Chapter IV. Jack Arrives
 

"Oh, Cora!"

"The poor girl!"

Belle and Bess, with clasped hands, bent over the prostrate form of the girl, whose plain, black dress showed the dust and travel stains of the highways about Chelton. From the verandah Mrs. Kimball stepped in, through the long window.

"Get some water, Cora," she directed in a calm and self-possessed voice. "Also the aromatic ammonia on my dressing table. It is merely a faint. Poor girl! She seemed very weak while she was talking to me. I was just going to ask her to sit down, and let me have a cup of tea brought to her, when she suddenly turned away from me and came in where you girls were."

"She heard us talking," ventured Bess, a little awed by the strange happening.

"And she asked the oddest question--about Sea Horse Island--where papa is going--and she spoke of her father--I wonder what she meant?" asked Belle.

"Time enough to find out after we've revived her," suggested Cora, who, like her mother, was not at all alarmed by a mere fainting fit.

Belle, inspired by her chum's coolness, had stooped over and was raising the girl's head.

"Don't do that!" exclaimed Cora. "The trouble is all the blood has gone from her head now. Let it remain low and the circulation will become normal, after the has had a little stimulant. I'll get the ammonia," and she hurried off, stopping long enough to ring for her mother's maid.

The foreign girl opened her dark brown eyes under the reviving stimulus of the aromatic spirits of ammonia, and she tried to speak. She seemed anxious to apologize for the trouble she had caused by fainting.

"That's all right, my dear," said Mrs. Kimball, soothingly. "Don't bother your poor head about it. You may stay here until you feel better."

"But, senora--" she protested, faintly.

"Hush!" begged Cora, touching the girl's hand gently with her own brown fingers. It was a pretty little hand, that of the lace seller--a hand not at all roughened by heavy work. Indeed, if she had made some of the dainty lace she was exhibiting, a piece of which was even now entangled about her, she needs must keep both hands unroughened.

"Oh, but Senorita, I--I am of ze ashamed to be so--to be--" Again her voice trailed off into that mere faintness, which was as weak as a whisper, yet unlike it.

"Now, not another word!" insisted Mrs. Kimball, in the tone of her daughter, and the Robinson twins well knew she meant to have her own good way. "You are in our hands, my dear child, and until you are able to leave them, you must do as we say. A little more of that ammonia, Cora, and then have Janet bring in some warm bouillon--not too hot. I believe the poor child is just weak from hunger," she whispered over the head of the lace seller, whose brown eyes were now veiled with the olive lids.

"Oh!" gasped Bess. "Hungry!"

"Hush! She'll hear you," cautioned Belle, for somehow she sensed the proudness of those who, though they toil hard for their daily bread, yet have even greater pride than those who might, if they wished, eat from golden dishes--the pride of the poor who are ashamed to have it known that they hunger--and there is no more pitiful pride.

The girl did not show signs of sensing anything of that which went on around her. Even when the second spoonful of ammonia had trickled through her trembling lips, she did not again open her eyes.

"Here is the bouillon," said Janet, as she came in with some in a dainty cup, on a servette.

"We must try to get her to take a little," said Mrs. Kimball, who had her arm under the girl's neck. A dusky flush in the olive cheeks told of the returning blood, under the whip of the biting ammonia.

Some few sips of the hot broth the girl was able to take, but she did not show much life, and, after a close look at her immobile countenance, and feeling of the cold and listless hands, Cora's mother said:

"I think we had better put her to bed, and have Dr. Blake look at her when he comes for Jack."

"Oh, Jack! I had almost forgotten about him!" exclaimed Cora. "We must go to the depot. It is almost time for his train."

"You have time enough to help me," said her mother, gently. "I think we must look after her, Cora, at least--"

"Oh, of course, Mother. We can't send her to the hospital, especially when she seems so refined. She is really--clean!" and Cora said the word with a true delight in its meaning. She had seen so many itinerant hawkers of lace who were not and neither were their wares.

"Oh, she has such a sweet, sweet face," murmured Belle, who was fair, and who had always longed to be dark.

"Is there a bed ready," Janet asked Mrs. Kimball.

"Yes, Madam, in the blue room." The Kimball family had a habit of distinguishing chambers by the color of the wall papers.

"That will do. We'll take her there. I think a little rest and food is all she needs. She looks as though she had walked far to-day."

A glance at the worn and dusty shoes confirmed this.

"Can we carry her, or shall I call John?" asked Cora, referring to the one man of all work, who kept the Kimball place in order.

"Oh, I think we can manage," said her mother. "She is not heavy."

It was not until Cora and her mother lifted the girl, that they realized what a frail burden she was in their arms.

"She's only a girl, yet she has the face of a woman, and with traces of a woman's troubles," whispered Belle, as Cora and Mrs. Kimball, preceded by Janet to hold aside the draperies, left the room.

"Yes. And I wonder what she meant by speaking of her father and Sea Horse Island in the way she did?" spoke Bess. "It sounds almost like a mystery!"

"Oh, you and your mysteries!" scoffed Belle. "You'd scent one, if an Italian organ grinder stopped in front of the house, looked up at your window, and played the Miserere."

"I might give him something to eat, anyhow," snapped Bess--that is, as nearly as Bess ever came to snapping, for she was so well "padded," both in mariners and by nature, that she was too much like a mental sofa cushion to hurt even the feelings of any one.

Cora came down presently, announcing:

"She is better now. She took a little of the bouillon, but she is very weak. Mother insists on her staying in bed. She really seems a very decent sort of a person--the girl, I mean," added Cora quickly, with a little laugh. "She was so afraid of giving trouble."

"Did she tell anything of herself?" asked Bess.

"She tried to, but mother would not hear of it until she is stronger. I really think the poor thing was starving. She can't make much of a living selling lace, though some of it is very beautiful," and Cora picked up from the library door the length that had dropped from the girl's hand.

"Wasn't it strange--that she should come in and seem so worked-up over the mention of Sea Horse Island?" spoke Belle.

"It was," admitted Cora. "We shall have to find out about it later--she was on the verge of telling us, when she fainted. But, girls, if I am to go get Jack, it's time I started. Are you coming?"

"Suppose we go in our car," suggested Bess.

"You may want all the room you have to spare in yours, Cora, to bring back some of his luggage. And perhaps some of the boys besides Walter may come on from Exmouth with Jack. In that case--"'

"Exactly!" laughed Cora. "And if they do you want to be in a position to offer them your hospitality. Oh, Bess! And I thought you would be true to Jack; especially when he is so ill!"

"Cora Kimball! I'll--" but Bess, her face flaming scarlet, found no words to express her, at least pretended, indignation. "Come on, Belle," she cried. "We won't let a boy or young man ride in our car, not even if they beg us!"

"Oh, I didn't mean anything!" said Cora, contritely. But Bess simulated indignation.

The throb of motors soon told that the three girls were on their way. Cora in her powerful car, and the twins in their new one, both heading for the railroad station, though the train was not due yet for nearly half an hour, and the run would not take more than ten minutes.

"I wonder if Walter will stay on for a few days?" asked Belle of Bess, who was steering.

"I should think so--yes. He'll probably want to see how Jack stands the trip. Poor Jack!"

"Isn't it too bad?"

"Yes, and that reminds me. I wonder if he couldn't--"

"Look out, for that dog!" fairly screamed Bess, as one rushed barking from a house yard. It was only instinctive screaming on the part of Bess, for it was she herself who "looked-out," to the extent of steering to one side, and so sharply that Belle gasped. And, even at that, the dog was struck a glancing blow by the wheel and with barks changed to yelps of pain, ran, retreating into the yard whence he had come, limping on three feet.

"Serves him right--for trying to bite a hole in our tires," murmured Bess, with a show of indignation.

A slatternly woman, who had come to the door of the tumble-down house at the sound of the dog's yelps, poured out a volume of vituperation at the girls, most of it, fortunately, being lost in the chugging of the motor.

Three or four other curs came out from various hiding places to commiserate with their fellow, and the girls left behind them a weird canine chorus.

"Curious, isn't it?" observed Belle, "that the poorer the people seem, the more dogs they keep."

"What were we talking of?"

"Perhaps misery loves company," quoted Bess.

"Jack?" suggested her sister.

"No, Walter," corrected the other, and they laughed.

"What's the joke?" asked Cora, who had slowed up her car to await the on-coming of her chums. "Did you try to see how near you could miss a dog?"

"Something like that, yes," answered Bess, as she related the occurrence.

There was a period of rather tedious waiting at the station, before a whistle was heard, announcing the approach of some train.

"There it is!" cried Cora, as she jumped from her car to go to the platform.

It was only a freight engine, and the girls were disappointed. But, a few minutes later, the express sounded its blast, and, amid a whirl of dust, and a nerve-racking screech of brakes, drew into the depot.

"There's Jack!" cried Bess, grasping Cora's shoulder, and directing her gaze to a certain Pullman platform.

"And Walter's right behind him!" added Belle. "Why, he isn't carrying Jack!"

"You goose! Jack isn't as ill as all that!" laughed Cora, a bit hysterically. "Oh, Jack!" she called, waving her handkerchief.

"And there's Harry Ward!" murmured Belle.

"I didn't know he was coming, and, instinctively, her hands went to her hair. For Harry, whom Belle had met during the summer, had paid rather marked attention to her--marked even for a summer acquaintance.

"Hello, Sis!" greeted Jack, as he came slowly forward--and in his very slowness Cora read the story of his illness, slight though it was. "It was awfully good of you to come down," he added, as he brushed her cheek in a strictly brotherly kiss.

"My! Look at the welcoming delegation!" scoffed Walter. "I say, fellows, are there any cinders on my necktie?" and he pretended to be very much exercised.

"Oh, it's a sight!" mocked Belle. "Isn't it, girls? How are you, Jack?" she asked, more warmly, as she shook hands. "Oh! Don't you dare--not on this platform!" she cried, as Jack leaned forward, with the evident intention of repeating his oscillatory greeting to Cora.

"All right. Come on around back, I'd just as soon," offered Jack, with something of his old, joking manner. "They can't see us there."

"I guess you know Harry--all of you--don't you?" put in Walter.

"Oh, yes, forgetting my manners, as usual," laughed Jack, but there was little of mirth in the sound. "Harry, the girls--the girls-- Harry. Pleased to meet you--and all that. Come on, Cora. I guess I'm--tired."

His eyes showed it. Poor Jack was not at all himself.

"But how did it happen--what's the matter?" asked Cora. "Were you suddenly stricken?"

"About like that--yes," admitted Jack. "Trying to do too much, the doc said. I oughtn't to have made an effort for the double literature. Thought I'd save a term on it. But that, and training too hard, did me up. It's a shame, too, for we have a peach of an eleven!"

"I know, Jack, it is too bad," said Cora, sympathetically.

"Oh, it isn't that I'm actually a non-combatant, Sis, but I've lost my nerve, and what I have left is frayed to a frazzle. I've just got to do nothing but look handsome for the next three months."

"It's a good time to look that way," ventured Bess.

"Look how?" asked Jack.

"Handsome. Tell me about the pretty stranger, Cora."

"What's that?" cried Walter, crowding up. "Handsome stranger? Remember, boys, I saw her first!"

"She means the lace seller," said Belle, languidly.

"Tell you later," Cora promised.