Chapter IX. The Mysterious Ride
 

The fact that Cecilia Thayer could be old or young, as had been remarked by one of her companions, was not a mere saying. The Thayers were strangers in Chelton, and Cecilia was now only home from school on a vacation. It was generally understood that the girl was not exactly a daughter of the small household, but perhaps a niece, or some relative, who made her home with the people. She never invited her friends to her home, but this was not considered strange, as her means plainly were not equal to the circumstances of those with whom she associated.

Not that Cecilia sought this class, because she was constantly sought by them - she was a brilliant, happy young girl, and, as such, was a most desirable adjunct to the Chelton younger set.

It was, of course, Cora Kimball who "took her up," and that fact was sufficient to vouch for all

The girl and Jack were well on the road to Woodbine the morning of the little meeting by the garage, when, with a very different expression of countenance to that shown to the party by the roadside, Cecilia grasped at the arm of the young man beside her.

"It's awfully good of you, Jack," she said, "and I suppose I am taking desperate chances."

"Good! The idea! It's a privilege," he answered warmly.

"You suspect, of course."

"I have suspected," he said with a light laugh.

"And if the girls find out?"

"What of it? Is it a disgrace to - "

"Hush! I haven't qualified yet, and when I do I'm going to spring it on them." She tossed her head back defiantly. "Won't some of them howl!"

Jack laughed outright. "You're a brick, Clip," he exclaimed. "You can count on Cora, too. Does she know?"

"I haven't told her, but I imagine she has guessed. You are a great family at guessing."

"Which way?" he inquired, nodding toward a fork in the road.

"To the left. Isn't it too mean that our old lumber wagon gave way? I never had more need of it. It's just splendid of you to help me out this way."

"And good of you to let me," he replied with a keen glance at the girl's bright face.

"Of course I had no idea of going on the girls' trip. I only went in for the arrangements for the fun of the thing. I seem to need an awful lot of fun," she finished with a sigh that ended like a groan.

"Oh, we all do, more or less," spoke Jack. "Only some of us are more upright than others in the way we acknowledge it."

They were turning up to the Salvey cottage. Cecilia pointed it out.

"You must expect to sign the promise book," she said. "That is a condition of admittance."

"So Cora told me. Well, I'll sign. Can't tell which name may win the prize."

"Of course I'll see Wren first. But before we go she will insist upon seeing you. And - don't mind her extravagances about me. You know, she sees so few people that she thinks I am just wonderful."

"I agree with her. But you can count upon my discretion, if that is what you want, Clip."

"You're `immense,' Jack!" exclaimed the girl, her smile apologizing for the vulgarity of the expression. "If I had a brother like you - "

"Hush! Your brother! Why, Clip "

"Here we are," she interrupted; and she prepared to get out as Jack stopped the car. "Suppose you stay outside until I call you?"

"Oh, if I must. But be sure to call. I've had Cora play that trick, and forget the cue."

"Oh, she'll have to see you," and with that Cecilia jumped out of the car, and presently touched the brass knocker of the little cottage.

Jack was left to his own thoughts. Wasn't she a girl, though? So like Cora in her impulses. Well, a girl has to be impulsive to get ahead - she is so ridiculously hampered by conventionalities.

It seemed a long time before Clip reappeared at the door, and beckoned him to come in. Then the room he entered smelled strongly of antiseptics, and the crippled child sat in a chair made sweet and fresh with snowy pillows. Wren had her promise book in her hands. Briefly Cecilia introduced Jack, while the child eyed him keenly, as do those deprived of the usual means of making sure of their friends.

"You know about my promise," she said shyly. "Grandpa's will is lost in an old table, and will you promise to help find it?"

"Indeed I will," said Jack warmly, taking the pen offered. "I have a weakness for hunting old furniture, and I hope it will be my good fortune to find the table."

"How much you are like your sister," said Wren, referring to Cora, "but not a bit like your cousin."

This caused both Jack and Cecilia to laugh - she Jack's cousin!

Mrs. Salvey patted the child's head. "She is so much better lately," she said, "since she has been friends with Miss Thayer."

"Her friendship is wonderful," said Jack, handing back the book. "It does me all sorts of good."

Cecilia was pulling on her gloves. She picked up the small black satchel (her hand bag, she called it), and started for the door.

"That hand bag smells like - "

"Fresh eggs," she interrupted Jack. "Understand, young man, I had to come out here to get one dozen of strictly fresh eggs."

For a moment she looked intently at Jack, as if determined to put him on his honor without further explanation. He took her hand and assisted her into the car. As he did so she felt the assurance that Jack Kimball was her friend.

Then they started back to Chelton.