Chapter XIV. The Promise Book Lost
 

Now, Cora, dear," began Gertrude, in her quiet, yet convincing way, "you may just as well tell us what you are waiting for. We are guessing all sorts of things, and the truth cannot possibly be as bad."

They were sitting on the porch of the Grotto, and although they were away behind scheduled time at that point, Cora insisted she wanted to rest a bit, and seemed loath to move.

Cora Kimball tired after twenty-five miles! As well accuse the Whirlwind of drinking its own gasoline.

Hazel was almost feverish. Cora had not divulged the purport of the telephone message, beyond admitting it was from Ed, which gave Ray the chance for her little joke on the combination of names - Cora and Ed, the "Co-Eds."

"When the Co-Eds conspire," lisped Ray, "we may as well wait patiently. We will have to wait their pleasure, of course."

Cora did not mind the sarcasm. She was certainly not like herself. Bess and Belle were even anxious about her, and offered all sorts of remedies, from bicarbonate of soda to dry tea.

"Now," said Cora finally, "it is two o'clock. Do you really think we ought to make Breakwater tonight?"

"Why not?" gasped Daisy. "Won't Aunt May be waiting for us? And it is only thirty miles."

"Yes, but," faltered Cora, "suppose you should have a breakdown on that lonely road? There is neither station nor house from here to the falls."

"What should break down?" asked Daisy. "This is papa's best machine, if you mean it is not trustworthy."

"Oh, Daisy, dear, I had no idea of insinuating such a thing. Your machine, of course, is just as trustworthy as any of the others. But I was thinking how delightful it would be to spend the night here. I really must confess to being broken up by that ram accident," and Cora shivered slightly.

The girls looked at her in astonishment. Her words did not ring true; Cora Kimball was a poor actress.

"If Cora wants to stay," said Tillie, "I should think you would all agree. Cora is captain, is she not?"

"But our trip will be spoiled," wailed Maud. "I do wish I had never come."

"Oh, if there is going to be real distress about it," said Cora, evidently trying hard to pull herself together, "I suppose we had best start. But remember, I have warned you. I have a premonition that we will `run up against' something before night."

"Then I am not going," declared Hazel. "I won't stir one step. Cora, let the others go; you can overtake them with your fast car, and we will meet them in the morning."

This brought on a veritable storm of protest and dissatisfaction. Cora left the girls on the porch, and went outside with Tillie.

"Could you hear anything those men were saying?" she asked the pretty little German. "Were they discussing a patent, do you think?"

"Oh, no; it was not like that," replied Tillie. "It was about - let me see. Some Haster, no, like a name - like your friend's name, Hazel Hastings. That was it, Hastings."

"Did they say Hazel?" pressed Cora.

"No, not that, of course," and Tillie laughed.

"How should they know Hazel? It was a similar name - just Hastings."

"And they unfolded blueprints? Like our campus maps, you know?"

"Yes, they had blue maps; I saw them when I picked up my shattered cup. - It is all very well for Adele to blame his thumb; I blame him - he is too fat, and thinks himself very smart."

Tillie pouted. Evidently her caller had not been too polite, perhaps he had mistaken her for an ordinary waitress.

A distant "honk-honk" startled the girls. Cora rushed out to the road, and before the others knew what she was about she was in conversation with Ed Foster. So quickly did he run up to the Grotto in Jack's car that no one but Cora realized who he was until the machine was stopped and he was out beside her. There was a stranger with him -a business-like looking man. He did not leave the car.

"There!" exclaimed Ray. "Didn't I tell you? It was this Co-Ed business that kept her. Cora can't fool me."

"Hazel," said Cora, stepping up to the porch, "Ed thinks you had best not go on with us. Paul is not well - he is not very sick, though - "

Hazel turned white, and Cora put her arm around her. "Now you must not be frightened. It is nothing serious, and I will go back with you," she said.

"Indeed you shall not!" exclaimed Hazel, now calling up all her courage, and proving herself to be the girl she really could be in an emergency. "I shall go back with Ed, if I may."

The girls glanced from one to the other. They understood this was an emergency, that Hazel had been called back to her sick brother, yet with girlish curiosity some of them, at least, showed surprise that Hazel should offer to ride back with Ed Foster.

"But I am not going back," said Ed; "at least not until we - this gentleman and I - have followed the trail a little farther. You see, girls, we are out on a `bear hunt.'"

But the girls did not see - only Cora looked as if she understood. She said to Hazel:

"There is no hurry, dear. You can go with them when they come back. They have to pass this way, don't you, Ed?"

"Would you mind, Cora," said Ed suddenly, "if the gentleman outside asked you a few private questions?"

"A reporter!" exclaimed Ray, all excitement.

"Dear me! I do hope he won't ask for our pictures. Mother would never permit it."

Ed smiled broadly. He looked a sort of assent, but did not otherwise express it.

Cora stepped up to the auto, whereat the man left his place, and, under pretext of walking along idly, and perhaps thus gaining Cora's "private ear," he was soon out of reach of those on the porch.

"It is like a double robbery," he said after exchanging some preliminary remarks, "and the child is disconsolate. Her mother is sure it was not stolen, but lost, while we feel otherwise. It seems there is a handsome young man, a cousin of the child's, interested. His father is a lawyer - the lawyer who has the case against Mr. Robinson. Now this book - the promise book - contained the names of those who visited the cottage on the day that the papers were taken out of the mailbag. It is comparatively easy to guess the sequence."

"You mean they might call on those whose names appear in the book?" asked Cora, beginning to see something of the complex situation.

"Yes, and more than that. They would obtain valuable information from that little book - a clear description of the missing table. If they can find it they will be able to keep the property where it is now - in the possession of Rob Roland, Wren Salvey's rival cousin."

"Rob Roland!" exclaimed Cora. "Why, he was in the party at Robinson's the other evening. He was even attentive to a friend of ours."

"To whom, may I ask?" inquired the detective politely.

"A Miss Thayer, a young student," she replied.

"Miss Thayer! I heard her name mentioned in court this morning. Is she a friend of yours?"

"Yes, indeed!" exclaimed Cora, now alarmed. "What could be said of Cecilia Thayer?"

"Why, she has been on very intimate terms with the Salvey child, and lawyers devise all sorts of schemes, you know, to meet their own ends. It was hinted that Miss Thayer might know where the missing promise book was."

"Clip take that from Wren! Impossible!" cried Cora. "Oh, this is all a mistake! I must go back. I cannot go on and let Clip be blamed for stealing the promise book."