly. Bess was, of late, generally regarded as having more than a mere chum's sisterly feeling for Jack.

"I suppose he'll lose a term," remarked Belle.

"Too bad, I say."

"Better that than lose your health," declared Cora, as she put back a strand of hair that would persist in straying out from under her cap, for she, as well as the others, were attired for motoring, the Robinson twins, in fact, having come over in their car.

"Oh, Cora! I think you look so different with your hair in that new close formation!" declared Bess. "I wish I could get mine to lie down flat at the sides, and over my ears. How do you do it?"

"Whisper--it's a secret," said Cora, smiling. "I found a new kind of hairpin when I was shopping the other day."

"Oh, do show us!" begged Belle. "I was going to have the permanent wave put in mine, but it costs twenty-five dollars, and it's awfully tiring, Hazel said. Besides, I think it's getting rather--common."

"Do show us, Cora!" begged Bess.

"Come inside. I'm not going to turn the porch into a hair-dressing parlor for demonstrations," laughed Cora. "It won't take a minute to show you how to do I it, and we have plenty of time before Jack's train is due."

Cora obligingly let down her pretty hair, and then, by means of the new hairpins, she put it up again, in the latest "flat" mode, which, with its rather severe lines, is far from becoming to the average face. But, as it happened, Cora's face was not the average, and the different style was distinctly becoming to her.

"Oh, isn't it simple--when you're shown?" cried Bess. "I wonder if I'd have time to do mine that way before--?"

"Before Wally sees you!" interrupted her sister. "No, and don't think it. He's probably seen plenty of that style at college, and--"

"Thank you! I wasn't thinking of Mr. Pennington!" and Bess tried to tilt her chin up in the air with an assumption of dignity that ill sat upon her, the said chin being of the plump variety which lends itself but poorly to the said tilting.

"Cora, are you there?" asked the voice of Mrs. Kimball from the porch.

"Yes, Mother. I was just showing the girls the new hairpins. We are going to the station directly."

Cora's voice floated out of the low French windows, which opened from the library to the porch, and they were swung wide, for the fall tang in the air had vanished with the rising of the orb of day, and it was now warm and balmy.

"It will be even warmer than this when we go to the West Indies," murmured Bess. "Oh, Cora, I do wish you were going!"

"So do I, dear! But I don't see how I can."

"Hark!" said Belle, softly.

A murmur of voices came from the porch through the low, opened windows.

"It's one of those Armenian lace peddlers,"' said Cora, stooping down to look as she finished making the twist at the back of her head. "There's been a perfect swarm of them around lately. Mother is talking to her, though she seldom cares for lace--such as they sell."

"There is some beautiful lace work to be had on some of the West Indian islands, so mamma says," spoke Belle. "I am just crazy to get there!"

"Are you going to spend all your time on Porto Rico?" asked Cora, as she finished her hair.

"Well, most of it, though we shall probably cruise about some," spoke Bess, and as she paused the murmuring of the voices of Mrs. Kimball and the lace peddler could be heard.

"She doesn't talk like an Armenian," ventured Belle. "She has a Spanish accent."

"Yes, so she has," agreed Cora. "Oh, girls! You don't know how I envy you that trip. But duty first, you know," and she sighed.

"We expect to have a perfectly gorgeous time," went on Belle, as she settled her trim jacket more snugly over her slim hips. "One trip papa has promised us is to Sea Horse Island, not far from Porto Rico. He is going there after orchids--you know he is an enthusiastic amateur collector--and he says some very rare ones grow on Sea Horse. I wish I could send you some, Cora."

"It's awfully sweet of you, but--"

The girls were interrupted by the darkening of one of the low windows, by a tall, slim shadow. In surprise they looked up to see staring at them a girl whose swarthy, olive-tinted face proclaimed her for a foreigner from some sunny clime.

In her hand she field a bundle of lace, which she had evidently taken from her valise to show to Mrs. Kimball. Cora's mother had arisen from a porch chair, in some wonder, to follow the girl's movements.

"Pardon Senoritas," began the lace seller, in soft accents, "but did I hear one of you ladies mention Sea Horse Island--in ze West Indies? I am not sure--I--"

She paused, painfully self-conscious.

"I spoke of it," said Belle, gently. "We are going there on a winter cruise, and--"

"Pardon me--but to Sea Horse Island?" and the girl's trembling voice seemed very eager.

"We are going there--among other places," put in Bess, and her voice grew rather colder than her sister's, for the manner of the lace seller was passing strange.

"--Oh, to Sea Horse Island--in ze West Indies--Oh, if I could but go zere--my father--he is--he is, oh, Senoritas, I crave your pardon, but---but--"

Her voice trailed off in a whisper, and swaying, she fell at the feet of Cora, who sprang forward, but too late, to catch the slim, inanimate burden. The little lace peddler lay in a crumpled up heap on the floor.