Chapter XII. A Race Against Time
 

It was a few days after the visit to Madam Julia that Cora was out alone in the Whirlwind. She had been feeling very unhappy over the loss of Ed's money and the suspicion that naturally attached to her on account of the finding of the empty wallet in her car. She could not dismiss the matter from her mind.

But Ed Foster had done everything in his power to make her feel that she was in no wise concerned. He had called and taken dinner with Jack, and had announced that, as far as he could see, he feared he would have to charge the money and bonds up to profit and loss.

"Principally loss," he remarked with a rueful smile. "I don't believe those detectives will ever get it."

Jack had offered to go with his sister when she announced that she was about to take a run in her car, but, with a little nod of thanks, she declined his company.

"It's a beautiful morning," she said, "and I want to take a good, long ride by myself, Jack. I want to--think. I feel that the air will do me more good than anything else."

Her mother had gone into town, and once his offer was refused, Jack took a book and declared that he was going to try to work off some of his college conditions. The Robinson girls were at their music lessons, Cora knew, so he would not call for them. Thus she started off alone.

Down the turnpike she steered the big machine, confident in her ability to manage it. There were few autos out, and the highway was almost deserted. Her pretty Shaker hood, which had lately come home from Madam Julia's, was unbound, and the loose, chiffon strings flew out in the wind like long-legged birds. Turning into a broad avenue, Cora realized that she was on the road leading to the garage where she had met Paul Hastings, the handsome chauffeur who had given her such valuable information about her car.

"I must see about getting the mud guard fixed," she reflected, for the temporary brace that Ed had made, though it had kept the affair in place until the day previous had now come loose. "And this is a good time to have it attended to," thought the girl.

Paul Hastings was in the little front office. He smiled pleasantly at the flushed girl as she told her needs, but somehow he seemed dejected--as if something had happened. Even Cora, comparative stranger that she was to him, could not help inquiring the cause of his trouble.

"Is--is there anything the matter?" she asked hesitatingly.

"Oh--not much. Only I--er--I have just ex experienced quite a loss, and it makes me--blue."

"That's too bad!"

"Yes," he went on. "I had an opportunity of getting a first-class position, but another fellow got ahead of me."

"How's that?"

'Well, you see, a firm in New City needs a manager. I have good backing, and was almost certain of the place. But another fellow had just as good a chance, and it was a question of who got there first. I was delayed here and missed the only train that would bring me there on time. He caught it, and is now on his way there. He'll get the place and I--won't."

"But why don't you take a machine and go there? You can do it as quickly as the train can."

"Take a machine?" he repeated. "I wouldn't dare. I'd be sure to lose my place here, and might not get the other. I haven't a car in the place I would dare risk taking out on the road. The owners are too particular about them, and I can't blame them, either."

Cora thought for a moment. A daring plan came into her mind.

"Let me take you," she suggested.

"Oh, indeed, I would not think of such a thing. I should not have mentioned my troubles to you. But they were so--so much to me that I didn't realize what I was doing. But let me look at your car."

He soon adjusted the broken bolt of the mud guard, and announced that it was now as good as new.

"But why won't you go in the Whirlwind?" demanded the girl. "I am only out on a little pleasure spin, and I would be very glad indeed to take you to New City. Besides, I'd like to race with the train," she went on with sparkling eyes. "I know I could beat it."

Paul looked interested.

"I guess you could," he said. "It would be a good chance, anyhow."

"Come on, then! Don't waste a moment. Let's try it."

Paul called his assistant, a young lad, and gave him instructions about some cars, and what to do if certain customers came in. It was not a busy part of the day, and he could leave without causing any complications. Then he slipped into his long, linen coat and stepped into Cora's car.

"I'm afraid this is an imposition," he declared, taking the steering wheel, a sort of unconscious habit he had. Then he bethought himself. "Oh, but I suppose you'll drive," he added quickly, shifting over, rather abashed at having taken his place in the driver's seat without being asked. "You see, I'm so accustomed to being here."

"I believe I will drive," answered Cora. "I have great faith in the obedience of my machine. It knows my hand."

"I shouldn't wonder," agreed the young, man. "I do believe that motor-cars can almost be made to think--under the guidance of very gentle but sure hands."

Paul looked very handsome, Cora thought. He was the type she always admired--a youth with a bronze complexion--a straight, athletic figure, almost classic, Cora decided. He cranked up for her, re-entered the car, and they rolled from the garage. Once out on the country road Cora threw in the high gear and fed the gasolene with a judicious hand, controlling the spark admirably.

"A fine machine!" exclaimed Paul, noting how perfect was the rhythm of action as it thrilled out beneath them.

"There are friends of mine," said Cora suddenly as a runabout, containing two young then, came into sight. Ed Foster and Walter Pennington raised their caps as they dashed by, but they did not go so quickly but that Cora noticed an expression of surprise on their faces.

"Oh, yes, I know them also," remarked Paul. "I've had that machine in the garage."

"I wonder where they are going?" went on Cora. She also found herself wondering if Walter and Ed were surprised to see her out alone with a professional chauffeur. It was the first time her conduct in taking Paul with her came forcibly to her mind. Then, with an independence of spirit that characterized her, she decided she had no apology or explanation to make.

"It's hard to say where any person in an auto is going," replied Paul pleasantly, "and sometimes almost as hard to say when they'll get there."

"That young man on the right is the one who recently lost twenty thousand dollars," observed the girl as she changed to second speed to take a troublesome little hill.

"So I understand. And wasn't there some mystery connected with it?"

"Indeed, there was. You know, they found the empty wallet in the tool-box of my car."

"Yes, so I heard. Quite remarkable. But can't the detectives find out who stole the money and hid the pocketbook there?"

Cora was grateful for the neat way he put that, to avoid referring to the suspicions that had been cast on her and on her friends.

"The police don't appear able to do anything," was her answer. "It does seem very strange."

"Have they inquired of all the people who were on hand at the time of the robbery--or loss--when, I understand, it was very likely that the empty wallet was put in your tool-box?"

"Oh, yes, they have questioned all of us--and I can tell you that they were not any too polite about it, either. I thought I would never get over their quizzing."

"Well, I suppose they have to be sharp," remarked Paul. "But I've not yet explained to you the reason why I am in such a hurry and the nature of the position I am after. You see, a firm in New City advertised for a chauffeur to drive their machine across the country in a big race. I replied, and was as good as engaged. I expected to go over this morning, but some one told me that Sid Wilcox had taken the early train and was going to beat me out--It's a case of first come--get the job, you see."

"Sidney Wilcox!" exclaimed Cora in astonishment.

"Yes. You know him, of course. It seems that he wants to make the trip, and is willing to run the machine without pay. I can't afford to do that, and that gives him an advantage over me. If Sid gets there first, and offers to do it for nothing, it means that they'll take him."

"Well, he'll not get there first!" exclaimed Cora very determinedly.

Suddenly they both heard the distant whistle of the train. "There she is!" cried Paul; and a little later they caught sight of the cars, flying over the track.

"We're too late," said Paul.

"Not yet," answered Cora. "We can take a shorter route, even if they can go faster than we can."

She was already running on third speed, and the motor was taking about all the gasolene it could use. She adjusted the spark to give the best service, and now, as an additional means of inducing speed, she cut out the muffler. The explosions of the motor played a tattoo on the dusty road.

"I'm going to turn here!" cried Cora as she swung around a corner. "Look out!"

Paul needed no warning, for he was an expert autoist. The machine skidded a bit and tilted somewhat, but was soon flying down the straight, level stretch.

"I cannot understand why Sid Wilcox wants to run in a cross-country race--and for nothing," said Cora.

"Because he knows I want the place. He hates me and wants to make trouble for me."

"Is that so? Then we have a double reason for beating him. And I think we'll do it. His train has to wait for the accommodation to pass it at the junction. We'll gain on him there."

"That's so."

"What time is it now?" Cora asked as, with hands firmly gripping the wheel, she leaned forward to peer down the road. She could neither see nor hear the train now.

"It's nine-fifty-five," replied the chauffeur. "The train is due at New City at ten-fifteen."

"Twenty minutes yet. I'm sure we can make it."

Cora made that declaration with her cheeks flushing and her bright eyes ablaze with excitement.

"Won't you, let me take the wheel?" asked Paul. "I am afraid that this heavy driving is too much for you."

"Oh, no, indeed! This is my race, you know. I want to beat him."

She looked at Paul frankly.

"Very well. Only don't distress yourself too much--on my account."

"Don't worry. I love this. At what place in New City do you wish to go?"

"Directly in the center, next to the bank. The office of the Whitehall Motor Company."

"Then we'll take this road," decided the girl. "I'm sure it cuts through a park, and will bring us out right at the center of the city."

"It does, and it's the nearest way. You're getting to be quite a driver."

"I mean to be. Hark, there's the train again!"

"Yes, and we're ahead of it!" exclaimed Paul as he caught sight of the cars. "We've gained on them!"

"But they're going down grade, and we have a hill to climb," spoke Cora a little despairingly. But she would not give up. On and on rushed the car. There was but five minutes left, and the railroad; station was very close to the building where the automobile concern was located. Sid's chances were very good--Paul's not quite so much so.

"We'll have to be a little careful now," Paul reminded her as they swung around a curve. "We'll have to go slow through the city."

"Yes, but I have been counting on that. We still have a few minutes. Oh, isn't it a pity that a motor isn't like a horse? When you get a machine going just so fast it can't go any faster, but a horse can always be depended on for a spurt."

"Yes," answered Paul quietly. He was busy thinking.

"How many minutes lift now?" asked Cora.

"Two," was the grim answer.

With keen eyes, that took note of every obstruction or vehicle that might block her, Cora drove her car on. Around corners, and through busy streets she piloted it. They were but a block from the center of the town.

"There's the train," spoke Paul quietly as the engine pulled into the station.

"And we're at the building of the Whitehall auto concern!" exclaimed Cora triumphantly a few seconds later, as she guided the car up to the curb. "Hurry!" she called to Paul. As if he needed to be told that!

He leaped from the car and ran across the pavement to the office. As he entered the door Sid Wilcox, coming leisurely from the direction of the station, saw him. Sid started, and then, with a quick motion, hurried after Paul. But the chauffeur was ahead of him, and the door slammed shut in the face of the owner of the Streak.

Paul, thanks to Cora's aid, had won the race against time.

"Oh, I do hope he gets the place," she said as she stopped her engine and prepared to rest while Paul was within the office of the motor company.