Chapter V. Inez
 

They were at the autos, standing near the edge of the depot platform now. The porter had set down the grips of the boys, and had departed with that touching of the cap, and the expansive smile, which betokens a fifty-cent tip. They do not touch the cap for a quarter any more.

"How'll we piece out?" asked Jack, and his tone was listless. "Who goes with whom?"

His voice was so different from his usual joking, teasing, snapping tones that Cora looked at him again. Yes, her brother was certainly ill, though outwardly it showed only in a thinness of the bronzed cheeks, and a dull, sunken look in the eyes. A desperately tired look, which comes only from mental weariness.

"You'd better ride with me, Jack," his sister said. "The car has more room."

"Walter can come with us," suggested Jack. "I've been sort of leaning on him in the train, and it eases me. So if--"

"Of course!" interrupted Cora quickly, and Walter, hearing his name spoken, came hurrying up, from where he had stood joking and talking with the Robinson twins at their car.

"On the job, Jack, old man!" he exclaimed. "Want me to hold your hand some more?"

"Wrenched my side a little at football," Jack explained to his sister. "It sort of eases it to lean against some one. The porter wanted to get me a pillow, but I'm not an old lady yet--not with Wally around."

"Harry, think you'll be safe with two of them?" asked Walter, as he nodded at Bess and Belle.

"Oh, sure," he answered with a laugh. "If they promise not to rock the boat."

"Perhaps he thinks we can't drive?" suggested Belle, mockingly.

"Far be it from me to so assume!" said Harry, bowing with his hand on his right side, and then quickly transferring it, after the manner of some stage comedian. "I'd go anywhere with you!" he affirmed.

"Don't be rash!" called Jack, who had taken his place in the tonneau of Cora's car. "Come on, Walter. Leave him to his own destruction. But, I say, Cora, what's this about some new girl? Has a pretty arrival struck town? If there has, I'm glad I came home."

"It's just a poor Armenian lace peddler, who fainted from lack of food as she was talking to mother," Cora explained.

"She isn't Armenian--she's Spanish, I'm sure of it," declared Belle, for the cars had not yet started.

"Well, Spanish then," admitted Cora.

"And she's so pretty!" put in Bess.

"Pretty! I suppose you'll be at home this evening, Jack, old chap?" asked Walter, pretending to straighten his tie, and arrange his hair.

"Is her name Carmencita or Marita?" he asked.

"We don't know, yet," Cora informed him. "The poor child wasn't able to tell us much about herself."

"Child!" exclaimed Jack. "Oh, then she's a little girl! The Mater always was great on infant classes."

"Wait until you see," advised Belle, loftily.

"You make me very curious!" mocked the invalided young man. "Drive on, Cora, and let's get the suspense over with."

Walter slipped in beside his chum, and put his arm about Jack's waist, for the wrench given Jack's side in a football scrimmage was far from healed, and often pained him severely. It was this direct cause, as much as anything else, that had pulled him down.

On the way to the Kimball home, Cora driving slowly and with careful regard for Jack's weakness, the sufferer told how he had "keeled over" in a faint, while playing the last half of a hard game, and how the team physician had insisted on his being sent home.

"And the boys very kindly offered to come with me," ended Jack.

"It's very good of them to spare the time," said Cora, with a decidedly grateful look at Walter.

"As if we wouldn't!" he said, half indignantly.

And so the cars rolled on until they turned in at the gateway of the Kimball home.

"Is she any better, Mother?" asked Cora, when Jack's mother had kissed him, and held him off at arms' length to get a better look at him.

"Who, Cora? Oh, Inez Ralcanto? Yes, she is much better. A good meal was her most pressing need."

"Inez!" murmured Jack. "Charming name. Lead me to Inez!"

"Jack!" cried Cora, in shocked accents.

His mother only smiled. It sounded like the Jack of old, and she was hopefully feeling that he was not as ill as she had been led to fear.

"Did she say anything about herself?" asked Bess, who with Belle and Harry had now come in.

"Yes, she told me her story, and I think she is anxious to repeat it to you girls," said Mrs. Kimball, looking at the Robinson twins.

"Us?"' cried Belle. "Why us in particular?"

"I don't know, but she said one of you had mentioned something about a West Indian Island--"

"Sea Horse," explained Bess, in a low voice.

"That's it--such an odd name," went on Mrs. Kimball. "And she is anxious to know more about your plan of going there. I could not tell her--having heard only the vaguest rumors about your trip, my dears."

"Yes, we are going there--or, at least, father expects to get some orchids there when we are in the West Indies," explained Bess. "But we really know nothing about the island."

"There seems to be some sort of mystery," put in Belle. "Just before she fainted, she spoke of her father. Is her name Inez, Mrs. Kimball?"

"Yes, Inez Ralcanto. She is a Spaniard. But I had rather let her tell you herself, as she is anxious to do. As soon as yow are rested--"

"Oh, we're not tired!" interrupted Walter. "That is, unless Jack feels--"

"Oh, never too tired to listen to a pretty girl--especially when she is called Inez," broke in the invalided hero. "Still, perhaps Sis and the twins had better have a first whack at her. I fancy we fellows would look better with some of the car grime removed," and he sank rather wearily into a chair.

"You poor boy! You are tired!" expostulated his mother, as she put her arms about him. "You had better go to your room, and lie down. We'll have a light dinner served soon. You'll stay, of course," and she included the Robinson twins as well as Walter and Harry in her invitation.

"Oh, I don't know," spoke Harry, diffidently. He had not known the "Cheerful Chelton Crowd" as long as had Walter. "Perhaps I'd better put up at the hotel--"

"You'll do nothing of the sort!" broke in Jack. "You and Wally will bunk in here. You forget Inez is due to give a rehearsal of the 'Prisoner of Sea Horse Island,' and you want to be here."

"Don't joke, Jack! This may be serious," said Cora, in a low voice.

"Don't worry, Sis! I feel very far from joking," and Jack put his hand to his head with a weary gesture.

"You must go and lie down," his mother said. "Dr. Blake is coming, and wants to see you. I am also going to have him for Inez. Cora, if you'll show Walter and Mr. Ward--"'

"Please call me Harry!" he pleaded.

"Harry then," and she smiled. "Show them to their rooms--you know, the ones next to Jack's room. Then you girls can come up and see our little stranger."

Cora, with her brother and his guests, went up stairs, but soon came down, her face flaming.

"What's the matter?" asked Belle.

"Oh, Jack! I don't believe he's ill at all!" she stormed. "It's only an excuse to escape college."

"What did he do?" asked Bess, slyly.

"Said Walter and Harry might--kiss me!" and Cora's face flushed.

"And--er--did they?" asked Belle.

"Belle Robinson! If you--well!" and Cora closed her lips in a firm line.

Her mother smiled.

"Perhaps we had better go up and see Inez," suggested Mrs. Kimball.

"Yes, do!" urged Cora, eager to change the subject.

The lace seller was sitting up in bed, and the white lounging gown that had been put on her, in exchange for her simple black dress, made her seem the real Spaniard, with her deep, olive complexion. She smiled at the sight of the girls.

"Pardon, Senoritas!" she murmured, as Cora and her chums entered the room. "I am so sorry that I give you ze trouble. It is too bad--I am confused at my poor weakness. But I--I--"

"You needn't apologize one bit!" burst out Cora, generously. "I'm sure you need the rest."

"Yes, Senorita, I was weary--so very weary. It is good--to rest."

"I think you had better have a little more broth," suggested Mrs. Kimball. "Then Dr. Blake will be here, and can say whether it would be wise to give you something more solid. You must have been quite hungry," she added, gently.

"I--I was, Senora--very hungry," and taking the hand of Mrs. Kimball in her own thin, brown one, the girl imprinted a warm kiss on it.

"Do you feel well enough to talk?" asked Cora. "These are my friends. They expect to go to Sea Horse Island soon. You mentioned that, just before you fainted, and--"

"Yes, Senorita, I did. Oh! if I could find someone to take me zere--I would do anyzing! I would serve zem all, my life--I would work my fingers to ze bare bones--I would--"

A flood of emotion seemed to choke her words.

"We'll help you all we can," interrupted Cora. "Why are you so anxious to go there?"

"Because my father--my dear father--he is prisoner zere, and if I go zere, I can free him!" and the girl clasped her hands in an appealing gesture.