Chapter XVII. A Runaway Auto
 

When Cora finished reading Mary's letter to Ed, which did not take long, she looked up at him and asked:

"Well, what do you think of it?"

"I--er--I think--would you mind very much if I didn't tell you what I think of it?" he answered her in turn.

"No," she said slowly; "not if you don't care to. But I thought perhaps--Jack says you know who took the money," she finished hurriedly. She had wanted to get alone with Ed more to ask him this than to read Mary's letter to him.

Ed started.

"Jack said that?" he asked, obviously to gain time.

"Yes."

"I didn't exactly say, that. I said I had my suspicions. He must have misunderstood me."

"Very likely. Jack's rather impetuous. Then you don't know?"

"Not exactly."

"I'll not ask you whom you suspect," declared Cora, though it was hard work not to, for she had her share of curiosity, and she felt, in a measure, that suspicion for the robbery was upon her and her friends.

They were both rather sober after that, and following a short ride around quiet streets Ed brought her home. Walter and Jack were gone.

"Good-by," said Ed as he started away. "If I--er--if I make my suspicions a certainty I'll tell you before I do any one else."

"Will you--really?"

"Yes."

When the Robinson girls called on Cora the next afternoon she had about completed her plans for the lawn fete. It was to be a novel affair, and almost all the eligible young folks of Chelton were to be invited.

"All," declared Cora, "except Sid Wilcox. He simply shall not come."

"But how can you leave him out?" questioned Bess. "Especially as you are going to ask Ida and others in that set."

"I simply will not have him," insisted Cora, "and I don't care what any one thinks about it. He is too--too impertinent to be polite, and I will not run the risk of having him offend some one."

Secretly Cora was thinking of his last transgression, and it afforded her no small consolation to note that her particular friends had not heard of the stolen ride.

Belle, "relaxing" on the low divan in the library window, just where the sun could help her out on the rest theory, was too deeply buried in thought to make rash comment on Cora's decision. She wanted everything simply perfect, and to shape plans with such precision was no easy matter.

"Of course,--you will ask the Sheldons," she finally venture.

"Of course," answered Cora. "But, Belle, we expected a more important remark after such forethought on your part."

"And the Winters," went on the serene one, not noticing the bit of sarcasm.

"Yes; and I have a new star," said Cora quickly. "Who ever do you imagine she can be?"

"I know," declared Bess. "She is Paul's sister."

"Who told you?" demanded Cora.

"Not a soul," Bess assured her; "but I saw you out in your car with her this morning. Isn't she nice."

"Very. But being nice is not her strongest point. She is --brainy."

"O-h-h-h!" sighed Bess. "Then let's not take her up. Belle has brains enough for one town."

"But Hazel isn't that kind. Isn't that a pretty name?" demanded Cora quickly. "She has a different sort of brains. She is a student of nature--biology and evolution, to be exact."

"Perhaps she could tell what makes Bess so--so fat," suggested Belle with marked sarcasm.

"Or what makes you so thin," retaliated Bess.

"At any rate, she is a very sweet girl," declared Cora, "and I'm most anxious for you to meet her. At the same time I am afraid you will like her a lot better than you do me."

"Cora Kimball!" exclaimed Bess. "As if any one could be more likable than you--to us!"

"Oh, I don't know," sighed Cora. "There's Jack."

"Well--er--he's nice--just because he's your brother," replied Bess a bit awkwardly.

"Now for plans," said Cora suddenly, wishing to change the subject, as it was becoming too personal. "We must get the cards out to-morrow. Every one must be masked--that's settled--and we'll try to confine the characters to--"

"The Roman period," interrupted Belle. "That will make it pretty."

"I wonder how the boys will take it?" asked Bess. "I shouldn't wonder if they all came as gladiators."

"Or some such character as Nero," added Belle.

"As long as they don't try to emulate him on his burning Rome affair," came from Cora.

"And every one must keep his or her costume a secret," went on Belle, who was nervous with enthusiasm. "I am not even going to let Bess know whit mine will be."

"All right, sister," replied Bess, glancing at her tiny, enameled watch; "but pray don't be too--too spirituelle. That is, if there were any Roman spirits."

"There was Roman punch!" laughed Cora merrily. "I believe I would like to be Roman punch, if it's not too strong."

"And served up to--" began Bess.

"The gentleman with whom she was riding yesterday afternoon," finished Belle. "The idea of a young lady going out motoring in a morning dress--"

"Bareheaded," chimed in Bess, and a laugh followed.

"Come to think of it, girls," spoke Cora, making an effort to get back to the party, "I do not think we ought to confine this fete to any particular period. Suppose some one wants to be--well, say, Priscilla--and has been wanting to be Priscilla all her life."

"That's right," agreed Bess. "It's just like you, Cora, to think all around a thing. Yes, I vote for a masked fete. Any sort of a costume, so long as we are masked."

Belle also agreed that this would be a better plan than the one first proposed, and then the trio of girls busied themselves over the invitation list. There was no time to spare, as the "doings" must come off before Mrs. Kimball's trip to Bermuda, for which she was preparing.

"And you feel you must invite Ida?" asked Bess. "I am sure she is almost as certain to do something rude as Sid would be."

"Yes, we had better have her," declared Cora, putting down Ida's name on the long list. "Ida is not really mean--she is rather unfortunate--and I think, as she has been in Chelton so long it would be unkind to leave her out."

"I hardly think she will come," commented Belle. "She has been so--so snippy lately."

"Well, we'll ask her, at any rate. And, now, don't forget, we are all to keep our costumes secret."

"Oh, won't it be jolly!" sang out Bess. "I can scarcely wait."

"And to think of having it after dark, without chaperons to look after us!" exclaimed Belle. "I doubt if some of the stiff girls will be allowed to come on that account."

"Then we'll have a better time without the stiffs," declared the young hostess. "I'm sure our patronesses are protection enough, and mother is going to delay her trip a few days on purpose to be on hand."

"Oh, of course," Belle hurried to explain, "I think it is just perfectly all right and delicious, but I was just speculating on the kind who may be jealous."

"And is Paul coming?" asked Bess. She was always so self-conscious when she asked a question like that.

"Why, of course," answered Cora, "and also his sister Hazel. I particularly like them both, and Jack, who has met Paul, agrees that he is a very nice young man."

"Expert opinion, I suppose," murmured Belle.

They talked in jolly mood for some time longer, and the twins were about to leave for home when a shout out in the street attracted their attention.

"What's that?" asked Cora, starting up.

"Runaway! Look out for the runaway!" the girls heard several persons shout.

"It's a horse running `away," declared Belle. "Let's stay where it's safe--up here."

But Cora had started down the path, and Bess followed her.

"It's a runaway motor--a car!" exclaimed Cora as she caught sight of something flashing through the trees. It was a runabout, dashing along the avenue without a hand to guide it, and as it gathered speed it swerved from side to side.

"Why, it's Jack's car!" cried Cora as the auto flashed past her. "Can he be hurt? Where is he? 'Oh, Jack!"

She started to run, leaving Bess on the path.

"I must stop it!" thought Cora. "It may run into a person or a team and kill some one."

Before she thought of the uselessness of her act she found herself running down the street, along with a shouting crowd of men and boys. As if she could catch up to an auto!

She hardly knew what she was doing.

"Oh, can't some one stop it?" she cried. "Turn off the power! It must be stopped!"

"By Jove! That's a plucky chap!" exclaimed a stranger. "There! He's lost his hold! He'll be run over!"

A young man, who had made a daring attempt to stop the runabout, was seen to be slipping beneath the wheels. But as the car sped on he pulled himself up to the seat. He grasped the wheel just in time to prevent the car from running up on the sidewalk, and an instant later he had shut off the, power and applied the brakes.

"Why, it's Ed Foster!" exclaimed Cora as she came up beside the halted runabout. "Oh, Ed, are you hurt? I'm, so glad you stopped Jack's car. There might have been a bad accident."

"Oh, I'm all right. I nearly slipped out, though. How did it happen?"

"I don't know. We were sitting on our piazza when we heard the cry, and I saw the car speeding away."

"Where's Jack?"

"I don't know that, either. I'm afraid he's hurt."

"The car doesn't seem to be damaged," remarked a man who had been nearly run down.

The crowd, rather disappointed, on the whole, that no accident had happened, turned away. Cora got in Jack's car beside Ed, who started the machine back. They were met half way to the Kimball home by Paul Hastings.

"Any damage done?" he called out as soon as he saw them. He appeared very anxious.

"None, but it was a narrow squeak," answered Ed.

"Where's Jack?" asked Cora.

"We took him home."

"Oh, is he--is he badly hurt?"

"No; only a sprained leg, I believe, and some bruises. The doctor is there."

"How did it happen?" asked Cora quickly.

"Why, Jack brought his machine to the garage to have a little repairing done. I had finished it, and he and I were in the office talking, when a fellow named Lem Gildy came along and threw in the clutch, starting the car off.'

"Jack saw him do it and ran out, trying to stop his runabout, but he wasn't quick enough, and was knocked down. I hurried out to pick him up, and I forgot all about the runaway car until I had taken Jack home. There was considerable excitement, as there was a brand-new car, a very expensive one, belonging to the Blends, in front of our garage, and the runabout nearly crashed into it. If it had, the new machine would have been wrecked."

"And what became of Lem Gildy?" asked Ed.

"Oh, he sneaked off, after whining out that he didn't mean any harm. But I think he did. He's a suspicious character."

"Hurry home. I want to see Jack," begged Cora.

Ed started Jack's runabout off again, after telling Paul what had happened down the street. The handsome young chauffeur said he would presently call at the house and inquire after Jack.

Cora found her brother in bed, where her mother had insisted that he go, though he declared he was not hurt much. Dr. Dearborn had examined him, and said he would be all right in a few days.

"Oh, weren't you awfully frightened, Cora?" asked Bess, who, with her sister, had remained at the Kimball home.

"Indeed I was, but I knew the car had to be stopped."

"And it was going some," added Ed.

"I can't see what motive Lem would have in starting the car," said Cora. "I never knew him to be malicious--only worthless."

"I believe he planned this," declared Paul, who had just arrived.

"Why so?" asked Cora.

"Well, he's been hanging around the garage for several days past, and numbers of times I've ordered him away. I heard him asking one of the men, the other day, how to throw in a clutch on a car like Jack's, and that made me suspicious."

"But what could his object be?" asked Ed, rubbing one arm, that was strained from his exertion in stopping the car:

"I believe him to be in the pay of some one," declared Paul with flashing eyes, "and I believe his object was to get me into trouble. As I told you, there stood in front of the garage a valuable new car belonging to the Blends. Their chauffeur was about to take it out for a run. If Jack's car, started by Lem, had smashed into it I would have been blamed, for I ran the car out of the garage, for their chauffeur. Then I would have lost my position here, and probably would not get that new one in New City, for the garage people would have blacklisted me."

"Oh, mercy!" gasped Belle. "Wouldn't that have been dreadful!"

"Bad for me," admitted Paul with a smile. "But I'm sorry Jack was hurt."

"Thank goodness it's no worse!" exclaimed Cora. "But, Mr. Hastings, whom do you think paid Lem to do such a mean thing?"

"I'd rather not say," answered the young garage manager. "But I shall keep my ears and eyes open, and if I find out what I suspect to be true--well, there'll be trouble for somebody."

He spoke with flashing eyes, and Cora looked at him admiringly.

"Well, since we know how your brother is, I think we'll be going, Cora," said Bess, and she and her sister took their departure, followed by Paul and Ed.

"I wonder why Lem Gildy did that?" asked Cora of herself as she went to her room that night. "Who is urging him on? Did he want to injure Jack, as well as make trouble for Paul? Well, I'll have to give up thinking of it now," she finished, "but, like Paul--I suppose I ought to say Mr. Hastings--I'm going to keep my eyes and ears on the alert, too."