Chapter II. The Dash of the Whirlwind
 

When Jack Kimball called at the Robinson home that same evening, at precisely nine-thirty, he found three very much agitated young ladies. Bess, or, to be more exact, Elizabeth Robinson, the brown-haired, "plump" girl--she who was known as the "big" Robinson girl--was positively out of breath, while her twin sister, Isabel, usually called Belle, too slim to puff and too thin to "fluster," was fanning herself with a very dainty lace handkerchief.

Cora paced up and down the piazza, in the true athletic way of cooling off.

"Why the wherefore?" asked Jack, surprised at the excitement so plainly shown, in spite of the girls' attempts to hide it.

"Oh, just a race," replied Cora indifferently.

"Out in the dark?" 'persisted Jack.

"Only across the hill," went on Cora, while Bess giggled threateningly.

"Seems to me you took a queer time to race," remarked the lad with a sly wink at Isabel. "Who won out?"

"Oh, Cora, of course," answered Isabel. "She won--in and out."

"Oh, I don't know," spoke Jack's sister. "You didn't do half badly, Belle."

"Oh, I was laughing so I couldn't run."

"Cora said you were coming for her," put in Bess with a smile.

Jack seemed disappointed that the subject was mentioned.

"Yes," he said. "She was very particular to specify the time. It's nine-thirty now, but I'm in no hurry," and he looked about for a chair.

"But I am," insisted Cora.

"Well, then," added Jack a bit stiffly, "if you're ready, suppose we run along. Or, have you had enough running for this evening?"

"Plenty. But I really must go, girls. Be sure and be ready in the morning for--well, you know what," and she finished with a laugh. "We want the Chelton folks--"

"To sit up and take notice, I suppose," put in Jack quickly. "Pardon the slang, ladies, but sometimes slang seems to fit where nothing else will."

The twins managed to whisper a word or two into Cora's ear as she said good-night and left with her brother.

They had had such a splendid time at the garage. It was the run back home, over the railroad embankment, that had caused all their flurry and excitement. And, though they had not left the auto salesrooms until five minutes before the time Cora had appointed for her brother to meet her, they had actually managed to reach home before Jack called, so that he could have no suspicion of their visit to the garage.

Paul Hastings, the young man whom they had encountered on their visit to the automobile place, had proved a most interesting youth--he appeared to know many things besides the good and bad points of the average car.

Mr. and Mrs. Perry Robinson, parents of the Robinson twins, happened to be out that evening, so that, even to them, the visit to the garage was a profound secret, and there was no need of making any explanations.

That night, in her sleep, Elizabeth was heard to mutter "The clutch! Throw in the clutch!"

And Isabel actually answered, also in dream language:

"Jam down the brake!"

But Cora, across the fields, in her own cool, out-of-doors sleeping apartment, built on a broad porch, did not dream. She just slumbered.

It was a delightful morning in early June, and the air seemed sprinkled with scented dew, when Cora Kimball drove up to the Robinson home in her new automobile.

"Come on! Come on!" she called as she stopped at the curb and, tooted the horn. "Hurry! I want to overtake Walter. He and Jack have just gone out!"

"Oh, of course, you want to overtake Walter," answered Isabel, with the emphasis on "Walter."

"Well, never mind about that, but do come," urged Cora. "What do you think of my car?" she asked as the girls hastened to her. "Isn't it a beauty?"

She handled the machine with considerable skill, for she had had some practice on Jack's car.

"Think of it!" exclaimed Elizabeth. "Why, it's simply beyond thoughts; it's--overwhelming!"

"A perfect dream," agreed Belle. "Aren't you the lucky girl, though!"

"Guess I am," admitted Cora. "See, I can start it without cranking"; and to prove it, when the engine was quiet, she threw forward the spark lever, shifted the gasolene one a trifle, and the motor began to throb and hum rapidly.

"Good!" cried Isabel.

"Paul told me about it," went on Cora. "The Paul, you know. He said when a charge of gas is in one of the cylinders all you have to do is to send a spark to the cylinder, and--"

"It didn't take you long to learn," complimented Bess, while Isabel said:

"Paul--er--is he--"

"Yes, he is," admitted Cora with a laugh. "The youth of the garage."

"Well, I don't remember a thing he said," confessed Elizabeth; "but Paul--who could forget Paul? Didn't he have nice teeth?"

"And so polite," added Belle.

"Wasn't he just splendid?" concluded Cora. "And such a number of things that he told me. But come on, get in," and she slowed down the motor somewhat, while, removing a pair of buckskin gloves from her long, tapering hands, she produced a small, dainty handkerchief and rubbed a spot of black grease from her aristocratic nose.

"Got that when I was oiling the rear wheels," she explained.

The twins entered the tonneau, neither of them caring to risk riding on the front seat just yet.

Cora speeded the motor up a bit, glanced behind to see that the tonneau door was securely fastened, and then pulled the speed lever and threw in the clutch. The car started forward as smoothly as if Paul himself were at the wheel.

Elizabeth's hand flew to her hat, which tilted backward in the wind. They had not yet secured their motor "togs," and regulation hats were so difficult to manage.

"Oh, isn't this glorious!" cried Isabel.

"Every one is looking at us," announced Elizabeth.

"Now I wonder which road Jack and Walter took?" said Cora as she swung the car around a curve in good style. "I heard Jack say he was going for some fishing-tackle."

"Perhaps they went to Arden," ventured Isabel.

"Maybe. Well, we'll take a nice little spin down the turnpike," decided Cora as she threw in the high gear, the cogs grinding on each other rather alarmingly.

"Gracious! What's that?" asked Elizabeth.

"Only the gears," replied Cora calmly. "I hope I didn't strip them, but I might have done that changing a little better. I wasn't quite quick enough."

The car was going rather fast now.

"Don't put on quite so much speed," begged Isabel. "I'm so--"

"Now please don't say you're nervous," interrupted Cora.

"But I am."

"Well, you needn't be. I know how to run the car."

"Of course, since Paul showed her," put in Elizabeth.

The speed was a trifle too fast for an inexperienced hand at the wheel, but Cora grasped the wooden circlet firmly, and with a keen look ahead prepared for the descent of a rather steep hill.

Coming up the grade were a number of autos, containing Chelton folks, who had been to the depot with early city commuters. Chelton was a great place for commuters and autos.

"Please don't put on any more speed, Cora," again begged Isabel, leaning over toward the front seat. "This is such a steep hill."

"All right, I won't," and Cora placed her foot more firmly on the brake pedal, while she was ready to grasp the emergency lever quickly, in case anything happened.

"Oh, there's Ida!" suddenly cried Elizabeth as a small runabout loomed up in front of them.

"And Sid Wilcox. I wonder what she finds interesting in that--that lazy chap?"

"A companion--that's all," replied her sister. "I think Ida is about as unenergetic a girl as I ever knew."

"Funny thing," said Cora, speaking loudly enough to be heard above the noise of the motor, "how she manages to keep going. She rides as often in Sid's car as if--well, as if she was his own sister."

"Oftener than most sisters," added Belle significantly.

"They have just left her friend, who was on from New City, at the depot," said Bess. "It's quite handy to have a chum with a motor-car--even if it does happen to be a chap like Sid."

"Well, I guess Ida's harmless, even if she is jealous," said Cora. "I do believe that's all that ails Ida--just plain jealousy."

"Maybe," assented Isabel.

They rode along for some time, coasting down the steeper parts of the hill, and running easily where there was a level stretch. They were now approaching the worst part of the descent. From this point there was quite a steep slant to the level highway, which the railroad crossed at grade, and approached on a curve.

There was a long-drawn, shrill whistle.

"What's that?" exclaimed Elizabeth.

"The train!" cried Isabel. "Oh, the train! Cora, the train is coming!"

"I hear it," spoke Cora calmly, but she pressed her foot down harder on the brake pedal, and tried to use the compression of the cylinders as a retarding force, as Paul had showed her.

"Can't you slow up?" pleaded Elizabeth. There was a note of alarm in her voice.

"I'm--I'm trying to!" almost shouted Cora, as she exerted more strength on the brake lever. "I've done all I know, now, but but we don't seem to be stopping!"

She spoke the last words in a curiously quiet voice.

"Put on the brakes!" called Bess.

"They are on!" said Cora fiercely.

"Oh, Cora!" screamed Isabel. "I see the train! There at the foot of the hill! We'll run into it! I'm going to jump! We can't stop!"

"Sit still!" commanded Cora energetically.

Elizabeth covered her face with her hands. She shrank back into her seat. Her sister leaned up against her. Below could be heard the puffing of the train. Then the engineer, seeing the auto rushing down to destruction, blew shrieking whistles, as if that could help.

Cora was frantically pulling on the brake lever. Her face was now white with fear, but even in the midst of this terror she felt a curious calmness. It was just as if she were looking at some picture of the scene. She thought she was miles and miles away. Her foot was pressed down so hard on the brake pedal that it felt as if her shoe would burst off.

But the car slid along, nearer and nearer the track, along which the train was thundering--rushing to meet the auto-to annihilate it.

"Stop! Stop!" screamed Isabel. "Stop!" She rose in her seat.

"Sit down!" commanded Cora.

"But stop!" pleaded Isabel. "We'll all be killed! Stop! Oh, Cora, stop!"

"I'm trying to!" was the grim reply. "But--I can't the brake--the brake is jammed!"

The last words came out jerkily, for Cora was pulling on the brake handle with all her force.

Nearer and nearer sounded the approaching train. The auto was sliding down the hill with ever-increasing speed, but Cora never let go her hold of the steering wheel.

Once more she tried to pull the brake lever. It would not come back another notch. The engineer of the train was blowing more frantic signals. He leaned from his cab window and motioned the auto back. He even seemed to be shouting to them.

Cora braced both feet against the brake pedal.

She took a firmer grasp of the wheel. The seams of her new gloves were starting from the strain. There was a desperate look on her face.

"Oh, we'll be killed! We'll be killed!" screamed Isabel. "We can't get across in time!"

She leaned over, and fell into her sister's arms, while Cora, with a keen glance to either side, stiffened in her seat. There was a bare chance of safety.