Chapter XV. Rob Roland
 

"Cora Kimball!"

Ed Foster stood up every inch of his height. He was always tall, but now, facing the girl whose name he had so vehemently spoken, he seemed a veritable giant. Cora wanted to be firm; she meant exactly what she said when she declared she would abandon the tour of the motor girls, and go back to Chelton to help Cecilia Thayer out of her difficulty.

But, after all, Cora was only a girl, and Ed was a great, strong man - he ought to know.

"If you cannot trust me, Cora, and allow me to help Clip, I really think you are not doing justice to Jack's friend."

Cora laughed a little. Ed put things so nicely. He never presumed upon her own intimacy - it was always just "Jack's friend."

"Besides," he pressed, seeing, in, Cora's eyes, his advantage, "I feel I can do more alone. I have got to take Hazel back to her brother, then I promise you I shall not rest until I have found Clip, and made sure of her exact situation."

"Oh, I know, Ed, you will do everything possible. But it seems like treason for me to go on a pleasure trip and leave two very dear friends in such trouble. Even Jack may be implicated."

Ed turned away to hide his own tell-tale face. He knew perfectly well that Jack was implicated, knew that Rob Roland had deliberately accused him of taking Cecilia Thayer out to the Salvey cottage for the purpose of gaining possession of the promise book. For this very reason Ed wanted Cora to go on - to escape, if possible, the anxiety she must experience if she should have to know the real story.

"Well," sighed Cora, "it is getting late. I suppose it will be best, Ed, as you say. Take Hazel back, and find Clip. Have her 'phone me at Breakwater, tomorrow."

"That's the girl!" exclaimed Ed, taking both her hands in his own strong clasp. "See, the girls are looking at us. They think you have accepted me."

"I have," she answered, "accepted you, and your terms. Good luck, Ed. It is so nice for Jack to have such a good friend."

Hazel was soon tucked in the little runabout, the detective going on in another car that was sent out to him in answer to his call over the telephone.

"Is your premonition all fulfilled, Cora?" asked Daisy, her voice far from merry. "I suppose you were 'premonited' that Hazel should go off like that."

"If we keep on losing," said Gertrude, "we will soon all fit in the Whirlwind."

Cora stood gazing after the runabout - Jack's car. Hazel's eyes had burned their look upon Cora's face - those deep, violet eyes always seem like live volcanoes, thought Cora.

And Ed - his eyes had been searching, his look - well, it was convincing, that is all Cora would admit even to her own heart.

She turned finally to those on the porch.

"Well," exclaimed Belle, the sentimental one, "who is star-gazing, now? Cora, what did you forget in that runaway car?"

Cora smiled. She had been remiss, and she owed it to the girls to see that their trip was a success. She would atone now.

"Tillie," she said suddenly, "couldn't you and Adele shut up shop for a week and come with us? You have been working hard all summer, and you have made up the required pennies. Now, don't you think it would be perfectly splendid to take the run with us?"

Every one instantly agreed that this would be the very thing, and in spite of the hesitation of Adele and Tillie, who argued that it might not be agreeable to bring strangers into the homes where others had been expected, it was finally settled that the party should wait until the next morning, when the tea-house girls would be ready to start off with them.

Nor were the arrangements without a certain happy possibility - there were two other girls waiting to take up that same little Grotto - to earn college money, as had Tillie and Adele.

"Rena and Margaret will be here first thing in the morning," announced Adele, after her telephone talk with Rena, "and they are perfectly delighted. Oh, isn't it just splendid!"

Then Cora had messages to send. She called up Jack, but only got the maid in answer. She called up Walter, and he also was out. Finally she called up Ed. She waited until she felt he would be at his dinner quarters, and she was not disappointed in getting his own voice in reply.

He told her that everything was all right - that Clip was with little Wren, who had been very ill since the loss of her book, and that Paul Hastings was no worse. This last Cora considered evasive, but had to be content, for Ed would give no more definite information.

Such demands as were made upon that little tea-house telephone that evening! Every one of the girls called up her own home, besides calling up many relatives at the other end of the line, those with whom the tourists expected to visit during the trip.

The Grotto was well situated for business, being about half way between two country seats, and the same distance between two large cities.

"We will close exactly at sundown to-night," said Adele, when a lady from Bentley, who stopped every evening for a cup of tea on her way from the village, had been served.

"Do let me keep shop for a while," begged Cora. "I would just love to be in real business. Mother declares I have a bent for trade. Let me try, Tillie, while you and Adele go over to the cottage and get your things together."

Thus it was that one hour later Cora Kimball was left the sole possessor of the Grotto; every other motor girl managed to either go for a walk, or go with some one who wanted to take a walk, but Cora was glad - she felt the need of rest which only solitude can give.

She sat on the porch; the gentle evening breeze made incense through the honeysuckle. It was delightfully resting; she could hear the voices of the girls in the meadow, after cowslips, buttercups, daisies and clover. They would fetch back a huge bunch, Cora knew, and they would discard them at the steps of the Grotto, as most girls do - run wild for wild flowers, then toss them away when the run is over.

"I hardly think I shall have any business," thought Cora, "although I would just love to wait on somebody."

The rumble of an approaching automobile caught her ear.

"There!" she thought; "the driver of that car may want a sip of Russian tea - I am glad it is not Turkish - that the girls serve here."

The car was almost up to the sycamore tree, just at the side of the Grotto.

Yes, the driver was stopping.

Cora rocked nervously in the wicker chair.

Who would it be? The girls should not have gone so far away -

A young man alighted from the runabout. He stepped briskly up to the porch.

It was Rob Roland.

"Well!" he exclaimed, plainly as surprised to see Cora as she was to see him. "If this isn't luck! Miss Kimball!"

Quick and keen as was his glance, making sure that Cora was alone, her own sharp wits were able to follow his.

"Yes," she replied indifferently, "the girls have closed up the tea-room, and are just out in the meadow. I felt more like sitting here."

He drew up a chair and sat down uninvited. Cora never did like Rob Roland, now she disliked him.

"You are the very person I am most anxious to talk to," he began, "and this is an excellent opportunity."

"About what, pray?" asked Cora. "I must go with the girls very soon."

"Oh, no, you must not," he replied, and, handsome though he was, there was that in his manner that deepened the very lines nature had done her best with, and his eyes were merely smoldering depths.

Cora felt she should not betray the least nervousness, for, though Rob Roland was known to be a gentleman, he might take advantage of her helplessness to gain from her some information. Ed had warned her to beware of him.

"Of course you know all about Cissy Thayer," he began. Cora resented his insolence, but dared not show it. "You know how she has been getting around my little cousin, the cripple."

Cora glared at him. She felt that his cowardly attack was simply a display of weakness, and she knew a coward is easily overcome. She deliberately drew her chair closer to him.

"Rob Roland," she said calmly, "my friend, Miss Thayer, is not only a lady, but she is also a student of human ills. She has been interested in little Wren that she might be cured. It appears that some of her relatives consider her incurable."

"Cured!" he sneered. "That misfit made right! Why, she has only a few months to live. Your friend is very foolish. She should put her energy on something worth while. And she should be careful how she handles their property. That scrapbook, for instance."

"How dare you, Rob Roland!" exclaimed Cora. "Miss Thayer says the child has been ill-treated through alleged treatment, and it appears the man who has been treating her was paid by your father."

"Oh, my!" The fellow sank deeper into his linen coat. "I had no idea of your dramatic powers, Miss Kimball. I beg a thousand pardons. I never dreamed that the Thayer girl was so close to you. In fact, I rather thought you merely took her up out of charity. Every one in Chelton knows that the Thayers are just poor working-people."

That was too much for Cora. She stepped to the door of the tea-room with dismissal in her manner. He knew she intended him to leave at once.

"But what I want to know," he said, deliberately following her, "is just who this Thayer girl is. It is important that we should know, to go on with the - "

"We!" interrupted Cora. "Pray, who are `we'?"

"Why, my father's firm, the lawyers, you know," he stammered. "Some day, Miss Kimball, I expect to represent the firm of Roland, Reed & Company."

Cora turned and looked at him. It was on that very spot that she had turned to Ed - Ed was so like this young man, the same dark, handsome youth, and just about his age.

But Ed was, after all, so different - so very different.

Cora was gaining time as she strove to hold him by her magnetic glance. Any youth would accept it; he did not despise it.

"Mr. Roland," she said, in her own inimitable velvet tones, "you are making a very great mistake. If you really believe that Cecilia Thayer had anything to do with the loss of that child's book, you are wrong; if you think she had any other than humane motives in visiting the child, you are wrong again. Cecilia Thayer - "

"Oh, now come, Cora," he interrupted. "You don't mind me calling you Cora? I know the whole scheme. Your brother Jack is - well, he is quite clever, but not clever enough to cover up his tracks." He grasped Cora's arm and actually dragged her to him. "Don't you know that Cissy Thayer and Jack Kimball are suspected of abduction? That Wren Salvey has been stolen-stolen, do you hear?"