CHAPTER XI


A SERIOUS MIX-UP


"You are Betty, aren't you?" the girlish voice insisted, and this time Betty identified it as belonging to a girl a year or two older than herself who stood smiling uncertainly at her.

"Yes, of course I'm Betty," said Betty Gordon smiling.

The face of her questioner cleared.

"All right, girls," she called, beckoning to two others who stood a little way off. "She's Betty, I was sure I hadn't make a mistake."

Betty found herself surrounded by three laughing faces, beaming with good-will and cordiality.

"We must introduce ourselves," said the girl who had first spoken to her. "This is Louise," pointing to a gray-eyed miss apparently about Betty's age. "This is Esther." A girl with long yellow braids and pretty even white teeth bobbed a shy acknowledgment. "And of course I'm Roberta, Bobby for short."

"And if we don't hurry, we'll be late for dinner," suggested the girl who had been called Louise. "You know Carter isn't as patient as he once was; he hates to have to wait."

Bobby thrust her arm through Betty's protectingly.

"Come on, Betty," she said comfortably. "Never mind about your trunk check. Carter will drive down after it early in the morning."

Betty's bewildered mind was vaguely appreciative of the wide sweep of open plaza which lay before them as they came out on the other side of the station, but before she could say a word she was gently bundled into a handsome automobile, a girl on either side of her and one opposite, and the grim-faced, silver-haired old chauffeur, evidently slightly intolerant of the laughter and high spirits of his young passengers, had started to thread his way through the lane of taxicabs and private cars.

Betty was intensely puzzled, to put it mildly. Her uncle had mentioned no girls in his letters to her, and even supposing that she had missed some letters, it was hardly possible that he should not have let fall an explanatory word or two from time to time.

"I thought Uncle Dick would come down to meet me," she said, voicing her surprise at last.

"Oh, poor dear, his heart is almost broken to think he has to stay cooped up in the house," answered Bobby, who seemed to be the general spokesman. "But how stupid of us—of course you don't know that he hurt his foot!"

"Is he hurt?" Betty half rose from her seat in alarm. "Is he badly injured? When did it happen?"

Bobby pulled the excited girl down beside her.

"You see it happened only yesterday," explained Louise, finding her voice with a rush. "You'd better believe we were frightened when they brought him to the house in the ambulance. His foot has some little bones broken in it, the doctor says, but he'll be all right in a month or so. He has to hobble around on crutches till the bones knit."

"But it isn't serious, so don't look like that," urged Bobby. "Why, Betty, your lips are positively white. We're so thankful it was his foot and not his head—that would have been something to worry about."

"How—how did it happen?" gasped Betty, anxious and worried in spite of these assurances. "Was he in an accident?"

"He was the whole accident," announced Bobby cheerfully. "You see he's completely wrapped up in these new buildings they're putting up on the outskirts. We'll take you out to see 'em while you're here and perhaps you'll understand the construction, which is more than I do. Anyway, the whole firm and every workman is absorbed in the experiment, and they're burnt as red as the bricks from working outdoors all day."

"Uncle Dick does love to be outdoors," murmured Betty.

"He sure does," agreed Bobby. "Well, nothing would do yesterday but that he must climb up on the roof of one they've just started and take a peek at the chimney. I guess it needed looking after, for the whole thing tumbled over on him, coming down full-weight on his right foot. Forcet, the foreman, had an awful time getting him down from the roof, and instead of telephoning for the car, some nervous person sent for the ambulance and scared us all into fits."

Betty blinked again. No mention of building houses had been made in Uncle Dick's letters to her.

"Did he get my telegram?" she asked, leaning forward to look at a monument they were passing.

"A little before noon," replied Bobby. "Louise and Esther and I had such a violent argument as to which of us should come to meet you that we didn't even dare draw lots; it seemed safer for us all to come along."

Esther, who sat opposite Betty, had noticed her interest in the Washington Monument.

"We're going to take you sightseeing to-morrow," she promised. "Aren't we, Bobby? And I don't see why we don't go home by way of Fort Myer. It doesn't take any longer, and dinner isn't till seven, you know."

"All right." Bobby leaned forward and spoke to the chauffeur. "Take us round by Fort Myer, please, Carter," she directed.

The car turned sharply, and in a few minutes they were rattling over an old bridge.

"We live out in the country, Betty, I warn you," said the voluble Bobby. "But it has its compensations. You'll like it."

Betty, a stranger to Washington, decided that the Willard must be a country hotel. It would be like Uncle Dick, she knew, to shun the heart of the city and establish himself somewhere where he could see green fields the first thing every morning.

"What is Fort Myer?" she asked with lively curiosity, as the car began to climb a steep grade. "Is that where they had training camps during the war?"

"Right," said Bobby. "It's an army post, you know. See, here are some of the officers' houses. I only hope we live here when Louise and I are eighteen—they give the most heavenly dances and parties."

Betty looked with interest at the neat houses they were passing. The names of the officers were conspicuously tacked on the doorsteps, and there was a general air of orderliness and military spic and spanness about the very gravel roads. Occasionally a dust-colored car shot past them filled with men in uniform.

"Do you ride?" asked Betty suddenly. "Uncle Dick has always wanted me to learn, but I've never had a good chance."

"Well, you can begin to-morrow morning," Bobby informed her. "We've three ponies that are fine under the saddle. Betty, I do wish you'd make up your mind to live in Washington this winter. There's no reason in the world why you shouldn't, and we were talking it over last night, making plans for you."

"Why! that's entirely as Uncle Dick says," returned Betty, surprised. "I haven't any say in the matter."

Bobby shot a triumphant glance toward the other girls.

"He said he hadn't much right to dictate, but I told him I knew better," she said with satisfaction. "He wants you as much as we do, and that's considerable, you know."

Again a wave of doubt swept over Betty. Uncle Dick had said he had not much right to dictate! When he was her only living relative!

"Uncle hasn't a fever or anything, has he?" she asked apprehensively. "I mean the injury to his foot hasn't, it didn't—" she floundered.

"Oh, that old hurt to his head never amounted to anything," declared Bobby with convincing carelessness. "No, indeed, he's perfectly well except for the crutches, and the doctor says keeping him indoors for a few days will give him a much-needed rest."

Betty recalled the accident in which her uncle had been stunned when he had slipped down a bank into an excavation made along a road on which they had been driving. Bobby evidently referred to that old injury.

"Now you can begin to watch for the house," said the silent Esther, as Carter swung the car around another curve in the beautiful road. "I don't see why I couldn't have been named Virginia!"

"Esther has a personal grievance because she's the only one of us born in the South, and she had to be named for an aunt like the rest of us," laughed Bobby. "Every tenth girl you meet down here seems to be named Virginia."

"But was she born in Virginia?" asked Betty. "Where did you live then?"

Bobby stared. Then she laughed.

"Oh, I see," she said. "We lived at Fairfields. Of course you know that. But, like so many friends, you have always thought of us as living in Washington. We're in Virginia, Betty, didn't you know that?"

"No." Betty's puzzlement was plainly written on her face.

"When we crossed the bridge, we left the District of Columbia," explained Bobby. "Of course we're very close to the line, but still we are not in Washington."

"There's the house!" exclaimed Louise. "I wonder if mother got back from shopping. I don't see her on the porch."

Betty saw a beautiful white house, dazzlingly white against a background of dark trees, with a broad lawn in front circled by a wide white driveway. A terraced garden at the side with a red brick walk was arranged with wicker chairs and tables and a couple of swings protected with gay striped awnings. It was a typical Southern mansion in perfect order, and Betty reveled in its architectural perfections even while she told herself that it did not look in the slightest like a hotel. What was it Bobby had called her home? "Fairfields"—that was it; and she, Betty, wanted to go to the Willard. Had they made a mistake and brought her to the wrong place?

There was no time to ask for explanations, however. The girls swept her out of the car and up the low steps through the beautiful doorway. A well-trained man servant closed the door noiselessly, and the three bore Betty across the wide hall into a room lined with books and boasting three or four built-in window seats, in one of which a gentleman was reading.

"We found her! Here she is!" shouted the irrepressible Bobby. "Don't tell us we can't pick a girl named Betty out of a crowd!"

The gentleman closed his book, and, steadying himself with a cane lying near by, rose slowly. There was no recognition in the gaze he fastened on Betty, and she for her part hung back, staring wildly.

"You're not Uncle Dick!" she gasped accusingly.