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CHAPTER XV


OFF TO INVESTIGATE


Drip! drip! drip!

Betty listened sleepily, and then, as she raised herself on one elbow to hear better, she knew the noise was made by the rain.

"If that isn't too provoking!" Bobby sat up with an indignant jerk and surveyed Betty across the little table at the head of the beds. "I thought we'd all go down to Mount Vernon to-day, and now it's gone and rained and spoiled it all. Oh, dear! I don't think I'll get up"; and she curled down in a dejected heap under the white spread.

"Well, I'm going to get up," announced Betty decidedly, springing out of bed with her accustomed energy. "Rainy days are just as much fun as sunny ones, and there's something I have to do to-day, weather or no weather."

"She's a dear," said Louise warmly, smiling as the sound of Betty's carolling came to them above the sound of running water in the bathroom. "Mother says she likes her more and more every day. I wish her uncle would never write to her and she'd just go on living with us all the time."

"And go to school with us in the fall. That would be nice," agreed Bobby reflectively. "But, of course, Betty's heart would be broken if she never heard from her uncle. However, we'll be as nice to her as we can, and then maybe she will want to stay with us anyway, even if he does send for her."

"What are you two plotting?" asked Betty gaily, emerging warm and rosy from her vigorous tubbing. "Do you know, I've just remembered that I promised to show Libbie how to make mile-a-minute lace before breakfast? I hope there is time."

"What on earth do you want to make lace for?" demanded the practical Bobby, as her cousin appeared in the doorway, rubbing sleepy eyes. "It's too early to begin on Christmas presents."

Libbie was not at all confused in her ideas, and she had a very clear reason for wishing to add this accomplishment to her rather limited list.

"It's for my hope-chest," she informed Bobby with dignity, and not even the shout of laughter which greeted this statement could ruffle her. "You may think it's funny," she observed serenely, "but I have six towels and three aprons made and put away all ready."

"My aunt!" sighed Bobby inelegantly, shaking her head. "You believe in starting young, don't you? Why, I'm fourteen, and I've never given a thought to a hope-chest."

Here Esther, the early riser of the family, created a diversion by coming in fully dressed and announcing that Mammy Lou was willing to teach as many girls as cared to come after breakfast how to make beaten biscuit.

"Take Libbie," giggled Bobby, whose sense of humor was easily tickled. "She's collecting stuff for her hope chest and I should think biscuit recipes would be just the thing. Do you want to learn to cook, Betty? Esther has a kitchen hobby and rides it almost to death."

"I do not!" retorted Esther indignantly. "Do I, Louise? Mother loved to cook when she was a girl, and she says she likes to see me fussing in the kitchen."

Betty was showing Libbie how to hold her crochet hook, and now she looked up from her pupil.

"Why, I'd love to learn to make those wonderful biscuits Mammy Lou makes," she said slowly, "but I really have to go into Washington to-day. That is, if it will not upset any one's plans? I can easily walk to the trolley line, and I won't be gone longer than a couple of hours."

A trolley line ran about half a mile from the house, and to Betty who had frequently walked ten miles a day while at Bramble Farm, this distance seemed negligible.

"Let me go with you, Betty?" coaxed Bobby. "Carter will take us in the machine. I won't bother you, and if you have personal business to attend to, I'll wait for you in the library or some place. Cooking and making lace drives me wild, and if you leave me at home as likely as not I'll pick a quarrel with some one before the morning is over."

"Worse than that, she'll insist on singing while I'm trying to practice," said Louise. "I'm three or four days behind with my violin, and a rainy morning is a grand time to catch up. Do take her with you, Betty."

"Why, goodness, she will be taking me," insisted Betty. "Of course you know I'll love to have you, Bobby. As a matter of fact, I wanted to ask you to go with me because it is a strange place and your father said not to go alone. Only I didn't want to disturb any plans you might have made for to-day. I'll tell you about it on the way," she added noting the look of growing curiosity on Bobby's face.

After breakfast the girls scattered to their chosen occupations, and Mrs. Littell settled herself to read to her husband on the glass enclosed piazza that extended half way across the back of the house. The car was brought round for Betty and Bobby and, commissioned to do several small errands in town, they set off.

"Now where are we going?" demanded Bobby bouncing around on the seat cushions more like a girl of seven than fourteen. "Do tell me, for I'm simply devoured with curiosity."

So Betty briefly outlined for her a little of Bob's history and of what she knew Lockwood Hale had told the poorhouse master. She also explained how she had obtained the old bookshop man's address from the bride they had met in the Monument the day before.

The rain came down steadily, and the country road was already muddy, showing that it had stormed the greater part of the night. Carter was a careful driver, and the luxurious limousine had been substituted for the touring car so that the girls were protected and very comfortable. Quite suddenly Carter brought the car to a stop on a lonely stretch of road just above a sharp turn.

"Goodness, I hope he hasn't a puncture," said Bobby. "I was so interested in listening to you I never heard anything. What's wrong, Carter?" she called.

"There's a little dog in the road, Miss Bobby," said Carter slowly and distinctly, as he always spoke. Bobby had once declared that she did not believe a fire would shake Carter from his drawling speech. "A puppy, I guess you'd call it. I'll have to move it to one side before we can drive past, because it is in the middle of the road."

Bobby leaned out to look.

"It must be hurt!" she cried. "Bring it in here, quick, Carter. Why, it's just a tiny puppy, Betty," she added; "a black and white one."

Carter, mingled pain and reproach in his face, brought the dog to them, holding it gingerly away from him so as not to soil his coat.

"It's very muddy, Miss Bobby," he said disapprovingly. "Your mother won't like them nice gray cushions all stained up."

"Well, couldn't you lend me your handkerchief, Carter?" suggested Bobby gently. "I'll wipe him off. There now, he's all right. My handkerchief's so small it wouldn't have done one of his paws."

Carter, minus his handkerchief, started the car and they rounded the curve. The puppy seemed to be all right except that he was wet and shivering, and Bobby and Betty had decided that he was very young but otherwise in perfect health when the car stopped again.

"There's another one of 'em, Miss Bobby," groaned Carter. "You don't want this one, do you?"

The girls thrust out their heads. Sure enough, another black and white puppy lay abandoned in the roadway.

"Certainly, we'll pick it up," said Bobby indignantly. "Do you suppose we're going to go past a dog and let it die in the rain? Bring it here, please, Carter."

The old man got down stiffly and picked up the dog. This time he handed over a second handkerchief with a ludicrous air of "take-it-and-ruin-it."

"That's the last handkerchief I have with me, Miss Bobby," he announced feelingly, watching his young mistress mopping water and mud from the rescued puppy.

"Well, there won't be any more puppies, Carter," Bobby assured him cheerfully.

But they had not gone twenty rods when they found another, and, after that, a few rods further on, a fourth.

"Here's where we use our own handkerchiefs," giggled Bobby. "And what are we going to do with a car full of dogs?"

The problem was solved, however, before they crossed the bridge into Washington. On the hill leading to the bridge they overtook a small colored boy weeping bitterly. Bobby signaled Carter to stop, and leaning out asked the child what the matter was.

"I done lost my dawgs!" he sobbed. "We-all is moving, and I had 'em in a basket with a burlap bottom. I done tol mammy that burlap was rotten." He held up the basket for them to see the hole in the cloth tacked across the bottom. "I was going to sell them dawgs for fifty cents apiece when they was bigger," he finished with a fresh burst of grief.

His joy when the girls showed him the puppies and explained how they had found them was correspondingly noisy. He had an old gingham apron with him, and into this the dogs were unceremoniously bundled and securely knotted. Betty and Bobby each gave him a shining ten-cent piece, and a blissful boy went whistling over the bridge, his world changed to sunshine in a few brief minutes.

The car threaded a side street, turned twice, and brought up before a quaint old house with a basement shop tucked away under a bulging bay-window.

"This is Hale's bookshop, Miss," said Carter respectfully to Betty.