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Title: Nan Sherwood at Palm Beach - Or Strange Adventures Among The Orange Groves
Author: Carr, Annie Roe
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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 NAN SHERWOOD
 AT
 PALM BEACH

 OR

 STRANGE ADVENTURES AMONG
 THE ORANGE GROVES

 BY

 ANNIE ROE CARR

 Author of "Nan Sherwood at Pine Camp," "Nan
 Sherwood's Winter Holidays," "Nan Sherwood
 at Rose Ranch," etc.

 _ILLUSTRATED_

 NEW YORK
 GEORGE SULLY & COMPANY
 PUBLISHERS



 BOOKS FOR GIRLS

 BY
 ANNIE ROE CARR

 THE NAN SHERWOOD SERIES

 NAN SHERWOOD AT PINE CAMP
  Or The Old Lumberman's Secret
 NAN SHERWOOD AT LAKEVIEW HALL
  Or The Mystery of the Haunted Boathouse
 NAN SHERWOOD'S WINTER HOLIDAYS
  Or Rescuing the Runaways
 NAN SHERWOOD AT ROSE RANCH
  Or The Old Mexican's Treasure
 NAN SHERWOOD AT PALM BEACH
  Or Strange Adventures Among the Orange Groves

 GEORGE SULLY & COMPANY
 NEW YORK

 COPYRIGHT 1921, BY
 GEORGE SULLY & COMPANY

 _Nan Sherwood at Palm Beach_

 _Printed in the U. S. A._


[Illustration: The music carried them far away on golden wings of
melody. (_See page 190_)]



 CONTENTS


 CHAPTER                                                         PAGE

 I.      THE CRASH ON THE HILL                                     1
 II.     NEARLY A TRAGEDY                                         13
 III.    THE OLD LADY                                             20
 IV.     SOLVING A PROBLEM                                        27
 V.      CALLED TO ACCOUNT                                        34
 VI.     A GLORIOUS PROSPECT                                      41
 VII.    IN THE DORMITORY                                         47
 VIII.   ON THE ROAD                                              55
 IX.     THE JOY OF GIVING                                        62
 X.      A MIDNIGHT FEAST                                         69
 XI.     A DANGEROUS PLOT                                         76
 XII.    ALMOST A DISASTER                                        85
 XIII.   THE WILY STRANGER                                        94
 XIV.    GREAT EXPECTATIONS                                      104
 XV.     WE'RE OFF!                                              114
 XVI.    FUN AND NONSENSE                                        123
 XVII.   THE MYSTERIOUS MEN                                      131
 XVIII.  A STARTLING REVELATION                                  138
 XIX.    AN ATTEMPTED THEFT                                      147
 XX.     THOSE MEN AGAIN                                         156
 XXI.    THE BEGINNING OF ROMANCE                                165
 XXII.   PALM BEACH AT LAST                                      173
 XXIII.  A TROPICAL PARADISE                                     181
 XXIV.   NAN IS FRIGHTENED                                       188
 XXV.    MOONLIGHT                                               198
 XXVI.   WORTH A FORTUNE                                         208
 XXVII.  WALTER TO THE RESCUE                                    217
 XXVIII. CAUGHT                                                  228
 XXIX.   "WHEN THE SPIRIT MOVES"                                 237



 ILLUSTRATIONS


 The music carried them far away on the golden wings of melody
     (Page 190)                                       _Frontispiece_

                                                         FACING PAGE

 The three girls bent eagerly over Mrs. Bragley as she opened one
     paper after another                                          66
 Nan's eyes were following the figures of two men strolling down
     the deck                                                    140
 He pushed Nan from him with such force that she stumbled and
     fell                                                        216



 NAN SHERWOOD
 AT PALM BEACH



 CHAPTER I

 THE CRASH ON THE HILL


"Smooth as glass!" ejaculated Nan Sherwood, as she came in sight of
Pendragon Hill and noted the gleaming stretch of snow and ice that ran
down to the very edge of Lake Huron.

"And you're the girl that said coasting time would never, _never_ come,"
laughed her chum, Bess Harley, who was walking beside her with her hand
on a rope attached to a bobsled that four girls were drawing.

"Never is a long word," admitted Nan. "I didn't quite mean that; but the
weather's been so mild up to now that I was getting desperate."

"Nan registering desperation," put in Laura Polk, she of the red hair
and irrepressible spirits.

Laura struck an attitude of mock desperation, but the effect was marred
when her foot slipped and she went down with a thump.

Her laughing mates helped her to her feet and brushed the snow off her
dress.

"The wicked stand on slippery places," quoted Grace Mason mischievously.

"Yes," Laura came back, as quick as a flash, "I see that they do, but I
can't."

The shout of laughter that followed atoned somewhat for her loss of
dignity--although she had not lost much, for Laura and dignity were
hardly on speaking terms.

Laughing and chattering, all trying to talk at once and all succeeding,
the bevy of light-hearted girls reached the top of the hill.

Before them stretched Lake Huron, extending farther than their eyes
could see. For a long distance out from shore the lake seemed frozen
solid. A small island rose above the ice about half a mile distant, and
this was the limit fixed upon for the coasters. The cove between the
foot of the hill and the island had a glassy coating of ice that had
been swept and scraped and served for skating as well as coasting.

"I wonder if it's perfectly safe," remarked Grace Mason, a little
timidly. "You know this is the first time the cove's been frozen this
winter, and we haven't tried it yet."

"Bless your little heart, you'll be as safe as if you were on a
battlefield," was the dubious comfort that Laura held out.

"Much safer than that," interposed Professor Krenner, the teacher of
mathematics and architectural drawing at the Lakeview Hall school that
the girls were attending. "You can be sure that neither Dr. Prescott nor
I would take any chances on that score. A heavy logging team went over
it yesterday, and the ice didn't even creak, let alone crack. And every
day that passes of this kind of weather makes it thicker and stronger."

"My, but that's a comfort," remarked Laura. "I'd hate to have this young
life of mine cut off just when it's so full of promise."

"How Laura hates herself," put in Bess Harley.

"You're perfectly safe, Laura," Nan assured her. "Only the good die
young, you know."

The professor's kindly eyes twinkled as he looked from one to the other
of the rosy-cheeked, sparkling-eyed girls, bubbling over with fun and
vitality. He had just come up from the queer little cabin in which he
lived at the edge of the lake. It was part of his work to supervise the
coasting and, as far as possible, keep it free from accident.

About his sole diversion was playing on a key bugle, and the
long-drawn-out notes of the instrument, sometimes lively and sometimes
in a minor strain, were familiar sounds to the girls, and often an
occasion of jesting.

Professor Krenner held the bugle in his hand now, and after glancing at
his watch, he raised the instrument to his lips and blew a clear call
that had the effect of hastening the steps of some of the groups that
were coming toward the hill from the Hall, the roof of which could be
seen over the tops of the trees.

Outdoor sports were made much of at Lakeview Hall, not only in the
catalogue designed for the perusal of parents, but in actual fact. "A
sound mind in a sound body" was Dr. Beulah Prescott's aim for her
pupils, and exercise was as obligatory as lessons. None was excused
without an adequate reason, and the group upon the hill grew in numbers
until it seemed as though all the members of the school were present
except the smaller girls, who had a slide of their own.

"All here except the queen," remarked Laura, as she looked around her.

"The queen?" repeated Bess Harley, staring at her.

"Queen Linda of Chicago," explained Laura, with a wicked twinkle in her
eye.

"For goodness' sake, don't ever let Linda Riggs hear you say anything
like that, Laura Polk," admonished Bess. "She's so conceited that she
wouldn't know it was sarcasm. She'd think it was a tribute drawn from an
unwilling admirer."

"I know," laughed Laura. "It doesn't take much to set her up. If she had
water on the brain, she'd think she was the whole ocean."

"Here she comes now," remarked Nan, after the laughter caused by Laura's
sally had subsided.

A tall girl, wearing expensive furs and having a supercilious air, came
along with two or three companions. It was noticeable that she left to
them the work of drawing the bobsled, while she sauntered along,
ostentatiously adjusting her furs as though she sought to call attention
to their quality.

"Hurry up, Linda," called out Laura. "I believe you'd be late at your
own funeral."

"I never get anywhere early," snapped Linda. "It isn't good form. When I
go to the theater I always get in late. I always have the best seat that
money can buy reserved for me, so what's the use of hurrying? Of course
it's different when one has to go early and scramble for a seat."

"That may be your habit in Chicago, but it isn't in favor here, Miss
Riggs," said Professor Krenner dryly. "But now that all seem to be here,
we'll start the races. You understand that all sleds are to keep three
minutes apart so as to avoid accident. The course is straight out on the
lake, and the best two out of three trials win the race. Miss Sherwood,
since you are nearest the starting line, suppose you get your sled in
position to lead off. Not so fast, Miss Riggs," he went on, as Linda
tried to shove her sled to the crest of the hill. "I said Miss Sherwood
was to go first."

"I don't see why I should have to wait," pouted Linda, as she
reluctantly drew back her sled before the decided look in the
professor's eye. "Hateful old thing," she remarked in a low voice to her
special friend and intimate, Cora Courtney. "He favors Sherwood because
she attends his poky old lectures on architectural drawing and pretends
she likes them."

"I shouldn't be surprised if that were just it," replied Cora, who made
a habit of agreeing with the rich friend whose friendship often proved
profitable to Cora. She had no money herself but clung closely to those
who had.

"Who was it," asked Rhoda Hammond in an amused whisper of Nan, "who
wrote an essay once on the 'gentle art of making enemies'?"

"I'm not sure," laughed Nan in reply, "but I think it was Whistler. Why
do you ask?"

"Because," replied Rhoda in the same low voice, "I think he must have
had Linda or somebody just like her in mind, for she has the art down to
perfection."

There would have been little dissent from Rhoda's verdict, for Linda had
few real friends among the girls of Lakeview Hall. She was purse-proud
and vulgar, and, though her money gave her a certain prestige among the
shallow and unthinking, she lacked the qualities of mind and heart to
endear herself to any one.

By this time the girls who were going with Nan had taken their places
on the sled. It was a new one that Nan had received as a present from
her father, and it had not yet been tested. Nan had named it the _Silver
Arrow_, and she had high hopes that its speed would justify the name.

Nan sat at the head, with the steering wheel in her hands. The wind had
brought the roses to her cheeks, and her clear eyes shone like stars.
Behind her in order sat Bess Harley, Rhoda Hammond, Grace Mason and
Laura Polk, each girl holding tightly to the belt of the girl in front.

"All ready?" asked the professor.

"All ready, Professor," was Nan's reply, as her hands tightened on the
wheel.

Professor Krenner lifted the bugle to his lips and gave a clear,
sonorous blast that served at the same time as a signal for starting and
as a warning to any one who might be crossing the path at the foot of
the hill.

Then he tipped the sled over the ridge of the hill and it started on its
journey.

For a mere fraction of a second it seemed to poise itself for flight.
Then it moved, slowly at first, but gathering speed with every second,
until it seemed to be flying like an arrow from the bow.

There were delighted and at the same time somewhat fearful squeals from
the girls, as the wind whistled past their ears while the sled flew on
at a speed that quickly reached a mile a minute. They held on to each
other for dear life, but Nan had no eyes or thought for anything except
that shining ribbon of path.

She made the turn at the foot of the hill, the sled yielding to her
slightest touch, and she only breathed freely when it shot out on the
lake and there were no further obstacles to circumvent or fear.

On, on it went like a thing of life, as though it would never tire, and
Nan's heart beat fast as she realized that she was going to make a
better mark than she had ever done before.

But gradually the weight on the level surface began to tell, and the
bobsled slowed up as though it were as reluctant as its passengers to
find itself at its journey's end.

There was a chorus of joyous exclamations from the girls, as they rose
to their feet and noted how far out they were on the lake.

"What a perfectly lovely sled!" exclaimed Rhoda Hammond. "I never had
such a ride as that in my life."

"You darling!" said Nan impulsively, as she patted the wheel of her
treasure.

"The other girls will have to go some to come anywhere near that mark,"
bubbled Bess.

"Linda will be green with jealousy," laughed Laura. "She thinks that
that _Gay Girl_ of hers is the fastest thing that ever wore runners."

"She'll take it as a personal affront if she doesn't win," giggled
Grace. "I wish she'd come along while we're here. I'd like to see just
how far we've beaten her."

"We haven't beaten her yet," observed Nan, "and perhaps it's just as
well not to be too sure. But now let's get our skates on and pull the
sled back. There are to be three trials, you know."

They took their skates from their shoulders and adjusted them with
nimble fingers. It was the work of only a few moments. Then they rose,
patted down their dresses and struck out for the shore, drawing the sled
behind them.

They had to keep a wary lookout for the other sleds. One came rushing
along with its laughing crew, but they could see at a glance that it was
not making the speed that their own had reached. Just as they reached
the edge of the lake, another sled flew past, and amid the bevy of girls
on it they discerned Linda Riggs.

"There goes the _Gay Girl_," remarked Rhoda Hammond.

"And she's going like the wind, too," chimed in Bess a little anxiously.
"Let's wait here a moment, girls. I want to see how far out she goes."

"I do hope she won't beat our mark," said Grace, as she snuggled her fur
more closely about her neck.

They watched with straining eyes as Linda's sled gradually slowed up,
and a sigh of relief came from all when they saw that it stopped about
a hundred feet this side of the spot that they had reached.

"She didn't beat us!" cried Bess exultantly.

"Too close to be comfortable, though," murmured Nan, as her eyes
measured the distance.

"Well, a miss is as good as a mile," declared Rhoda.

"We're all right so far, as the man said as he was passing the second
floor after falling seventeen stories," put in Laura.

"Let's get every ounce out of the _Silver Arrow_ on the next try,"
adjured Grace, as, after having taken off their skates, they were
trudging up the hill.

By the time they reached the top, most of the other sleds had been sent
off and they had not long to wait. They settled themselves firmly in
their seats.

"Let's clinch it now," laughed Nan, as she took the wheel. "Just put on
your wishing caps and wish as hard as you can, and the _Silver Arrow_
will do the rest."

"I'm wishing so hard that it hurts," gurgled Bess.

"If wishing will do it, we've won already," chimed in Laura. "We're all
ready, Professor."

A clear call from the bugle, a helping hand over the ridge, and the
_Silver Arrow_ was off again.

It may have been due to the more slippery condition of the hill caused
by the sleds that had already passed over it, but there was no doubt in
the minds of the girls that the bobsled was going even more swiftly than
it had at first. They were almost frightened at the speed it developed,
and yet they were delighted, for they had set their minds on beating
their earlier mark.

Halfway down the hill they passed Linda and her group, who had drawn up
at one side to let them pass. Even at that breakneck rate of speed they
could see the sneer on Linda's lips as she recognized the sled and its
crew.

But they were nearing the curve now and Nan's eyes were fastened on the
path ahead while she tightly gripped the wheel.

"Hold fast, girls!" she warned, as they neared the bend in the road and
the sled swerved at her touch.

The next instant they rounded the curve, and a cry of horror burst from
their lips.

Directly in their path was an elderly woman who had just started across
the road.

She looked up as she heard them scream. Terror and bewilderment came
into her face. She started back, then forward. Then, utterly paralyzed
with fright, she stood helpless in the path of the bobsled that was
rushing toward her with the speed of an express train.

The girls shouted at her, but her brain, numbed by fear, refused to act.

"Oh, she'll be killed!" wailed Grace.

"Oh, Nan, can't you do something?" cried Bess frantically.

Nan's brain was working like lightning. She was white to the lips, but
never for an instant did she lose her presence of mind.

At the left of the road was an almost solid row of trees. It was certain
death to turn that way. At the right there was an opening that led into
a little glade. She determined to steer into that.

She swerved the sled in that direction. She could have made it if the
woman had remained where she was. But just then she backed a step to the
right. The sled struck her and hurled her aside, and she went down with
a scream.



 CHAPTER II

 NEARLY A TRAGEDY


The collision changed the direction of the bobsled, and by the merest
fraction it escaped striking a tree. Nan, however, despite her mental
anguish, kept her head and dexterously guided it into the glade, where
it found soft snow and gradually came to a stop.

Then the frightened girls rose and rushed as fast as they could toward
the victim of the accident, who was lying still in a heap of snow at the
side of the road.

Nan dropped on the snow beside her and took her head in her arms, while
Rhoda put her hand on the woman's heart.

"Oh," sobbed Grace, "we've killed her!"

"No, we haven't," replied Rhoda. "I can feel that her heart is beating.
She's fainted, either from pain or fright or both, poor thing. We must
help her."

"Here, Bess," directed Nan, "you hold her head while I see if any bones
are broken. And you other girls take turns in chafing her hands. If she
lives near here we'll take her home and send for a doctor. If not,
we'll take her up to the Hall."

The others followed Nan's directions and worked with frantic energy. And
while the girls are trying to revive the unconscious stranger, it may be
well for the sake of those who have not yet read the earlier volumes of
this series to tell who Nan Sherwood is, and what experiences and
adventures she and her friends have had up to the time at which the
present story opens.

Mr. Sherwood was a foreman in the Atwater Mills in Tillbury, and "Papa
Sherwood" and "Momsey" and Nan were a devoted and happy family in their
pretty little cottage on Amity Street. Then the mills shut down for an
indefinite length of time. The Sherwoods, with others even less well
able to face the future, were staring poverty and the loss of their
pretty home in the face, when suddenly, in the case of the Sherwoods,
fortune took a hand and sent relief in the shape of a legacy from a
distant relative of Mrs. Sherwood's.

To settle the business in connection with this legacy, Mr. and Mrs.
Sherwood were called to Scotland. To the grief of all three, it was
necessary that Nan should be left behind, but it was arranged that she
should stay with her Uncle Henry, her father's brother, in a lumber camp
in the Michigan Peninsula. What exciting adventures Nan had there and
what she accomplished for good, can be found in the first volume of
this series, entitled: "Nan Sherwood at Pine Camp; or, The Old
Lumberman's Secret."

Nan's best girl friend in Tillbury was Bess Harley. Bess was looking
forward to going to school at Lakeview Hall, and, never having known any
lack of money, could not understand why Nan would not say that she, too,
would go. When the loss of Mr. Sherwood's position made even Bess see
that it would be out of the question for Nan to go, she was
inconsolable, for she was devoted to her friend, and rather dependent on
her.

Nan Sherwood herself wanted to go to Lakeview Hall more than she had
told either Bess or her parents, and when the legacy from Scotland made
this possible the two girls were delighted and went wild with joy.

What they did at the Hall, the plucky spirit Nan showed on more than one
occasion, and the friends they made are told of in the volume entitled:
"Nan Sherwood at Lakeview Hall; or, The Mystery of the Haunted
Boathouse."

Among the girls Nan and Bess met at Lakeview Hall was Grace Mason of
Chicago. In "Nan Sherwood's Winter Holidays; or, Rescuing the Runaways"
is described the visit that Nan and Bess made to the Mason home during
the midwinter holidays. It is a record of parties and girlish fun, but
in the midst of this Nan succeeded in helping two foolish girls who had
run far away from home.

On the opening of Lakeview Hall after those winter holidays a new girl
came to the school. She was from the far West, and she did not at first
understand or enter into the fun of the other girls. For a while she was
without friends there, but gradually Nan Sherwood's sympathy and tact
worked a change and Rhoda Hammond became one with the other girls.

She was not only grateful to Nan, but she became very fond of her. By
this time Mr. Sherwood was well established in a business of his own, so
when Rhoda asked Nan and Bess and Grace Mason and her brother Walter to
go with her to her home in the West on a ranch, Nan, as well as the
others, was able to accept. What exciting adventures the young people
had at Rose Ranch, how staunchly they faced peril on one or two
occasions, and what novel pleasures came to them, are all told of in
"Nan Sherwood at Rose Ranch; or, The Old Mexican's Treasure."

And now let us go back to Nan and her chums and the poor woman who had
brought the bobsled race to such an inglorious termination.

The ministrations of the excited girls to the poor woman soon produced
an effect. The woman stirred uneasily, groaned, and at length opened her
eyes, to the infinite relief of the girls, who had feared they had been
participants in a tragedy.

Nan's deft fingers had in the meantime established the fact that no
bones were broken, and she now spoke gently to the woman, whose eyes
wandered from one face to another in a dazed fashion.

"I hope you are not badly hurt," Nan said kindly. "Do you feel much
pain?"

"What am I doing here?" the woman asked. "What has happened?"

"Our sled struck you and knocked you down," answered Nan. "We did our
best to steer out of the way, but we couldn't. I hope you are not much
hurt."

A spasm of fear came into the face, which they could see was that of a
woman about sixty years old.

"Oh, yes, I remember now," she said weakly. "I thought surely I was
going to be killed. It all happened so sudden like."

She struggled into a sitting position, and the girls supported her head
and shoulders.

"Tell us where you live," said Nan, "and we will take you home and send
for a doctor. Or perhaps we had better take you right up to the school
on top of the hill and take care of you there."

"Oh, I wouldn't want to give you young ladies so much trouble," answered
the woman.

"Trouble, indeed!" protested Nan. "It's you that have had all the
trouble, and there's nothing we can do for you that will make up for
it."

"Do tell us where you live," urged Bess. "You ought to be in bed just as
soon as you can. You'll catch your death out here in the snow."

"I live down on the Milltown road," the woman replied, "but I think I
can get there without bothering you. Just help me up and you'll find
that I'm able to walk all right."

She strove to rise to her feet as she spoke, the girls supporting her on
each side, but her feet gave way under her and she would have fallen had
they not sustained her.

"I'm afraid my ankle is broken," she murmured, as they eased her to a
sitting position on the sled that thoughtful Rhoda had run and brought
up to where the group were gathered.

"No," said Nan, "it isn't broken, I think; but it is very badly
sprained. Now, girls, wrap her up well and then take hold of the ropes
and we'll get her home just as soon as we possibly can. You live on the
Milltown road, you say?" she went on, turning to the sufferer. "About
how far is your home from here?"

"About a mile or a little more," was the answer. "It's just beyond the
blacksmith's shop after you cross the bridge."

"I know where it is," interposed Grace. "I've often passed the place
while out riding with Walter."

"You can show us the way then," said Nan, setting the example to the
others by taking hold of the rope. "Come along, girls, and we'll get
there as soon as we can. Bess, hadn't you better go up the hill and tell
the professor all about this, and then hurry and catch up with us?"

Bess did as her chum suggested, and the other girls started off at a
brisk pace, drawing the sled with its burden after them.



 CHAPTER III

 THE OLD LADY


The road was rather a difficult one, and several small hills had to be
surmounted. The girls took turns in having one of them walk beside the
sled with her hand steadying their passenger, who at times protested
feebly against all the trouble she was making. She volunteered the
information that her name was Sarah Bragley, that she was a widow, and
that she had no kith or kin in the world as far as she knew. These facts
redoubled the pity of the girls, and they mentally resolved that as long
as they were at Lakeview Hall they would do all they could to make life
more bearable for the frail and forlorn woman who had been brought into
their lives in a way so unexpected and so nearly tragic.

In a little while Bess rejoined them, panting a little from the
exertions she had made to catch up to them.

"It's all right," she announced. "I told Professor Krenner, and he told
us to do all that we could, no matter how long it took, and said that he
would explain the whole thing to Dr. Prescott. And Linda Riggs was
there, and what do you think she said? But I'll tell you about that some
other time," she said, as she saw a spasm of pain come over the injured
woman's face. "Here, let me get hold of that rope and we'll get on
faster."

She took hold with a will, and the bobsled moved along rapidly until a
little bridge that spanned the road over a small stream came into view.
The stream now was a solid mass of ice.

"There's the bridge!" ejaculated Grace. "We can't be very far from the
house now."

"And there's the blacksmith shop and a little house right beyond it,"
added Nan. "Is that your house?" she asked Mrs. Bragley, beside whom she
was walking.

"That's it, dearie," was the answer. "It ain't much of a place," she
added apologetically.

"It's a cunning little darling of a place," protested Rhoda, not quite
truthfully, but so warm-heartedly that the recording angel probably did
not lay it up against her.

"It's very nice," added Nan.

In a few minutes more they were before the tiny house, which seemed to
consist of several rooms on one floor and a single room above.
Everything about it suggested straitened means, and yet the girls
noticed that the small windows were clean and hung with fresh dimity
curtains, and that there were little flower boxes on the sills inside.

They drew the sled through the gate and up the path to the door.

"Have you the key?" Nan asked, as she took off her gloves.

"It isn't locked," Mrs. Bragley replied, with a faint smile. "There's
nothing in there that would tempt anybody to steal. Just open the door
and go right in."

Nan did as she was told. She found herself in what evidently served as a
living-room and dining-room and kitchen combined. In a little room
opening off to the right, she caught a glimpse of a bed. There was a
wood stove with the embers of a fire in it, and the room was still
fairly warm. Everything was as scrupulously neat as her first impression
from without had led her to expect. But the scanty and worn furniture
showed a desperate struggle with poverty that touched the girl's heart.

Under Nan's directions, the girls lifted Mrs. Bragley from the sled and
gently deposited her in the one rocking chair that the apartment
contained, first, however, placing a cushion in it to make it more
comfortable.

"Now, girls," said Nan, "let's all get busy. In the first place, we want
to get this fire going. Where do you keep your wood?" she asked, turning
to the invalid.

"There's plenty of it in the little woodshed at the back," was the
answer. "The neighbors always cut enough for me to last me through the
winter. But it's a shame that you should have to go for it," she called
after Nan, who had already started for the woodshed.

Her protests were unheeded, and in a moment Nan was back, accompanied by
Bess, who had gone with her, their arms full of wood which they laid
beside the stove.

In a few minutes a cheerful fire was roaring in the stove. Then,
following the directions of Mrs. Bragley, they found some tea and brewed
it, and set out a little lunch which they pressed the woman to eat. The
food and tea refreshed and revived her, and, as her shyness wore off,
she talked with them freely.

Nan found some arnica with which she bathed the injured ankle, and then
they helped their patient to undress and get into bed. And having done
this, and seen that she was as comfortable as it was possible to make
her, the girls withdrew into a corner to hold, as Nan expressed it, a
"committee meeting to discuss ways and means."

"Now, girls, just what are we going to do?" demanded Nan, as her friends
gathered round her with anxious looks on their faces.

"Take care of this poor woman until she is able to be on her feet
again," responded Bess promptly. "We can't do less."

"Of course, that goes without saying," agreed Nan. "We're the cause of
her present trouble, and it's up to us to get her out of it. The only
question is as to the best way to do it."

"Go ahead and tell us, Nan," urged Grace. "You've got the best head of
any of us when it comes to an emergency like this."

"The first thing," suggested Nan, "is to get a doctor."

"I'm so glad it isn't an undertaker we have to call for," put in Grace,
with a shudder.

"And the next," continued Nan, "is to find a nurse. The poor thing is
utterly helpless just now with that hurt ankle. She can't even keep up
the fire, and the weather's so cold she'd freeze to death if the fire
went out."

"If we only had a telephone," murmured Rhoda, as her eye wandered over
the place, though she knew beforehand that such an instrument would not
be found in that poor cottage.

"Well, we haven't," replied Nan. "So I'll tell you what we'll do. Bess
and I will stay here and try to make our patient as comfortable as we
can. The rest of you girls had better go right up to the Hall and tell
Dr. Prescott all about it. She'll have a doctor here in less than no
time, and she or Mrs. Cupp will know of some nurse they can get in the
town. We'll stay here anyway until they come. But the afternoon's going
fast, and you want to hurry as much as you can. It will probably be dark
anyhow when the doctor and the nurse get here, and, as we don't know
the road very well, we don't want to be too late in getting back to the
Hall."

"You needn't worry about that," said Grace, as she put on her wraps.
"I'll 'phone to Walter as soon as I get to the Hall and he'll come over
and take you home."

"In that case I'd better go along with you now," put in Bess, with a
mischievous twinkle in her eye. "I'm afraid it will be a case where two
is company and three's a crowd."

"Don't talk such nonsense," said Nan, though a slight flush had risen to
her cheeks at her chum's raillery. "But, girls, before you go there's
one other thing; and that is, the matter of money. I don't suppose," she
went on, lowering her voice lest the invalid should hear, "that the poor
woman has anything of any account. How much money have you girls with
you?"

What the warm-hearted girls had with them at the moment was very little,
but what it was they all handed over, and the total amounted to several
dollars.

"Of course we'll all club together and see that she has all she needs to
get through this trouble," declared Laura, and there was a unanimous
chorus of assent.

"And now, shoo!" commanded Nan, as she opened the door to hasten their
exit. "And see how quickly you can get the nurse and the doctor here.
Don't bother about the sled. We'll bring that along when we come, or
send over after it to-morrow."

The three girls promised to hurry, and made off. Nan and Bess watched
them until they had passed out of sight beyond the bridge, and then
turned to look after their patient.



 CHAPTER IV

 SOLVING A PROBLEM


The girls tiptoed into the little room at the right and saw that Mrs.
Bragley was not asleep. As they approached the bed she greeted them with
a faint smile.

"It's too bad that you should have all this trouble," she said. "Here
I've gone and spoiled all your afternoon's fun just because I was too
slow and stupid to get out of your way."

"It wasn't your fault at all," declared Bess warmly. "I know I'd have
been scared stiff if I'd seen that sled bearing down upon me. The thing
we're grateful for is that you weren't killed."

"How are you feeling now?" asked Nan gently, as she adjusted the
bedclothes.

"Rather poorly," was the answer. "My ankle's hurting me a good deal. And
then I have a sort of all-gone feeling. But I suppose that's on account
of the shock. But I'll be all right by to-morrow," the woman hurried to
say bravely.

"We've sent for a doctor and a nurse," Nan explained. "They'll be here
in a little while."

A worried look came into the woman's pale and drawn face.

"A doctor? A nurse?" she repeated. "That's good of you, my dears, but I
can get along all right without them. And besides, besides----"

She hesitated, and Nan, who guessed what she was thinking of, hastened
to reassure her.

"Don't worry about anything," she urged. "There won't be any expense.
It's our fault that you are hurt, and the very least we can do is to see
that it doesn't cost you anything to get well. You just leave it to us,
please."

Tears came into the poor woman's eyes.

"How good you are!" she said brokenly. "There was a time when I had
money enough to get along comfortably, but that was before my husband
died. He thought that he was leaving me enough to take care of me for
the rest of my life. But somehow or other I guess I've been cheated out
of it or lost it somehow. It's all mixed up in my mind, and I don't
exactly know the rights of it. I never did have any head for business,
anyhow."

"There, there," said Nan soothingly, as she feared that her patient was
getting excited. "You can tell us all about it some other time. Let me
fix your pillows now and you try to get some sleep before the doctor
comes."

She brought a cooling drink, and then she and Bess withdrew into the
other room and conversed in low tones until, just before dark, the
doctor made his appearance.

He was a big, cheery man, who radiated confidence as he bustled into the
room after tying his horse to the fence outside.

"Oh, Dr. Willis, I'm so glad you've come!" exclaimed Nan, as the doctor
came in and drew off his gloves.

"Just a bit of luck that I was able to get here so soon," the doctor
responded. "I was just going out on another call when a girl rang me up
from the school and told me of the accident. She was so excited that she
stuttered, but I managed to make out what she was driving at and hurried
over at once. Where is the patient?"

They took him into the room, and he made a quick but thorough
examination.

"No bones broken," he announced, and the girls drew a sigh of relief.
"But there's a bad sprain and she won't be able to get around for a
couple of weeks."

He bandaged the injured ankle and prepared some medicine, which he left
with careful directions to the girls.

"I'll drop in again to-morrow," he said. "Sorry that I can't take you
girls back and drop you at the Hall, but she oughtn't to be left alone.
I can take one of you, though," and he looked inquiringly from one to
the other.

"You had better go, Bess," said Nan promptly.

"What! and leave you alone?" cried Bess. "Indeed not."

"But we can't both go."

"I am not going to leave you, Nan. We'll both stay."

"Well, it won't be for so very long anyway," remarked Nan. She turned to
the physician. "It is very good of you to ask us."

"It sure is," added Bess, quickly. And then she added, with a cloud on
her face, "You are sure Mrs. Bragley is going to get over it?"

"Oh, yes, she'll get over it. But it will take time," answered the
doctor; and a few minutes later the medical man took his departure.

"He certainly is a nice man," said Nan, as she and her chum watched him
go.

"A man one is bound to have confidence in," added Bess.

He had not been gone five minutes when there was a sound of sleighbells,
and a cutter, drawn by a spirited horse, dashed up to the gate. The
girls peered through the windows, but in the dark, which had now fully
settled down, could not identify the newcomer. A moment later there as a
knock at the door, and, on opening it, Walter Mason came in with a rush,
accompanied more sedately by an elderly woman with a kindly, capable
face.

"Why, Walter!" exclaimed Nan, and a close observer might have noted her
heightened color. "How splendid it was of you to get here so quickly."

Bess had it on the tip of her tongue to say that she could guess why he
had hurried, but she wisely forebore.

Walter Mason was a frank, fine-looking young man, with whom the girls
had become acquainted through his sister Grace. Nan and he had been
thrown much together, especially during the visit that Nan had made to
Grace at the Mason home in Chicago, and a mutual liking had developed
that had grown stronger with time. The girls had often teased Nan about
Walter, but she had parried their thrusts good-naturedly, and stoutly
maintained that Walter was simply a nice boy and good company. But she
was undeniably glad to see him, though she tried to explain to herself
that it was the prospect of soon getting back to the Hall that pleased
her.

After the first greeting, Walter introduced his companion as a Mrs.
Ellis, who had agreed to come along to nurse the patient until she had
fully recovered.

Mrs. Ellis, in a quiet, capable way, took charge at once, and the girls
felt the load of responsibility that they had carried all the afternoon
lighten promptly.

"Oh, I'd nearly forgotten!" Walter exclaimed suddenly, and ran out to
the sleigh, whence he returned in a moment loaded down with food and
jellies and supplies of various kinds.

"We stopped on our way through the village," he explained, as he placed
the packages on the table, "and Mrs. Ellis picked out the things that we
ought to bring along. Here they are. And now if you girls will get your
things on, I'll hustle you over to the Hall. You must be awfully
hungry."

They had not thought of that, but now that he spoke of it they realized
that he was right. They went in and spoke cheerily to Mrs. Bragley,
promising to be over the next day to see how she was getting along, and
then, followed by her tears and blessings, they put on their wraps and
furs and with a cordial farewell to the nurse they hurried off, not,
however, until Walter had brought in and stacked up enough firewood to
last for several days.

The cold, crisp air was like a tonic, and their spirits rose as the
horse drew the cutter after him over the snowy road at a rate of speed
that promised to bring them to the Hall all too soon.

"That was a close call you girls had this afternoon," Walter remarked,
as they left the little house behind them.

"It surely was," agreed Bess, with a little shiver that was not due to
the cold. "It was lucky for us that Nan kept her head. The rest of us
were screaming, but Nan didn't make a sound. If she'd steered an inch to
the right or to the left from what she did, we'd have gone into a tree,
and that would have been the end of us."

"She's a thoroughbred," declared Walter briefly. "That's just the way
she acted the day your boat upset. Nan certainly has nerve."

"There are the lights of the Hall," interrupted Nan, glad of an excuse
to divert attention from herself. "How beautiful they look on a night
like this."

"They'd look a good deal more beautiful to me if they were further off,"
grumbled Walter, as he reluctantly turned into the drive that led to
Lakeview Hall.



 CHAPTER V

 CALLED TO ACCOUNT


The cutter drew up with a flourish and a jingle of bells at the main
door of Lakeview Hall, and Walter Mason helped the girls out.

"So good of you to bring us over," said Nan, as Walter's hand held hers
for perhaps a second more than was absolutely necessary.

"Tickled to death to have the chance," replied the youth. "And say, Nan,
count me in on that subscription for Mrs. Bragley."

"Thanks just as much," was Nan's response, as she and Bess ran up the
steps, "but I imagine you've done more than your share already. Who paid
for all those good things you brought over in your sleigh? Answer me
that."

"Give you three guesses," laughed Walter. "And now, good night, girls.
Tell me when you're going over again and I'll be here with the cutter."

Another moment and he was off with a farewell wave of the hand, and Nan
and Bess entered the Hall, where they speedily found themselves the
center of a chattering bevy of girls, all trying to talk at once.

"Tell us all about it, Nan," pleaded Rhoda Hammond. "Did the doctor get
there?"

"Was Mrs. Bragley badly hurt?" asked Laura.

"Not seriously," answered Nan. "The doctor and the nurse both came, and
everything is going on all right. She'll be able to walk again in a
couple of weeks, they think."

"Don't tell them another word, Nan Sherwood, until we have had something
to eat," laughed Bess. "I'm just dying from hunger, and I suppose we're
late now for supper."

Linda Riggs, who had been standing apart with a sneer on her lips,
turned to Cora Courtney and said in a voice that was not so low but all
could hear:

"So that's why she stayed to nurse the old woman; so she could get a
ride home with Walter Mason. She's foxy, all right."

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Linda Riggs!" Bess Harley cried
hotly. But Nan laid her hand soothingly on her arm.

"Never mind her, Bess," she counseled with a level glance at Linda.
"What else can you expect? Let's go in to supper."

"Linda is peeved because the _Gay Girl_ was beaten this afternoon,"
laughed Laura Polk. "You know she thought she had a mortgage on the
race."

"Was she beaten?" asked Bess, with eager interest. "I declare, my
mind's been so full of the accident that I'd almost forgotten that we
had a race."

"Yes," replied Laura gleefully. "She was beaten by more than a hundred
feet."

"And she had three chances where we had only one," put in Rhoda. "We
might have beaten our own mark if we had had our full number of trips."

"There's not much of the sport about Linda," commented Grace. "Any one
who beats her makes her an enemy. She takes it as a personal insult if
any one dares to get ahead of her."

"She can't be any more of an enemy to us than she always has been,"
concluded Bess. "But come along, Nan, and let's eat. My appetite's
keener than ever, now that I know we won."

"Was there ever anything the matter with your appetite, Bess?"
questioned Nan with a smile.

"Sometimes--not often. But, oh, Nan! neither of us would have had much
appetite if we had seriously injured that poor woman."

"You are right there. Every time I think of the narrow escape we had I
have to shiver."

"Yes, and supposing the sled had gone into a tree, or one of those sharp
rocks! Oh, it would have been dreadful!"

"We can count ourselves very lucky."

"And to think we won the race after all! That's the best news I've heard
in a long time."

"Oh, no, Bess. The best news is our escape, and Mrs. Bragley's, from
serious injury. The race doesn't count alongside of that."

"Well, maybe you are right. Nevertheless, I am awfully glad we won."

The rest of the girls had already had their supper, but there was plenty
left, and Nan and Bess did full justice to it. They had scarcely
finished when, a message came to Nan that Dr. Prescott, the head of the
school, wished to see her.

"I always feel nervous when I hear that Doctor Beulah wants to see me,"
remarked Laura, the madcap of the school. "But perhaps Nan has a better
conscience than I usually have. Run along now, Nan, and take your
medicine, and then come back and tell us all about it."

Nan went at once to the principal's room, and was graciously received by
the serene, handsome woman who directed the activities of Lakeview Hall.

Dr. Beulah Prescott was a woman of culture and marked executive ability.
For many years she had been the head of the school, and had won for it
an enviable position among institutions of its kind. She had a large and
valuable clientele, which was constantly expanding.

She was an extremely good-looking woman, and exquisitely groomed and
dressed, although with an utter absence of ostentation. She knew the
value of appearance, especially before the critical eyes of her
schoolgirls, and never allowed herself to be seen at a disadvantage.
Her rule was mild, but just and firm, and all the girls knew that she
was not to be trifled with. Behind her back they often referred to her
as Doctor Beulah, but none permitted herself any familiarity in her
presence. Her poise was perfect. No one had ever seen her angry or
flustered. When she did not inspire ardent affection, she always
commanded the genuine respect of her pupils.

She greeted Nan pleasantly as the latter entered, and asked her to be
seated.

"I hear you came near having a serious accident this afternoon, Nan,"
she said, "and I have sent for you to have you tell me all about it."

Nan told in detail the events of the afternoon, and the doctor listened
with keen interest, interrupting once in a while to make some incident
perfectly clear.

"It was a very narrow escape," she commented, when Nan had finished. "I
am thankful beyond words that none of the girls was hurt or killed, as
they so easily might have been. And I want to congratulate you on the
way you played your part. I notice you left that out of your story, but
others have already told me how cool and clear-headed you were through
it all. I'm glad that you happened to be steering."

Nan flushed at the words of praise, and murmured rather uncomfortably
that she had done only what any other of the girls would have done in
her place.

"I differ with you there," replied Dr. Prescott, with a smile. "But we
won't discuss that. What must be done is to make the coasting safer in
the future. After this, I will have some one stationed at that crossing
to warn passers-by. As for that poor woman, I will see that all the
expenses of her illness are paid and that she is compensated besides for
the fright and pain she has undergone."

"Pardon me, Dr. Prescott," said Nan with some diffidence, "but the girls
feel that they ought to do most of the helping. They have already
contributed a little, and they are planning to do more."

"A very commendable feeling," agreed the head of the school graciously.
"But at least you will let me help. I know Mrs. Bragley. She is a very
worthy woman."

"She seems to be," remarked Nan. "Her little house is poor, but
everything about it is neat and clean. I gathered from some things she
said that she used to be in fairly comfortable circumstances."

"That is true," was the response. "Her husband was a hard-working man
and had saved up some money. But he was inclined to invest his savings
in rather risky enterprises, and I imagine he was swindled out of most
of it. It seems to me that I have heard something of that kind, though I
don't recall it clearly."

"I would like to go over to the cottage as often as I can in the next
few days to see what I can do to help, if you have no objections,"
remarked Nan.

"None whatever," rejoined Dr. Prescott. "In fact, I shall be very glad
to have you do so, provided, of course, that you don't let it interfere
with your school work. You can go now, Nan. You must be tired after the
strain and excitement of this afternoon, and I would suggest that you go
to bed early."

Nan bade the principal good-night and hurried up to her room, where she
found a group of her special friends all on the _qui vive_ to learn of
her interview.



 CHAPTER VI

 A GLORIOUS PROSPECT


"Hail, the conquering heroine comes!" cried Rhoda Hammond, as Nan
entered the room.

"I see she didn't eat you up," remarked Bess with a smile.

"I suppose you are disappointed," laughed Nan, as she threw herself into
a chair. "It would have been delightfully exciting if she had, wouldn't
it? But talking of eating, let me have some of those chocolates, you
stingy thing."

The last remark was addressed to Laura, who languidly took up the box of
confections and handed it over to Nan.

"Where's Grace?" asked Nan, as she helped herself and cast her eyes over
the group.

The question was answered by Grace herself, who at that moment burst
into the room, waving a letter excitedly in her hand.

"Oh, girls, what do you think?" she exclaimed breathlessly.

"We never think," drawled Laura. "At least, my teachers tell me that I
never do."

"Has some distant relative died and left you a fortune?" hazarded Bess.

"Better than that," cried Grace jubilantly.

"Can anything be better than that?" queried Laura.

"Tell us, Grace," adjured Nan. "Don't keep us on the anxious seat."

"I'm going to Palm Beach!" exclaimed Grace joyously. "Do you hear,
girls? I'm going to Palm Beach for the winter holidays!"

The girls sprang up at the news and crowded around Grace.

"Palm Beach!" gasped Rhoda almost breathlessly.

"Why, Gracie Mason!" exclaimed Nan, "you must be talking in your sleep."

"You don't really and truly mean Palm Beach, Florida?" cried Laura,
nearly choking on the big chocolate that slipped down her throat at the
astounding news.

"I really mean Palm Beach, Florida," reiterated Grace, thoroughly
enjoying the sensation she had created.

"Oh, you lucky, lucky girl!" breathed Bess, who until now had seemed too
stunned by the news to utter a word.

"Lucky. Well, I should say," chimed in Laura. "Some people are born
lucky, and Grace Mason is the luckiest of them all."

"How I wish I could go with you!" mourned Rhoda enviously.

"You can just guess we all wish that," acquiesced Nan. "You surely were
born with a golden spoon in your mouth, Grace."

"It has been the dream of my life to go to Palm Beach," put in Rhoda.

"Now, Grace, just sit down here and tell us all about it," commanded
Nan. "Every syllable. Do you hear?"

She piloted Grace to the biggest chair in the room and seated herself on
one arm of it, while the others clustered around as closely as possible.

"Well," began Grace, "mother and dad have been thinking about it for
some time, but they wouldn't tell us about it until the last minute
because they wanted to surprise us. Just as soon as I got the news, I
flew right over here to tell you girls about it."

"It's too splendid!" exclaimed Laura. "Where are you going to stay while
you are there? Or perhaps it's too early to have settled that yet."

"At the Royal Poinciana," replied Grace happily. "Oh, my!"

"The Royal Poinciana!" exclaimed all the girls in one breath.

"Why, Grace," marveled Rhoda. "That's the very swellest hotel even in
Palm Beach."

"Well, what of that?" smiled Grace. "Can't we go to the swellest hotel
if we want to?--and if dad's cash holds out?"

"No reason in the world, if you're lucky enough to be able to," was
Rhoda's envious reply. "It costs a small fortune to live there even for
a short time, as I suppose you know."

"I suppose," chaffed Laura, "that you'll be so stuck up when you get
back that you won't speak to your old friends."

"No danger of that," laughed Grace, as she looked lovingly about at the
eager faces of her friends.

"How long are you going to stay?" queried Nan.

"I don't know yet," answered Grace slowly. "The holidays last for only
two weeks, you know, and mother and dad are so anxious that I shouldn't
lose anything of my school course that they'll probably send me back at
the end of the two weeks, though they may stay a little longer. I only
wish the holidays were four weeks long instead of two."

"How are you ever coming back after two weeks of that sort of life?"
asked Laura. "If I were only lucky enough once to get there I'd never
want to come back."

"Just think of what _fun_ you can have there," remarked Bess Harley. "I
suppose you'll play tennis. What joy to be able to play tennis and get
your nose sunburned in the middle of winter. Think of you playing tennis
in Palm Beach sunshine while we are shivering around fires."

"And golf?" suggested Nan.

"Not that," laughed Grace. "I don't know a mashie from a cleek."

"Of course there'll be boating," suggested Bess.

"And bathing," added Laura with emphasis. "Oh, Grace, I'm just dying of
envy! Think of bathing in January with the water as warm as it is here
in August!"

"Take care you don't get drowned, Gracie," warned Nan, in mock
seriousness. "And look out for sharks. I hear that they're seen
occasionally at Palm Beach."

"For goodness' sake, Nan!" cried Laura reprovingly, "don't even suggest
anything unpleasant in connection with that celestial spot. There's
nothing to be found there but pure, unalloyed bliss."

"Only think of the dances at the hotel!" said Bess, with shining eyes.

"And the fellows," put in Laura mischievously. "Oh, Grace, Grace, what
opportunities for sitting out dances on those wonderful balconies!"

"And the long strolls in the moonlight," added Nan, giving Grace a nudge
with her elbow.

"Or sitting on the beach with some eligible young millionaire, listening
to the waves beating on the sand," teased Rhoda.

"Oh, it's all too wonderful!" exclaimed Laura, suddenly starting up and
pulling Grace out of the chair.

Forgetting the lateness of the hour, she started in a mad whirl about
the room.

"Hush!" cautioned Nan, as a firm footfall was heard in the corridor.

In a twinkling two motionless forms lay in Nan's bed. Rhoda had switched
off the light, and the high backs of chairs and sofa hid crouching
figures, while the almost too regular breathing of the supposed sleepers
was the only sound to be heard when the door opened and the severe and
angular form of Mrs. Cupp stood outlined in the dim light from the
corridor.



 CHAPTER VII

 IN THE DORMITORY


After a survey of several minutes of the dark and seemingly innocent
room, the guardian of school discipline seemed satisfied, closed the
door, and her footsteps died away at the end of the hall.

If she could have heard the bursts of smothered laughter as the lights
were turned on and Laura and Bess, almost exhausted by their efforts to
keep up that steady breathing, tumbled from the bed and the others rose
from their hiding places and shook and stretched themselves to get the
cramps out of their limbs!

"That was a close call," gurgled Nan, breathless with suppressed
laughter, while Grace asked chokingly:

"How did you ever do that sleeping act so perfectly and keep it up so
long?"

"Just genius," answered Laura complacently. "I got so in the spirit of
it that I came near snoring."

"Is that so?" scoffed Rhoda. "Strange that we never noticed it before."

"Live and learn," replied Laura, nonchalantly. "The explanation is
simple. Just lack of perception. 'Ye have eyes and ye see not.'"

"For pity's sake, keep still, you two," said Bess. "We have too many
things to talk about to listen to repartee, even to such brilliant
specimens."

"Snubbed!" groaned Laura, as she lifted the last bonbon from the box.

"Here, greedy," said Rhoda. "I saw that candy first."

"Well, I ate it first," grinned Laura tantalizingly.

"Will you girls keep still?" cried Bess despairingly. "I want to find
out what Grace is going to wear."

"Yes, sweetheart," said Rhoda meekly, as she flopped down into the
nearest seat at hand. "That is really a most interesting and
all-important question, and we will come to that anon. But first I want
to remark that I feel as though we had been nearly caught at a regular
spread."

"Spread! Where have I heard that word before?" exclaimed Laura
dramatically. "Isn't it time we had a regular one? I tell you what,
girls, let's celebrate by having a real honest-to-goodness spread.
There's a reason."

"As if you ever needed a reason for having a spread!" laughed Bess. "But
I second the motion."

"I'm expecting a box from home any minute," said Rhoda, "and I'll donate
it to the cause."

"I'll furnish the fruit," Grace offered.

"Dandy!" exclaimed Laura. "Put me down for cocoa and milk and sugar.
Will you supply the sandwiches, Nan?"

"I'm willing to furnish the sandwiches," agreed Nan, a little
doubtfully. "But do you think we'd better have it just now?"

"Oh, come on, Nan," urged Laura. "Be a sport. Isn't Grace worth a
chance?"

And Nan, unwilling to spoil the others' sport, assented, though with
some inward misgiving.

"Can't we go to town to-morrow after recitations, and get the things?"
Bess proposed.

"O. K.," acquiesced Laura contentedly. "And now to return to the vital
question. What, Grace darling, are you going to wear at Palm Beach?"

"I'd like to get new gowns and things," Grace replied; "but it's hard to
get summer clothes in winter. Of course, I've got last summer's things."

"I'd feel that I was pretty well fitted out already if I had _your_ last
summer's things," observed Laura.

"I should say as much!" agreed Rhoda. "The idea of Grace Mason needing a
new summer outfit. What's the objection to that lovely crêpe de chine
that made me green with envy when you wore it last summer?"

"Or that voile with the heliotrope flowers?" supplemented Nan. "Or the
white net with the embroidered flounces?"

"Or that blue taffeta that you looked so stunning in at the garden
party?" said Rhoda.

"Or the old rose georgette with the touch of black velvet, to say
nothing of half a dozen others?" added Bess.

"Since you are resurrecting the old gowns so vigorously," laughed Grace,
"I begin to think I may get through without so many new things after
all, especially as the old gowns will be new to the people I shall meet
at Palm Beach. Of course mother will have a dressmaker, and she'll alter
and freshen up and make a few new things. But she can't do such a very
great deal in the little time from now to the holidays. If it was any
other place than Palm Beach, I wouldn't even think about dress. But it's
such a very swell place, you know, girls, and I don't want to feel out
of place while I'm there. Of course you know how I feel."

"Sure we do," Laura assured her. "But I'll guarantee that with what you
have and what you'll be able to add, you'll feel very much in it, even
at Palm Beach."

"And now, ladies," said Rhoda, "that the all-important subject of dress
is disposed of, I move that Nan pass around for our refreshment those
fine Florida oranges I see on the table there."

Nan laughingly complied, and Bess suddenly exclaimed as she peeled the
rind from her orange:

"This reminds me, Grace. How will it seem to be walking through lovely
orange groves with the beautiful golden fruit showing between the
leaves?"

"And," Nan supplemented, "to be able to pick and eat the oranges with
the warmth of the sun upon them! I have heard that the flavor is very
different from what we are accustomed to."

"And imagine," Rhoda added longingly, "not only being able to feast on
the delicious oranges but to have the fragrance of the wonderful
blossoms all around you as you walk through the groves."

"Oh, girls, girls!" cried Grace, "you make me impatient to be there at
this very minute. There's one thing," she added quizzically, "if no
other orange blossoms ever come my way, I'll at least have had those."

"No need for you to worry about that," returned Laura, "with that young
Palm Beach millionaire--or is it billionaire?--waiting to greet you and
some day crown that fair brow of thine with fragrant orange blooms.
Methinks I can already smell their fragrance and hear the strains of the
justly celebrated wedding march of Mendelssohn."

"What vivid imaginations some people have," returned Grace calmly.

"Oh, dear," sighed Nan musingly, "doesn't it seem a shame that everybody
can't have wonderful things? If only a very small part of the surplus
wealth could be divided among those who are struggling just to live,
what a different world this would be. It doesn't seem right that so
many people should have everything and others have little else than work
and worry. Those people at Palm Beach have wealth, luxury, everything to
make life splendid, while others have so little. Things certainly are
uneven in this world. Take Mrs. Bragley, for instance."

"I tell you what we'll do, girls," said Grace impulsively. "We'll make a
spread for Mrs. Bragley as well as for ourselves."

"Fine!" ejaculated Rhoda. "We'll fill a basket with canned meat and some
potatoes and----"

"No, no," interrupted Grace impulsively, "not those things. Let's give
her a real spread with something out of the ordinary."

"Jellies," proposed Bess.

"Glass jars of imported strawberries and cherries," suggested Laura.

"A great bunch of those wonderful California grapes," contributed Grace.

"And some Florida oranges," added Nan.

"Great!" commented Grace. "When shall we do it?"

"Let's see," mused Nan. "We have our Latin class at two. We'll be
through by three. Let's make it three-thirty o'clock to-morrow."

"I'm afraid you'll have to go without me," said Grace. "I promised
mother I'd answer her letter right away, so I'll have to get that off
to-morrow."

"I can't go either," said Laura. "I have those French exercises to make
up before to-morrow night. I'd like to go, but I suppose I can't with
that to do."

"Then, Bess," said Nan, "you and Rhoda and I will be a committee of
three to wait on Mrs. Bragley to-morrow."

"Girls, isn't it warm in here?" questioned Laura.

"Warm? With the heating plant broken down?" queried Nan.

"It feels warm and I'm going to open a window," went on Laura, and,
suiting the action to the word, she shoved up a window that was handy.

"Br-r-r!" came from several of the others.

"My, but that's cold!"

"We'll all get sick!"

"I know a way to fix Laura!" cried Rhoda, and, as she spoke, the girl
from Rose Ranch leaned out of the window and reached upward.

"What are you going to do?" asked Bess.

"Get an icicle for her," answered Rhoda, and a moment later brought to
view an icicle she had broken away from a projection above the window.
The icicle was all of a foot and a half long and an inch or more in
thickness.

"No, you don't!" cried Laura, leaping away as Rhoda came after her with
the bit of ice. "Don't you dare to put that thing down my neck!"

"It will cool you off, Laura," said Rhoda; but just then she slipped
and went down, shattering the icicle into fragments.

"No more noise," whispered Bess, closing the window.

At that moment, Nan's clock, sounding the first stroke of midnight,
startled the girls.

"The hour indeed waxeth late," whispered Laura, and vanished.

One by one the others noiselessly followed. There was the almost
inaudible sound of softly closing doors, and quiet reigned over Lakeview
Hall.

In Nan's room for the second time that night there was the sound of
measured breathing, but this time it was genuine.



 CHAPTER VIII

 ON THE ROAD


"Ugh!" shivered Nan the next morning when she came into the room after
her bath. "This isn't Palm Beach, is it, Bess? More like the North Pole,
eh?"

"Palm Beach," echoed Bess disgustedly, as she reluctantly slipped out of
her warm bed and reached for her bathrobe. "It reminds me of it--it's so
different. When that horrid old rising gong sounded, I was dreaming that
I was there standing on the beach ready for a swim. I can feel that warm
sand about my feet now," and she gave her cold little feet a vicious
shove into her far from warm bedroom slippers.

"I don't believe Grace has slept much," smiled Nan.

"I know she hasn't," returned Bess, as she hurriedly dressed. "I'm sure
I wouldn't have slept a wink if I had been in her place. I believe I'd
just die if I were."

"Then," returned Nan cheerfully, fastening the last snapper in her belt,
"I'm exceedingly glad you're not in Grace's place, for I prefer to see
you alive a little longer."

They found Grace and Rhoda already in the lower hall, and knew by their
flushed faces that last night's news was still the fascinating topic of
conversation. All joined in, and were soon so absorbed that Laura's
voice made them start.

"Beginning where you left off last night?" she was asking. "I don't
believe Grace went to bed at all, but just sat up and anticipated all
night long."

"Not quite so bad as that," laughed Grace. "I went to bed, but I confess
that I was too excited to sleep very much."

"It's perfectly safe to say that all of us dreamed of Palm Beach,
anyway," Bess conjectured.

"I did," replied Laura, chuckling at the remembrance. "I dreamed I was
standing on one of those great broad piazzas. The moon was shining so
brightly that the palm trees stood out clearly, and the gleam of the
spray could be plainly seen as the breakers came rolling up on the
beach. The air was warm and delightful, and I was thinking how happy I
was to be there and of you unlucky girls shivering here at Lakeview
Hall, when a gong clanged, some one shouted 'fire,' and smoke came
pouring out of the hotel windows. I was so frightened I woke up and
found that old rising gong getting in its work. I tell you, girls, I was
mad enough to bite somebody."

"Serves you right for leaving us here to freeze when you could so easily
have taken us with you," joked Nan.

Several times while the girls were chatting, Linda Riggs and Cora
Courtney had passed very close to them in an effort to hear what they
were so excitedly talking about. But the girls had purposely lowered
their voices till, when the two passed, they were talking in whispers.
It was a great satisfaction to get Linda so keyed up with curiosity.

"Some people are afraid to speak aloud," Linda remarked to Cora, during
one of their walks past the group, "because they don't dare let people
know what they're talking about."

"They seem to think it's smart to be mysterious," sniffed Cora.

But when they reached the end of the corridor, Linda stopped and said:

"What do you suppose they are talking about anyway? I bet they are
hatching up something. I'd give my eyes to find out what it is,
especially if Nan Sherwood is in it."

"You love her, don't you?" Cora asked sarcastically.

"As I love poison ivy," Linda snapped vindictively. "I never could bear
her."

"She was ordered to Doctor Beulah's room yesterday," said Cora. "I bet
she got a calling down for nearly killing that woman."

"That's something I never did," sneered Linda; "nearly kill any one. Of
course, I'm glad no serious harm came to the woman. I don't want to see
her hurt. But what fun it would have been, to see Nan Sherwood up in
court for manslaughter."

Just at that moment Bess Harley, who had gone up to her room for a
handkerchief, came down the stairs and heard the spiteful remark.
Shocked and indignant, she said angrily:

"Of course, Linda Riggs, I know what makes you say those horrid things
about Nan. It's because she beat you in the race yesterday. And that
wasn't the last time, either. She'll always beat you, because she's
worth a dozen of you."

Bess had unconsciously raised her voice, and Nan, hearing the angry
words, came quickly, and, laying her hand soothingly on her chum's arm,
said:

"Don't mind, dear, come along," and drew her gently away.

They passed into the breakfast room, while Linda, who had found no
answer ready, looked after them vindictively.

She turned to Cora, and, giving her foot a vicious stamp, said:

"Never mind, I'll see that Nan Sherwood gets all that's coming to her."

"What do you mean?" asked Cora, her curiosity aroused.

"I haven't thought it all out," snapped Linda, "but I have an idea, a
big idea. I'll tell you what it is later."

Lessons rather dragged that morning. The girls were impatient to get
together and talk. A thousand things they had heard and read of the
glories of Palm Beach came between them and the printed page, and
questions that burned to be asked would persist in pushing their lessons
from their minds. Everybody was relieved by the ripple of laughter that
went round the class when Laura, a question of capital cities coming up,
slipped and said that the capital of Florida was the Royal Poinciana.

Her teacher stared.

"I beg your pardon, Laura?" she said frigidly.

Laura reddened.

"I--I--meant Palm Beach," she stammered. "Er--er--I should say, I meant
Tallahassee."

The girls who were in the secret of Grace's forthcoming trip giggled and
looked meaningly at each other, and the recitation went on. But the
slowest quarter hours will pass at last, and on this day they merged
into hours and finally brought three o'clock and freedom.

"That's over at last! Did you ever live through such a long day?" asked
Nan, as she put away her books and took her coat from the form. "Now for
Mrs. Bragley."

"But first," said Bess, snatching up a small bonbon dish from the table,
"we've got to have funds, and 'the collection will now be taken.' My,
but you girls are generous!" she exclaimed exultantly, after she had
counted up the donations. "Mrs. Bragley is going to have _some_ spread!"

The committee of three went around by way of the town in order to
purchase materials for the surprise spread for the woman they had run
down. When the basket was filled they fairly reveled in the
attractiveness of its contents. Boxes of crisp delicate crackers,
tumblers of jelly, jars of imported strawberries and cherries, a bunch
of California grapes that Rhoda said she was sure would weigh three
pounds, and some unusually fine Florida oranges. Piling the basket on
the sled that they had brought with them, they started gaily off,
dragging it behind them.

After they had covered half the distance a voice hailed them, and Walter
came dashing up behind them in his cutter. Reining in the spirited horse
he was driving, he cried:

"Jump in, girls. It's a dandy day for a spin."

But they laughingly refused.

"Too many of us for that cutter," said Rhoda. "We'd make an awful load."

"And we don't want any men around anyway, to-day," laughed Bess.

Walter heard, but he saw only Nan's glowing face. What he thought about
that face was plainly to be read in his eyes.

"Isn't there anything that I can do for you?" he asked. "Don't you want
me to run the basket up to the cottage for you?"

"No, thanks," replied Nan. "We're getting along finely. It's awfully
good of you, just the same."

Walter chirped to his horse, still with his eyes on Nan's smiling face,
and, lifting his hat, drove on.



 CHAPTER IX

 THE JOY OF GIVING


After Walter left it did not take the girls with their sled long to
reach Sarah Bragley's modest little cottage.

Mrs. Ellis opened the door at their knock.

"How is Mrs. Bragley to-day?" Nan asked, as they went in.

"As well as can be expected," replied the nurse. "She had a little fever
last night, but not enough to be at all anxious about."

"Has the doctor been here to-day?" queried Rhoda.

"Yes," was the reply, "about an hour ago."

"What did he say?"

"He says she is doing very well," Mrs. Ellis answered. "The only thing
that gives him any concern is her lack of appetite. If he can coax that,
he thinks she will soon be well."

"Perhaps these things will tempt her," remarked Nan, as she emptied the
contents of the basket upon the table.

"How splendid!" exclaimed the nurse. "They are just the things she
needs. I'll go and tell her that you are here, and you can take them in
to her."

Left alone, the girls glanced around them. A warm fire blazed in the
stove. Everything in the room was spotless.

"Doesn't it look nice?" observed Bess.

"Couldn't be any neater or more comfortable," judged Nan with
satisfaction. "I'm so glad we could get Mrs. Ellis."

"She's a jewel, and no mistake," affirmed Rhoda.

At Mrs. Ellis' invitation, the three girls trooped into Mrs. Bragley's
room. They were delighted to find her propped up in bed and looking very
cheerful and comfortable.

"I'm glad to see you, young ladies," was her greeting to them. And she
looked with pleasure into the bright faces as the girls clustered about
the bed.

"You are feeling pretty good to-day, Mrs. Ellis tells us," said Nan
brightly.

"Oh, very much better," was the reply. "I ought to when I have so many
kind friends."

Just then the nurse came in, bringing the delicacies that the girls had
purchased.

"See what these friends have brought you," she said, as she lifted the
things one by one from the basket and placed them on a table by the side
of the bed.

Mrs. Bragley's eyes grew wet with sudden tears.

"You are too good to me, young ladies! What kind hearts there are in the
world!"

The oranges especially seemed to please her, and Mrs. Ellis prepared one
for her.

"How good that orange tastes," she remarked. "I've always been very fond
of them. At one time I thought I'd be owning a whole grove of them. But
that was just a dream."

"What do you mean?" Rhoda asked, with interest.

"Well, dearie," answered the woman, evidently pleased with Rhoda's
interest, "some years ago my husband thought he saw his way to make a
little fortune for us. He heard of a company in Florida that was
developing orange lands, and it looked so good to him that he bought a
share in it. He thought he was going to make money enough out of it to
make us safe for life. But nothing ever came of it."

"Where was this land?" asked Nan.

"Let me see," mused Mrs. Bragley, wrinkling her brow with the effort to
remember. "It was somewhere in Florida, but I can't remember the name.
It was--it was--I can't just think. Not that it matters much, anyhow,
but I hate to forget things that way. Sun--sun--Sunny Slopes. That's
what the name was."

"What a pretty name!" cried Bess.

"Yes. But that's about all that was pretty about it," replied Mrs.
Bragley, with a weak smile. "My husband invested almost all his savings
in it because he thought it was going to make him rich."

"When was that?" asked Nan, who was growing deeply interested.

"Only a short time before his death," came the answer sadly.

"But haven't you heard anything about it since?" queried Bess
wonderingly. "You may really be rich, for all you know."

Mrs. Bragley smiled wanly.

"Not much chance of that, I fear," she replied. "I have written again
and again, but have never received any answer to my letters. I'm afraid
it was all a swindle."

"You must have papers of some kind," observed Nan.

"Yes," the woman assented. "They're in that bottom drawer there, if
you'll trouble to get them for me."

Nan opened the drawer indicated and took from it a packet of papers. The
documents bore marks of frequent folding and unfolding.

"May I look at them?" Nan asked, as she brought them to the bedside.

"Surely," was the ready answer. "And if one of you will just hand me my
specs, I'll look over them with you and tell you all about them."

The three girls bent eagerly over Mrs. Bragley as she opened one paper
after the other, prospectuses, several of them, highly colored
illustrated leaflets and descriptive circulars. Then came a certificate
for forty shares in the Sunny Slopes Development Company. The only
individual name on any of the papers seemed to be that of Jacob Pacomb,
who, it appeared, was the manager and the developer of the tract.

"It's extremely strange that no answer ever came to any of your
letters," remarked Rhoda, as she scanned the documents. "Did any of the
letters ever come back?"

"Not one," was the reply.

"Perhaps the man did not receive them," conjectured Nan.

"In that case," Mrs. Bragley replied, "the letters would have been
returned to me, as I put my name and address on the outside."

"This man, Pacomb," suggested Bess, "may have died and all of the
letters may have been destroyed."

"That wouldn't be very likely," objected Nan. "Some one would probably
have settled up the business or taken it over and kept on with it. In
either case, the letters would almost surely have been answered."

"I have thought of all that," the woman replied; "and that is why I
think it must have been all a fraud. If I had been able to spare the
money I would have taken a trip to Florida and looked into the matter
myself, but I never felt that I could afford it."

[Illustration: The three girls bent eagerly over Mrs. Bragley as she
opened one paper after another. (_See page 65_)]

"It is too bad you couldn't have gone," said Rhoda thoughtfully; "for if
there was fraud you would then at least have found it out and could have
had somebody punished. It looks to me that, knowing you were a widow and
without means to look into things, they have deliberately held back any
money that might have been coming to you and cheated you out of your
rights."

The girls had been so interested in the papers and the story that went
with them that they had thought of nothing else. Now Nan, suddenly
glancing up, noticed that the old face looked white and tired. She rose
at once.

"I'm afraid we've stayed too long," she said penitently. "We ought to
have remembered that Mrs. Bragley isn't strong."

She replaced the papers in the drawer, smoothed the bed covers, and gave
the injured woman a comforting pat on the shoulders.

"I hope you will be well again very soon," she said, "and then perhaps
some way will be found to look into this matter."

"Anyway, we're going to try to do something about it," promised Rhoda as
they took their leave.

The girls found when they got outside that it had begun to snow.

"Looks to me as if we were in for another storm," was Rhoda's comment,
as they trudged along.

"Who cares?" cried Bess, catching up a handful of the snow and making a
snowball.

"You can't hit anything," scoffed Nan. "Try it."

"All right, here goes for the blacksmith shop," answered Bess gaily, for
they were almost directly in front of the little smithy.

"Gracious! Going to try to hit the whole building?" queried the girl
from Rose Ranch.

"A blind man could do that," added Nan.

"I'm going to hit the door--the very middle of the door," answered Bess.

"Oh, Bess! if the man is inside, what will he think?" said Nan.

"I don't care what he thinks," was the quick reply. "Here goes!"

Away flew the snowball, and it must be admitted that Bess's aim was
decidedly good, for the snowball sailed directly for the center of the
door of the smithy.

But as the girl launched the snowball the door of the blacksmith shop
opened and a man came forth.

Spat! the snowball landed directly in the man's face!



 CHAPTER X

 A MIDNIGHT FEAST


"My gracious, Bess, see what you have done!" cried Nan.

"You certainly hit the bull's eye that time," was Rhoda's comment.

"Oh!" was the only word Bess could utter, and she stood there in the
roadway, her arm still poised high in the air as when she had thrown the
snowball.

"Hi, you! Wot yer mean by heavin' snowballs at me?" screamed the man, as
he wiped the snow from his face. "You let me alone! I ain't done no
harm, I ain't."

He waved his hands wildly in the air. The girls now noticed that he was
in tatters and had a very red nose, doubtless made redder than ever by
the snowball.

"Come, move on now," said a voice from the smithy, and a tall man
wearing a leather apron appeared. "I told you before I'd not have you
hanging around here. Git!"

"I ain't gonner be snowballed!" cried the tramp, for such he was.
"Tain't fair. I'm an honest man, I am. You lemme alone."

"I'll do worse than snowball you if you don't clear out, and that mighty
quick," cried the blacksmith. "I know what you came in this place
for--you came to steal horseshoes and then sell 'em over to Beavertown."

"I didn't--I came in to git warm," sniveled the tramp. But then, as the
blacksmith reached for a whip, he fairly ran down the snowy road and out
of sight.

"Wasn't I lucky?" said Bess, when the girls had explained matters to the
blacksmith and moved on once more in the direction of the hall. "Only a
tramp, and it might have been the blacksmith himself!"

"Well, we admit your aim was good," answered Nan drily.

As they made their way back to the school the girls talked over the
matter of Mrs. Bragley's property. They came across Grace in the hall,
and, bearing her off to Nan's room, told her the story of Sunny Slopes.

"Why!" exclaimed Grace, as a thought suddenly struck her, "I'll have dad
look that up while we're down at Palm Beach. You know he's a lawyer.
Maybe Sunny Slopes isn't far from where we'll be staying. I'll get him
to see what he can do."

"That will be perfectly darling!" exclaimed Nan enthusiastically, and
the others heartily agreed with her.

The next day, while returning from town where they had been stocking up
for the feast they had promised themselves, they again met Walter Mason.

"Hello, girls," he called, as he came up to them.

"Hello, Palm Beach," returned Laura.

"So you've heard about it, have you?" Walter responded, with a laugh.

"Have we?" replied Nan. "We haven't heard or talked or thought of
anything else since Grace told us."

"Of course you're going along?" said Bess questioningly.

"Of course," Walter answered. "But, to tell the truth, I'm not a bit
eager to go. I'd rather stay right here."

They chatted a few minutes longer, and then Walter left them and the
girls resumed their walk toward the school.

"Why do you suppose Walter would rather stay here than go to Palm
Beach?" Laura asked innocently of no one in particular.

"That isn't hard to guess," replied Bess, with a mischievous glance at
Nan. "What do you think about it, Nan?"

"I haven't any opinion," answered Nan demurely. "What I do know, though,
is that we'll have to hurry if we get back to the school before dark."

That night had been set for the "spread," and the girls went early to
their rooms to get their lessons for the next day out of the way. A most
unusual and unnatural silence reigned in Nan's room for nearly two
hours. It was broken by a book snapping shut as Bess sprang to her feet,
exclaiming with satisfaction:

"There, that's done! And it's the last, thank fortune."

"Same here," answered Nan happily, as she gathered books and paper
together and tossed them into a far corner of the room.

"Why, Nan!" exclaimed Bess in surprise, glancing at the clock, "where do
you suppose the girls are? They were to be on hand at ten o'clock, and
it's now five minutes after."

"Lessons," replied Nan laconically. "They'll be here any second now."

As she spoke the door opened softly, and Laura slipped in with a bundle
of things in her arms. Placing them on the table, she went back and
softly closed the door.

"Do you know, girls," she said in a low tone, "I met Linda Riggs as I
was coming through the hall, and her eyes were two big bundles of
curiosity when she saw the things in my arms. I shouldn't be
surprised----"

Suddenly, without waiting to finish the sentence, she went back to the
door, opened it quickly and stepped out into the hall to see Linda,
looking red and confused, walking hurriedly away.

Laura called after her.

"Was there anything you wanted, Linda?" she inquired sweetly.

"No, thank you," came the pert rejoinder. "Not now. Later, perhaps."

Laura returned.

"Of all the mean, sneaking----" she began, but Nan laughingly
interrupted.

"There, there, Laura, what's the use? Don't give her a second thought."

"She isn't worth it, that's a fact," Laura contented herself with
saying, and the next minute the entrance of the other girls laden with
parcels put anything else out of her mind.

Rhoda's box, much to the girl's uneasiness, had been delayed, but had
come that night just before dinner. Now she deposited it unopened on a
chair.

"I thought it would be fun to open it here and see what blessings it had
in store for us," she explained, as she proceeded to open and unpack it.

"Blessings!" echoed Nan. "Well, I should say they were," she added, as,
one after another, a big layer cake, a small fruit cake, some cakes
prettily iced, bottles of choice olives, salted almonds and peanuts,
jars of jelly and marmalade, fruit, and a big package of fresh assorted
bonbons were drawn from the box.

"Oh, for pity's sake, girls, let's hurry and get at them," cried Laura.
"My mouth's fairly watering for them."

As she spoke, she drew Nan's spirit lamp from its shelf and soon had the
water for cocoa boiling in a small saucepan.

"Why in the world," said Grace as she set the plates and cups and
saucers on the table, "did we go and buy all these things? If we'd only
known what that box was going to hold we wouldn't have needed half of
them."

"No matter, the sandwiches and ice cream will come in well," said Laura.
"That is," she added, "if there's anything of the ice cream left. I put
it outside the minute we got it here, but it's had a long time to wait."

"It won't have to wait much longer," exulted Bess, as the girls gathered
around the table and the feast began.

"Hey! don't let Grace cut that fruit cake yet," said Nan, her mouth full
of cream cheese sandwich. "There won't be a raisin left for the rest of
us."

"If you eat many more sandwiches," laughed Grace, "you won't have room
left for even a raisin." And she calmly proceeded not only to cut the
cake, but to help herself to a very generous slice.

"Um-um--this is good," she said. "Fruit cake is my special weakness."

"Yes, and it's our duty to help you conquer that weakness," remarked
Laura virtuously, as she drew the fruit cake over to her side of the
table.

"Now where did I put that sugar bowl?" asked Bess, as she finished
pouring her third cup of cocoa.

"Here it is," replied Rhoda, as she accommodatingly handed over a small
glass bowl from which Bess helped herself to a generous double spoonful.
One swallow of her cocoa, and she began to sputter and gasp, and finally
made a frantic grab for a tumbler of water.

"What on earth is the matter with the child?" asked Laura.

"Salt," Bess managed to articulate. "You gave me the salt, Rhoda,
instead of the sugar. Oh, what a dose!"

The girls wanted to shout with laughter, but caution made them smother
it as much as possible. And just at this juncture, the door opened part
way without even one little warning squeak, and a severe voice said:

"Young ladies, report to me at my office at noon to-morrow."



 CHAPTER XI

 A DANGEROUS PLOT


The girls, their laughter quenched, gazed at each other for a few
seconds with stupefaction. Then Nan sprang to the door, opened it, and
caught sight of a silently scurrying figure that could not by any means
be confounded with Mrs. Cupp's angular form or slow, measured movements.

The other girls, astonished, gazed at Nan open-mouthed as she re-entered
the room with flushed and indignant face and uttered the one
enlightening word:

"Linda."

"It sure was!"

"Of all the nerve!" began Laura slowly.

"Of all the meanness, I should say," amended Rhoda indignantly, as she
turned the key in the door.

Then the funny side struck them, and they sat doubled up with suppressed
laughter.

With increased hilarity the feast went on. The ice cream was brought in
and found to be in a very creditable state of preservation, and the
layer cake and small iced cakes were very soon being gobbled up.

To illustrate that "variety is the spice of life," so she said, Laura
had just followed some ice cream with a sour pickle, when a footstep
neared the door and a stern voice commanded them to open it.

"Linda," whispered Grace to Bess, who was nearest her, while Laura said
in a perfectly audible though subdued voice:

"You can just go about your business, you essence of meanness."

"You needn't think you can work that trick on us twice," added Grace.

"Don't judge our intellects by your own," scoffed Rhoda. "You must think
we were born yesterday."

The girls laughed at the sally, and silence ensued for a moment.

"I guess that has disposed of Linda for the rest of the night," exulted
Laura, and she applied herself again to the now rapidly melting ice
cream.

"Let's finish this cream while the eating's good," laughed Nan, when her
spoon was arrested on its way to her mouth by a voice outside the door.

"Nan Sherwood, I command you to open this door."

In overwhelming consternation the girls rose to their feet, and Nan
unlocked and opened the door.

Quivering with anger and outraged dignity, Mrs. Cupp swept the room with
flashing eyes.

"You will go to your rooms, young ladies, and you will all report at Dr.
Prescott's room to-morrow morning at ten o'clock," she decreed, and,
turning, moved majestically down the corridor, leaving black
consternation behind her.

"Now, we are in for it!" gasped Rhoda, as the sound of footsteps died
away.

Too overwhelmed to say another word, the others slipped away to their
rooms.

The next morning, with many inward quakings, they entered the
principal's room. Dr. Prescott's voice was severe as she said to the
five caught-in-the-act delinquents:

"You are ready to admit, I presume, that you have broken one of the
rules of the school. That I can understand. But that you should have
been guilty of disrespect to one of the officers of the school is quite
another and more serious thing. Have you any explanation to offer?"

After a moment's silence, Nan acted as spokesman.

"We did not intend to be disrespectful to Mrs. Cupp," she declared, and
then went on and told the whole story.

"That puts things in a better light," said Dr. Prescott, when Nan had
finished. "But to make you more careful in future and to remind you that
the rules of Lakeview Hall are made to be observed, not ignored, I will
forbid you all to go outside the grounds for three full days. You can
go now to your recitations."

The girls bowed and withdrew, and for the rest of the morning they were
unusually quiet. At noon they gathered in Laura's room, dropped into the
nearest chairs at hand, and looked at each other lugubriously.

"Three days without poking our noses outside the gates!" mourned Bess.
"How are we ever going to stand it?"

"I don't care much for that," commented Rhoda. "But I hate to give that
Linda Riggs anything to gloat over."

"And she will," declared Grace. "She'll make the very most of it, you
can be sure."

"She will."

"Oh, well, let her then," said Laura, recovering something of her usual
spirits. "Say, girls, did you see the expression on Cupp's face when we
opened the door?"

They burst into a merry laugh at the remembrance, and the laugh lessened
the tension and did them good.

"Oh!" gasped Laura, as she wiped the tears from her eyes, "I shall
remember that look when I'm an old woman."

"I suspect Cupp will remember the occasion, too, for many days to come,"
prophesied Nan.

"I wish there had been a glass opposite the door, so that she could
have seen her face," remarked Bess, going off into another gale of
laughter.

"Come on," said Rhoda, when they had settled down. "Let's go for a walk
on the campus and get some fresh air. Thank goodness, we can do that,
anyway."

"Oh, dear," sighed Nan, as they went downstairs. "No coasting, no
skating for three days. What a fate!"

"No matter," comforted Grace. "The feast was worth it. The memory
lingers."

"It does," agreed Laura. "I can taste that layer cake yet. But come,
girls, I challenge you to a race around the campus. One, two,
three--go!"

"Wait until I make certain my shoe is tight," cried Grace.

"And wait until I get my cap fastened on," added Nan.

"No primping now!" exclaimed Laura. "Everybody ready?"

"What's the prize?" questioned Bess. "I can't run well unless I know
it's worth it."

"You get the hole out of a doughnut," said Nan. "All sugared over, too."

"And a glass of frozen ice-water," added Grace.

"This is all the way around the campus," went on Laura. "No cutting
corners, remember. You must follow the trees and the hedge. One cent
fine if you don't. All ready? One--two--three, go!"

With wild shouts and much laughter the race around the campus was on.

Nan won "by a nose," as Laura rather slangily put it, and the girls,
glowing and breathless, looked like anything else than confessed
law-breakers doing penance.

The sight of their happy faces was too much for Linda, who, with Cora,
was passing them, drawing the _Gay Girl_ and carrying their skates over
their shoulders.

"Some people try mighty hard to show that they're having a good time,"
she remarked to her companion.

"Blessings brighten as they take their flight, as the girl said when she
couldn't leave the campus," grinned Cora maliciously.

"Well," countered Nan, "at least we're not doing penance for sneaking in
the dark and listening at doors."

The flush on Linda's face showed that the shot had reached the mark.

"You think you know a lot, don't you?" she mocked, as she and Cora went
on.

"How I detest that Nan Sherwood," hissed Linda. "I'll get square with
her some day, and that day isn't so far off either. I know just how I'm
going to fix her."

"Why do you keep on being so mysterious?" asked Cora impatiently.
"You're always hinting and getting my curiosity aroused and then
stopping short. Go on and tell me now."

But Linda refused, saying that she wanted to be sure first that her
plans would go through all right.

"When I do spring things," she said, "I'll square up all accounts."

Cora sulked, but had to submit.

Several days later, as Nan and Bess were studying in their room, Bess
wrote the final word in a French translation with a sigh of relief.

"Didn't you say once, Nan," she queried, "that you had somewhere a book
of model French conversations?"

"Yes," answered Nan, looking up from her work. "Do you want it?"

"I'd like it ever so much," Bess answered. "I think it would help me
with these wretched idioms that puzzle me so. Could you get it for me?"

"Surely, Bess," assented Nan, with obliging readiness. "It's down in my
trunk. I'll go right down to the basement to-morrow after we finish our
English recitation at twelve o'clock and get it for you."

"That's a darling, Nan," returned Bess gratefully. "I know it will help
me heaps."

During this conversation their door had been standing open, and Linda
Riggs, who was passing (she made occasion often to pass Nan's door),
heard every word. An exultant look came into her face, and she hurried
off to find Cora. She told her eagerly that at last she knew just how
and when she was going to get even with that much-hated Nan Sherwood.

"What are you going to do?" asked Cora, excited and yet a little fearful
of any scheme that Linda might hatch.

"I'm going to give her the scare of her life," replied Linda. "The idea
came to me the other day when I was in the trunk room in the basement.
The steam started to blow off with such a whistle close to my ears that
it made me almost jump out of my skin. I feel sure that if the steam can
only be held down for a little while and then go off with a rush it will
be ten times louder. If that could be made to happen just as Sherwood
was going past, it would scare her out of a year's growth. She'd think
her last hour had come. The trouble has been that I never knew just when
she'd be there. But I know now. I just heard her say. She's in for the
biggest fright of her life. How does it strike you?"

"It sounds all right," answered Cora slowly. "But how are you going to
do it?"

"Easily," said Linda, with a confident ring in her voice. "After the
janitor has fixed up the fires for the day to-morrow morning he'll not
be in the basement. I'll slip down before Sherwood is due to get there
and tie down the valve. That'll keep the steam confined and make the
shriek that much louder when it's let loose. I'll hide behind the
woodpile, and just when Sherwood is opposite the furnace, I'll cut the
string and--_voila_."

"All very fine," remarked Cora half-heartedly. "But isn't it awfully
dangerous? Have you thought what might happen if you confine the steam?"

"Of course I've thought of that, stupid," replied Linda, nettled at
Cora's lack of enthusiasm. "But the steam won't be held back long enough
to do any harm."

"I'm not so sure of that," said Cora, who felt very uneasy about the
possible results of her friend's malicious scheme.

"Nonsense," retorted Linda. "I'll take all the risk, if there is any.
But there won't be. I've planned it out too carefully to make any
mistake about it. It's too good a chance to get even with Nan Sherwood
to let it go by."



 CHAPTER XII

 ALMOST A DISASTER


"I wouldn't risk it if I were you, Linda," Cora persisted.

"Oh, what's the use of talking to you!" exclaimed Linda angrily. "You
haven't got enough sense to understand. I wish I hadn't told you a word
about it," and she turned her back upon her chum and refused to say
another word.

Cora, daring for once to be angry in her turn, left the room, and Linda
soon forgot her in gloating over the fright she was plotting for Nan.

The next morning after the eleven o'clock recitation had begun, Linda
made a pretext for leaving the room. She slipped down into the basement
and then came back to her seat to await developments.

Meanwhile, the well-ordered routine of Lakeview Hall was proceeding as
usual. The hands of the great clock in the English recitation room
pointed to a quarter of twelve, and sidelong looks were being cast at it
in pleasurable anticipation of the noon hour.

Bang!

Suddenly the crash of a loud explosion filled every one with terror. The
building trembled to its foundations. Clouds of steam poured up from the
basement.

A wild cry rent the air.

"What's that?"

"Sounded like an explosion to me."

"Maybe it's an earthquake."

"Oh, see the smoke."

"The school must be on fire!"

"I'm going to get out of here!"

"Oh, yes, let me out; I don't want to be burnt alive!"

"Fire! Fire! The Hall is on fire!"

In an instant a panic was on. The teachers alone and some of the older
girls kept their heads. The younger pupils rushed for the doors in a
frenzy of fright.

The English teacher ran to one of the doors of her recitation room and
held it fast. But there was another door in the room, and toward this
the frightened girls poured in a mad stampede. Just outside was the
stairway with several sharp turns, and if the fugitives jammed up on one
of the landings it might mean maiming or death for some of them.

Quick as a flash, Nan Sherwood acted. She sprang to the danger door,
slammed it shut and put her back against it. The tide surged up against
her. The younger girls clawed at her, scratched her hands, did all in
their power to force her away from the door. But she held her place with
desperation, though her clothes were torn, and her hands were bleeding.

Then through the crowd came Linda Riggs, bowling the smaller girls out
of her way, her face as pale as death and her eyes almost bulging out of
her head with fright.

"Let me get out, Nan Sherwood!" she screamed, tearing at her with all
her might. "Let me out! Let me out! I'll die! I won't stay here to be
burned to death! Get away from that door! Let me get out!"

She tore at Nan and struck her in the face. She was a strong girl, and
doubly strong now in her rage and fright. But Nan braced herself and
still held the door, though her strength was fast ebbing.

Just then help came. Rhoda Hammond and Bess Harley caught hold of Linda
and pulled her away. They thrust her into a seat and held her down,
while Laura and others of the older girls pacified and soothed the
younger ones.

The worst was over. The steam had thinned out and drifted away. The
pupils slowly went back to their seats at the command of the teacher and
sat there, sobbing and moaning and weak from excitement. But the panic
had been quelled.

Now that the crisis had passed, Nan felt her strength leaving her, and
she had scarcely enough left to get back to her seat. She almost fell
into it when at last she reached it.

Just then, Dr. Prescott, who from the moment of the first alarm had been
in other parts of the building, helping to quell the excitement, entered
the room. She took her stand beside the teacher and held with her a
brief conversation in which she learned what had occurred in the room.
Then she spoke a few quiet words of assurance, telling the girls that
there had not been, and was not now, any danger and warmly commending
the bravery and self-control of the teacher and the older girls. She
then dismissed them.

A refreshing half-hour in their rooms did the girls a world of good, and
when the lunch gong sounded they gathered about the table in something
like their normal spirits. It is true that none ate very much, but
tongues flew fast in comment and conjecture.

"How could it have happened?" was the many-times-repeated question. Was
it the janitor's fault? He must have forgotten to turn off the drafts
perhaps, and the accumulated gas had exploded.

"Probably something was wrong with the safety valve," conjectured Rhoda,
building better than she knew.

"Well," said Nan, as at last they rose from the table, "I hope they'll
find out what did cause it so that it will never happen again."

Naturally, there were no more lessons that afternoon. The girls gathered
in groups in the corridors or in each others' rooms excitedly discussing
the stirring events of the morning.

Nan lay upon the couch in her room, resting after her exertions, when
Grace, who had been telephoning to Walter, came in bursting with news.

"What do you think I heard downstairs!" she cried before she was fairly
in the room. "Doctor Beulah thinks that it wasn't an accident at all,
but that the whole thing was caused by some one tampering with the
boiler."

The girls all spoke at once.

"Oh, that couldn't be!"

"Who'd have any object in doing a thing that might have cost lives?"

"Isn't it awful!"

"Anyway," Grace went on as soon as they gave her a chance to speak,
"they say that a heavy cord had been tied to the valve to keep it down
and the broken ends of the cord were found hanging from it."

The girls were stupefied with astonishment.

Suddenly Laura started up and walked excitedly about the room.

"There's this much about it!" she exclaimed. "If some one did do it
purposely, Doctor Beulah will soon find out when it was done, and why it
was done--_and who did it, too_," she added significantly.

Laura knew by the expression on all the faces that the same thought
that had been in her mind when she spoke those last words was in the
minds of the other girls, too.

If two very depressed and frightened girls in another room could have
heard them, their spirits would have sunk still lower.

"What did I tell you!" cried Cora wildly. "I begged you not to do it.
And what did you make by it? Disgraced yourself and only made Nan
Sherwood more popular than ever."

For once, Linda was silent. Cora made the most of her chance to get back
at Linda for her high-handed treatment of her. She went on mercilessly:

"I was so ashamed of you," she said. "You made such a show of yourself.
I didn't think you could be such a coward."

"Well," whined Linda, "I had more to live for, with all my money, than
they had."

"That sounds like you," gibed Cora disgustedly. "Well, I pity you if
Doctor Beulah finds out you did it. And she will, you can just depend on
that."

In the meantime Bess, with some other girls, visited the basement to
look at the wreckage. When she came back she had a queer look on her
face. She called Nan to one side.

"See what I found," she said and held out a small handkerchief with a
daisy worked in one corner. "It was in the basement, close to the
wrecked boiler."

Nan looked at the bit of linen and started. She remembered having seen
Linda Riggs with such a handkerchief more than once.

"But Linda may have dropped it down there since the explosion," she
said, quickly.

"I guess not!" drawled Bess. "This looks like a bit of real evidence to
me."

"Oh, Bess--don't say anything--at least not till you are sure."

"I won't. But I'll remember it."

At this moment the gong sounded a summons to the main assembly hall, a
summons which the girls obeyed with alacrity.

Knowing as they did that an examination of the steam plant had been
going on, and their interest and curiosity quickened by the rumors they
had heard, it was not long before every seat was filled and all eyes
turned expectantly on Dr. Prescott. She sat there, rather pale, but
dignified and well poised.

"What is she going to say?" each girl asked herself. The tension was at
its height, the silence could almost be felt, when Dr. Prescott began to
speak.

"A thorough examination has shown us," she began, "that the steam plant
is very badly damaged, though we hope that it may be possible to repair
it in a short time. But the investigation," she went on, "has revealed
the almost unbelievable fact that there was no accident, but a
deliberate plan or trick. Who conceived it or why, is not yet known, but
we will spare no effort to find the guilty party and bring him or her
to punishment. I am very thankful that the injury was confined to the
steam plant and that no one was hurt, as might easily have been the
case.

"I am very proud of the presence of mind and bravery shown by the
teachers and many of the students. Many of the younger girls and all the
older ones, with one shameful exception"--she paused, and all eyes were
turned on Linda, who sat cowering in her seat--"showed remarkable
self-possession, and I take this opportunity to thank them all. I
hesitate to mention any names, but I must single out Nan Sherwood, who,
by her prompt action and cool courage, contributed in so large a measure
to avert the dreadful consequences of a panic."

With these words she dismissed them.

As the girls left the assembly hall they broke out into a Babel of
excited comment. Dr. Prescott, crossing the hall on the way to her
office, placed her arm over Nan's shoulders and thanked her personally.
Nan's heart swelled at the earnest words of praise, for Dr. Prescott's
good opinion was highly valued.

"Of course," the doctor added with a whimsical smile, "the three-day
sentence is remitted for you and your friends."

She passed on.

"Isn't she just splendid!" exclaimed Grace.

"And how nicely she seemed to manage the whole situation," remarked
Rhoda.

"She's a peach!" declared Laura, slangily.

"I should say she is! And so is somebody else I know," agreed Bess, as
she drew Nan's arm through hers.



 CHAPTER XIII

 THE WILY STRANGER


"What _is_ this anyway?" asked Bess. "Greenland or the North Pole?"

"Well, it's Siberia at the very least," laughed Nan, as, wrapped in
outdoor coats and furs, the girls entered the recitation room the second
morning after the explosion.

School without heat in weather that came close to the zero mark was not
very enticing, and it was glad news to all the girls when it was
announced that, owing to the injury to the steam plant, which was
greater than was at first thought, the school term would end nearly a
week ahead of time pending extensive repairs. Those who were going home
were directed to begin to pack at once, and those who were not would be
provided with quarters in the village.

After hearing this announcement the girls flew upstairs on winged feet.

"An extra week at home! What happiness!" exclaimed Bess, whirling Nan
around until they both dropped breathless on the window seat.

"And think of Grace with another week at Palm Beach to look forward to!"
cried Nan.

"What luck for her!" said Bess enviously, as she began taking her things
from the dresser drawer.

Soon the last trunk was locked and strapped and they were ready to
depart.

"Let's run to town for a last visit to Mrs. Bragley," proposed Nan.

Bess gladly acquiesced, and the two girls were off. They were delighted
to find Mrs. Bragley sitting up and able to get around a little with a
cane. She greeted them gratefully and was profuse in her thanks for all
the care they had shown her. And she was intensely interested in their
story of the explosion at the school.

"And now," said Nan, after they had chatted for a while, "how about
those papers? We are going home sooner than we thought, and if you will
give them to me I will show them to Grace Mason's father. He is a very
able lawyer and will get to the bottom of this orange grove if any one
can."

"That will be fine," was the gratified reply. "The papers are right
here. I have been looking them over. Take them if you wish, dear."

Mrs. Bragley took them from the table and handed them to Nan, and the
latter tucked them safely away in her bag.

"I may be carrying a fortune away in this bag," she said jokingly, as
she snapped the catch and rose to go.

"I'm afraid they're not worth the paper they're printed on," said the
woman dubiously.

"Hope on, hope ever," quoted Bess gaily, as, with a last wave of the
hand, she followed Nan out of the door.

They were almost to the school when Bess suddenly asked:

"Do you know that man, Nan? He looks as though he were going to speak to
us."

Nan looked up just as a tall thin man approached them. He lifted his hat
and said:

"I beg pardon, young ladies, but could you inform me where the Widow
Bragley lives?"

Nan pointed out the cottage and the man thanked her and passed on.

"What a peculiar way he had of talking," said Bess, as they resumed
their walk.

"I noticed that he talked like a Southerner," replied Nan. "I wonder
what business he can have with Mrs. Bragley."

"Hard to tell," said Bess. "I only hope it isn't a bill collector to
bother the poor thing." And then the schoolgirls passed on their way.

The stranger soon reached the cottage of Mrs. Bragley. He scanned it
carefully and noted its poverty. A contented smile stole over his face
as he said to himself:

"I imagine there won't be any trouble in getting what I came for. A
little money here will go a long way."

He knocked on the door and Mrs. Ellis opened it.

"Does Mrs. Sarah Bragley live here?" the stranger inquired with an
ingratiating smile, which, however, sat rather badly on his somewhat
sinister countenance.

"Yes," replied Mrs. Ellis. "But she's not very well and has gone to lie
down. Is it anything I can do for you?"

"No, thank you," replied the stranger. "My errand with her is a personal
one. I've come all the way from the South to see her on a matter of
private business."

"If that's the case, I think she'll see you," replied the nurse,
ushering him in and giving him a seat.

She excused herself and went into the bedroom, and in a few minutes Mrs.
Bragley appeared, a little curious and considerably flustered by the
announcement of a visitor from such a distance.

"My name is Thompson," the visitor said, as he rose and bowed. "I came
from Florida to see you on a business matter. I'm sorry to learn that
you are not well, and I'd put the matter off, only that I have
arrangements made to get back home as soon as possible."

"From Florida?" repeated the old woman. "It can't be that you've come to
see me about that orange grove property there that my husband put all
our money into before he died?"

"If you refer to the property at Sunny Slopes," returned the visitor,
"you are right. It is just that that I came to see you about."

"Laws me!" ejaculated the widow in some excitement. "And here it was
only a little while ago I was saying that I never expected to hear from
it. I wrote and wrote and never heard a word from it. I began to think,"
she went on a little apologetically, "that there might be some fraud or
something of that kind about it."

"Oh, nothing like that," the visitor said impressively. "Mr. Pacomb is
the soul of honor. I have never known him to do anything that wasn't
straight and aboveboard."

"I'm very glad to hear that," said the simple-hearted old woman. "He
wrote such beautiful letters to us when he was asking us to put our
money into the property that I thought he must be a nice man. I'm very
sorry that I ever had an unkind thought about him. I'm so glad to know
that things are all right. I need the money so badly. And my poor
husband always thought there would be a whole lot of money come from
it."

The stranger looked a little embarrassed.

"Quite right, quite right," he said. "There ought to have been a big
profit from it. Everybody thought so, and nobody felt more sure of it
than Mr. Pacomb himself. He thought so well of it that he put every
cent of his own money into it."

"Then he's made a fortune in it, too!" exclaimed the old woman, beaming
on her visitor.

The stranger coughed.

"No," he said, "that's the unfortunate thing about it. You see, Mrs.
Bragley, the thing didn't turn out as we had hoped and expected. The
land was right in the orange belt, and we had every reason to believe
that it would yield big results. But for some reason or other it didn't.
The ground couldn't have been adapted to it. You never can tell about
orange groves."

The poor woman's face fell.

"Then," she said quaveringly, "all my money is gone!"

"Oh, no, not all," the stranger hastened to say. "There is still a
little money for you, if you want to sell what interest you have in the
property. Of course the property has proved practically worthless. But
the man who has a country estate bordering on the property is willing to
pay the company a small sum just to round out his estate, and your
interest in it we calculate would be about two hundred dollars. In
fact," he went on with a burst of generosity, and at the same time
taking a roll of bills from his pocket, "Mr. Pacomb would be willing to
give you two hundred dollars to settle the matter up at once."

He began to count out the bills, as if the matter had been agreed upon.
It was a long time since Mrs. Bragley had seen so much money, and in her
straitened circumstances two hundred dollars seemed like a fortune. The
visitor had counted on the influence exerted by the sight of the money,
and he was not disappointed.

"Well," said Mrs. Bragley, "I suppose it's the best thing I can do,
since you say that the land isn't any good for oranges."

"We'll consider it settled then," the man observed, trying to conceal
his satisfaction. "Now if you'll get me the papers I'll hand you the
money."

A look of dismay came into the woman's face.

"The--the papers!" she stammered. "Why, I haven't got them!"

"You haven't got them?" the man snapped in wonder. "Where are they
then?"

"I gave them to a young lady not more than an hour ago," replied Mrs.
Bragley. "She had just gone a little before you came."

"Why did you give them to her?" the man asked.

"Some friends of hers are going to Florida and they were going to look
up the matter," replied the old lady. "It seems that the father of one
of the girls is a lawyer and----"

"A lawyer!" interrupted the man, a look of fear coming into his face.
Then by a great effort he regained his self-control.

"Well, Mrs. Bragley," he said, "it's for you to do what you choose in
this matter. It's too bad for you to lose this two hundred dollars when
you might just as well have it as not. Suppose I see this young lady and
tell her that you want the papers back."

"I wish you would," replied the old lady. Then she gave the man Nan's
name and told him where she thought he could find her. He scribbled the
name and address in a notebook, and a little later hurried away.

"If I don't find that Nan Sherwood and get the papers away from her my
name isn't Jacob Pacomb," he muttered to himself.

With all speed he hurried to the Hall, only to learn that Nan had left
for the depot. Then he rushed to the station.

"Sorry, but the train left quarter of an hour ago," declared the station
master in reply to his question. "There won't be another train for three
hours."

On gaining this information the face of Jacob Pacomb became a study.
Savagely he bit off the end of a cigar, lit it, and began to puff away
furiously.

"That young woman from the school may be a sharp one," he murmured as he
strode up and down the little depot platform. "I'll have to use either
force or diplomacy in getting those papers from her. I mustn't let her
think they are valuable. I wonder what I can do next? It's too bad I
promised to go to Chicago to attend that sale. But I can't afford to
miss that." He mused for a moment. "Wonder if I couldn't get Davis and
Jensen to do this job for me? They are hanging around doing nothing and
would do almost anything for the price of a meal. Yes, I'll see Davis
and Jensen and set them on the girl's track."

In the meantime Nan and Bess were being whirled at the rate of fifty
miles an hour toward the home where love and open arms awaited them.

Their parents had, of course, been apprised of their coming, and the
welcome was the royal one that always greeted them after their long
absences from home. Nothing was too good for them.

Several days passed quickly, and then came great news. The first item
was a notification from Dr. Prescott that since the steam plant had
required far more extensive repairs than at first had seemed necessary,
the reopening would be deferred for several weeks beyond the usual time.
And following this closely came a letter to each of the girls from Grace
Mason. They _must_ go with her to Palm Beach. The "must" was
underscored. She would take no denial. They would have such a perfectly
gorgeous time if they could only come along. Please, please, _please!_
They simply _must_, and that was all there was about it.

Nan and Bess were filled with delight and excitement. But they had to
reckon with their parents, who were reluctant to spare their girls after
having them with them for so short a time. But the girls coaxed and
wheedled, as girls will, and the parents finally yielded, as parents
will. In the next few days the matter was settled and hurried
preparations were begun.

More than once they had to pinch themselves to make sure they were not
dreaming. Palm Beach! Land of summer, land of flowers, land of beauty!
And they--Nan Sherwood and Bess Harley--were actually going to dwell for
a time in that earthly Paradise!



 CHAPTER XIV

 GREAT EXPECTATIONS


Nan was really going to Palm Beach! She could scarcely realize her good
fortune.

Grace had written that some cousins who were to go had disappointed
them, so good accommodations were assured to Nan and Bess when they
reached Palm Beach.

Nan was up in her bedroom in the evening looking dreamily out of the
window and imagining she was already at the famous winter resort when
she gave a start.

Two men were slinking around, behind some trees on the opposite side of
the street! From time to time they gazed at the house as if looking for
somebody.

"The same men! What can it mean?"

Nan breathed the words to herself. She had seen these men before since
coming home from school. They had leered at her when on an errand to the
drugstore, and one of them had acted as if he wanted to speak to her
while she was at the depot asking for a timetable. But a man friend had
come up to greet her and the stranger had slunk away.

Nan's first impulse was to call her father and mother. But then she
hesitated. Why worry her parents, and especially her mother, when, after
all, it might mean little or nothing?

She looked again. Some men had come up the street. At sight of them the
two slinking ones shrank back and presently hurried away.

"I hope I never see them again," said the girl to herself. But this wish
was not to be gratified.

Yet the next day Nan gave the strange men hardly a thought. There were
so many things to be done in preparation for the great trip.

"It's not like going out to Rose Ranch, where any old thing was good
enough to wear," Nan confided to Bess. "We've got to look our best, on
Grace's account as well as our own."

"And Walter's," added Bess, and then Nan promptly threw a book at her
chum.

A day more, and then came the all-important time for departure.

"Oh, just to think of it! We are really and truly going!"

Nan was seated on an overturned suitcase on the porch of the little
"dwelling in amity." Her hands were clasped tightly in front of her to
keep her from jumping up and running off madly somewhere, anywhere--just
to relieve her tremendous excitement.

Never in her life had it seemed so hard to keep still. Her trunk had
gone to the station, her bag was packed, and everything was ready to
catch the ten-o'clock train for New York. From there she and Bess were
to take the boat, which was to carry them swiftly down the coast to
Jacksonville, the gateway to Florida.

Everything was in readiness that is save Momsey. All that separated her
from that desirable state was one small and pretty fur hat which Momsey
was just now fitting on in front of the mirror in the little
sitting-room.

But it did take a long time just to put on one hat, thought Nan with a
sigh. Momsey never used to be so slow. Then, unable to bear it a moment
longer, she jumped to her feet and peeped in at the door of the little
"dwelling in amity."

What she saw made her pause, a smothered exclamation on her lips, her
eyes dancing. For Papa Sherwood was there with Momsey and he was looking
at her with as much admiration in his eyes as though they had been
married only one year, instead of--oh, Nan couldn't remember how many!

"That trip overseas was just what you needed to make a girl of you
again, Momsey," Papa Sherwood was saying in a tone that matched his
look. "You might be our Nan's older sister. And isn't that a new hat?"

Momsey had started to make him a demure curtsey when Nan's clear laugh
interrupted the tête-à-tête.

"Excuse me," she said, her eyes dancing. "Far be it from me to be in the
way of anything--and, Momsey, you do look wonderful in that hat--but you
know that train won't wait all day. Oh, Momsey! Papa Sherwood!"--she
waltzed in upon them and hugged them gaily--"isn't it perfectly,
wonderfully gorgeous?"

"What now, honey?" asked Momsey, as she rearranged the pretty hat which
Nan had pushed down unbecomingly over one eye.

"What now?" repeated Nan breathlessly. "What now? Why,
Florida--Jacksonville--Palm Beach! No, don't look at me as though I had
gone crazy. I'm only raving. Come on, come on, you slow pokes." She half
pushed her laughing parents toward the door. "You can carry the
suitcase, Papa Sherwood, and I'll carry the hat box. There's only one
other bundle, and I'll take that one and Momsey can bring up the rear
with the lunch. I wonder what Bess will say when she sees the lunch,"
she chuckled, as her father carefully locked the door of the little
house and put the key in his pocket.

"Well, I think I know what she will say when she tastes it," said her
father as all three started down the street toward the more pretentious
house where Bess lived. "For Momsey put up the lunch with her own
hands--and I saw what went into it."

"Yes, and you might tell her, honey," added Mrs. Sherwood, with a soft
laugh, "what hard work I had to keep you from eating all the nuts from
the brown bread sandwiches."

"Oh, Momsey, don't," sighed Nan. "You will make me hungry again, and I
have just had breakfast. See! There's Bess. Goodness, doesn't she look
pretty?"

Both Momsey and Papa Sherwood had to admit that Bess was very pretty
indeed in the bright winter sunlight, but each privately thought that
their Nan, with her sparkling brown eyes and flushed cheeks, was, in her
own way, even prettier than Bess.

"Hello, you folks!" called Bess as she reached them, out of breath from
exercise and excitement. "I thought you were never coming. Goodness!
what are you carrying two grips for? One is enough for me." Then,
without waiting for a reply, she raced on to another question. "And that
box! What's in it, Nan?" She gazed suspiciously at Nan's mischievous
face. "It looks like a lunch box. It never is!"

"Yes, it ever is," mimicked Nan, in exactly Bess's tone, adding with a
laugh: "And Papa Sherwood very nearly ate all the nuts from the
sandwiches."

"Nan----" began Mrs. Sherwood reproachfully; but at that moment Mrs.
Harley appeared in the doorway and the reproaches were forgotten.

Momsey would not go inside, as the minutes to train time were getting
very few, so after a short disappearance Mrs. Harley joined them and
they started toward the station together. The two girls, Nan and Bess,
lead the way, swinging their bags and talking excitedly.

"I'm almost scared to death," confided Bess, as they turned the corner
that led down to the station and the train that was to bear them so soon
on their wonderful journey.

"Scared?" asked Nan, her eyes big with wonder. "What are you scared
about?"

"Oh, I don't suppose I should call it exactly scared," retracted Bess.
"Just sort of excited and--and--nervous. Going all alone you know--and
everything."

"This isn't the first time we have traveled alone," said Nan
practically. "And we have always come out 'right side up with care.'"

"Oh, Nan, you _are_ so calm," sighed Bess in exasperation. "Won't
anything ever get you excited?"

"Excited," repeated Nan, gazing in amazement at her chum. "I'm so
excited this very minute that I'm all thrilly inside."

"If you are," said Bess, eyeing her judicially, "nobody would ever know
it. That's just the trouble with you," she added plaintively, "you are
always hiding things and having secrets from me when you know very well
that no one ought ever to have a secret from her chum."

Nan put an arm about the waist of the girl and laughed.

"You can't quarrel with me, especially this morning, Bess," she said,
adding soothingly: "Besides, I haven't had a secret from you in--oh,
ever so long. Not since Beautiful Beulah."

For Bess had been very much put out indeed about Nan's secret possession
of Beautiful Beulah, the big doll that had formerly helped Nan over many
difficulties.

"I know," said Bess, in answer to Nan's declaration. "But that is just
the reason why I expect you to start something. You have been 'too good
to be true.'"

"Well, you are a silly," said Nan absently, as her eyes wandered down
the double line of shining rails to the spot where they disappeared in
the distance. "I wonder if that mean old train is going to be late after
all."

"No, there it is! There it is, Nan!" cried Bess, suddenly dancing wildly
up and down the platform. "Oh, tell the folks to hurry. Mother has my
hat box. I never, never could go to Palm Beach without that hat." And
she ran back toward the older folks, waving her bag at them frantically
while Nan looked after her laughingly.

"I wonder what Bess would do," she thought, without the slightest trace
of conceit, "if she didn't have me to anchor her down all the time."

The train steamed into the station just as Momsey and Papa Sherwood and
Mrs. Harley, with the excited Elizabeth in the lead, rushed upon the
platform.

Nan was very much surprised to find that though she had become used to
rather frequent partings with Momsey and Papa Sherwood, this one was not
one bit easier than the others had been.

She hugged Papa Sherwood, kissed Momsey a dozen times, in spite of the
fact that Bess was tugging at her elbow, and finally stumbled some way
up the steps and into the car.

"Goodness! Anybody would think you were going away to stay forever,"
gasped Bess, as she tried to disengage herself from a tangle of bag and
hat box and umbrella. "For goodness' sake, look out, Nan. We are
moving." This, because Nan stuck her head far out of the window to get a
last look at the dear folks on the platform.

"I know we're moving," sighed Nan, as she turned from the window and
began patiently to separate Bess from her belongings and stow the
articles away in the wire basket overhead. "I always have a funny
feeling as if I were leaving half of me behind every time I say good-bye
to Momsey and Papa Sherwood."

"I should think you would be used to it by this time," said Bess, as
she removed her hat and fluffed out her pretty curls. "We certainly
can't complain of having to stay too much in one place."

"I should say not!" exclaimed Nan, as she thought of how many wonderful
things had happened since that day when she had started out for the
great north woods with Uncle Henry. "But, oh, Bess," she added, turning
happy eyes upon her chum, "we never went on quite such a wonderful
journey as this--not even when we went to Rose Ranch."

"It all comes of having such nice friends," replied Bess, taking out a
tiny hand mirror and regarding the tip of her nose critically. "And
friends with money," she added significantly.

"Bess! How you talk!" cried the girl from Tillbury, turning a shocked
gaze upon her friend. For Nan Sherwood never failed to be shocked at
Elizabeth's very evident love of money and what it could buy. "If it
were only money we cared for we might have made friends with Linda
Riggs, I suppose. I heard her say something about going to Europe next
summer, and I shouldn't wonder if she would take Cora Courtney and one
or two more of her satellites with her. Perhaps if we had been very
good, she might have asked us."

"Well, it would have been fun," said Bess, wickedly enjoying the shocked
look that deepened on Nan's face. "Cheer up, Nan," she added with one
of her sudden changes of mood. "You know very well how I hate Linda.
However," she continued, "I suppose we really ought to be grateful to
her now."

"Grateful?" repeated Nan wonderingly.

"For damaging the heating plant up at school, silly," explained Bess,
"and giving us a chance to go to Florida."



 CHAPTER XV

 WE'RE OFF!


Nan could not help laughing at this speech of her chum's, and she turned
her chair about to face Bess. Nan did not like riding backward in a
train very much herself, but as Bess had declared she "simply couldn't
stand it," it was unselfish Nan, as usual, who did the unpleasant thing.

But, the chair turned, as she sank down into its luxurious depth she
looked across gravely at her friend.

"I don't see why you say that Linda did that awful thing up at school,"
she said. "We haven't the slightest proof in the world that she was the
guilty one. That handkerchief you found didn't really prove anything."

Bess sniffed as she reached over to open her bag and get out from among
its heterogeneous contents a box of sweets she had thoughtfully
remembered to slip in before she started.

"Of course we don't know that she did it," she said, opening the box and
offering it to Nan. "But you know very well there isn't another girl in
the school who is mean enough to think of such a thing."

"Y-yes," answered Nan doubtfully, as she pushed the candy over toward
its owner. "But on the other hand, I never thought Linda had nerve
enough to do anything like that. Why, she might have been dreadfully
hurt herself!"

"Of course she didn't know that she was in danger," retorted Bess, with
a scornful little toss of her head. "She didn't have brains enough."

"Just the same," said Nan decidedly, "I don't think we ought to accuse
her until we have something definite to go on."

"Isn't that just like Nan Sherwood!" cried Bess, regarding her chum with
a mixture of fondness and irritation. "Always making excuses for
everybody! I suppose if we had caught Linda in the act, you would still
say it must have been somebody else."

"Hardly as bad as that," said Nan, with a little laugh, adding, while a
cloud passed over her face: "Goodness knows I have more reason than any
of the rest of the girls for disliking Linda. She never accused any one
but me of stealing. I only hope," she added, "that we don't meet her
somewhere on this trip."

"Goodness gracious, Nan!" cried Bess, fairly jumping from her seat in
surprise, "you don't expect to meet her, do you?"

"If I did," said Nan ruefully, "I would get right off this train and go
back to Tillbury, much as I have counted on this trip. No, honey," she
added, laughing at her own extravagance, "there's no need of your
getting excited, for I have no idea that we shall meet Linda at Palm
Beach. Only she has the most disconcerting way of popping up in places
where you least expect her."

"Well, all I have to say," returned Bess, biting fiercely into a fresh
chocolate and wishing it were Linda instead, "is that I wish you
wouldn't put such uncomfortable ideas into my head. Here I was just
about forgetting Linda, and you have to lug her into the limelight
again."

Nan laughed merrily and helped herself to another of Bess's chocolates
without even so much as a "by your leave."

"Cheer up," she said, with a chuckle, "I've done all the 'lugging' I'm
going to for a little while. And in the meantime," she added, her voice
thrilling with anticipation, "let's think of something really
pleasant--Palm Beach, for instance."

"Now you are talking!" cried Bess approvingly. "I have to pinch myself
about every five minutes to realize that I'm really going there. I
wonder if it is really as gay as people say it is. That's where all the
actresses go, you know. And millionaires and authors----"

"And bald-headed business men and fussy, over-dressed women," added Nan
demurely, her eyes twinkling at the look of horror that Bess turned upon
her.

"Nan, how can you?" Bess burst out, as Nan had fully expected her to do.
"Bald-headed men, indeed! Do you suppose I have come all this way just
to see a lot of old bald-headed men?"

"You haven't come yet," Nan reminded her, her eyes sparkling. "I didn't
say _all_ the men were bald-headed," she added, in an attempt to soothe
her outraged companion. "But dad says most of them are--especially the
millionaires."

"Oh, how--how--dreadful!" stuttered Bess. "Why, all the millionaires I
ever saw had beautiful, leonine heads with shaggy manes of thick white
hair and strong, clearly cut chins----"

"That's in the movies," Nan interrupted with a chuckle. "Papa Sherwood
says that if all the men had hair like the movie heroes they would have
to spend all their energy growing it and wouldn't have time to attend to
their brains. And then where would their millions be?"

"Well," said Bess, unable to find an answer to this queer question, yet
still indignant, nevertheless, "you needn't go to work to spoil all my
illusions. I don't believe you have a speck of romance anywhere about
you, Nan Sherwood."

"Maybe I haven't," Nan admitted cheerfully, without looking the
slightest bit worried about it. "But I expect to have lots of fun, just
the same. Oh, Bess, look out!"

Bess, who had stood up to pull down the shade, jumped and looked about
at Nan wildly.

"What's the matter?" she gasped. "Train on fire?"

"No. But you almost sat on a chocolate," said Nan calmly, as she removed
the large and luscious sweet from Bess's seat. Bess stared at her
reproachfully and sank back into the chair.

"You might just as well kill me as scare me to death," she said
reproachfully.

For a while after that the happy girls forgot to talk and sat staring
contentedly out at the flying landscape while the train pounded on
heavily over the rails, singing its everlasting "catch 'em up, catch 'em
up, catch 'em up."

Then suddenly Bess spoke, taking up the conversation where they had left
it.

"If all we are going to find at Palm Beach is bald men and fussy women,"
she said, "I must say I don't see how we are going to have much fun."

"Oh, don't be such a silly," laughed Nan. "Of course we are going to
find something else. There's the ocean and the palm trees. They say the
scenery is perfectly gorgeous and the two big hotels wonderful, and
there'll be the crowds and crowds of people. And then we shall meet
Grace and Walter----"

"And Walter," repeated Bess teasingly, then laughed at the other girl's
quick blush.

"Now I know you are silly," said Nan crossly. "You know you are glad
Walter is going to be there."

"Of course I am," admitted Bess with suspicious promptness. "Walter is
jolly good fun, especially when he has his _Bargain Rush_ with him. But
lately the rest of us girls--even Grace--have to hang on to his
coat-tails to keep him from going off alone with you. He doesn't seem to
know there's any one else around. Oh, you don't need to look so
surprised, Miss Innocence," she added, as Nan regarded her with
wide-open eyes. "You know it just as well as the rest of us."

"Oh--oh--I never heard of such a thing!" cried Nan, and her amazement
was unfeigned. "I think you are perfectly horrid. Why, Walter has always
been lovely to all of us. And as to his going off with me alone--why,
that's nonsense, and you know it, Bess Harley!" Nan's amazement was
rapidly giving way to indignation. "Walter has never gone off anywhere
alone with me, never!"

"I know he hasn't," admitted Bess, with a chuckle. "And for a very good
reason. We wouldn't let him."

Nan stared for a minute. Then something surprisingly like tears filled
her eyes and she turned quickly to the window.

"I don't think you are nice," she said in a low voice. "If Walter has
been any nicer to me than he has to any one else, I surely haven't
noticed it. And now you've gone and spoiled everything. I won't want to
go anywhere with him now just because I will be afraid you girls are
saying silly things. And Walter's such awfully good fun!" The last was
very much in the nature of a wail, and Bess's heart, which was never
very hard at any time, softened and she slipped over to Nan's chair and
put an arm about her chum.

"Move over," she commanded. "It's lucky neither of us is very fat or we
couldn't both sit in one chair. That's right," as Nan obediently "moved
over" but still kept her face to the window. "Now say you forgive me for
being such an old bear. After all, honey," and she patted Nan's shoulder
soothingly, "I suppose it isn't your fault if Walter likes you best."

Nan's shoulder moved impatiently.

"But he doesn't," she insisted, staring out of the window. "It isn't
so."

"All right," agreed Bess soothingly. But it was lucky Nan could not see
the twinkle in her eye. "Have it your own way, Nan. Only stop turning
your back to me. It isn't polite. And, oh!" she added, with a little
sigh, "I'm hungry."

At this sudden and very unromantic change in the subject Nan laughed.
And as laughter and ill-temper never go hand in hand, it was not long
before Nan had forgotten all about Walter--almost.

She produced the lunch box, and for once Bess was too ravenously hungry
to protest at the "commonness" of it, and they set to at its delicious
contents with a will.

It was eight o'clock when they went into the sleeping car, as they had
been unable to secure a berth in Tillbury, and had had to telegraph
ahead to have one reserved on a coach which was attached to the train
further along the line.

"This is more like it," said Nan, as they entered the sleeping car.
"I'll be glad enough to go to bed just as soon as we can see no more of
the scenery we are passing."

"Who is to take the upper berth, you or I?" demanded her companion.

"Maybe we had better toss up for it," said Nan.

Just then the girls observed a lady on the opposite side of the aisle
telling the colored porter not to fix the upper berth at all, that she
and her daughter would both sleep below.

"Let's do that," suggested Nan.

"By all means," answered Bess; and so it was settled.

"Lots o' folks don't use dat dar upper berth," explained the porter as
he fixed the lower bed only. "They leaves it up and dat gives 'em so
much more room to stand up an' dress an' undress."

"It will just suit us," declared Bess.

Soon the berth was ready and a little later the girls retired.

Being together they had thought to have a good "talk-fest," as Bess
called it. But alas! both were so tired out that they fell asleep almost
before they knew it. And neither woke up until morning, when they were
rolling into New York City.

"Gracious; time to get up!" and Nan lost no time in dressing and Bess
followed her example.

The first part of their momentous journey had come to an end.



 CHAPTER XVI

 FUN AND NONSENSE


In her impatience Bess Harley thought she had never known a crowd to
move so slowly. Of course all the people on the train were getting out
at New York, for the simple reason that the train did not go any
farther.

At any other time the girls would have been tremendously pleased about
going to New York. But now, with the even more wonderful prospect of
Florida looming up, New York appealed to them simply as a means to an
end.

"It's that fat man at the end," hissed Bess in Nan's ear. "He's holding
up the whole procession. What's he talking about, anyway?"

"Sh-h," whispered Nan. "He may hear you. Are you sure you have
everything, honey?" she added, making a mental count of Bess's
belongings to make certain that her careless chum had left nothing
behind.

"For goodness' sake, Nan Sherwood, I wonder you don't have a record made
of that question and then turn it on every five minutes or so," said
Bess, whose temper was beginning to be ruffled by the delay. "That's
all I hear from morning to night. 'Are you sure you have everything?' I
think I'll try it on you and see how you like it."

"Oh, I'd love it," cried Nan, with such fervor that Bess looked at her
in surprise. "It's this bag," explained Nan, looking down at her own
handsome suitcase. "I'm certain it will be stolen or I'll lose it or
something before we can get to Florida."

"Well, it is an expensive suitcase," Bess admitted, as the fat man at
the front of the car finished his argument with the conductor and the
line of passengers moved slowly on toward the door. "But you never used
to lie awake at night worrying about it."

It was Nan's turn to look her amazement.

"It isn't the bag I'm worrying about, and you ought to know that," she
said in a low voice. "It's what is in the bag."

"Oh!" said Bess, suddenly remembering, "you mean those papers Mrs.
Bragley gave you? Well, I wouldn't worry about them," she added
carelessly. "I don't believe they are really worth anything, anyway."

"Oh, hush," Nan begged her as they stepped upon the platform and a man
turned to look at them curiously. "Please don't mention any names, Bess.
It might make trouble."

"Why, Nan Sherwood, how you talk!" cried Bess, turning to look
curiously at her chum. "You might really think those old papers were
worth something."

"I believe they are," said Nan seriously, as, with bag clutched tightly
in her hand, she started with Bess down the long bustling platform.
"Anyway, I want to do my best to help the poor woman. I felt dreadfully
sorry for her."

"I feel sorry for everybody who isn't going to Palm Beach," cried Bess
gaily, as she looked about her with sparkling eyes. "Oh, Nan, isn't this
a lark?"

"You'd better look out," cried Nan sharply, as Bess stepped directly in
front of a heaped-up baggage truck that was being trundled heavily down
the platform, "or it will be a tragedy instead."

The girls had supposed they had become accustomed to the noise and
confusion of a big city during their visit in Chicago, but as they
stepped from the great Pennsylvania Station on to the crowded New York
street they felt disconcertingly like startled country girls arriving in
the city for the first time.

"Goodness! I thought Chicago was awful," whispered Bess in Nan's ear.
"But this is worse. What shall we do?"

"That's easy," said Nan, taking command of the situation as usual. "Papa
Sherwood told me to take a taxi straight over to the dock and not to
speak to any one on the way."

"Well, I think we'll have our choice of taxis," remarked Bess, with a
chuckle, as several chauffeurs standing by or sitting in cabs drawn up
along the curb espied the well-dressed girls and immediately set up a
cry of "Taxi, taxi! Right this way, lady!"

Looking as if she had been used to riding around in taxicabs in strange
and noisy cities all her life, Nan walked forward, still clutching the
precious bag that held Mrs. Bragley's papers and calmly selected a
brilliant yellow cab whose driver opened the door to her respectfully.

Bess followed, all eyes and ears for the noise and confusion of the
street. Nan gave instructions to the chauffeur, who touched his cap,
slammed the door shut on the girls and sprang to his seat in front.

"I think you are just wonderful, Nan Sherwood," said Bess, when they
were gliding swiftly off through the bewildering traffic. "I was
frightened to death when all those men started shouting at us at once. I
wanted to run back into the station and hide. But _you_ didn't, and of
course _I_ didn't, and here we are!" She gave an excited little bounce
on the seat. "Only," she added reproachfully, "I don't see why you
picked out a yellow taxi. You know I hate yellow."

"Goodness! I didn't even notice the color," said Nan, feeling her
suitcase with one foot to be sure it was still there. "If you will just
tell me what color you like best I'll send a note to the governor and
ask him to have them painted that way."

"How sweet of you," mocked Bess, and a moment later grasped her chum's
arm in fright. "Did you see that?" she cried, as the driver put on his
brakes and they stopped within about two inches of the back of a great
lumbering truck. "I'm afraid this driver is going to kill us before ever
we can get to the dock."

"Never mind, honey," said Nan soothingly, though she herself had been
considerably startled at the close call. "Papa Sherwood says all the
drivers are like that in New York, and yet there are very few accidents.
We must be near the dock, anyway."

"Isn't that horrid?" cried Bess with one of her quick changes of
interest. "Just think, we'll have to go and leave New York before we
have really seen anything of it."

Nan shrugged her shoulders helplessly.

"I thought you weren't enjoying your ride," she said, "and here you are
bemoaning the fact that it is nearly over. Bess, I give you up."

Bess merely chuckled, and a few minutes later insisted upon stopping the
machine while she got out and bought some oranges from a tempting
fruit-stand.

"Now," she said, proudly exhibiting her purchase to Nan when the car was
once more bumping onward over cobblestones toward the dock, "we sha'n't
starve on our trip, anyway. Oh, look, Nan; we're there!" she cried,
pointing excitedly out of the window. "See that thing over there that
looks like something between a cave and a barn with a sign over it? That
must be the entrance to one of the docks. Yes, see the people going in?
And there's another and another. Oh, oh!"

"For goodness' sake, sit still," commanded Nan. "You're spilling all the
oranges."

"My, what a joy killer you are, Nan Sherwood," sighed Bess, as she
rebelliously stuffed the bag of oranges into her already over-filled
suitcase. "What are a few oranges more or less at a glorious time like
this?"

Then the taxicab left the rough pavement and rolled along over the
smooth asphalt. On all sides of them were trucks and autos, with here
and there a horse-drawn vehicle. The noise was something awful.

"Goodness gracious, how different from the quietness at the Hall!"
remarked Bess.

"And how different even from Tillbury," returned Nan.

"What a lot of foreigners here, Nan."

"I guess they come from the ships. The docks are all along here, so I've
been told."

"I wouldn't want to come down here after dark and all alone."

"No, I'd not like that myself, Bess."

"Some of those men look like regular Italian brigands."

"Yes, and others look like Russian anarchists."

Suddenly the machine came to a standstill and the man in front looked
about at Nan and repeated the instructions she had given him to make
sure he had them correctly.

"That's right," answered Nan, nodding. "We must be almost there, aren't
we?"

"Yes, Miss," said the man, as he started the car again. "See that dock
over yonder? That's it." And he swung the machine about in a semicircle
and headed for one of the openings which Bess had described as
"something between a cave and a barn."

"Nan, I never felt so funny before," Bess confided to her chum. "I think
I am going to faint or something."

"And I think you had better not," said Nan, in alarm. "I have all I can
do to carry my own luggage without having you piled on top of it."

"You wouldn't have to carry me," giggled Bess incorrigibly. "I'd ask the
good-looking chauffeur to do it."

"How could you ask him anything if you had fainted?" asked Nan,
beginning systematically to get her things together. "Hurry up, Bess. I
guess this is where we get off. Are you sure----"

"You have everything?" finished the irrepressible Bess with another
giggle. "I was just waiting for that. Look out, Nan. You stepped on my
toe."

"I know it," said Nan calmly. "I did it on purpose."

Nan seized the opportunity to make good her escape, and Bess, following
close upon her heels, whispered dramatically in her ear: "Take care,
woman! You shall not again escape me. Next time I will spit thee like a
goose."

"All right," said Nan, turning calmly to the driver who was waiting for
his fee. "Only wait a minute, will you? I have to pay the fare."



 CHAPTER XVII

 THE MYSTERIOUS MEN


As the machine drove away several street urchins came running toward the
girls, begging the privilege of carrying their bags. Nan would have
refused, the bags being not at all heavy and the walk to the end of the
dock from the entrance not very far, but Bess nudged her sharply.

"Go ahead," she urged. "I have a quarter to pay for it. Don't be a
silly."

So Nan obeyed and reluctantly handed over to one of the eager street
urchins the handsome bag which contained, among other things, Mrs.
Bragley's papers. Bess had already loaded the small boy with her own
belongings, and it seemed impossible to Nan that the lad could be able
to carry it all.

Yet he sauntered ahead quite cheerfully while the other boys turned away
disappointed to wait for the next arrival.

As the girls emerged from the long, tunnel-like entrance into the bright
sunshine of the dock they quickened their steps instinctively. The
steamship _Dorian_, which was to carry them to Florida, was already
waiting for the passengers.

Nan had never seen a harbor like this before, and she gazed with
fascinated eyes out over the glistening water, dotted thickly with craft
of all sizes and descriptions.

There were a great many docks like the kind upon which she and Bess were
standing, and they stretched out into the harbor like so many legs of an
octopus, cleaving the brilliant water with dark ugly gashes.

Over all the bustling harbor was a sense of feverish activity, of
mystery and romance, of adventuring in far, fair lands that set Nan's
blood atingle and made her breath come quickly.

"What are you waiting for?" Bess asked impatiently, and Nan roused from
her reverie with a start.

"I wasn't waiting, I was just looking," said Nan in a soft voice, as
they started up the gangplank that led to the deck of the _Dorian_. "I
never saw anything so wonderful."

"Beg pardon, Miss," said a voice in her ear, and a small hand was laid
upon her arm.

Nan turned quickly and saw that it was their small luggage carrier. In
their preoccupation the girls had both of them forgotten about their
precious bags.

With quick fingers Nan fished in her purse for the necessary quarter,
gave it to the boy and received her bag in return.

"Oh, Bess!" she cried as the boy tipped his cap and started on, "how
could I ever have done such a thing? Why, if I had lost this bag I never
would have dared face Mrs. Bragley again. Never in this wide world!"

"I wish Mrs. Bragley were in Guinea," said Bess crossly. "She and her
old papers are just about going to spoil our trip. They are making you
as nervous as a cat."

"Sh-h, Bess, not so loud," cautioned Nan, as they stepped upon the deck
of the _Dorian_ and handed over the tickets which Papa Sherwood had
secured for them.

It was perhaps fortunate for the girls' peace of mind that they did not
notice two men who were closely behind them. One of the men was fat and
short and had little eyes and a bald head, which he was now mopping
vigorously with a rather soiled handkerchief.

His companion was his complete opposite. He was tall and thin, with a
severe, straight line for a mouth and long, nervous hands, and had a
habit of caressing his beardless chin as though a beard had once grown
there.

As the tall thin man, whom his companion called Jensen, overheard Nan's
startled reference to Mrs. Bragley's papers, he put a hand upon the fat
man's arm and nodded once with a sort of jerk of satisfaction.

"What did I say, Davis?" he asked, in a carefully guarded voice. "I tell
you, I am never wrong." And his eyes followed the girls as they started
down the deck in the direction of their cabin.

As they, in turn, stepped upon the deck, the short man looked up at his
tall companion and said rather enigmatically: "Sometimes I wonder,
Jensen, whether you are a great man, or a great fool. It's certainly
great to have them on this trip to Florida with us."

Although the girls knew nothing of this strange conversation, Nan was
extremely careful to stow her bag away in a corner of their stateroom
and piled several things on it and about it so that it could not be
easily seen by curious eyes.

"Nan, if you don't leave that old thing alone I'm going to throw it
overboard," Bess finally said complainingly. "You act as if it contained
diamonds and rubies instead of----"

"Oh, please hush," said Nan, rising quickly from her knees and coming
over to Bess. "I don't know what has gotten into me lately, Bess dear,"
she said, speaking so earnestly that her chum regarded her in surprise;
"but ever since I took charge of those papers I have had the strangest
impression that I am being watched."

"Nan!" cried Bess, looking uneasily over her shoulder, "what a terrible
thing. But, of course, it's only imagination," she added easily, for it
was instinct with Bess to cast aside anything that threatened to worry
her or interfere with her fun. "I told you the old papers were getting
on your nerves."

"You're right," said Nan, with a little sigh as she rose to take off her
coat and hat and straighten her hair before the tiny mirror. "They
certainly are getting on my nerves."

"Well, for goodness' sake get them off then," commanded Bess, bouncing
impatiently on a berth. "I never saw such a girl to take everybody
else's troubles on her own shoulders. I'll be glad when you turn the
papers over to Mr. Mason."

Nan smiled a resigned little smile at her reflection in the mirror. Then
she came over and put an arm about her pouting chum.

"All right," she promised gaily, "I won't ever do it again. Only come on
and smile, honey. If you knew how pretty you look when you do, you would
never do anything else."

There are very few girls who can withstand an appeal like that, and Bess
was not one of them. A smile replaced the frown immediately and the next
minute she was chatting merrily about their crowded little stateroom and
the two narrow berths, one above the other, wondering with a grimace
whether they would be seasick or not, and so, on and on, till Nan's
momentary depression forsook her and she felt again the thrill that had
quickened her blood as they had stood on the dock, gazing out over the
harbor.

Yet, almost unknown to Nan herself, there lingered in the back of her
mind a strange, uneasy premonition of trouble to come, and again and
again her eyes sought the spot where the bag with Mrs. Bragley's papers
stowed safely inside lay hidden.

"I wonder which one of us is going to take the upper berth," Bess
chattered gaily on. "You had better, Nan, because you're thinner than I.
And then if the berth should cave in it wouldn't hurt you so much
because there would be something soft to fall on. It's a snug little
place, isn't it?"

"Snug is right," said Nan, with a giggle. "You can't turn around without
running in to something."

"That's Linda's fault. She shouldn't have wrecked the heating system at
school in the Palm Beach season. If it had been in December now, or
March, there wouldn't have been such a crowd and we could have had a
real honest to goodness stateroom, instead of this two-by-one hole in
the wall."

"Elizabeth, how shocking," laughed Nan. "You must have been taking
lessons from Walter." And then, for no apparent reason at all, or
perhaps because of the expression in her chum's eyes as they rested
upon her, Nan became suddenly confused and hurriedly changed the
subject.

"Let's go outside," she suggested, rising and making toward the door of
the stateroom, which opened directly out upon the deck. "It--it's
awfully hot in here."

Bess laughed tantalizingly and stretched lazily as she prepared to
follow her chum.

"Nan, honey," she drawled, irrelevantly, or so it seemed to Nan, "you
are a darling, but, oh, you're awfully foolish."



 CHAPTER XVIII

 A STARTLING REVELATION


It was a wonderful journey, that one to Jacksonville, and one the girls
never forgot. At first the weather was unpleasant, cold and blowy, but
toward the afternoon of the second day the gentle winds of the south
fanned them with their welcoming breath, and heavy wraps began to feel
burdensome.

At first the girls had been afraid that they would become seasick and
had wondered what they would do should such a weakness overtake them.

"I know I'll just lie down and die, if I get sick on this steamer," Bess
had declared.

"Oh, no, you won't, Bess," Nan had made reply. "You'll do as everybody
else has to--grin and bear it."

"But to be sick on a ship that is rolling and pitching all the time----"

"You can keep in your berth, you know."

"There is no fun in that."

"Then go on deck--and make an exhibition of yourself."

"Nan Sherwood, I think that, on occasion, you are utterly heartless."

"So are you."

"Oh, I see. Trying to get square for what I said about Walter Mason."

"Not at all. I am only----"

But there Nan had had to stop, for a sudden lurch of the steamer had
thrown her against the wash-stand. Bess had gone sprawling on the floor.

"I--I didn't think it would be so rough," Bess had gasped out, on
arising.

"I--I don't think it is going to be so awful bad," Nan had declared. And
she had been right. By noon of the second day the sea was quite smooth.
Neither of the girls felt a bit of seasickness and both were glad to go
on deck and enjoy the sunshine.

"What a change since yesterday," said Bess, as the two girls stood by
the rail looking out over the lazily rolling water. "It seems almost
like magic, doesn't it?"

"It's wonderful," breathed Nan happily. "It seemed so silly to pack all
my summer things when the wind was blowing like mad and it was ten above
zero in Tillbury. But now I'm mighty glad we did. Whew, isn't this coat
warm!"

"Cheer up," cried Bess gaily. "Maybe by to-night it will be so warm we
can put all our winter things in storage and blossom out in silk
georgette and white flannels like veritable butterflies from a
crystal--I mean chrysalis. Nan, are you listening to me?" she demanded
severely, for Nan's eyes had deserted the long line of lazy combers and
were following the figures of two men, one long and one short, who were
strolling slowly down the deck.

"Bess, do you see those men?" asked Nan, with a troubled inflection that
caused Bess to look at her sharply.

"Yes, my dear," she answered. "My eyes are still in good working
condition."

"Does there seem anything strange about them?" Nan insisted. "Anything
like spying?"

Bess jumped and regarded the back of her chum's head reproachfully.

"For goodness' sake, Nan!" she cried, "you are never going to start that
all over again, are you? I thought you had got over that silly notion
you had of being followed."

"I wish it were only a notion, Bess," said the girl, turning such a
serious face to her chum that for once even careless Bess was sobered.

"Why, Nan, what do you mean?" she asked. "You can't mean that there is
really somebody spying upon you!"

"That's just what I do mean," said Nan soberly. "I didn't want to worry
you, Bess, so I didn't tell you. But something happened last night----"
She stopped suddenly, for the two men were coming back again, apparently
absorbed in conversation.

[Illustration: Nan's eyes were following the figures of two men
strolling down the deck. (_See page 140_)]

Presently the tall man and his short companion passed and as they did so
Nan gave each a searching look. The men did not happen to see the girls,
and soon were out of sight around a turn.

"I am almost sure they are the same," murmured Nan and her face was a
study.

"Nan, you talk in riddles!" cried her chum. "What does it mean?"

"I'll tell you, Bess, even though I don't want to frighten you still
more."

And thereupon Nan related how she had seen two strange men near her home
and at the local drugstore and the railroad station, and how one had
stepped up as if to speak to her and then hurried away.

"I am almost sure they are the same, and, oh, Bess, one of them has such
an awful look in his eyes! I am sure they cannot be at all nice."

"Humph! That is certainly strange," murmured Bess. "I guess those chaps
will bear watching. What can they be up to, do you think--watching your
house and following you like that?"

"I haven't finished. Last night----"

"Oh, yes, you started to tell about last night. Go ahead--oh, it's so
exciting--just like a movies!"

"You remember we went down to the dining-room together," Nan went on in
a low tone, "and I suddenly remembered that we had forgotten to lock the
door. I was a little frightened, for I thought of Mrs. Bragley's papers
and our jewelry, and I almost ran back.

"Just as I opened the door," Nan's voice quickened with excitement and
Bess leaped forward eagerly, "I saw a shadow on the glass of the other
door--the one that opens upon the deck."

"Why, Nan! are you sure?" gasped Bess, catching herself up quickly to
add, "Never mind. Don't bother to answer me. What happened next?"

"Well, for a minute I just stood there," said Nan, her eyes searching
nervously for the reappearance of the two men on deck. "I guess I was
just too surprised or frightened to speak, for the shadow on the door
was that of a man, and he was trying the door!"

"Oh, Nan, what did you do?" demanded her wide-eyed chum. "I should just
have screamed and run away."

"A lot of good that would have done," said Nan, a little contemptuously.
"I wanted to scream, but I didn't think of running away."

"Of course you wouldn't," said Bess humbly. "But go on, Nan. What did
you do?"

"I threw a bathrobe over my grip in the first place," said Nan. "I had
left it standing out in the room. And then I pulled the door open just
as the man started to open it from the outside."

"Oh, Nan!" cried Bess again. "Then he really meant to come in?"

"Of course he did--although he said he didn't," said Nan grimly. "When I
pulled the door open suddenly and stood looking at him he acted as if I
was a ghost or something. He did for a minute, that is. Then he
straightened up and sort of put on a smile--you know, the way you would
put on a coat to cover up a soiled dress or something----"

"Why, Nan, I never----" Bess began indignantly, then interrupted herself
again. "Never mind me," she begged. "You've got me so excited that I
don't know just what I'm saying. What happened then, Nan? Didn't you say
something?"

"Of course I said something," returned Nan. "I asked him what he was
doing at my stateroom door and what he wanted."

"What did he say?" whispered Bess, her eyes wide in wonder.

"He said that he was very sorry. That he thought this was his stateroom.
That he wouldn't have startled me for the world. And then he bowed
himself out and I slammed the door after him."

"But, Nan," Bess had regained her breath again and felt in the mood for
an argument, "how do you know that the man really hadn't made a mistake?
I suppose it would be easy enough to get mixed up."

"Bess, that man didn't make any mistake," said Nan Sherwood with such
conviction in her voice that once more Bess was startled.

"How do you know?"

"He was the meanest man I ever saw--his looks I mean," said Nan,
apparently not noticing her chum's interruption. "If you could have seen
him as I opened the door, you would feel just the way I do. He had
probably seen us going down to dinner and thought it was a good chance
to get into the stateroom and steal----"

"Steal!" gasped poor Bess, for Nan was getting her pretty thoroughly
frightened. "You mean he was a thief, Nan?"

"Of course," Nan returned impatiently. "I don't suppose honest men are
in the habit of sneaking into empty staterooms."

"But if it was a mistake----" Bess interrupted, grasping at a straw.

"It wasn't any mistake," Nan repeated gravely. "If he had thought it was
his own door, he would have opened it quickly. He wouldn't have been so
slow and cautious about it."

"But, Nan! what could he have wanted to steal from us? It isn't as
though we had one of those handsome staterooms down below that cost a
fortune to hire even for a night. We haven't anything so very valuable."

"Except Mrs. Bragley's papers," said Nan grimly. "I wonder you didn't
think of them."

"Oh!" said Bess. "The papers! Yes, of course there were the papers. Why,
Nan," she turned upon her chum excitedly, "do you really suppose they
can be as important as that? Why, I never dreamed----"

"I know you didn't. But I did," said Nan decidedly. She then added under
her breath as the two men turned a corner and again headed down the deck
toward them: "Don't say anything. Wait until these men have passed and
then look at them, the tall, thin one in particular."

Bess was about to exclaim, but Nan silenced her with a look and they
waited quietly while the strangers once more sauntered past them.
Evidently they were taking a prolonged constitutional about the deck.

Bess stole a quick glance at them and then turned back to her chum.

"They are the same men who passed us just a little while ago," she said
with a puzzled frown.

"Yes. And one of them, the tall, thin one with a slit for a mouth, is
the man who tried to enter our stateroom," said Nan earnestly. "I'm just
telling you this so that you will be more careful to lock our stateroom
door whenever you go in or out."

"Goodness--Gracious--Agnes!" gasped Bess, mimicking Procrastination
Boggs in her agitation. "You are actually making me nervous, Nan
Sherwood. Lock the door, indeed! As if we were afraid of being murdered
in our beds! Why, I sha'n't sleep a wink to-night. I never heard of such
a thing."

"You needn't look at me as if I were to blame," said Nan with spirit. "I
didn't ask that horrid thin thing and his little fat friend to follow us
all over and nearly give me heart failure. I'll be glad when this trip
is over, I'll tell you that."

"So will I," said Bess morosely. "But I'll be gladder still when you get
rid of those old papers of Mrs. Bragley's--if that is what they are
after."

"The one thing that makes me feel good," said Nan thoughtfully, as if
speaking to herself, "is that the papers must be worth something or
these horrid men wouldn't be so anxious to get them back. Maybe we shall
find that poor Mrs. Bragley is a rich woman yet."

"Either that, or else that we have made a big mistake and the men are
not after the papers at all."

"But if not after the papers, what?"

"I don't know."



 CHAPTER XIX

 AN ATTEMPTED THEFT


That night the girls were very careful to lock both doors and Bess even
went to the length of suggesting that they pile some furniture against
them.

"It might be a good idea," Nan had replied, laughing at her, "if there
were only some furniture to pile. What are you doing, Bess? You aren't
stuffing cotton in the keyhole?"

"You needn't laugh, Miss Smarty," Bess had retorted, straightening up
defiantly with a large wad of the cotton still in her hand and a
telltale tuft of it protruding from the keyhole. "I'm not going to have
any skinny old man with a funny mouth looking in at me while I sleep, I
can tell you! Nan Sherwood," she added threateningly, as Nan went off
into a gale of uncontrollable mirth, "if you don't stop laughing, I'll
stuff the rest of this cotton down your throat, and I just hope you'll
choke."

"Oh, Bess! Elizabeth Harley!" gasped Nan. "You look so foolish standing
there with that wad of cotton in your hand. And the keyholes look as if
they had the earache. Oh, oh!" and she went off again into half
hysterical laughter.

Bess, after staring at her a minute, gave up all attempt at being
dignified and joined in merrily.

"Goodness! you would make an Egyptian mummy laugh, Nan Sherwood," said
Bess, as she wiped away the tears of mirth. "Who ever heard of keyholes
having the earache! Just the same," she added more soberly, as she
started to unfasten her dress, "you have got me terribly worried about
those men. I know I'll dream of them all night."

"Oh, no, you won't," said Nan serenely, as she set about the business of
undressing. Then she added, with a chuckle: "I feel perfectly safe now
that the keyholes are stuffed!"

It was not long after this that the two girls laid down to sleep. But
Nan was restless and could hardly close her eyes.

"Those old papers," she murmured to herself. "I should have turned them
over to Mr. Mason, or put them in the ship's safe. I don't see why I
make myself keep them, unless it is that I want to prove to myself that
I have _some_ backbone."

Presently she heard Bess breathing heavily, showing her chum was in the
land of slumber, and then gradually she dozed off.

Nan had been asleep about an hour when she awoke with a start.

She had heard a noise, of that she felt certain--a noise out of the
ordinary and not connected with the running of the ship.

What was it? Was somebody trying the door?

She turned over and, feeling for the push button, turned on the electric
light. This move awakened Bess.

"What's the matter, are you sick?" asked the latter.

"No. I--I heard something--it woke me up," Nan replied and got to her
feet.

"Maybe those men----"

"Hush! If they are outside the door they may hear you, Bess."

With caution the two girls tiptoed to first one door and then the other
and peered out.

In the cabin only a porter sleeping in an armchair was to be seen, while
out on the deck not a soul was in sight.

"You must have been dreaming, Nan," said Bess, yawning. "Come, let us
try to get some more rest before morning."

Nan was not satisfied and looked all around the stateroom, thinking a
mouse might be wandering around. But no mouse was found, and at last
both girls retired again. But Nan did not sleep very well and was glad
when the rising sun proclaimed another day at hand.

Nan, swinging one bare foot experimentally over the edge of her berth,
felt it caught and held tight by an invisible hand. She peered over the
edge of the berth at the imminent risk of falling over herself and
breaking her neck, and found, as she had expected, that Bess was her
captor. The latter was holding on to her foot with one hand and rubbing
her eyes sleepily with the other.

"Say, let go my foot," Nan hailed her inelegantly. "Haven't you got
enough of your own that you have to steal one of mine?"

"You talk as if we were centipedes," said Bess, releasing Nan's foot and
sitting up grumpily in the berth. "I told you I wouldn't sleep a wink
last night, and I didn't."

"You aren't the only one," said Nan, as she swung her other foot over
the edge of the berth and felt gingerly for a footing on the one below.
"I didn't sleep very well myself. But never mind," she added, as she
slipped safely to the floor, unharmed by her perilous descent. "We'll
forget all about such little things as sleepless nights when we get out
on deck. Have you forgotten that we reach Florida to-day?"

Bess stared at her a minute, then scrambled quickly out of bed and began
pulling on her clothes hastily, getting them awry in her eagerness to
get dressed in the shortest time possible.

"Gracious, Nan," she cried reproachfully, as she began to drag the comb
impatiently through her tumbled curls, "you scared me so with those men
and Mrs. Bragley's horrible papers that I forgot everything else. Fancy!
A few hours more and we shall be in Florida!"

Immediately this thought put all other thoughts to flight in the mind of
careless but lovable Bess Harley, and she would have left the door of
their stateroom wide open had not Nan reminded her to close it and turn
the key in the lock.

The girls ate breakfast hurriedly, and when they came out on deck it was
after eight o'clock. That gave them just time to pack their few
belongings before the _Dorian_ steamed up the St. Johns River into the
busy harbor of Jacksonville.

Bess's prediction had come true. Over night the weather had become so
delightfully mild that heavy clothing was not only unnecessary, but very
uncomfortable, and the girls had donned white suits and white hats with
stockings and shoes to match. They were looking distinctly
attractive--and knew it. At least Bess did. And it must be admitted that
even modest Nan had been surprised and not a little pleased by her
radiant reflection in the tiny mirror in their stateroom.

And now, though they knew that the last minute packing should be done
first, they still lingered by the rail, gazing over the brilliantly calm
water to where the tropically beautiful Florida coast stood out boldly
against the skyline.

"What wonderful, wonderful weather!" sighed Nan, as they finally
deserted the rail and made their way through the excited crowd--for
nearly every one on board the _Dorian_ had come out on deck, clad in
white flannels and other summery attire, eager to get their first
glimpse of Florida--and on toward their stateroom.

Suddenly Nan clutched her friend's arm and pointed excitedly.

"Look!" she cried in a low voice. "The tall man! He's there with the fat
one in front of our door. And, Bess, look! He has something in his hand.
It's a key!"

"Oh, Nan!" gasped Bess, "he would never dare. Not in this crowd!"

"Come on!" ejaculated Nan tensely, as she elbowed and pushed her way
through the crowd.

The two girls were almost upon the thin man and his companion before
they were discovered. Then the fat man nudged his friend sharply, and
before the girls could blink the men had slipped around the corner of
the cabin and were lost to view among the crowd.

"Let's go after them," cried Bess excitedly. "We mustn't let them get
away from us, Nan. Why, they were trying to get into our room. I saw
them."

"Oh, Bess, hush," begged Nan as several people turned to look at the
girls curiously. "Come inside a minute. I want to talk to you."

She opened the door and half pushed, half dragged the excited Bess
inside the stateroom where the latter sank upon the berth and stared at
her friend indignantly.

"You've gone and let them get away," she accused her hotly. "And that
ugly thin man was trying to get in. We saw him."

"I know all that," said Nan a trifle impatiently. For several days her
nerves had been under a considerable strain and the effort to think and
act for Bess as well as herself was beginning to tell on her. "It
wouldn't have done us the slightest good in the world to have gone after
him. We never could have found him."

"But we can at least tell the captain," returned Bess, jumping to her
feet impatiently. "I never saw a girl like you, Nan. I really believe
you intend to let him get away."

"Well, what else can I do?" asked Nan quietly. "If I go to the captain
and tell him I found a couple of men standing in front of my door and
that I want them arrested, he will think that I'm crazy."

"But they had a key! They were trying to get in! We saw them!" insisted
Bess, pacing excitedly up and down the small stateroom.

"I know we did," said Nan patiently. "But the captain could never arrest
the men on such evidence. He would want proof. And you know as well as I
do that we haven't any."

"We-el," said Bess irresolutely, sitting down on the edge of the berth
and staring blackly at the opposite wall, "I suppose you are right, Nan
Sherwood. You usually are. But I do know one thing." She stirred
impatiently and mechanically straightened her pretty white hat. "And
that is that I won't enjoy myself one bit till we make those men stop
following us around and trying to get into our room with skeleton keys.
I suppose that is what he had. Oh, dear, it does seem as if something
were always happening to take the joy out of life!"

Nan ventured a shaky little laugh at this and began automatically
picking up her things and stuffing them into her bag.

"You had better get ready, Bess," she advised. "We shall reach
Jacksonville in a little while. We don't want to be left behind."

"I should say not!" said Bess vehemently. "I wouldn't stay on this old
boat another night after what happened this morning--not for anything. I
hope," she added, as she slammed her brush into her suitcase, "that we
sha'n't see any more of those horrid men after we once get on shore."

"I hope we sha'n't." Nan echoed the wish fervently, but in her heart she
was very sure that they had not seen the last of the tall, thin man and
his chubby companion.

That they were after the papers that had been entrusted to her care by
poor, confiding Sarah Bragley, she had little doubt. And the fact that
whoever these men were, they were desperately anxious to recover the
papers showing the widow's title to the tract of land in Florida,
fostered Nan's belief that the property must be of considerable value
and automatically strengthened her determination to hold on to the
papers at all cost.

She was so engrossed with her own thoughts that Bess had to speak to her
twice before she could bring her back to a realization of the present.

"Hurry up," she cried, handing Nan her suitcase and fairly pushing her
out on the deck. "From the noise everybody is making, I guess we're
there. For goodness' sake, Nan!" she exclaimed as her chum switched her
suitcase from one hand to the other, so that it would be between Bess
and herself, "don't bump that bag into me--especially right behind the
knees. You are apt to make me sit down suddenly."

"You couldn't. There's too much of a crowd," laughed Nan, then added in
a lower tone, while her eyes nervously searched the crowd about her:
"Please help me to look out for my bag, honey. I'm awfully afraid I
might lose it."



 CHAPTER XX

 THOSE MEN AGAIN


The two girls saw nothing more of the men who had played such a
mysterious part in their trip, and before they had started, with
hundreds of other gaily dressed people, down the gangplank of the
_Dorian_ they had almost forgotten their strange adventure.

Nor, under the circumstances, could this be wondered at. All about them
was the bustle and excitement that is always attendant upon going
ashore.

Every one was in hilarious holiday mood, and Nan and Bess would have
been queer indeed if they had not entered into the spirit of the day
with all their hearts.

"I just can't keep my feet still," Bess confided to her chum, as they
filed slowly down the gangplank. "Isn't this the most wonderful day you
ever saw in your life, Nan? Just think, this kind of weather in
_February_! It does me good," she added, her eyes sparkling, "to think
of all the other girls at home going around with furs on and thick coats
and complaining of the cold. Oh, how I wish I could see them now."

"Elizabeth! what a mean disposition," said Nan demurely, adding with a
twinkle in her eyes, while she tried hard to keep her feet from
fox-trotting away with her down the gangplank: "Though I would like to
send a little note to Linda and tell her to be careful not to go out in
the cold. It might make her nose red. Oh, Bess, look down there!" She
leaned forward suddenly, her eyes shining with eagerness. "Isn't that
Grace? And Walter----"

"And Rhoda! Yes, it is, and they are waving to us," cried Bess eagerly.
"Of course Grace and Walter said they would be here to meet us, but I
was afraid they never would find us in all this crowd."

Someway the girls got down to the dock, were hugged by Grace and Rhoda,
greeted hilariously by Walter, and were hustled, out of breath, through
the crowd that thronged about them.

"How in the world did you get here, Rhoda?" demanded Nan, when she could
get a chance to ask the question.

"I thought I'd surprise you," declared the girl from Rose Ranch. "I
fixed it all up with Grace and told her not to say a word."

"It's grand!" declared Nan, beaming.

"The best ever," added Bess. "Oh, what grand times we girls are going to
have!"

"Sure we are going to have a grand time," said the girl from Rose
Ranch. "I think I deserve it, after all the trouble I've been through."

"What do you suppose, she was in a railroad wreck," burst out Grace. "A
real, live-to-goodness wreck, too."

"Oh, Rhoda, were you injured?" cried Nan quickly.

"Just a few scratches--on my left elbow and my shins. But it was a close
call, I can tell you."

"Where was it?" asked Bess.

"Out in Connecticut. I went there to visit a distant relative of my dad.
It was a little side line and our train ran into a freight. We knocked
open a car full of chickens and what do you think? Those chickens
scattered far and wide. I'll bet many a family is having chicken dinner
on the sly this week!"

"Then nobody was hurt?"

"Oh, yes, several were more or less bruised and one man had an arm
broken. But everybody was thankful, for they said it might have been
much worse. But it certainly was funny to see those chickens scattering
in every direction over the snow-covered fields," and Rhoda laughed at
the recollection.

"Gee, if a fellow had been there with a gun he might have had some
hunting," cried Walter.

"Oh, Walter, you wouldn't hunt chickens with a gun, would you?" asked
Nan, reproachfully.

"Don't know as I would," was the quick reply.

"Oh, but now we are together, won't we have lovely times," cried Bess.

"The very best ever," echoed Nan.

"Going to let me out?" demanded Walter.

"No, indeed, Walter, you are included."

The girls and Walter continued to compare notes, when all of a sudden
Rhoda uttered a cry.

"Girls, am I seeing a ghost?" she asked, staring straight ahead of her
toward a group of richly dressed people who were talking and laughing
together. "Or is that Linda Riggs?"

"Goodness, don't say it, Rhoda!" cried Bess in dismay. "It can't be
Linda!"

But it was! For at that moment the youngest of the much over-dressed
women in the group turned with a laugh to speak to someone behind her,
and the girls found themselves face to face with their schoolgirl enemy,
Linda Riggs.

For all their dislike of the girl, the chums would have spoken to her.
But Linda stared at them coolly for a second, and then deliberately
turned her back upon them and began to speak to a tall, gray-haired man
at her right, who the girls instinctively felt must be her father, the
railroad president.

"Those young ladies seemed to know you, my dear," they heard the tall
man say to Linda, as, flushed and indignant, the girls and Walter
pressed on through the crowd.

"They do," they heard Linda answer contemptuously, and with no attempt
to lower her voice. "But I prefer not to know them--especially that
Sherwood girl."

What the tall man said in answer, the girls could not hear, for they
were once more engulfed in a sea of chattering humanity whose din
swallowed up all individual sound.

Impulsive Bess wanted to turn back and tell "that horrible Riggs girl"
what she thought of her, but Nan put an arm about her angry chum and
hurried her on.

"But, Nan, I don't see how you can stand such things and never say a
word," cried Bess, indignantly. "I do believe you haven't any spirit. I
never could take an insult like that so calmly."

"I'm not a bit calm," replied Nan, gripping her bag fiercely. "Right
this minute, I'd like to get hold of Linda Riggs and tear her hair out
by the roots."

"Why didn't you do it then?" demanded excited Bess, and at this query
even Walter, who had been more incensed than any of the girls at the
insolent speech of Linda's, had to laugh.

"Yes, I would look pretty, wouldn't I?" laughed Nan, all her wrath
vanishing on the instant, although her dislike of purse-proud Linda was
more real than ever, "announcing my arrival in Jacksonville by a street
fight?"

"You would look pretty any way--even pulling Linda's hair out," laughed
Walter in her ear.

"Please don't be foolish, Walter," returned Nan loftily, at which, for
some unaccountable reason, Walter only chuckled the more.

The speech and the chuckle troubled Nan. It seemed in some ridiculous
fashion to bear out the silly things Bess had said about her and Walter
earlier in the trip.

She forgot all about her perplexity a few moments later, however, when
Walter helped Nan and Bess and Grace into the roomy tonneau of his big
car, put Rhoda in the front seat, squeezed himself in behind the wheel,
and started the motor.

"Well, how do you like Jacksonville, girls?" he called back to them as
the machine glided easily forward. "As good as Tillbury, is it?" he
added, with a glance at Nan and Bess.

"Not nearly," answered Bess loyally, although in her heart she knew that
they could put two or three Tillburys in Jacksonville and never miss
them.

The girls had known in a rather vague way that Jacksonville was a big
place, but they had never expected to see anything like the bustling,
thriving, wide-awake city they now drove through.

"Why, it is almost as noisy and crowded as New York," said Bess,
wide-eyed, as Walter skilfully threaded his way through the heavy
traffic. "And we thought that was simply awful. Walter, please be
careful."

"Don't worry," Walter sang back, grazing the rear wheel of another
machine by the very narrowest margin possible. "If we did hit anything,
we wouldn't be the ones to get hurt. This old bus could stop an express
train."

"Maybe it could," retorted Bess. "But please try it some time when you
are alone."

"Don't mind him," said Grace, with her quiet smile. "You know Walter
never does all he says."

"Don't I though----" Walter was beginning, when his sister cut him off
by turning eagerly to Nan and Bess.

"We're stopping at the Hampton," she said, the Hampton being one of the
largest and most important of all the large and important hotels in
Jacksonville. "Mother has engaged a perfectly lovely room for you girls.
Rhoda and I room together. It is just for one night, you know, for we
are going to take the train for Palm Beach to-morrow morning."

"Then," cried Nan, happily, "we shall have all the rest of to-day to do
as we please in."

"What bliss," breathed Bess. "Walter, you are going to be a perfect
angel, aren't you, and take us for a lovely long, long ride?"

"At your service, fair damsel," said Walter gallantly. "We were planning
that anyway," he went on to explain. "Mother and dad thought they would
like to come along, too."

"More bliss," cried Bess, adding, as a cloud suddenly darkened her face:
"I do hope we don't run across Linda any more. I declare, if I ever hear
her say another word against you, Nancy Sherwood, I shall just have to
kill her, that's all."

"Well, I must say I do wish she would stay home where she belongs," said
Nan with a troubled frown. "Wherever we go she seems sure to turn up and
spoil everything--or try to. I wonder if Cora is with her," she added.
"I didn't see her at the dock."

"Humph, you don't think she would be at the dock, do you?" asked Walter,
joining in the conversation. "Cora is a regular lady's maid to Linda
now, so Grace says. She must be a funny kind of girl to stand for that
sort of thing."

"Oh, Cora isn't so bad," said Nan. "I imagine she would like to break
away from Linda, but she doesn't know just how to do it. Is this where
we get out, Walter?" she asked, as the car slowed down before a building
that looked more like a palace than a hotel.

"This is where we get out," replied Walter, jumping from his seat and
running around to open the door for the girls. "Right this way, ladies.
Follow me and you'll wear diamonds. Here, boy!" he spoke to a loitering
colored boy who stood at the hotel entrance. "Carry these grips up to
three-twenty. The hat boxes, too. I suppose you want the hat boxes," he
said, turning to the girls with a grin.

"Well, I should say!" replied Bess. "Neither Nan nor I would ever smile
again if we should lose one of those hats. Would we, Nan?"

But Nan was looking behind her with startled eyes and never even heard
her friend's question.

"Walter!" she cried, grasping the boy's arm and pointing excitedly down
the street, "do you see those men over there getting out of that taxi?
Quick! They are turning into that hotel."

"The little fat fellow and the long, thin man?" asked Walter, with a
mystified line between his brows. "What about them? Friends of yours?"

"Take a good look at them," Nan cried, impatiently shaking his arm,
while Grace and Rhoda looked on in amazement. "If you should see them
again, I want you should know them."



 CHAPTER XXI

 THE BEGINNING OF ROMANCE


Walter was frankly bewildered by this time. But he obediently took a
long look at the short, fat man and the long, thin one. Then, as they
disappeared around a corner, he turned back to Nan and led her toward
the hotel entrance.

"Why, Nan, you are trembling," he said, as they followed the colored boy
through a handsome courtyard and between rows of beautiful palm trees.
"I never knew you to be like this before. What's the matter? If either
of those men have bothered you," he added, glowering fiercely, "I'll
wring their necks."

Nan gave a funny little hysterical laugh at this, and the laugh helped
to steady her after the shock she had had at the unexpected reappearance
of the two men.

"I don't want you to wring anybody's neck," she said, as they passed
through another big door and stopped before an elevator. "Only please,
Walter," she looked up at him appealingly, "watch out for them and let
me know if you see them again. They are following us."

Walter's bewilderment was beginning to change to alarm, and he would
have demanded to know all about the strange affair at once, had not the
three girls come up to them at that minute.

On the ride up to the third floor of the hotel, where the room engaged
for Nan and Bess was located, Grace reminded Nan of nothing so much as a
human interrogation mark.

She fairly besieged the girl from Tillbury with questions, which would
have been very embarrassing to poor Nan had not Rhoda interposed in her
behalf.

"I don't suppose Nan wants to tell us about it now, Grace," she said.
"Let's wait till we get upstairs."

Whereupon Grace was silenced temporarily. As for Bess, she was nearly as
disturbed as her chum, and the journey up to the third floor seemed
interminable.

They reached it, however, and the girls stepped out into a handsome
corridor and were preceded by the velvet-footed bellboy past
interminable closed doors, to be stopped finally before one particular
door, closed like the rest, but evidently belonging, for the space of a
day and night at least, to Nan and Bess.

Walter dismissed the boy with a tip, and, drawing a long key from his
pocket, inserted it in the door. A moment more and they had stepped into
a beautiful room, all blue and gold, and with deep, lacily curtained
windows and twin beds set over in one corner, with a small table and a
reading lamp beside each one.

If the girls had not been used to handsome surroundings, the beauty of
the room might have overwhelmed them a little. As it was, they were
merely delighted.

Walter set the bags and hat boxes inside the door for them, and then
turned to Nan, who was regarding her own particular bag with a disturbed
little frown.

"I don't know what the matter is, Nan," he said in a low voice. "But if
there is anything about those men you don't like I'll see that they
don't worry you."

"Thank you, Walter. You're a dear," said Nan gratefully. "I'll tell you
all about it just as soon as I can. And you really can help me, Walter,
if you want to."

"I'll say I do," returned Walter boyishly. "See you later," and he went
out quickly, closing the door behind him.

As Nan turned back into the room she found Bess regarding her with a
mischievous little smile that said as plainly as words: "What did I tell
you, Nan Sherwood?"

Nan felt unreasonably angry, but she was not given very much time to
nurse the feeling. Grace was upon her like a young whirlwind, dragging
her over to one of the beds and demanding in no uncertain tone what she
had to say in explanation of her queer conduct a few minutes before.
Rhoda sat down on the other side of Nan, her face eagerly flushed.

"I never was so curious in my life, Nan Sherwood," she said. "Hurry up
and tell us all about it."

Nan obediently went over the whole story. She told where she was
carrying Mrs. Bragley's papers, and of her, Nan's, strange impression of
being watched ever since the papers had come into her possession.

Then while Grace and Rhoda's eyes became wider and wider she told of the
two men they had met on the boat and the tall one's evident desire to
get into their cabin, for some reason known only to himself. And lastly
she related how on that very morning they had found the mysterious men
in suspicious proximity to their stateroom again and how the two had
disappeared upon catching sight of the girls.

"Why, it's a regular mystery!" Grace cried eagerly, and Bess turned away
from the mirror where she was fixing her hair and looked at her. "A real
mystery!"

"You speak as if you liked it," she said impatiently. "It is lots of
fun, I must say, to have Nan so worked up and nervous all the time that
you can't say boo to her without making her jump. If those old men don't
get arrested or something pretty soon," she added, turning back to the
mirror, "I'll have to do something desperate, that's all."

"Please don't," said Nan, with a laugh. "Enough is happening, goodness
knows, without you starting something, too. Oh, come on, girls," she
added, jumping up and flinging off her hat and coat. "I'll find out
something definite about Mrs. Bragley's property before long, I hope,
and then I'll be able to get rid of these horrid old papers. In the
meantime, here we are in Jacksonville, and to-morrow we start for Palm
Beach and everything is wonderful and lovely. Who's that?" A tap had
sounded on the door and the girls started. "You open it, Bess. I have my
hands full."

"Goodness! did you see me jump then?" Bess demanded grumpily. "I'll be
as bad as Nan before you know it."

The visitor proved to be no one more formidable than Grace's mother, and
as the girls were very fond of her, they greeted her with literally open
arms.

Of course Grace had to recount to her all over again the story Nan had
told her and Rhoda, and before she finished Mrs. Mason was looking
rather grave.

"It certainly does look as though those papers of yours were important,
Nan," she said. "That is evidently what the rascals are after. I'll
tell Mr. Mason, if you say so----"

"Oh, yes," Nan put in eagerly.

"And between us we ought to solve the mystery--if there is one."

"If there is one!" Grace exclaimed indignantly. "Well, I never!"

"Come, dear," Mrs. Mason merely said, "I know Nan and Bess must be a
little tired after their trip, and they will just have time to rest for
an hour and freshen up before lunch."

She led the reluctant Grace from the room. With a laughing word Rhoda
followed them, and the chums were left alone.

That afternoon they went out right after lunch to see Jacksonville. The
Mason's car was waiting for them outside as they stepped out upon the
sidewalk in front of the hotel, but Nan was surprised to find Mr. Mason
instead of the lawyer's son behind the wheel.

And then she saw Walter! He was in a beautiful, brand new little
two-seater, which was shaped very much like a torpedo and came smartly
close to the ground.

Nan, who was following her chums into the big car, stopped short at this
strange apparition and uttered an exclamation of surprise. The others
followed the direction of her glance, and Bess stood up excitedly.

"Hey, Walter! Where did you get the new car?" she asked. "Goodness,
isn't it a beauty!"

"Do you like it?" asked the boy proudly, as the nose of the
impertinent-looking little runabout stopped short within about two
inches of the back of the big car. "Dad said he was afraid I would smash
the jumbo, so he bought this little toy for me. Some class, isn't it?"

The girls were enthusiastic, and, indeed, it was an unusually handsome
little car, and Nan ran around to get a closer look at it.

"Dad got it for me just in time," Walter said, patting the glossy side
of his new steed.

"Why?" asked Nan innocently.

"Because there are too many in the party to ride in the big car, and we
can have a much better time in the little fellow, I am sure. Come on,
jump in."

Although she was eager to try the new car, Nan never wanted anything so
little as she did to ride with Walter at that particular time.

But Mr. Mason had already started his motor, and there was nothing for
Nan to do but to obey Walter and "jump in."

The little car had a surprisingly deep, wide tonneau, and Nan sank back
in it luxuriously. She was conscious of the admiring scrutiny of
spectators, and then Walter did a few skilful things to the machine and
it started purringly forward after the big car, both for all the world
like a full-grown horse and its colt.

Nan sighed contentedly. If it had not been for Bess and the teasing she
was sure to get when they were alone together in their room, she would
have been completely happy.

Bess turned and waved to her, and the action, Nan knew as well as if her
chum had put it into words, meant: "What did I tell you, Nan Sherwood?"



 CHAPTER XXII

 PALM BEACH AT LAST


The tourists had a beautiful time, and everybody decided that if Palm
Beach went ahead of Jacksonville it would have to be very wonderful
indeed.

Jacksonville itself seemed to them very much like any busy, thriving
city--except that there were more hotels. But when they came to the
outskirts of the city they were charmed and wanted to go on forever.

Having lived all their lives in a temperate climate, the tropical beauty
of the Florida country entranced them and they exclaimed again and again
as beautiful new panoramas opened before them. The moss-hung live oaks
especially drew exclamations of wonder from Nan.

"What a perfect picture they form," she said. "Oh, how I wish I could
make sketches of them!"

"You'll see plenty to sketch when you get to Palm Beach," said Walter.

They visited the public parks and drove out to some of the suburbs.
Everything interested the girls very much and they frankly said so.

"Everything is just about perfect," declared Bess.

"All but the darkeys!" sighed Rhoda. "I think it is all perfectly lovely
but the negroes. There are so many of them, and they one and all look
thoroughly shiftless."

"Oh, no, not shiftless," put in Mr. Mason. "They are just care-free."

"Humph! All right, then. Care-free. Just too lazy to care for anything
at all, if they can get enough to eat, and I suppose that is not hard
down here."

"They are quite all right when you get used to them," put in Mrs. Mason.

It was nearing dusk when they at last turned back toward the city, and
it was then that Walter reminded Nan of her promise to tell him all
about the mysterious men who had startled her so.

Nan obeyed, but, strangely enough, felt none of the uneasiness that she
had felt on board the boat and in the hotel. There was something about
the luxurious comfort of the car and Walter's reassuring presence that
made her feel quite safe.

But Walter himself was anything but calm. He glowered fiercely at the
road ahead of them and his hands clenched tightly on the wheel.

"It's a rotten shame!" he burst out, when Nan had finished her story.
"If I once get hold of those fellows there won't be enough left of them
to identify."

"But you will help me find Mrs. Bragley's property for her, won't you?"
insisted Nan. "She said it was at a place called Sunny Slopes."

"Sunny Slopes, Sunny Slopes," Walter repeated thoughtfully. "The name
sounds rather familiar to me. I tell you what I'll do," he said, turning
to Nan with sudden decision. "Dad knows the names of nearly all the
places through here. And if this Sunny Slopes is anywhere near Palm
Beach we'll drive over in the car. How does that suit you?"

"Oh, fine," said Nan happily, adding as she gave him a demure glance:
"Only we will drive over in the big car and take the girls along."

"What's the matter with this car?" asked Walter, turning to look at her.
"I thought you liked it."

"I love it!" said Nan fervently, adding with a funny little smile that
Walter did not understand: "I think on that particular trip, I would
like to go in the big car."

The morning after their delightful ride about Jacksonville, they took
the train for Palm Beach. They found to their disgust that Linda and her
party were also on board.

"Goodness! I think Linda must be following us, too," Bess grumbled to
Nan, looking blackly after their schoolmate as she walked haughtily down
the car aisle. "To look at her you would think she owned the world at
least. Oh, if I could only prove that it was she who damaged the heating
plant up at school, wouldn't it be a wonderful chance to get even with
her?"

"I don't see why you should want to waste time getting even with her,"
Nan remarked calmly. "We have more interesting things to occupy our
time."

"That's all very well for you," grumbled Bess, still feeling cross and
injured by the unexpected appearance of Linda. "But _I_ haven't any
Walter."

Nan was just about to say something unpleasant when Walter himself
hailed them. Grace and Rhoda were with him and all wore smiles to match
the morning.

"Come on back," the boy invited. "Dad's got chairs for the whole crowd
where we can get the finest view. But he said we had better grab 'em
quick, because there's no knowing how long they will last in this
crowd."

So the girls followed him to the observation car and would very probably
have forgotten all about Linda, had not the girl herself made that
impossible.

It was hot, and there were few people in the car, but Linda and one of
the ladies in her party walked up and down, looking occasionally out of
the windows, as if their energy was inexhaustible.

That would not have been so bad, had not Linda chosen to ignore the
girls so pointedly, brushing past with her head held in the air and a
manner which said very plainly, "Who are those little specks of dust
over there? Know them? Why, of course not!" Finally Bess felt as though
she could not stand it a moment longer.

"She's doing it on purpose, the horrid thing," Bess fumed to Nan. "If
she doesn't stop pretty soon, I'll give her a push and topple her over.
She'll not look so haughty then, I fancy."

Perhaps it was just as well for all concerned that Linda stopped her
bad-mannered performance shortly after that, for Bess could not have
been restrained much longer. With this annoyance removed, they had
opportunity to enjoy the ride to the full.

Mr. Mason proved a very interesting companion, for he knew the names of
the places they passed and told the girls funny stories about things
that had happened in each one of them until they were tired out from the
laughter.

"I never knew there were so many resorts in the world," sighed Nan,
leaning back lazily in her chair. "The only place I really ever
connected with Florida was Palm Beach. But it seems that is only one of
about a million."

"Hardly that," laughed Mr. Mason. "It is true there are a great many
resorts in Florida, but the most beautiful and famous of them is Palm
Beach."

"Mr. Mason," spoke up Bess, with a wicked little look at Nan, "is it
true that most of the people who go to Palm Beach are either bald-headed
millionaires or fussy women who just go there to show off their
clothes?"

Mr. Mason laughed heartily at this, and the rest of his family joined
in, while Nan shot a reproachful glance at her chum.

"No, my dear," said the gentleman finally, a humorous twist in the
corners of his mouth. "I can't say that all the guests at Palm Beach are
of the particular varieties you have mentioned. There are bald-headed
millionaires, of course, and plenty of fussy, over-dressed women, but
the people that I have mostly met in the hotels have struck me as being
nice folks, very much like ourselves----"

"Stop handing yourself bouquets, Dad," Walter broke in, with a chuckle.

"I included the whole family," said Mr. Mason gravely. "The
millionaires," he went on, "don't come to the hotels as a rule. They
build themselves beautiful bungalows along the shore and take their
recreation mostly in private clubs."

"Oh, dear! I think that's horrid," pouted Bess. "That's one of the
things I came for especially. I wanted to see a dozen real live
millionaires all in one spot."

"You shall see plenty of millionaires," promised Mr. Mason. "Although we
won't guarantee to have them all in one spot."

A few hours later the tide of passengers flowed from the train at Palm
Beach and the girls, borne along with the crowd, looked about them
eagerly.

They had heard a great deal about the beauty of this famous winter
resort, but they realized in that one swift glance that nothing they had
ever heard had half done it justice.

"Is that a hotel over there?" asked Nan of Grace, as they allowed
themselves to be swept on by the merry crowd. Bess and Rhoda were coming
slowly along behind them. "That immense yellow building with the green
blinds?"

"Yes, that's the Royal Poinciana," answered Grace. "Where we are going
to stay, you know."

"Oh, are we?" asked Nan faintly, as she gazed up at the Royal Poinciana
Hotel, which was six stories in height and seemed to cover several acres
of ground. "Goodness, it seems as if the whole world ought to be able to
get in there. And what's that?" she went on, pointing to another yellow
building with green blinds. "Its twin?"

"Yes. They call it The Breakers," returned Grace, rather enjoying her
new rôle of guide. "It isn't quite as large as the Royal Poinciana, but
dad says it is just as good."

Before long they reached the hotel and they waited while Walter, Bess,
Rhoda and Mr. and Mrs. Mason came puffing up to them, warm from the heat
of the afternoon sun.

"Come ahead, folks," said Mr. Mason, engineering his flock up the steps
of the hotel to the porch. "Let's get cooled and brushed up a bit, and
then we can come out and see the sights. This is the biggest crowd I
have ever found here," he added, as they entered the darkened, cool
lobby of the hotel with a conscious sigh of relief, "and that is saying
a good deal."



 CHAPTER XXIII

 A TROPICAL PARADISE


The signing of the hotel register was not an easy task, for there were
many other guests waiting to do the same thing. Mr. Mason finally
managed it, however, and he and his rather large family were whirled up
in a roomy elevator to the fifth floor and were shown to their rooms by
a well-mannered and friendly bellboy.

Bess and Nan were to room together and Grace and Rhoda had a room right
off theirs, connected by a door, so that it was really as if the girls
were all in one room.

"Come down on the porch when you are ready, girls," said Walter, just
before he disappeared into his own room, "and we'll wander around and
see the sights."

Nan and Bess were delighted with their room, for it was large and airy
and commanded a beautiful view of Lake Worth, upon which the Royal
Poinciana Hotel is situated. Grace's and Rhoda's room also faced the
lake.

"Oh, girls, look at all the boats!" squealed Bess, dancing delightedly
up and down before one of the windows. "They are so thick you can hardly
see any water between them."

"The _Bargain Rush_ is down there somewhere," said Grace, as she and Nan
ran across the room to peek over Bess's shoulder. "Dad made an awful
fuss about having it shipped all the way, but Walter said he didn't want
to come if he couldn't have it."

"But, Grace, this is the first word you have said about the _Bargain
Rush_," said Bess reproachfully. "And you know just how unhappy we'd be
if we did not have a boat down here."

"I've heard about Lake Worth being such a beautiful harbor for the
pleasure boats of the Palm Beach tourists," said Rhoda happily, "but I
never imagined it was half so beautiful."

"But where is the ocean?" asked Bess, as they turned from the window and
began a hurried "freshening process." "I declare, I'm all mixed up."

"The ocean is in back of us, silly," Nan informed her. "Didn't you
notice the beautiful beach down there as we came along? There were
people in bathing, too. Oh, don't I wish I could go in myself this very
minute. Just think of it--surf bathing in February!"

"Br-r-r, stop it," commanded Bess with a shiver. "You make me chilly."

They were ready to see the sights in a surprisingly short time, and Bess
noticed as they stepped out into the corridor that Nan locked the door
very carefully and slipped the key into her pocket.

"You aren't worrying about those men yet, are you?" she asked.

"No-o," said Nan a little doubtfully. "But it is always just as well to
be on the safe side."

Together with other girls and boys and men and women, all, like
themselves, on pleasure bent, the girls made their way down to the lobby
of the great hotel. Seeing nothing of Walter there, they rather timidly
stepped out upon the veranda.

The size of it made them gasp, and for a moment they just stood staring
stupidly at the seemingly endless vista of chairs and tables and
people--Nan and the others were sure there were millions of people.

They might have stood there forever, had not Nan become suddenly aware
of the admiring glances of several of the crowd that thronged the
piazza. For the four modishly dressed girls formed a very pretty and
striking picture.

"Let's sit down or something--everybody is staring at us," she whispered
to Rhoda, but at that moment Rhoda caught sight of Walter and waved a
commanding hand.

"So here you are," said the boy, his face lighting up with pleasure at
the unexpected sight of the girls. "Right this way, ladies. Say," he
added, as they started down the steps together, "you're looking great,
girls. It isn't every fellow who has the chance to escort four pippins
at Palm Beach."

"Pippins!" repeated Grace emphatically, while the others giggled. "You
know that's vulgar, Walter."

"Vulgar or not, it's the truth," said Walter cheerfully. "Isn't this
some garden?" he went on.

The Royal Poinciana Hotel was set in a tropical paradise of gorgeous
flowers and shrubs and trees, the beauty of which no one who has not
seen it can imagine.

One tree in particular caught Nan's eye and she pointed it out eagerly.

"Look at that gorgeous thing," she cried. "What is it, Walter--a shrub
or a tree or a flower, or a mixture of all of them?"

"That's the Royal Poinciana tree," explained Walter. "It is a beauty,
isn't it? The hotel is named for the tree, you know."

They wandered on again, exclaiming at every step, so happy and excited
that more than one person in passing turned to look after them with an
indulgent smile.

There were the golf links between the two hotels, and men who "looked
old enough to know better," to quote Bess, were wandering over the
velvet green sward with faithful caddies trailing along in the rear.

"I don't see what possible fun they can find in just batting a foolish
little ball about," was Nan's comment, and Rhoda turned to her with a
laugh.

"About the same pleasure that you find in batting a foolish little
tennis ball about," she said, and Nan caught her up indignantly.

"But that's different!" she said, and they laughed at her.

"Look!" cried Grace, a moment later, pointing to some beautiful level
tennis courts where several animated sets of singles were in progress.
"You can't say we don't give you every kind of amusement here, Nan."

"It's wonderful," sighed Nan happily. "I'm glad now that I thought to
pack my racket before I started. My, how I would like to be out there
now." For Nan was a tennis enthusiast, and really could play the game
well.

"I'll play you a game to-morrow morning," challenged Walter, and she
took him up eagerly.

"Any time you say," she laughed. "And I'll take the court with the sun
in my eyes!"

They must have wandered on for a long time, for the sun was getting low
when they finally turned to go back. They had passed "cottages" which
must have cost their owners a small fortune to build and several small
fortunes to maintain.

Walter pointed out to them a club of millionaires whose membership was
something like two hundred, with three hundred more prospective members
on the waiting list.

"Goodness!" exclaimed Bess, "I think I shall have to break in there some
time. Think of seeing two hundred millionaires all in one place, instead
of only a dozen!"

"If you break in, Bess, you may get into trouble," said Walter, with a
twinkle in his eye. "What if several of the millionaires proposed to you
at once? You wouldn't know which one to take, you know you wouldn't."

"Then I wouldn't take any of them," announced the girl from Tillbury
promptly.

"What, throw a real millionaire overboard?" and Walter gave a pretended
gasp.

"Of course. A millionaire might be nice to look at and very hateful to
live with," and Bess flung back her head as if that settled it.

"Oh, let's give the millionaires a rest," put in Rhoda. "I know what I'd
like."

"What?" came from several of the others.

"A horseback ride down there on the beach."

"Nothing easier," said Walter. "When do you want to go, now? If you do,
I'll get you a horse--over at the stand yonder."

"Will you go?" questioned the girl from Rose Ranch, turning to her
school chums.

"Hadn't we better wait until we are a little better acquainted?"
questioned Nan.

"All right. I suppose it's a bit hot to-day anyway," said Rhoda.

"I guess you miss the riding you used to do on the ranch," said Grace.

"I certainly do. Not but what this is very nice for a change."

It was late when they reached the hotel at last, and the girls began to
realize for the first time that they were tired.

"See you to-night," whispered Walter to Nan, as Grace, Bess and Rhoda
disappeared into the lobby. "And don't forget that tennis engagement for
to-morrow. Ten o'clock sharp."



 CHAPTER XXIV

 NAN IS FRIGHTENED


Nan played tennis with Walter the next day, and what is more, she beat
him, four out of six. She declared later that it must have been either
pure luck, or the fact that Walter was so dazed with surprise at finding
that it was possible for a girl to beat him that he had given her two
sets before he had recovered from the shock.

Be that as it may, the fact remained that Nan had to work her hardest to
wrest a set from him after that, and felt very lucky if she managed to
win one out of three.

On the other hand, Walter had to work his hardest to keep Nan from
making a "fool" of him and winning everything. Consequently his
admiration for the girl from Tillbury rose at least ten points.

The other girls were interested in the game also, although of the three,
Grace was by far the best player. Lazy Bess much preferred reading a
magazine on the immense piazza of the hotel to chasing a ball around in
the hot sun.

There were so many wonderful things to occupy their attention that a
week flew by before they knew it. Almost without sensing it, the girls
had drifted into the routine of gay activities that prevailed at the
resort.

There was usually a brisk walk before breakfast. That is, there was for
Nan, Rhoda, Grace and Walter. Bess was often too tired after the gaiety
of the day before to get up before breakfast to take anything so
uninteresting as a walk.

Then came breakfast, an event in itself, for the food was delicious,
especially to such ravenous appetites as the girls and Walter brought
back to it, and the beautiful dining-room of the hotel was a treat to
the eye.

After breakfast the majority of the guests sallied forth to the delights
of motoring or sailing or tennis, while the others either lingered on
the porch or sauntered over to the golf links to play a game of golf,
or, if anglers, went out on a fishing excursion.

The golf course was between the two hotels, so that the players not only
furnished amusement for themselves but for all those who cared to watch
them.

Later in the morning, somewhere between eleven o'clock and noon, was the
hour for bathing. Then all who cared to go in the water made a dash for
the ocean, and had a cool, invigorating plunge before luncheon. This was
the hour that Nan liked best of all.

Later in the afternoon, one could either go over to the cocoanut grove
for afternoon tea and a dance or two or take what was in many cases a
much-needed rest.

At night the girls loved to have dinner in the Garden Grill, for the
place itself was a romantic dream of beauty with its palm trees and
boxes of shrubs. And the music--the music carried them far away from the
present on golden wings of melody and made them forget that there was
anything sordid or unpleasant in all the world.

Perhaps the evening was the time that most of the Palm Beach visitors
lived for. Then came the chance to display beautiful gowns and flashing
jewels of fabulous worth.

There was a glamor about the lights and music and gowns and jewels that
quite went to wealth-loving Bess's head, and even made steady Rhoda's
heart beat faster and eyes shine brighter.

As for Nan and Grace--they were just in their element, and showed it.

Of course they met Linda Riggs occasionally. It would have been
impossible for them not to have done so. But as the disagreeable girl
continued consistently to ignore them, the chums just as consistently
adopted the same attitude.

They met several other girls of about their own age, and two of these
girls had their brothers with them, and these youths had two chums
along--so none of the girls wanted for partners when it came to dancing
or playing tennis. In fact, sometimes they had "more partners than were
really needed," as Bess put it.

"But you are not going to complain because you have enough partners, are
you?" queried Grace.

"Oh, no, indeed," cried Bess. "I am glad there are more boys here.
Imagine Walter having to take care of all of us."

One day all of them went for a horseback ride. This put Rhoda in her
element, and, seated on a fine, spirited steed, the girl from Rose Ranch
gave as fine an exhibition of horsemanship as had been seen at Palm
Beach for a long time.

"Your chum rides like a regular western girl," said one of the boys
present, to Nan.

"And that is just what she is," answered Nan. "And one of the best girls
in the world besides."

"I don't doubt it. I wish I could ride half as well."

"Maybe Rhoda will give you lessons."

"No such luck, I'm afraid," said the boy. "But I'll ask her anyway," and
he did, with the result that he and Rhoda went out half a dozen times,
and the girl from Rose Ranch taught him many of her best riding tricks.

"He's a splendid fellow, Will Halliday is," said Rhoda to Nan. "He likes
outdoor life--and that's the best there is."

"Does he come from out West?"

"The middle West--Iowa."

"You are making a good rider of him, Rhoda."

"Well, I like somebody who takes a real interest in a horse," answered
the girl from Rose Ranch.

One night in the ballroom, Rhoda espied Linda across the room and with
her was a girl who looked familiar. She called Nan's attention to the
fact.

"Why, yes," said Nan with a puzzled frown. "It looks like--why, Rhoda,
it is----"

"Cora Courtney!" finished Rhoda in a "what-will-happen next" tone of
voice.

"Let's go over and make sure," said Nan, and they started to skirt the
floor, hugging the wall to escape the dancers, for the floor was already
crowded with them. But when they reached the spot where Linda and her
companion had been, the latter were gone, and, try as they would, the
girls could not find them.

"It seems awfully strange," said Nan as they disappointedly found their
way back to their seats, "that if the girl was really Cora we haven't
seen her before."

They told Bess and Grace about it later, and they agreed that the
incident looked queer, to say the least. However, they had so many
things to think about in the days that followed, that Linda slipped
entirely from their minds.

One morning the girls decided to forego their usual game of tennis and
take an early dip instead. Nan had complained of an ache in the muscles
of her right arm, and as the trouble almost undoubtedly came from
overstrain, Walter had insisted that she take "a day off."

The weather had seemed uncomfortably warm at the hotel, but when they
reached the beach the girls were surprised to find that they felt
chilly.

"Goodness!" said Bess with a shiver, "I think I will let you girls go in
and I'll stay here. Experience has taught me that the beautiful green
ocean about these parts isn't always as balmy and warm as it's reported
to be."

"No, you don't," said Nan decidedly. "You know very well it spoils all
the fun if one of us backs out. Come on, Rhoda, you take the other arm.
One--two--three--go!" and Bess was hurried, half laughing and half angry
and wholly protesting, down to the water's edge and promptly ducked
under a foam-tipped, hungry, man-eating wave.

She came out on the other side and struck out manfully, puffing and
steaming like a young whale.

The girls watched her laughingly for a minute, then plunged in after
her.

"My, the water is cold," sputtered Grace, as the girls struck out
abreast with long, beautifully even strokes. "Poor Bess! I don't know
but what she had the right idea after all."

The hour being so early, the girls had that particular portion of Old
Man Ocean almost to themselves. There were a few early bathers, however,
and among these was a man with a long, thin face and a mouth that was
set in a hard, straight line.

Nan, doing the crawl with her head under water, came up directly in
front of this unpleasant-looking person and was so startled and
surprised in consequence that she almost forgot to keep herself afloat.

Her paralysis remained only a moment, however, and in a flash of time
she was swimming back toward her companions.

As for the man, having given Nan a careful look, he suddenly made a dash
for the shore and one of the bathhouses.

"I reckon this is my chance," he said, as he got into his clothing with
all speed. "I'll do the trick while she is in bathing."

Nan was almost out of breath when she reached her chums.

"Listen to me!" she gasped. "I've got to get up to the hotel--and at
once!"

"Nan Sherwood, is it serious this time, or is this only another of your
attacks?" asked Bess impatiently. "Here you are the one who dragged us
into the water at this early hour, and now you want to spoil all the fun
by breaking up the party. For goodness' sake, listen to reason," she
wailed, as Nan, with a determined shake of her red-capped head, started
in toward shore.

"Haven't time," she flung back.

"You can at least tell us what the matter is," called Grace, as
reluctant as Bess to cut short the fun.

"Haven't time," Nan repeated, half way in to shore now.

Bess and Grace paddled the water and looked at each other helplessly.

"Don't you think we had better go, too?" asked Rhoda uncertainly.

"No, I don't," was Bess's cross answer. "Nan's acting awfully funny
these days, anyway. I think she has another secret."

As for Nan, she did not wait to see whether the girls were following her
or not, but ran posthaste to her bathhouse, where she exchanged her
bathing suit for more formal attire. Then she hurried on to the hotel.

She had not seen this man since his arrival at Palm Beach, and the
sudden appearance of his face so close to hers in the water had startled
her horribly. Her first thought had been of the documents in her
suitcase and her one desire to get to them as soon as possible.

"Oh, what a fool I was not to give those papers to Mr. Mason, or have
them placed in the hotel safe," she scolded to herself. She called
herself several kinds of a goose as she ran down the quiet corridor to
her room. As she stood before the door a slight noise within sent her
heart suddenly into her mouth, and she hesitated before turning the
knob.

Then, with desperate courage, she flung the door wide and stepped into
the room. Before her bed a tall, thin man was standing, and on the bed
was a bag, her bag, partly open, with the contents showing!

In a moment her fear changed to flaming indignation, and she sprang
forward, flinging herself before the bag and pushing the man away from
her with furious, impotent little fists.

"You little imp!" the fellow snarled, catching her wrists and holding
them in an iron grip. "You just dare make a noise, and I'll show you
who's boss. You little----"

"Nan! Oh, Nan, what's the matter?"

The voice held a frightened note, and its owner was evidently running
along the corridor toward Nan's open door. The man said something under
his breath, released Nan's wrists, and darted toward the window.

Nan, conscious of a stabbing pain in her wrists, followed him, but not
in time to stop his flight. She saw him disappear down the fire escape
and then, with a little stifled sob, turned back into the room and found
herself face to face with her startled chums.

"Nan! you look like a ghost," cried Bess, flinging an arm about the
girl and drawing her to the bed.

"We thought we heard a man's voice," added Rhoda, staring with
fascinated eyes from Nan to the half-opened bag on the bed.

Grace was plainly frightened. "Nan! was that man here?"

"Yes," said Nan faintly. "He was here and he--oh, girls, it was
dreadful! I can't talk about it." And she broke down with a sob and
buried her head on Bess's shoulder.



 CHAPTER XXV

 MOONLIGHT


When Nan told her story to the Masons a little later they were not only
indignant but very genuinely worried. Walter declared that he would
"catch that man and wring his neck before the day was up," which boast,
though extremely extravagant, brought strange comfort to Nan, shocked as
she had been by the events of the morning.

Mr. Mason wanted to shadow the man, but Nan begged him not to do that
until after they had had a chance to look up Mrs. Bragley's property for
her and see what it was worth.

"If that's the way you feel," Mr. Mason decided sympathetically, "it
seems to me the best thing to do is to get to Sunny Slopes as soon as
possible, take a look at this land, and employ an attorney, if need be,
to be sure her title is clear. Then if this man is illegally trying to
wrest the land from its rightful owner, we will employ a detective and
see that the fellow is brought to justice. I want to lift the load from
these young shoulders," he said, looking down at Nan with the nice smile
that made everybody like him. "They are too young to carry the troubles
of other people yet."

Nan smiled up at him gratefully, and perhaps the interview might have
ended there had Walter allowed it to. But Walter was still tremendously
worried about Nan.

"But Dad," he said, turning to his father accusingly, "you certainly
can't mean that you are going to let that man wander around loose so
that he can worry Nan all he wants to. Why, this is four or five times
already that he has nearly frightened her to death. Why," he continued,
waxing more excited as he thought about it and glaring at the anxious
group of people as though it were in some way all their fault, "he isn't
going to stop when he so nearly got what he wanted to-day. He may come
back again to-night----"

"That is very unlikely," Mr. Mason broke in, in a cheerful,
matter-of-fact tone. "He knows that we are on our guard now. For all he
can tell, we may have detectives in every corridor and he will be very
careful how he ventures near Nan's room to-night. No, he will try some
other way since this one has failed. And in a day or two we will motor
down to Sunny Slopes and relieve Nan's mind about this woman's
property."

In spite of Mr. Mason's very reasonable conviction that the man would
not return to Nan's room, the girls were nervous that night, especially
Bess, and they were all glad when the sun, creeping in through the
window, announced that another beautiful day had begun.

"Goodness!" said Bess, stretching fretfully, "if this keeps up much
longer, Nan Sherwood, I'll just be a wreck, that's all."

"Get your cold water plunge and you will feel better," said Nan, at
which practical suggestion Bess merely grunted.

They were to play a tennis match that day, Rhoda and Walter against Nan
and Grace, and naturally they all had set their hearts upon winning.
Bess had begged off on the ground that it was too warm to play.

It was a glorious morning for the sport, sunshiny and clear, yet cool,
and the girls forgot their restless night as they stepped out upon the
court.

It was not till they started to "warm up" and Nan wound up for her usual
swift serve that they had an inkling of the thing that was to spoil the
fun for that morning, at least.

Nan struck weakly at the ball, which landed ignominiously in the net and
then dropped her racket with a little cry of pain. The girls and Walter
ran to her anxiously, Walter jumping the net and scooping up the ball as
he came.

"What is the matter, Nan Sherwood?" Bess wanted to know. "That's the
funniest ball I ever saw you serve."

"It's my wrist," said Nan apologetically. "It turned just at the wrong
minute. I don't seem to have any power in it."

"Let me see," Walter demanded masterfully, and as he held her little
wrist in his hand Nan noticed that it was red and swollen.

"Oh-h!" she said impulsively, "that must be where the man grabbed me so
tight yesterday. I'm dreadfully sorry to spoil your game," she added,
thinking, as always, more of every one else than of herself.

"Hang the old game," said Walter explosively. "We can play that any
time. But if I could get my hands on that--that----"

"Don't say it," begged Nan, with a little laugh. "You mustn't talk about
people behind their backs, you know."

"But now our game is spoiled, and we have a whole long morning on our
hands," wailed Grace. "I wish I had slept a couple of hours longer."

"I tell you what we'll do," said Walter, with sudden inspiration. "We'll
take some fishing tackle--Grace and I have enough to go round--and go
out in the little old _Bargain Rush_ to a place I know of where the fish
just come trotting up begging to be caught. How about it, girls? Are you
on?"

It seemed that they were, enthusiastically so, and half an hour later
Grace was declaring that she was sorry about poor Nan's wrist, of
course, but if this wasn't better than playing a hot game of tennis and
probably getting beaten, her name wasn't Grace Mason, that's all.

Walter was right about the fish--they seemed to enjoy being caught, and
when, almost at noon time, they came back to the hotel with Walter
bringing up the rear with the result of the morning's sport proudly
displayed, strangers followed them with envious eyes and people they
knew stopped them to ask where they had found the fish.

As for Nan, she tried hard to enter into the old round of gaieties with
her usual enthusiasm, for she knew that to show how worried she was
would only spoil the fun of her friends. But to herself she acknowledged
that she would not really be able to enjoy anything again until the
mystery of those dangerous papers in her bag was finally cleared up and
she was free from espionage once more.

Walter seemed to be the only one who really understood her state of mind
and when she pleaded a headache that afternoon and broke an engagement
with the girls to go to the cocoanut grove for tea, it was Walter who
silenced their protests and took her himself up to her room.

"I'm awfully sorry about this," he said, taking the wrist, which had
been rubbed with liniment and neatly bandaged by Mrs. Mason, in one of
his sunburned hands and patting it awkwardly. "Does it ache very much
now?"

"N-no. It doesn't ache at all," said Nan, adding quickly to cover her
confusion as she drew her hand away, "I think you had better go down to
the girls now, Walter. They will think you've deserted them."

"Oh, all right," said Walter, and perhaps it was only Nan's imagination
that made her think he looked hurt. "Be sure and save the first two
dances for me to-night."

He went out quietly, and for a long time after he had gone Nan stood
looking at the closed door. Then her glance dropped to her bandaged
wrist and she smiled a little.

"Boys are so funny," she murmured--to no one in particular.

There was a big dance that night, and when the time came to dress Nan
still further incensed the girls by refusing to dress.

"How would I look in an evening dress and--this thing?" she asked,
holding up her bandaged wrist.

"No one ever would look at your wrist when your face is along, Nan
Sherwood," said Rhoda, at which Nan laughed but still remained firm.

"Oh, well," said Bess, flouncing over to her closet and taking out a
pretty white net and blue satin dress, "I suppose you will have your own
way, Nan. But one way or another, that old Mrs. Bragley and her
miserable papers have just spoiled our trip. I wish she was in Jericho!"

"It was Guinea last time," Nan laughed at her.

Since Nan refused to dance that night, Walter also refused. Try as she
might, Nan could not get him to alter his decision, and finally gave up
the attempt in despair.

"Grace and Bess will be furious," she said.

"Let them," he answered recklessly. "There are plenty of other fellows
around. See that moon over there? Say, Nan, I have a bully idea."

They were standing in one corner of the veranda of the Royal Poinciana.
The veranda looked strangely deserted that night, the dance being at its
height in the ballroom within, and it being still a little early for the
inevitable drifting of couples from the heat of the ballroom to the cool
breezes of the porch.

"An idea?" asked Nan, feeling adventurous herself. "Tell me."

"Back there somewhere the _Bargain Rush_ is waiting," said Walter, his
voice boyishly eager. "Since we can't dance, we might as well 'putt.'
And--it seems too bad to waste that moon."

Nan thought so, too, and a moment later they were running hand in hand
through the garden to the spot where the _Bargain Rush_ waited. They
scrambled on board, Walter started the engine, and they drifted out into
the magic stillness of the night.

"Now tell me," said Walter after a while, his eyes shifting from the
moonlit waters of the lake to Nan where she sat curled up in one of the
chairs, gazing dreamily out over the shadowy water, "isn't this better
than dancing?"

"It's awfully nice," admitted Nan.

"I get so tired of the hot ballroom, and the bright lights," went on the
boy, as he bent over the engine, to see that it was running properly.

"Well, I get tired of the lights myself, Walter."

"And those flashing jewels! Why will some of the women load themselves
with so much jewelry?"

"I'm sure I don't know. I think too much jewelry is horrid."

"I suppose some folks think that is the one way to let others know that
they have money."

Nan drew a deep breath. "Look at the moon, Walter, isn't it simply
wonderful?"

"Sure is. And I think----"

Walter came to a sudden stop. Another motor boat had loomed up, running
dangerously close to the _Bargain Rush_.

"Hi, keep away from there!" called out the boy.

"They'll run into us!" exclaimed Nan, in sudden alarm.

"Don't get scared, sonny!" sang out a man in the other motor boat and
then he suddenly veered out of the way, but with only an inch or two to
spare.

"The great big clown!" burst out Walter, in just anger. "He did that
just to give us a scare."

"It was no way to do," said Nan. She was not a little shaken by the
unexpected happening.

"I hope he runs into a tree, or a rock, or something."

"There he goes, along the other shore of the lake," said Nan, a few
seconds later. "See, I think he is trying to scare the folks in that
other motor boat."

"He's either crazy or a fool," murmured Walter.

The unknown motorist was evidently amusing himself at the expense of
those less daring than himself, and he raced up and down the lake
several times. But soon a larger motor boat put out and bore down upon
him.

"We've been laying for you," said a man who was evidently an official.
"You'll not try any more of those tricks."

"That's right--place him under arrest," said another man, one who had
come close to suffering a collision. "I'll make a charge against him."

"I was only having a little fun," whined the man who had been racing
around.

"You can tell your story at the police station," was the answer. And
then the fellow was placed under arrest.

Nan and Walter continued their ride in the moonlight, and soon the
unpleasant incident was forgotten. They talked of their good times at
Palm Beach, and then the youth referred to what Nan proposed to do for
Mrs. Bragley.

"Nan, I'm awfully sorry you are so worried about those old property
papers," remarked Walter presently. "Why don't you turn them over to my
dad?"

"I thought you'd say that, Walter," she returned. "I've been expecting
it. Why don't I? Well, to tell the truth, I don't know. I--I guess I am
a little headstrong about it."

"Headstrong?" he repeated, plainly puzzled.

"Yes. You see Bess and the others think I am so--so--well, so scared I
can't keep them in my possession. Well," Nan drew a deep breath, "I am
scared. But, just the same, I'm not so scared as all that--and I'm going
to prove it to them, so there!"

Walter gazed at her in open admiration for a moment.

"Nan, you're a brick!" he cried.



 CHAPTER XXVI

 WORTH A FORTUNE


Mr. Mason, by inquiry, had found out that the district known as Sunny
Slopes was about sixty miles from Palm Beach, and the next morning they
set off by motor for the place, Mrs. Mason having declared to her
husband the night before that "it was of no use to put the thing off any
longer. The girl's nerves were all on edge over that queer widow's
mysterious papers. He may not have noticed it, but she had been watching
Nan very closely."

So it came about that a big machine, carrying Mr. and Mrs. Mason, Nan
and Bess and Rhoda, and enough luggage to last them at a hotel for a few
days, and a torpedo-shaped little car bearing Walter and Grace set out
bright and early to make the trip to Sunny Slopes.

Walter had taken it for granted that Nan would ride with him, and had
seemed inclined to sulk when she decidedly refused. For Nan had taken
herself very severely to task when she had reached her room the night
before. She had broken her rule never to go anywhere with Walter unless
the girls were along, and she would never, never do it again. She was
particularly hard on herself to-day--and on poor Walter--because of the
fact that she had enjoyed that dreamlike sail over the moonlight waters
of Lake Worth more than she had ever enjoyed anything before.

So Walter, coming behind the big machine with Grace, sulked, and Grace
scolded because, in his preoccupation, he nearly ran her and himself
into a ditch.

Their route lay over the lake to West Palm Beach and then along a
beautiful highway lined on either side with gorgeous palms.

"I don't wonder the place is called Palm Beach," remarked Rhoda. "I
never dreamed of seeing so many fine palm trees before."

They had made careful inquiries concerning the route, and once the
houses and bungalows were left behind they "hit it up" to a very
respectable rate of speed. The roads, for the most part, were very good,
and the only spots covered where they had to be careful were where there
had been washouts.

"It is certainly a pretty landscape," remarked Grace, as they sped past
one settlement after another. "I don't wonder that you said you'd like
to make sketches, Nan."

"But I haven't made any yet," was Nan's answer, with a slight shrug of
the shoulders.

They reached Sunny Slopes about noon, and decided--at least their
ravenous appetites decided for them--that they had better have something
to eat before they inquired further into the mystery of Mrs. Bragley's
papers.

Nan was the only one who seemed very much excited, and the others did
not notice that the girl scarcely touched her lunch. It seemed an age to
her before the meal was finished and Mr. Mason declared that they were
ready to make their investigations.

Nan and her friends would have been very much surprised had they known
that they were being followed on their trip to Sunny Slopes, yet such
was a fact. The two men who had tried so hard to gain possession of
Sarah Bragley's documents were growing desperate.

"We've got to do something and do it quick," snapped the tall, thin man.
"Do you hear me?"

"I certainly do," growled the other.

"If we fail we won't get a cent of the cash that was promised to us."

"I know that, too," answered the short man, and scowled deeply.

Mr. Mason had once, in his less affluent days, been a real estate broker
himself, and so pooh-poohed his wife's suggestion that he get some one
who knew the country to direct them.

"My dear," he said, "if this Mrs. Bragley has any property around here,
I'll find it."

He had, with Nan's consent, examined the documents the widow had given
her and had seemed, to Nan's eager eyes, to have been considerably
impressed by them.

So now as they crowded out of the restaurant--it was the first one they
had come to, and they had been too hungry to argue about its elegance or
lack of it--and climbed into the cars again, Nan could hardly keep still
in her eagerness to know the truth at once.

They passed down a short business street, and then, making a turn, came
out on a broad country road.

"Sunny Slopes begins about a mile from here," said Mr. Mason. "It covers
quite a bit of territory, I am told. While one end is quite barren, the
other end is excellent for orange growing and is covered with bearing
trees."

"Oh, dear, I hope Mrs. Bragley's end is the orange-growing end!" cried
Nan.

"Don't be too much disappointed if it isn't," said Mrs. Mason kindly.

Suddenly Bess, who had been laughing and talking with Rhoda about school
affairs, gave a little bounce and cried out excitedly:

"Look there! Isn't that an orange grove?"

"It surely is," Mr. Mason called back to her, adding in a voice that
showed his rising excitement: "Your widow's property ought to be
somewhere in here, Nan. I think I'll stop the car and we can go forward
on foot."

"Oh!" said Nan softly, as, a moment later, she jumped out into the road.
"I never saw an orange grove before. Isn't it wonderful!"

"Goodness!" said Bess, as Grace and Walter drew up behind the big car
and ran around and joined them, "it looks as if they had all been drawn
after the same pattern--the trees, I mean. Did you ever see anything so
symmetrical in all your life?"

It was the first time any of them, except the Masons, had been close to
an orange grove, and they all went forward for a closer look at it. The
grove was set quite a way back from the road and seemed to cover many
acres of ground, stretching symmetrically back as far as the eye could
see.

The orange trees were not tall, and were shaped very much like the
little toy trees the children use to build their landscape
gardens--broad at the bottom and tapering up almost to a point at the
top.

From his examination of the documents carried by Nan, Mr. Mason had
jotted down a number of facts and figures. Now the lawyer walked forward
slowly and presently examined a number of stone markers he found set in
the ground. Then he walked to a side road and read the signs thereon. A
smile of satisfaction crossed his face.

Nan, standing close to Mr. Mason, touched his arm timidly.

"Is this Mrs. Bragley's property?" she asked in an awed tone.

"These are most certainly the orange groves mentioned in her documents,"
he said gravely. "How much of it she owns will have to be determined by
an attorney. But I guess," he added, looking down at Nan with a kindly
smile, "that the property she holds here is worth a tidy sum, several
thousand dollars at least. Of course the orange grove itself is worth a
fortune."

"I'm so glad!" cried Nan happily. "I just can't wait to let poor Mrs.
Bragley know about it."

"Well, I must say," said Bess, "that this is the first time I've really
thought those old papers were worth anything, Nan. Perhaps now we can
get rid of them so we won't have any more trouble."

"Then there was a real reason for those men shadowing Nan," said Walter,
adding with an unusually fierce scowl: "If they turn up again, I will
kill them, that's all, even if it lands me in jail."

"My, aren't we dangerous," said Nan, laughing at him.

Nan never afterward knew just how it happened, but some way or other,
among the orange trees, she managed to get separated from the rest of
the party. She was so engrossed with happy thoughts of the success of
her plan to help Mrs. Bragley and so absorbed in imagining the woman's
surprise and joy at the news she was about to receive that it was some
time before she woke up to the fact that she was alone.

The predicament--if indeed it was one--did not particularly worry her,
for she knew that she could find her way back to the road easily enough
and that there was no possibility in the world of her becoming really
lost.

As she stood reveling in the tropical beauty of the scene and smiling
happily to herself, a thought suddenly flashed through her mind that
banished the smile from her lips and brought an anxious frown to her
brow.

"I've left my bag in the car!" she told herself. "And with all Mrs.
Bragley's papers in it! If I should lose them now, after bringing them
safely all this way----"

Action followed swift upon the thought, and she started through the
grove in the direction she had come.

"Not so fast! Not so fast!" said a voice beside her, and the next moment
a man darted out from the shelter of the trees and stepped directly in
her path. He was, as Nan knew the minute she heard his voice, the tall,
thin man with the straight line for a mouth, with whom she had had so
many unpleasant meetings before. His face showed a desperate expression.

Nan did not scream, although much alarmed. She glanced over her shoulder
with a half-formed thought of escape, but the man sprang forward and
laid a rough hand on her arm.

"None of that, my little lady," said the sneering voice. "You are not
going to get away from us this time until we get what we want. Just a
little document or two is all we want. Quick now--hand it over."

"I--I haven't any document!" gasped Nan, adding with a little flare of
temper: "If you don't let go of my arm I--I'll scream."

"Oh, no, you won't! Slicker, that's your job."

Before Nan could move a soft, fat hand was pressed over her mouth from
behind and she twisted about to find that her second captor was the
short, fat man who had been the companion of her more dangerous enemy on
the boat.

"Come, we're in a hurry," snapped the latter, and Nan's terrified eyes
came back to his. "Will you give 'em to us or do we have to take them?"

Nan shook her head, and with a snort of impatience the man laid rough
hands upon her and began to search her clothing for the papers. Then,
finding nothing, he turned upon her in a towering rage.

"You're a sly one," he growled between his teeth. "But let me tell you
this, you little imp----"

"Easy, Jensen, easy," cautioned the fat man, whose hand still covered
Nan's mouth.

"If we don't find those papers within the next forty-eight hours,"
raged the other, not noticing his companion, "you will be mighty sorry.
Something is going to happen to you! Get me?"

"You--you brute!" gasped Nan, as the fat man removed his hand from her
mouth.

"It won't do you any good to call names, Miss. You get those papers for
us. And don't you dare to hand 'em to any of your friends either. If you
do--well, you'll be sorry. We are out for those papers, and we are bound
to have 'em."

He pushed Nan from him with such force that she stumbled and fell full
length on the ground, where she lay, a bewildered heap of indignant
girlhood.

For a moment the tall man looked at her with a cruel smile touching his
thin mouth. Then he took his companion by the arm and disappeared
through the trees.

[Illustration: He pushed Nan from him with such force that she stumbled
and fell. (_See page 216_)]



 CHAPTER XXVII

 WALTER TO THE RESCUE


A familiar shout roused Nan, and she sat up, pushing the hair back from
her face, and instinctively straightened her dress. She picked up her
hat, which had fallen off when she fell, and she pushed this down over
her soft hair as she stumbled to her feet.

She answered the familiar hail, and in another moment she saw Walter
running toward her, looking very anxious and upset. But when the youth
saw her face he stood still, staring at her stupidly.

"Why, Nan!" he cried, "what is it? You--why, you've been crying!"

"W-with rage," said Nan, a sob rising in her throat. "It's those men,
Walter. They searched me! Oh, I'll never get over it--never!"

This time she broke down completely and Walter ran to her, putting a
protecting arm about her, glancing about him at the same time as if he
hoped to see the men who had frightened her and wreak vengeance then and
there.

"Searched you! Who?" he demanded; then, before she could speak, he
added as though answering his own question: "It was those men, Nan. You
told me. Where are they? Quick! Which way did they go?"

But Nan only shook her head and clung to him a little as though she
found comfort in his being there.

"You couldn't catch them--they have had too much of a start," she said.
Then, with a shudder of remembrance, she drew herself from Walter's
grasp and looked at him wildly. "Walter!" she cried. "There are all our
bags in the auto--Mrs. Bragley's papers--and those--those--beasts around
loose! Oh--oh----" Before she had finished she had started toward the
road on a run with Walter in close pursuit.

They met the rest of the anxious party on the way, but nothing less than
an earthquake could have stopped Nan then. She waved to them and Walter
shouted something unintelligible as he raced past, and they had nothing
else to do but to follow the young lunatics--for that is what they
called them.

When Mr. and Mrs. Mason and the girls arrived at the spot where they had
left their car they found Walter and Nan sitting on the running board
and Nan holding something in her hand which she waved wildly at them.

"They're safe! They're safe!" she called, as Rhoda, Grace and Bess ran
up to her and then stopped short at the disheveled picture she made.

"Why, Nan Sherwood!" began Bess, amazed, "what----"

"Why, Nan, you've been crying!" exclaimed Rhoda, running forward and
putting a protecting arm about her friend.

"You needn't remind me of it," said Nan with a hysterical little sob. "I
may start again."

"But, Nan dear, something very dreadful must have happened to make you
cry so," said Mrs. Mason gravely. "We have been worried about you."

Nan told them all about it, with little catches of her breath in
between, while her listeners grew more and more agitated and Bess wanted
to hire a dozen detectives immediately and give chase.

"So they gave you forty-eight hours, did they?" asked Mr. Mason, his
mouth tightening in a grim line. "Well, I'll give them just twenty-four
hours before they land in jail. Come on, let us get back to the town. I
want to set some wheels in motion."

"But let us look for the rascals ourselves first," pleaded Walter. "They
may not have run off as far as you think."

"Well, it won't do any harm to take a look around," said Mr. Mason.

He and his son went back into the orange grove and there spent the best
part of half an hour trying to get some trace of Nan's assailants. They
found some footprints and followed these, but presently the marks were
lost in crossing a brook.

Some men working in the far end of the orange grove came up and wanted
to know what was the matter.

"You ought to get some bloodhounds on their trail," said one when they
had told their story. "Nothing like them dogs to trail a man."

"We haven't any bloodhounds and we haven't any time to get them,"
replied Mr. Mason.

"We might offer a reward for their capture," suggested Walter.

"We'll do that--if the authorities cannot aid us," said his father.

"Those rascals ought to be hung, Dad."

"I wouldn't say hung, Walter. But they ought to be severely punished. I
fear they have scared Nan so she will not enjoy her visit to Florida."

"You had better take those papers, Dad."

"I think so myself. I can't understand why Nan kept them."

"Oh, some of the other girls thought she'd be afraid to keep them, and
she wanted to show them that she wasn't afraid. But now I guess she had
better give them up."

The search was continued for a while longer and then father and son
returned to the others. Then all set out for town.

The girls plied Nan with questions on the way back, but she was too worn
out with her terrible experience to answer them. The reaction was upon
her, and all she wanted to do was crawl off in a corner somewhere and
think things out.

They found the only hotel in Sunny Slopes, and, under Mr. Mason's expert
management, were soon comfortably installed in a suite of rooms on the
second floor.

"You must rest a bit, Nan," said Mrs. Mason kindly. "If you don't you
may get sick."

"Oh, I can't rest," declared the girl.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Mason made her lie down, and presently Nan dropped
off into a troubled doze. In the meanwhile Mr. Mason, followed by
Walter, had raced off to interview the authorities.

When Nan opened her eyes she found the other girls impatiently waiting
to speak to her.

"Goodness! I thought you were going to sleep forever," said Bess, as she
saw with relief that Nan's eyes were open. Rhoda, who had been moving
around in the other room, came to the door and peeped in.

"And here we've been waiting all this time to tell you the news," said
Grace plaintively.

"News! What news?" asked Nan, still heavy with sleep.

"Who do you suppose is here?" asked Bess, then went on eagerly without
waiting for an answer. "It's Linda, Nan. And she has Cora Courtney with
her. We met them in the hall just now."

"I don't think Linda would have spoken to us, and I'm sure we weren't
going to," Grace took up the story, "but Cora stopped, and so Linda
really had to. I imagine they are none too friendly from the way they
acted to each other."

"It's strange we haven't seen Cora but once before if she has been with
Linda all the time," Bess added excitedly, for this new development had
evidently quite driven Nan's trouble from her mind. "We've seen Linda
innumerable times."

"Probably Linda has been making more of a lady's maid of Cora than
usual," said Nan, putting a hand to her forehead, which was beginning to
throb dully. "And lady's maids aren't very often seen with their
mistresses, you know."

"But what I can't understand," said Rhoda thoughtfully from the doorway,
"is why they didn't stay at Palm Beach. I should like to know what they
are doing here."

"Following me, probably," said Nan, sitting up in bed with a wry little
laugh. "People seem to be getting in the habit!"

Nan dressed a little while after that and went downstairs for dinner,
although her head was still aching painfully.

The attack in the orange grove and the rascals' threat to Nan had now
thoroughly aroused Mr. Mason, and he had been out all afternoon while
Nan slept, making inquiries and setting wheels in motion.

For the short time he had been at work on the case he had made really
remarkable strides. He had found out first of all, through an attorney
in Sunny Slopes, that Mrs. Bragley's papers were perfectly legal and
that she owned a sixth interest in the orange grove, which was worth a
little over thirty thousand dollars. This gave the widow five thousand
dollars--a veritable fortune to the poor woman.

"I'll write to her to-night," Nan declared, even forgetting the ache in
her head in her pleasure at the good news. "Mr. Mason, I think you are
wonderful!"

"No, I'm not, my dear," Mr. Mason denied grimly. "If I had been I should
have landed those rascals who attacked you and that crooked Pacomb who
employed them in jail before to-night."

"Pacomb!" repeated Nan breathlessly, while the others looked interested.
"Jacob Pacomb. Why, he's the man I told you about who sold the property
to Mrs. Bragley."

"You said he was crooked, Dad," said Walter with interest. "How do you
know?"

"I've made inquiries," said Mr. Mason significantly. "And I've found out
that people out here don't think very much of Mr. Jacob Pacomb and his
business methods. I haven't the slightest doubt in the world," he added
earnestly, "but what Pacomb has been behind all these attempts to get
the papers from you, Nan."

"Can't you arrest him?" Grace asked breathlessly. "Of course you can!"

"I can as soon as I prove that he's a thief," her father answered.

Bess, Grace and Rhoda slept well that night, for they were tired out
with excitement, but Nan scarcely closed her eyes. Again and again the
incidents of the day came vividly back to her and she would start up
nervously at the slightest sound.

When morning came she was white and big-eyed, and the girls were shocked
when they saw her.

"For goodness' sake, Nan Sherwood," Bess scolded, all the time hovering
anxiously over her, "I always said that that old woman's horrible papers
would be the death of you, and from the way you look this morning I
guess I'm a good prophet. Here we come to Florida for a good time, and
look what we get!"

"You do look all worn out, honey," said Rhoda, putting an arm about her
chum. "Come down on the porch for a little while in the sunshine. It
will do you good."

"I'm all right," protested Nan. "I just have a little headache, that's
all."

"And no wonder, after all those old papers have made you go through,"
grumbled Bess, as she followed the girls out into the hall. "I'm only
surprised that we are not all dead by this time."

"Now all that we need to make us completely happy," chuckled Nan,
recovering a little of her old spirits, "is to meet dear Linda. She
always has such a pleasant effect upon people."

"Oh, we'll meet her all right, don't worry," said Bess gloomily. "She
always turns up when she is least wanted."

After breakfast, Walter, shocked and worried as were all the rest over
Nan's appearance, suggested that he take her and the other girls, if
they wanted to go, for a little ride in the automobile.

Bess refused on the ground that she had to write some letters, but the
other three said they would go. Mr. Mason had taken charge of Mrs.
Bragley's papers, so that there was that much less for Nan to worry
about. She was thankful for this, as she rather listlessly climbed into
the back seat with Grace and Rhoda.

"Let's go, Walter," she said, as she sank back luxuriously into her
corner. "And I don't very much care if we never get back."

Meanwhile, Bess was having an adventure all by herself. She went up to
her room after the girls left and dutifully wrote two letters, one to
her father and one to her mother.

Then, having had enough of duty for the present, she yawned and
stretched and wondered when Walter and the girls were coming back--or
whether they intended to stay all day.

Then an impish sprite of mischief whispered in her ear and her eyes
danced merrily. On that chance meeting with Cora and Linda in the hall
Cora had told her and Grace that they were staying in a suite of rooms
on the third floor, and had asked them to come to see her and Linda.

And now, to while away the time till the girls' return, Bess proposed to
take advantage of Cora's invitation and call upon her--and Linda.

She slipped along the hall, ran up the stairs to save waiting for the
elevator, and finally found the door, the number of which Cora had given
her some time before.

She heard voices raised in altercation within, and paused before
knocking. Then she heard Nan's name spoken in Linda's unpleasant tones,
and, quite unintentionally, she stood a moment playing eavesdropper.

"I tell you, she is a thief!" Linda was saying, in a voice that showed
she was in one of her frequent rages. "Nan Sherwood has been acting
funny ever since she came to Palm Beach, and that's why I've followed
her here to see what she is up to."

"Well, I'll tell you one thing," Cora shot back, and Bess was curiously
reminded of the turning worm. "I don't believe Nan Sherwood is any
thief. I think she's a mighty nice girl. And every time I think of the
mean trick you played on her, and how you nearly wrecked the school as
well----"

Bess drew in a sharp breath and immediately came to her senses. She
knocked loudly on the door, but the raised voices of the girls within
drowned the sound.

Linda had turned on Cora in a fury.

"You take that back," she shrilled. "If you dare tell anybody about my
wrecking that steam plant----"

But Bess, unable to contain herself another moment, tried the knob, felt
the door yield, and burst in upon the astonished girls.

"Oh!" she cried triumphantly, "I knew I couldn't be wrong! It was you,
Linda, after all!"



 CHAPTER XXVIII

 CAUGHT


It was lucky for Bess that Linda's father happened in at that moment,
for Linda, in her rage at thus being found out, looked as though she
would like to tear her enemy limb from limb.

As for Cora, she gave one horrified look at Bess, burst into tears, and
fled from the room.

Mr. Riggs, who was not at all the pompous, conceited man that the girls
at Lakeview Hall had come to think him, looked after Cora for a moment
in surprise, then turned smilingly back to the two girls and asked Linda
to introduce him to her friend.

For one electric moment it looked as though Linda were about to refuse.
Then what little common sense she had coming to her rescue, she sullenly
did as she was bid and Mr. Riggs began to ask a few casual questions of
Bess about how she liked Florida, if she had been there before, and
other questions, which Bess answered mechanically. Her eyes were upon
Linda as she stood at a window with her back to the room, her fingers
beating a nervous tattoo on the windowsill.

At last Bess managed to break away and was starting toward the door when
she was surprised to find that Linda was following her.

The girl stopped her at the door, and Bess thought she had never seen
any one as subdued and beaten as Linda looked at that moment.

"Please, Bess," she begged, lowering her voice so that her father would
not hear, "don't tell on me! No one at Lakeview Hall knows that I--I did
that. And no one will unless you tell them. Please, Bess!"

"N-no, I won't tell," said Bess hesitantly. "If was a horrible thing for
you to do, Linda, and Dr. Beulah ought to know. But I--I'm not a
tattle-tale."

Then she fled down the hall, down the stairs, and into her room again.

She told the story to the girls and Walter that night, and they listened
in amazement.

"Well!" said Grace. "And to think that Cora would be the one to give
Linda away."

"I don't know about promising not to tell Doctor Beulah," said Nan
thoughtfully. "It seems to me she ought to know----"

"Well, you tell her then," suggested Rhoda.

"Oh, I couldn't!" Nan flashed back indignantly, and Rhoda laughed at
her.

"You see!" she said.

"Well," sighed Grace, "it's of no use to worry about it now, anyway. We
can't do a thing till we get back to Lakeview Hall."

When Mr. Mason came in that night they questioned him eagerly, but he
had no real news to tell them. He had been able to prove nothing
definite against Jacob Pacomb, and as yet had found no trace of the men
who had so frightened Nan.

And Nan, away down in her heart, was still frightened, there could be no
doubt of that. The man had threatened her, had given her forty-eight
hours to turn over the papers, and more than twenty-four hours of that
time had already passed! If they did not succeed in tracing the
scoundrels and handing them over to justice in the next twenty-four
hours, what might not happen!

Both Rhoda and Grace shared her uneasiness, and lazy Bess grumbled
mightily at the loss of sleep consequent upon it. There is no doubt but
what the girls would have rested a great deal easier that night had they
known that a house detective, well paid for his services, kept watch
outside Nan's door till dawn crept in at the windows.

"I wish both of the men were in Greenland," grumbled Bess.

"Yes, and without anything to eat or drink and freezing to death," added
Rhoda.

"I can't understand why the authorities can't catch them," put in Grace.
"They have a very good description of them."

"Maybe they have left Florida," said Nan.

"Oh, if only they have," cried Bess. "But I am afraid there is no such
luck."

It was a weary-eyed quartette of girls that made its way down to the
dining-room that morning, and breakfast was eaten in gloomy silence.

Walter eyed the girls with a mixture of humor and sympathy, and once he
turned to his father with a grin.

"I say, Dad," he chuckled, "if something isn't done to-day about this
business, I'm afraid the girls will be dead by night. They look half
gone already."

After breakfast they wandered into the lobby of the hotel to see if
there was any mail for them. Nan had not heard from Papa Sherwood or
Momsey for almost a week, and she was beginning to feel neglected
indeed. If only she could have them with her now, to advise and help her
in this predicament!

"Here's a letter for you, Nan," Grace interrupted her rather unhappy
thoughts. "And here's another, with a Lakeview postmark. Must be from
one of the girls at school. One for you, too, Rhoda. Looks like
Procrastination's handwriting."

Just then Bess made a funny little sound, half gasp and half
exclamation, and they turned to her. Bess's face was white and her hand
shook as she grasped Nan's arm.

"Look at those men!" she whispered, and though it was only a whisper it
went through Nan like a knife. "Over there--crossing the lobby! Nan! Oh,
what are you doing? Don't, Nan, he may shoot you! Nan!"

But Nan was already running across the lobby, unmindful of staring eyes,
all her fear turned to anger at these men who dared appear in public
after the cowardly attack they had made upon her. She darted in front of
them and blocked their way, her eyes blazing and her body tense.

The short, fat man started at sight of her and drew back. But black rage
darkened his companion's face and he made a gesture as though to push
Nan out of the way. He might have done it, too, and made his escape
easily, for the curious people who had gathered in the lobby seemed
paralyzed with amazement, had not Rhoda suddenly appeared at her chum's
side, a little flame of white-hot indignation.

"Don't dare touch her!" she cried fiercely. "You've done
enough--you--you----"

"Here, here, what's this?" asked an authoritative voice, and a big burly
man, an assistant manager of the hotel, pushed his way through the
gathering crowd.

"These girls are crazy," cried the tall man, turning furiously upon the
newcomer, while his fat companion took out an immense silk handkerchief
and nervously wiped his forehead. "If you don't get them out of the way
and lock them up, I'll sue your place----"

"Officer, arrest those men!"

Clear and startling, the voice rang out above the confusion, and the two
men, without waiting to see who their new enemy was, made a dash for the
open door, which was still only defended by Nan and Rhoda.

But the hotel man was quicker than they. He sprang before them and
pushed them back into the crowd, which opened to admit them and closed
around them again, making escape utterly impossible.

For a moment, Nan and Rhoda, left outside of the circle around the men,
could see nothing of what happened. But presently Mr. Mason--it was he
who, coming suddenly upon the scene in the lobby, had demanded the
arrest of the men--pushed his way through the crowd and beckoned to Nan.
She went with him, and Rhoda followed close behind. Grace and Bess had
already pushed their way into the crowd.

The house detective, who had been in consultation with Mr. Mason when
the thing happened, had taken the two men into custody. The tall, thin
scoundrel, who had appeared in Nan's dreams for many restless nights,
stood there sullenly, glowering around fiercely at the curious faces
while his companion used his handkerchief more vehemently and seemed to
be growing more nervous with every minute that passed.

"Can you swear that these are the men who attacked you in an orange
grove near here yesterday and demanded of you certain papers which were
not in your possession?" the detective gravely asked of Nan.

"Yes, sir," answered the girl eagerly. Walter had slipped up beside her
and was holding her hand in a comforting grip, but she did not know it.

"Can you also testify that they have attempted to obtain possession of
these papers at various other occasions during the last two or three
weeks?" the man went on, and this time Nan only nodded.

"Well," said the detective, turning grimly to his prisoners, while the
crowd, not having the slightest idea what the commotion was about, but
with a keen love of the dramatic, edged closer, "I reckon the little
lady's testimony is sufficient to send you two up for quite a little
vacation."

"Wait a minute, officer," whined the fat man, in spite of his
companion's attempt to stop him. "You want Jacob Pacomb. He's the man
who got us into this mess."

"So you've turned stool pigeon, too, as well as crook?" drawled the
detective, while Nan and Mr. Mason exchanged a triumphant look. "Yes, I
reckon we do want Jacob Pacomb, too. We've been wanting him for a long
while. But since this is the first chance we've had to get the goods on
him, we won't waste any time doing it. Will one of you gentlemen call up
the police station?"

Mr. Mason nodded, and the crowd opened to make way for him.

But at the mention of the police station, the fat man broke down
completely and, evidently nursing some false hope that by telling all he
knew he might get off easy himself, he babbled unceasingly until the
police patrol drew up before the door. His companion stood off by
himself, with apparently no interest whatever in the proceedings.

"Fine," said the detective, rising and patting the short man on the back
as two policemen made their way into the lobby and saluted him. "Now you
can tell the rest of your story to the judge. Will you come with us,
sir?" he asked, turning to Mr. Mason as the policeman took the men in
charge. "We may need your testimony to round up Jacob Pacomb."

Mr. Mason nodded, but paused for a moment on his way to the door to
speak to Nan.

"Everything's fine," he said, beaming down upon her. "We'll get this
Pacomb where we want him, and then your troubles--and Mrs.
Bragley's--will be over, Nan. Tell you all about it when I get back."

Nan smiled back at him, and then as the crowd, its curiosity satisfied,
began to disperse, she sank down into one of the comfortable chairs and
looked weakly up at her excited chums. Then for the first time she
noticed Walter--and the fact that he was holding her hand.

"Where did you get it?" she asked.

"What?"

"My hand?"

Walter chuckled and answered slyly:

"I took it when you weren't looking."

She smiled at him weakly--but it was rather a satisfying smile.



 CHAPTER XXIX

 "WHEN THE SPIRIT MOVES"


"Oh, I'm so excited," said Grace, looking from Walter to Nan. "Just
think, Nan! Everything happened just like a story."

"Well, I must say," said Bess emphatically, "that for my part I'm glad
it's over. I may be able to sleep to-night without expecting to be
stabbed in the back."

"Goodness! they weren't after you," said Nan practically. "I was
the--the----" she paused for a word and Walter obligingly supplied it.

"Goat?" he asked.

"Goat," she agreed with a smile.

"Oh, but you were wonderful, Nan," said Grace worshipfully. "I never
would have had the courage to face those men the way you did."

"But if it hadn't been for Rhoda, they might have got away even then,"
said Nan generously, and Rhoda flushed with pleasure.

"I'm glad if I helped at all," the girl from Rose Ranch said modestly.

It was not till the girls were alone in their room that they remembered
the unopened morning mail. Nan had been holding her letters tight in her
hand through all the excitement. They opened them without much interest,
for even letters could hardly hope to compete with the excitement of
this morning.

One of Nan's letters was from Momsey, and she put it away with a tender
smile, for she always saved the best till the last. Then she opened the
other letter, which was from Laura Polk, and immediately her
indifference changed to interest.

In the letter, which Nan read aloud, Laura recounted excitedly to Nan
how Dr. Prescott had found that Linda was responsible for the wrecking
of the steam plant and that Linda's father would undoubtedly be asked to
pay the bill for repairs.

"Does she say how they found out?" questioned Bess quickly.

"One of the servants saw Linda down there with some rope. She was taken
sick and went home for a while, and did not know anything about the
trouble at the school. But she is well now and ready to go back to her
work, and in talking to Doctor Beulah the story came out."

"I'm mighty glad Doctor Beulah knows," said Bess. "I don't suppose any
of us could have told on Linda, but she deserved to be found out--the
horrid thing."

"I don't suppose Linda can help her disposition," said Grace mildly. "I
heard mother say once that she was her own worst enemy."

"I suppose she is," said Rhoda skeptically. "But that doesn't make us
like her any better!"

Then Nan put down Laura's letter and turned to Momsey's. It was a long,
long letter, and she read it over twice.

"Dear Momsey!" she murmured to herself. "How much I will have to tell
you when I see you again!"

A few hours later Mr. Mason came back with the news that Jacob Pacomb
had been arrested for the crooked swindler that he was.

It seemed that at the time he had sold the property to Mrs. Bragley's
husband, Pacomb had made five other grants, and, now that the property
had proved more valuable than he had hoped for, he was trying underhand
means to recover it.

The men who had made life miserable for Nan for the last few weeks and
had almost wrecked Bess's temper and who were now gracing twin cells in
prison, were simply agents of Pacomb's.

"So now everything is settled happily," Mr. Mason finished. "We can go
back to Palm Beach whenever the spirit moves us."

The spirit did not move them for several days, however, for Sunny Slopes
was a pretty place and the surrounding country beautiful. Also Nan had
telegraphed the joyful news to Mrs. Bragley and, since she had given
the address of the hotel where they were staying, she was eager to
receive a letter in answer from the widow before they went back to the
Royal Poinciana.

"Although I do hope she writes soon," she had confided to Walter. "For I
am really getting homesick for Palm Beach again."

The girls went to see Linda the day after Nan received Laura's letter,
but found that she and Cora had left without leaving word of any kind
for any of them.

"Poor Cora!" Bess said, as they made their way down to the street. "I
guess she hasn't had any easy time of it since she let the cat out of
the bag to me about Linda."

At last the expected letter came from Mrs. Bragley, and the girls
gathered around Nan eagerly as she read it aloud. One had only to read
the first line to tell that the old woman was overjoyed at her good
fortune. The letter fairly overflowed with gratitude to Nan for what she
had done.

     "It has lifted a weight from my shoulders, my dear, such as you
     will never know," the letter finished. "At least I hope and pray
     that you may not. And if the time ever comes when you need help,
     don't be afraid to come to a lonely old woman, who will be proud
     and happy to pay back a little of the debt she owes you."

"That's worth every disagreeable thing we went through, isn't it,
girls?" Nan asked, looking up at them with shining eyes. "Isn't it
wonderful to be able to make somebody just a little bit happier because
they have met you?"

"Maybe that's why we are all so happy," said Bess gaily, flinging her
arms about her chum. "Because we have you, Nan Sherwood."

"Now with Nan's villains and Linda off our minds," drawled Rhoda,
sinking lazily down into the depths of a big chair, "we ought to be able
to enjoy ourselves."

"Will we!" cried Grace softly. "Just you watch us!"

The next morning they started back for Palm Beach. Walter asked Nan to
ride with him, and she surprised herself as much as him by accepting the
invitation.

She was feeling joyously care-free and venturesome this morning, and it
was wonderful to be beside Walter in the car with the sweet wind rushing
by and the country unfolding in tropical luxuriance at every turn.

"Oh, Walter, aren't you glad you're alive?" she asked of the youth at
her side.

Walter's eyes were happy as he turned to her.

"You said it," he answered fervently.

Just then Bess, in the car ahead, looked back at them. Was it only Nan's
imagination again or did the look seem to say, more plainly than any
words could have done:

"Nan Sherwood, what did I tell you?"

But Nan just then did not care what Bess thought. She was very happy and
that being so she meant to enjoy herself thoroughly during the remainder
of her stay in Florida.

And now, with many good times still in store for them at Palm Beach, we
will say good-bye to Nan Sherwood and her chums.

     THE END





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