Chapter XX. At the Mahogany Shop
 

It was Duncan Bennet who suggested the auto meet. The town of Breakwater had never gone beyond the annual dog show, and this progressive young man confided to his cousin Daisy that on a certain day next week he expected several of his friends from out of town, who were sure to come in autos, and:

"Why not tell them to `slick up' their machines, and you girls could do the same? Then, oh, then!" he exclaimed, "we could run a real up-to-date auto meet. I can round up fifteen machines at least. And the girls! Why, the fame of the motor girls will then be assured. You will actually have to appoint a press agent."

The cousins were strolling through the splendid gardens of Bennet Blade, as Duncan called the long, narrow strip of family property that, for years, had been famous for its splendid gardens, not flower beds, but patches of things to eat.

"I think it would be perfectly splendid," declared Daisy, her eyes full of admiration for her good-looking cousin. "And I know the girls will like it.

That settled it. Duncan Bennet went straight to his room, scribbled off a number of notes, threw himself astride his horse Mercury (called Ivy for short), and was on his way to the post-office before Daisy had time to stop the exclamation gaps in the girls' faces with the correct answers to their varied questions.

Some days lay between the proposition and the fete, and this time was to be spent on the road, as the girls had yet some miles to cover before they would turn back toward Chelton.

There was a visit to be made at a ruins in Clayton; this was an underlined note of Ray's on the itinerary. Then Maud wanted so much to see a real watering place in full swing. This was put down as Ebbinflow, and would take up at least an entire afternoon. Tillie had a craze for antiques, and there was a noted shop only twenty miles from Breakwater. So when Cora facetiously suggested that the party start out from a given point, go their separate ways and get back to Chelton for the auto meet, the girls realized that they would have to "boil down their plans" to fit the time allotted for the tour.

The trip to the Clayton ruins occupied a whole day. The girls started early and took their lunch, which Bess said would be eaten in a crumbling, moss-covered and ivy-entwined tower. The ruins fully came up to expectations, and the girls, leaving their machines at the roadside, began their explorations.

"Isn't it just perfect!" exclaimed Ray. "I wish I had my sketch book along."

"She wants to outdo Washington Irving," called Cora, poising on a tottering stone.

"Look out!" suddenly called Bess. "That stone, Cora - "

A scream from Cora interrupted her, for the stone began to roll over, and Cora only saved herself by a little jump, while the piece of masonry toppled down upon a pile of bricks and mortar.

"My! That was a narrow escape!" gasped Maud. "You might have sprained your ankle."

"Which would have been all the more romantic," added Cora, smiling faintly. "It would have been material for Ray's sketchbook."

"Never, Cora!" cried Ray. "But come on. Let's go to some less dangerous part of this ruin. You know they say this was once a church, but was made into a sort of castle by an eccentric individual - "

"Who did dark and bloody deeds and whose spirit now haunts the place," interrupted Maud.

"Oh, don't!" begged Ray. "It's not quite as bad as that, but I heard some one say that on certain dark nights that - "

"Stop it!" commanded Cora. "My nerves are all right, but I'm still shaky from that stone. Let's see if - "

"Oh!" cried Bess suddenly. "There's something there, girls," and, with dramatic gesture, she pointed to a pile of leaves in one corner. "Something moved there, I'm sure of it!"

They looked, and all started as the leaves actually did move.

"Come on!" cried Ray. They gathered up their skirts and were hurrying from the old room into which they had penetrated when the leaves rustled still more, and from them came a tiny snake. There was a chorus of screams and Cora found herself alone in the ruined chamber. She was pale but resolute as she followed her companions sedately.

"Weren't you awfully frightened?" asked Ray as Cora joined them.

"No indeed," she answered. "I prefer a live and seeable snake to some haunting, unseeable rumor that only appears on dark nights. But let's get out into the sunlight and admire the ruins from a better perspective. Besides it's getting near lunch time."

It was more reassuring out of doors, they all admitted, and after admiring the picturesque remains of what might have been either a church or fort as far as appearances now went, they got the hampers from the cars and feasted. Then, sitting in the shade, they discussed many things until lengthening shadows warned them that it was time to go.

"Now for a jolly day to-morrow," remarked Maud as they neared their stopping place that night. "If only we have good weather."

She had her desire. Never was weather more perfect, never were better country roads discovered and never could there have been a more jolly party of girls.

Maud was enchanted with Ebbinflow. She declared the watering place was a perfect fairyland, but some of her companions hinted that it was the style of the gowns that attracted her. Still they spent the best part of a day there, enjoying the bathing and coming back in the cool of the evening much refreshed.

"Now, Bess, it's your choice for our destination to-morrow," announced Cora at a little luncheon just before retiring time. "But please don't choose ruins or a watering place."

"The woods for mine," announced Bess. "I heard of a lovely grove about twenty-five miles from here - "

"Twenty-five miles to find an ordinary grove," said Maud.

"Oh, but it's not an ordinary one," declared Bess. "It is quite extraordinary."

A delightful fancy dress ball was given that evening at the girls' club, where our friends stopped, and this made a pleasant break in the tour and a welcome relief from spark plugs, carburetors and the cranking of motors, much as the girls had come to care for their cars.

Two days more were spent in visiting well-known places of interest, and on one trip Maud and Bess, who managed to slip away from their companions, went through several old farmhouses in search of the table. Once they had hopes that they were on the track, as an elderly woman declared she had just what they were looking for, but it proved to be far from it, though she was anxious to sell it to them.

"Oh, dear, I hoped we could find it," said Bess as they came out.

Next morning Tillie declared it was her turn to say where the trip should be, and she picked out an exclusive antique shop, about twenty miles from Breakwater, in which direction the cars were soon speeding.

"I'll get a warming pan if there is one in the place," announced Tillie, whose love for the old copper pan with the long and awkward handle was almost a joke with her friends.

"Well, I do hope if you can't get a pan that you'll not load us up with lead pipe and such stuff," said Cora with a laugh. "I remember very well that last day at school when you came back from Beverly. My, what a sight you were! What did you ever do with the junk?"

"Indeed, it was not junk," objected Tillie, "but a lot of the very handsomest glass knobs and brass candlesticks, and my samovar."

"You surely did not carry a samovar!" exclaimed Maud.

"Indeed I did," replied the little German, "else I should not have gotten it in the morning. I know those antique men. They are like a thermometer - go up and down with simple possibilities."

Ray was as pretty as ever, Maude just as sweet and Daisy just as gentle, while Cora and Gertrude had added new summer tints to their coloring. Adele and Tillie were still bubbling over with enthusiasm, the twins were exceptionally happy, the morning mail having brought good news - so that all were "fine and fit" when they started on the ride to the antique shop.

The day was of that sort that comes in between summer and fall, when one time period borrows from the other with the result of making an absolutely perfect "blend."

Ray had changed places with Belle Robinson, so that Belle was in the Whirlwind and Ray in the Flyaway, and when the procession was moving it attracted the usual public attention.

But the motor girls were now accustomed to being stared at; in fact, they would have missed the attention had they been deprived of it, for it was something to have a run with all girls - and such attractive girls.

"What if we should find the table at the antique shop!" suddenly said Belle to Ray. "Somehow I have a feeling - "

"Let me right out of your machine, Bess Robinson," joked Ray. "I have had all I want of `feelings' since we started on this trip. I rather think the one where the goat or sheep or whatever it was did the actual `feeling' was about the `utmost,' as Clip would say. Poor Clip! I wonder what she is about just now."

"About as frisky as ever, I'll wager," said Belle. "I never could understand that girl."

"Well," objected Bess, "it would be hard to understand any one who is only in Chelton two months at summer. If you were at school all year and came home for new clothes, I fancy I would scarcely understand my own twin sister."

"Strange," went on Ray, "that boys always so well understand a girl of that type. Now I do not mean that in sarcasm," she hurried to add, noting the impression her remark had made, "but I have always noticed that the girls whom girls think queer boys think just right."

"Pure contrariness," declared Bess. "I don't suppose a boy like Jack Kimball thinks more of a girl just because she keeps her home surroundings so mysteriously secret."

As usual, Bess had blundered. She never could speak of Jack Kimball and Clip Thayer without "showing her teeth," as Belle expressed it.

The machines were running along with remarkable smoothness. The Flyaway seemed to be singing with the Whirlwind, while Daisy's car had ceased to grunt, thanks to the efforts of the workman at her aunt's place.

"What will the antique man think of three autos stopping at his door?" inquired Adele of Cora.

"Think? Why, it will be the best advertisement he ever had. Likely he will pay us to come again," replied Cora.

The street upon which "the mahogany shop" was situated was narrow and dingy enough - the sort of place usually chosen to add to the "old and odd" effect of the things in the dusty window.

The proprietor was outside on a feeble-looking sofa. As Cora predicted, he evidently was honored with the trio of cars that pulled up to the narrow sidewalk. Tillie, with the air of a connoisseur, stepped into the shop before the little man with the ragged whiskers had time to recover from his surprise.

"Have you a warming pan?" she inquired straightaway, whereat, as was expected, the man produced almost every other imaginable sort of old piece save, of course, that asked for.

But Tillie liked to look at all the stuff, and was already running the risk of blood poison, as Cora whispered to Gertrude, with her delving into green brasses and dirty coppers.

With the same thought uppermost in their minds, Bess, Belle and Cora were soon busy examining the old furniture. There were many curious and really valuable pieces among the collection, for this man's shop was famous for many a mile.

"Tables!" whispered Belle. "Did you ever think there were so many kinds?"

Cora approached the owner. "Have you an inlaid table - a card table or one that could be used for one? I would fancy something in unpolished wood."

"I know just what you mean," answered the man, "and I expect to have one in a few days. In fact, I already have an order for one - with anchors and oars inlaid."

Cora did not start. She winked at Bess, who was always apt to "bubble over."

"Anchors?" repeated Cora. "Set in on the sides, I suppose? Well, that would be odd. But where can you get such a piece as that?"

Cora did not mean to ask outright where the piece might be obtained; what she meant was: "That will surely be a difficult thing to find."

"Oh, there is one - some place," replied the man, little dreaming what a tumult his words were creating in the brains of the anxious motor girls. "And when I get an order I always get the article. I shall have a warming pan for this young lady by to-morrow noon."

"Then suppose I order a table, like the one with the oars and anchors?" ventured Cora. "Could I get that?"

"Oh, no, miss," and he shook his head with importance. "You do not understand the trade. That would be a duplicate, and in furniture we guarantee to give you an original - I can only get one seaman's card table, and that is ordered."

Cora smiled and walked off a little to gain time, and to think. Her manner told the girls plainly not to mention the matter. She would act as wisely as she was capable of doing. She overhauled some blue plates and selected a pair of "Baronials."

The man went into ecstasies, describing "every crack in the dishes," Maud said to Daisy, but Cora bought the plates, and paid him his price without question.

Adele and Tillie had piled up quite a heap of brass and copper, and, unlike Cora, they argued some about the cost, but finally compromised, and put the entire heap into an old Chinese basket which the man "threw in."

"Then I cannot get a table," said Cora, purposely displaying a roll of bills which she was replacing in her purse.

"Not exactly that kind," answered the man. "But something very much handsomer, I assure you. If you will call in a day or two I will show you something unmatched in all the country. A house has just sold out, and I have bought all the mahogany."