Chapter XIII. At the Grotto
 

We have dropped something," said Cora as the party started off again.

"Yes," replied Gertrude, "I agree with Ray that the boys are jolly. We miss them already."

"Hush!" cautioned Cora. "We are to have nothing to do with boys on this trip."

She laughed at her own assertion.

"Nothing more to do with them?" asked Belle. Bess kept her machine within talking distance.

"Till the next time," replied Cora, throwing in the second speed gear. "But we will certainly have to hurry now. What on earth do you suppose Walter will do with that ram?"

"What on earth do you think the ram will do with Walter?" replied Ray.

"He paid the farmer three dollars for him, and the man declared he could have him for nothing," said Belle. "Now, that three dollars - "

"Would have bought orchids," interrupted Cora, teasing Belle for her sentimentality.

"Cora," spoke Hazel suddenly, "did you hear what Ed said to Jack about Paul's hold-up?"

"The forbidden topic," interrupted Gertrude. "Hazel, you don't want to lose the sheepskin for insubordination, do you?"

"But, Gertrude, please," begged Hazel quite seriously, "I really must speak to Cora. I will promise not to be blue, but you know I am very anxious about Paul."

"Then speak on, very briefly," replied Gertrude. "I will allow you exactly five minutes."

"Thanks," said Hazel. "Cora," she began again, "Ed told Jack that the papers lost from the mail belonged to Mr. Robinson, and have to do with a very valuable patent. Do you suppose the post-office will do anything to Paul?"

"Oh, you precious baby!" exclaimed Cora. "Don't you know that Paul has been entirely cleared? The mystery is simply who took the papers and otherwise left the mailbag intact?"

"Poor Paul!" sighed the sister.

"Poor Hazel!" added Cora. "A sister who is always worrying about a handsome brother is bound to lose him, eh, Gertrude?"

Gertrude blushed. She had only met Paul once, and at that time her remark was so positive that Cora had seized the opportunity of teasing the girl. That she never noticed boys was Gertrude's claim at college, and now Cora was delighted to have a chance of reversing the claim.

Daisy and Maud, who had been at some distance from the Whirlwind, now cut past Bess and Belle, making their way to the side of the big maroon car.

"Cora," called Daisy, "I forgot to tell you. I found this little satchel by the road where we stopped."

Cora gazed at the black bag that Daisy held up for her inspection.

"Why," faltered Cora, "that must belong to Clip. Why didn't you ask to whom it did belong?"

"I really never thought a word about it until Maud said just now it must be Clip's."

"But why did you pick it up without asking?" insisted Cora, her voice somewhat indignant.

"It was dropped on the road. I thought of course it belonged to some of the girls, and just threw it in my car in a hurry when you called to us to hasten along," said Daisy, her voice sharp and eyes flashing.

"I am sure it must belong to Clip," said Cora, calming down. "I hope it will not inconvenience her."

"I wish you would take the smelly thing," shouted Daisy. "It smells like papa's office, and I hate drugs."

"Clip was going to see some sick relative," went on Cora, "and of course the satchel - "

"Must be filled with the sickness," and Daisy laughed sarcastically. "Well, papa's bag smells that way, but he has more than one `sick relative.' "

Cora frowned. Gertrude looked surprised. Hazel shook her head at Daisy.

"Toss it here," called Cora. "I just love disinfectants."

Daisy threw the bag into the Whirlwind. Then she put on speed and passed the big car.

For a few miles the girls seemed very quiet, scarcely any conversation being held.

It was but a short run to the Grotto, the little wayside tea-house. The party was a full hour late, but Cora knew she could depend upon generous excuses for the motor girls.

So many things might happen by the way, and so many things did happen.

"I suppose," murmured Ray, "the biscuit will be stony. I do love hot biscuit."

"Don't worry. Tillie will keep things hot, if she possibly can do so. But I hear they have had some very busy days at the Grotto. I hope we have not hit upon the very busiest. Gertrude, have I told you about the Grotto? Did you know that Mathilde Herold and Adele Genung are keeping a tea-house this summer, to earn enough money for their senior year? And they have done surprisingly well. Yes, their folks have a summer place near the tea-house, so the girls go home nights, and of course the place must be very pretty - Tillie is an artist in decorating."

"Splendid!" exclaimed Gertrude. "Of course I know Tillie. What girl at Springsley doesn't know her? She has been decorating for every affair at the gym. And she always helped with chapel. Oh, yes, indeed, Cora, I agree with you, Tillie Herold is an artist."

"Well, let us hope her talent is not confined to mere walls," said Ray. "Hot biscuit requires a different stroke, I believe."

"In accepting us for to-day," said Cora. "Tillie stipulated that we should dine table d'hote and no questions asked. I hope, Ray, you will not be disappointed."

"Oh, there they are!" exclaimed Hazel. "I see some one waving her apron!"

"That's Adele," replied Cora. "She knows how to wave aprons. Don't you remember, Gertrude, the night she served the Welsh rarebit, when she made an apron of our best table-piece with a string through the middle?"

Cora turned her auto to the roadside. Then she called to the cars following:

"Here we are, girls. Get your machines well in from the road."

"Oh, what a charming place!" exclaimed Belle, who was not slow to observe the attractions of the little Grotto. It seemed all porch and vines, one of those picture places, ample for an eating house, but unsuited for anything else.

"There!" gasped Daisy; "that's the sort of house to live in!"

"To live out of, you mean," put in Maud. "I can't see how one could live `in' there."

The cars were all motionless now. Cora and Gertrude had already "escaped" from the college hug of Adele and Tillie. When the Chelton girls had been introduced, the vine-covered porch was actually filled with the members of the motor party.

"How splendid!" exclaimed Tillie, with that delightful German accent that defies letters and requires a pretty mouth to "exhale."

"Darling!" went on Adele, with all the extravagance of schoolgirl enthusiasm.

"You leave us no adjectives," remarked Cora. "I never saw anything so sweet. How ever did you get those vines to grow so promptly?"

"Wild cucumber," said Adele with a laugh, "Why, you know, dear, wild cucumber can no more help growing than you can. Isn't she tall, Tillie? I do believe you have grown inches since school, Cora."

"Yes, mother bemoans it. My duds are all getting away from me."

"And we have been waiting lunch for you ladies. I did hope we would not have a single visitor to-day, so that we might entertain you properly," went on Adele, "but two horrid men called. Wanted 'tea'; but indeed I know what they wanted - just a quiet place to talk about their old patent papers."

"Yes, and one broke a beautiful china cup," said Tillie.

"But he had his thumb gone," Adele hurried to say. "I saw him directly I went to pick up the pieces. So I suppose we could not exactly blame the man for dropping Tillie's real German cup."

"His thumb gone!" repeated Cora absently.

"Oh!" exclaimed Hazel. "The man we met after Paul's hold-up had lost a joint of his thumb."

"And papa said the papers stolen were patent papers!" exclaimed Bess, all excitement.

"Hush!" whispered Belle. "Bess, you know father particularly said we were not to speak of that."

If, as is claimed, the mature woman has the wonderful advantage of an instinct almost divine, then the growing girl has, undoubtedly, the advantage of intuitive shocks - flashes of wireless insight into threatening surroundings.

Such a flash was distinctly felt now through the Grotto - even the two young proprietors, who were not supposed to be really concerned, felt distinctly that "something was doing somewhere."

Cora sank down into a low wicker chair. Bess and Belle managed to both get upon a very small divan, while Daisy, Maud and Ray, the "three graces," stood over in the corner, where an open window let in just enough honeysuckle to sift the very sofest possible sunshine about the group.

But Hazel lingered near the telephone. She had confided to Cora that Paul was not at all well when he left home in the morning, and just now she was wondering if it would seem silly for her to call up the Whitehall Company and ask to speak with her brother.

At that instant the telephone bell rang.

It sent the expected shock through the little assemblage, and Cora jumped up as if she anticipated a message.

Tillie took down the receiver.

Presently she was saying "no" and "yes," and then she repeated Cora's name.

She handed the receiver to Cora with a whispered word.

Hazel's face went very white.

"You little goose!" exclaimed Bess, who instantly noticed the change. "Is there no one here worth a telephone message but Hazel Hastings?"

"Yes, Ed - Ed Foster," they heard Cora say. Then she listened a long time. Her face did not betray pleasure, and her words were plainly disguised.

"All right, Ed," she said finally. "I will attend to it at once. Oh, yes, a perfectly lovely time. Thank you - we are just about to dine. Good-by."

Cora was slow to hang up the receiver. And when she turned around Hazel Hastings confronted her.

"Oh, is it Paul?" asked Hazel. "Tell me quickly. What has happened to Paul?"

"Hazel," said Cora, "you must have your lunch. You are dreadfully excitable."

But it was Cora Kimball who was distracted, who played with her lunch without apparent appetite, and it was she who could take but one cup of tea in the fascinating little tea-house, the college girls' Grotto.