Chapter XXI. Real Motor Girls
 

Cora was up early the next morning, and went out alone for a spin in her car. She wanted to think over the happenings at the lawn fete, to recall various matters, and to try to straighten out some tangles that confused her. It was delightful to skim along the quiet road, the powerful motor of her car singing a song of speed and progress.

"I suppose Jack and Ed are sleeping yet," she said to herself, "though how Ed can, after the strange recovery of his bonds, is more than I can understand."

Ed was gone when she returned, and Jack seemed surprised to see his sister returning from an early morning run.

"I thought you'd sleep for hours yet," he said "I've got something to tell you."

"Is it about the bonds?"

"No, not exactly. Look at that!"

He held out the diamond ring.

"Jack!" she cried with a little catch in her voice. "You don't mean to tell me that's an engagement Ting?"

"That's exactly what it is."

"But for some girl--"

"Of course it's for a girl," answered her brother, seeing that his sister was under a misapprehension, and not being able to resist the chance to tease her. "Of course it's for a girl. And--"

"Oh! But Jack, what will mother say--you becoming engaged--"

"Who said I was engaged?" he asked. "Look inside and you'll see whose it is."

"Ida Giles!" cried Cora.

"Exactly. She lost it," and to end her increasing wonder, Jack told his sister the circumstances.

Cora wanted to go at once and return the ring to Ida, but Jack said:

"No, we'll wait for her to call. If she wants it very much she'll come."

"But why don't you want me to give it to her?"

"Well, I'll tell you some other time," and with that evasive answer Cora had to be content.

Several days passed, and Ida did not come, but Jack would not consent to Cora returning the ring to her. In the meanwhile the young people had discussed over and over again the beautiful fete given by Cora, though the finding of the bonds and the story of the ring was kept within a small, select circle. Ed Foster took the bonds to the bank and received for them part of the stock for which he had negotiated. The rest, he said, would be held for him.

"And I'm pretty sure I'll get the rest of my twenty thousand dollars back soon," he said. "At least, nearly all the cash."

Mrs. Kimball went to the city to prepare for her trip to Bermuda, and it was a few days later, when some of the recent excitement had worn off, that Cora began to feel a sense of loneliness stealing over her. Her mother seldom went away from home.

"Oh, dear!" she exclaimed as she sat in the library trying to be interested in a book. "I wish something--"

Out on the driveway a triumphant "honk-honk!" drew her attention.

"I hope that's--" she began, but she did not finish, for she saw the Robinson twins in a shining, new car, Bess at the wheel, as though she had been running one for months, and the sisters both attired in their becoming motoring costumes.

"Come on!" cried Bess as Cora leaned out of the window. "Get your car and we'll take a spin! Isn't ours a beauty?"

"Oh, isn't it!" cried Cora delightedly. "But I thought it wasn't to come for a week."

"We couldn't help deceiving you, Cora, dear," answered Belle. "But you see--"

"And you can run it all alone?" interrupted Cora.

"Yes, all by our lonelies," answered Bess. "You see, we wanted to surprise you, so we didn't tell you exactly when it was coming. When it arrived we got Paul--I mean Mr. Hastings, of course--we got him to give us lessons along a quiet road, where we never met any one who knew us. And father is not a bit timid about us going out alone since Paul--I mean--"

"Never mind explaining," broke in Cora with a laugh.

"Well, since Paul showed us how to run it. Papa has taken a great notion to Paul," finished Bess with the suspicion of a blush.

"How about the daughter?" asked Cora gaily. "Of course, she would never take a notion to the same young man her father happened to favor."

"Oh, you horrid creature!" exclaimed Bess. "He did teach me beautifully, of course. But a girl may look at a chauffeur, I suppose, just as a cat may gaze at a crowned monarch."

"Oh, certainly," conceded Cora. "So you are really going out for a spin? I'll get ready and we'll go together: I was just wondering what I could do until dinner-time. Jack is out with some friends, and I was just plain lonesome."

"Put on your new costume," directed Belle. "We want people to look at us. Isn't it perfectly splendid to have a regular set of cars?"

"Yes. We ought to get up an auto show," agreed Cora as she hastened off to make ready for her ride.

They selected a quiet road. In spite of the shadows of the trees it was hot. The swift motion of the cars, however, relieved the humidity of the atmosphere in a measure.

"Which way?" asked Cora as they came to a turn.

"Down by the river," suggested Bess. "We haven't been out Woodbine way all summer. Let's go this afternoon."

"All right. I guess I'll let you set the pace," answered Cora as she held her car back and allowed Bess to take the lead, which the fair amateur motorist did gracefully and with no little skill.

They attracted some attention as they skimmed along in their new outfits and their new cars, And with their bright faces showing their happiness.

Many stopped to look and admire and could not but smile at the evident pleasure the motor girls were having.

"`Far from the maddening crowd,'" quoted Belle as they swung down the quiet river road. "But do be careful, Bess," she urged. "I know you understand as much about the car as I do, but I always feel that I ought to have a life preserver on when any mere girl--including myself--is at the helm of such a powerful craft."

Bess laughed and replied lightly. She had perfect confidence in her ability to guide the Flyaway, as they had christened the new car.

"Isn't it close?" called Cora as she tried to steer out of the way of a stone and failed, thereby receiving quite a jolt. "I'm afraid we're going to have rain before we get back--a thunder shower, likely. It's sultry."

"Oh, I hope we don't have a storm," replied Bess. "I'll hate to get my new machine all splashed up with mud, to say nothing of spoiling our new auto suits."

"Then we had better not get too far out and away from shelter," suggested Cora. "There! Isn't that thunder?"

There was a low, distant rumbling.

"That or blasting," said Belle.

"It is thunder," was Cora's opinion. "I hope we can find some shelter."

"Shelter!" exclaimed Bess as she looked anxiously up at the gathering clouds. "How could we ever get the cars under any ordinary shelter?

"That's what I can't get used to about an auto--the size of it. They're like houses to me, as big as all outdoors."

"I know of an old barn out this way, over toward Woodbine," went on Cora. "We would likely find that open, for when I went past there the other day they were getting ready to put the hay in."

"Oh, dear!" exclaimed Belle as the thunder sounded nearer and louder. "I wish we could get back home. Turn around, Bess., dear."

"I can't," declared her sister with a nervous little laugh. "The road is too narrow for me to make a turn in, and I haven't yet learned how to reverse well. We'll have to keep on until I get to a wide place."

"I don't want to do that!" objected Belle. "Let's stop the car, get out, and push it around. Surely we can do that. Don't go any farther."

"Yes, yes!" cried Cora. "Keep on. It's too late to turn back now. There! It's raining! Let me get ahead, and I'll show you the way-a short cut. I know how to get through that lane."

Her car shot ahead, the girl skillfully guiding it, and the twins timidly following, until, with many a twist and turn, Cora piloted them up a little hill to a big red barn, with the wide doors invitingly open.

"Drive right inside," called Cora, slowing down her car. "I guess no one will object, and we haven't any lights to put out, as the warning over the door of the garage says."

The rain was falling in torrents now, and before Cora could get the Whirlwind wholly within the shelter, and while yet the Flyaway was entirely out; the girls received quite a wetting. A moment later they were out of the storm in the barn, had stopped their cars, and shut off the engines.

"Suppose the owner doesn't like it?" suggested Belle.

"Well, we're in, anyway," declared Cora, "and I guess they won't put us out. But we must be careful. Don't let any gasolene or oil drip out. But I guess it won't, as both the cars are new."

No one but themselves seemed to be in the barn, which was odorous with new-mown hay, great mows of it being on either side of the broad floor on which the autos stood.

"There are some men coming," announced Bess, looking out through the big doors into a mist of rain.

"The haymakers," announced Cora. "They were getting in the crop, but the rain didn't let them finish. See how they're running."

"What shall we do when they come in?" inquired Belle, anxiety depicted on her face.

"Why, nothing, I should say," replied Cora. "There is plenty of room for them and us, I'm sure, even if our cars are rather large. We won't eat the men, and I hope they won't eat us."

"Oh, dear!" sighed Belle, but Bess laughed.

The first to reach the barn was a very tall farmer, of the type designated as lean and lanky. He was headed straight for the open doors, his head bent down to avoid the pelting drops, and he did not see the cars and the young ladies until he had nearly collided with Cora. Then he straightened up suddenly, and the look of astonishment on his face made Cora want to laugh, only she felt, under the circumstances, that she did not dare.

"Wa'al, I'll be gum-swizzled!" exclaimed the farmer. "What's this, anyhow? Auto-mobiles? As I live! Wa'al, I swan t' goodness! An' gals a-drivin' of 'em! Ho! ho! Wa'al, that's what I call rich--yes, sir, rich!"

A fringe of curious haymakers gathered behind the one who had entered first.

"We only came in out of the rain," explained Cora, who was looking her prettiest in the confusion. "We hope we're not in the way."

"Oh, you're welcome," the man hastened to say. "As welcome as--wa'al, a heap sight more welcome than this thunderstorm is. We calcalated t' git all th' hay in, but we didn't quite make out. We've got lots of room here, you see. There ain't another barn in all Woodbine that'd take a locomotive like that in it," and he walked around Cora's big car, eying it curiously.

"I knew you had a big barn," said Cora. "I saw it the other day; then, when the storm came, I remembered it, and so we intruded here."

"'Tain't no intrusion, nohow," declared the farmer. "I'm mighty glad of a chance t' git a look at them things close by, when they ain't movin' like a blue streak. My gal is jest daffy about 'em. She thinks it would be handy fer her an' me, but I ruther guess she'd git th' most rides outer it."

"They are very convenient when you want to get somewhere in a hurry," ventured Bess, who thought it time to come to Cora's aid in keeping up the conversation.

"Yes, I expect so; but you see th' trouble on a farm is that you ain't got much of any time t' go anywhere. Now, ef I had a machine like thet--"

There came such a sharp crash of thunder and such a blinding flash of lightning simultaneously that the farmer's voice was silenced, and every one jumped.

"Oh, isn't that awful!" fairly screamed Belle, and instinctively she ran to the side of the tall, lanky man.

"Guess you're used t' bein' near yer pa in a thunderstorm," observed the farmer with a chuckle.

"I thought the barn was struck," said the girl with a shudder. "It would be terrible if it got on fire, with all this hay in it."

"That's what it would; but we're not worryin so much since we got th' new fire apparatus. We've had th' two hose carts for about three weeks now, an' though we've practiced with 'em we ain't never had no real fire. We've got a good water system, with high pressure, an' they can pump more when they need it. All we have t' do is run with those carts t' th' fire, an' attach th' hose t' th' hydrants. But th' funny part of it is that th' carts is so heavy they need hosses t' pull 'em, and we ain't got no reg'lar hosses yet. Have t' pull 'em by hand, I expect, an' it's goin' t' be hard work."

"Do you belong to the department?" asked Cora.

"You're right, I do."

"And is that part of your uniform?" she went on, pointing to some rubber coats and fire hats that hung on the side of the barn.

"Yep, that's what they be. Me an' my two sons. By jimminity crickets! that lightnin' certainly is sharp, though!"

Flash after flash of the glaring light came through the sheets of rain, and the thunder crashed and vibrated overhead, seeming to, shake the very earth.

"Where are your sons?" inquired Belle, wanting too do her share in the talk; but she waited until there came a lull in the storm.

"Over in th' south medder, two miles away," replied the man.

By this time several of the haymakers, seeing that the storm was likely to continue, and knowing that they could no more work that day, had donned heavy coats and departed, going down the road to the village. This left the farmer and one hired man in the barn.

"It certainly is rainin'," remarked the hired man as he looked out through the big doors.

At that instant there came a more terrific crash than any that had preceded it, and the whole place seemed a glare of intense light. Every one was stunned for a moment, and when they recovered their numbed senses, Cora, looking toward the farmhouse, saw a sheet of flame coming from the roof.

"Fire! fire!" she cried. "Your house is afire! It's been struck by lightning!"

"By gum! So it has!" yelled the man. "It's blazing, and my old mother is bedridden in it! Come on, Jake! We'll have t' git her out, anyhow. Now what good is our fire department with no hosses t' haul th' hose carts, an' all my animals away off! Sech luck! Th' men gone, too!"

He was rapidly shouting this as--he ran from the barn.

"Where are the hose carts?" called Cora after him.

"In Si Appleby's barn! A mile away, an' it's a bad road." He pointed to the barn, for it was in sight down the hill.

"Is there a hydrant near your house?"

"Yes. But what good be they without hose?" returned the farmer. He was on the run, halfway to his burning house, the hired man after him.

"We'll bring up the hose carts!" cried Cora.

"We'll pull them with our autos! Come on, Bess--Belle--quick! We must get the hose here! Don't be afraid. Put on the rubber coats and the helmets. The rain can't get through them. The worst of the storm is over now. Oh, I hope they get that poor woman out!

"Hurry! hurry!" she cried as she cranked up her car. "Back your machine out! Reverse it! I'll follow! Let's see what the motor girls can do in an emergency!"