Chapter XVI. A Strange Message
 

Uproarious laughter from the girls with the wild flowers aroused Cora. Rob Roland was gone.

Had she fainted? Was that roaring in her ears just awakened nerves?

"Cora! Oh, Cora! We had the most darling time," Bess was bubbling. "You should have been along. Such a dear old farmer. He showed us the queerest tables. And he had the nicest son. Cora - What is the matter?"

"Oh," lisped Ray, "another Co-Ed message over the telephone."

"Cora, dear," exclaimed Gertrude, "we should not have left you all alone. Are you ill?"

"Cora! Cora!" gasped Adele.

"Cora, dear!" sighed Tillie.

"Oh, Cora!" moaned Belle. "What has happened?"

"Cora, darling," cried Maud, "who has frightened you?"

"Cora Kimball," called Daisy, "have you been drinking too much tea?"

"Too little," murmured Cora. "Will some of you girls leave off biting the air, and make a good cup of tea?"

There was a wild rush for the alcohol lamp; every one wanted to make the good cup of tea.

"I saw a runabout moving away as we came up," said Ray. "I hope, Cora, your caller was not obnoxious."

"Oh, just an autoist," replied Cora indifferently. "I did not take the trouble to brew tea for one solitary man." The color was coming back into her cheeks now, and with the return of animation her scattered senses attempted to seize upon the strange situation.

Jack and Clip to be arrested for abduction!

Could that fellow have known what he was saying?

If only Jack would call her up on the telephone. She had left word for him to do so, no matter how late the hour might be when he should return home.

"Now drink every sip of this," commanded Adele, as she turned on the lights and fetched Cora a steaming cup of the very best Grotto Hyson. "There is nothing for shaken nerves better than perfectly fresh tea, and, you see, we make it without soaking the leaves."

"It is delightful," said Cora, sipping the savory draught. "I must learn how to make tea this way - it is so different from the home-brewed variety."

Gertrude sat close to the reclining girl. "Is there nothing I can do, Cora?" she asked. "No message I can send?"

"Yes," whispered Cora; "you can manage to get the girls out of here before you and I leave for the night. I want to use the telephone privately."

Gertrude understood. She had not been a roommate with Cora Kimball for two years without knowing something of her temperament. She pressed her friend's hand gently, then said loud enough for the others to hear:

"We will soon have to get our machines under cover. Tillie says her grandfather has all sorts of sheds over around his country place. In fact, he has a regular shed-farm. Cora, I am just dying to try running a motor. Would you trust me to get the Whirlwind in the shed safely?"

"Of course I would, Gertrude," and Cora jumped up from the wicker divan. "I would suggest that some one go along, though - perhaps Ray. She has had some experience, and you know the Whirlwind"

"Is not a prize-package machine," interrupted Gertrude. "All right, Cora. I will humbly take instructions. Come along, girls. It will be dark directly, and then we might have to waste time lighting the lamps."

"And grandfather's man has offered to look over every machine early in the morning," said Tillie. "He is quite expert; we will be sure that every nut and bolt is in perfect order."

This was good news to the motor girls, especially to Daisy, who had her own secret doubts about her father's best car - she was accustomed to running the substitute.

Presently all except Cora and Adele were attending to the cars. Cora was just about to call up her own house when the tinkle of the telephone bell startled her. She picked up the receiver and was not surprised to find the party inquired for was herself.

"This is Jack," came the welcome voice. "Is that you, sis?"

"Oh, yes, Jack, dear!" she replied. Adele had gone out to fetch the chairs in from the porch. "I have been almost frantic. Where are you? Where is Clip? Where is Wren?"

"Oh, easy there, now, sis," and Cora thought she had never before appreciated the value of a real brother. "I can't answer everything at once, although I can come pretty near it. First, I am here - at home. Next, Clip is here - at our home, and third, the other party - I won't mention names - is here also."

"All at our house?" exclaimed Cora.

And the answer came: "Exactly that. But you mustn't say a word to any one. You know, there has been a sort of rumpus. Do you want to speak with C.? She is here."

"Hello, Cora," came Cecilia's voice. "How are you? Not getting on with your trip very fast, I guess."

"Oh, Clip!" said Cora. "I cannot understand it - "

"You are not supposed to," replied the other. "We are all right, you are all right, and what more do you ask?"

"How is Paul?"

"Well, he did have quite a time, but is improving. Say, Cora," and the voice was subdued, "don't call us up until you hear from me. I can't explain now. But where shall I write - say in two days' time?"

"Two days!" repeated Cora. "Do you expect me to exist that long and not know - "

"I am afraid you will have to. We are being watched" - this was barely breathed - "and a break would spoil it all. Surely you can trust me."

The girls were coming back-were actually on the porch. Cora was obliged to say a few disconnected words, and then she hung up the receiver.