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CHAPTER XVI


WHAT HALE HAD TO TELL


The door of the bookstore opened with a loose old-fashioned latch, and one fell down two steps without warning into a long, narrow room lined with books. Betty went first, and Bobby, stumbling, would have fallen if she had not caught her.

"Gracious! I'm a little bit scared, aren't you?" Bobby whispered. "It seems like such a spooky place."

It was certainly very quiet in the shop, and for a few moments Betty thought they must be alone. Then some one stirred, and, looking down the room, they saw an old man bent over a book open on a table near a dusty window. He wore big horn spectacles and was evidently extremely near-sighted, for he kept his face so near the book that his nose almost touched the pages.

"That must be Mr. Hale," said Betty. "I wonder if it's all right to interrupt him?"

"I should say the only way to make him understand you're here, would be to go up and take that book away," rejoined Bobby.

"He can't be very anxious to sell anything, or he'd pay more attention to his store," giggled Betty.

"I'll wait here," said Bobby hastily, as Betty moved toward the rear of the store. "I'd probably say the wrong thing anyway. Let me see, I'll be reading this fat brown book. They all look alike to me, but this may be thrilling in spots."

Betty approached the motionless old man, whose lean brown forefinger traced the curious black characters in the book before him so slowly that it did not seem to budge at all.

"I beg your pardon?" she said tentatively.

No response.

"I want to ask you—" Betty began again, a a little breathlessly. "I want to ask you about a boy named Bob Henderson."

"Name's Hale," said the old man, without looking up and speaking in a cracked, hoarse voice. "Lockwood Hale, dealer in new and secondhand books. Just look around on the tables and you'll likely come across what you want. I'll wrap it for you when you find it. Just now I'm busy."

Betty looked desperately at Bobby, who was listening over the top of her book, and stifled a desire to laugh.

"I don't want a book," she insisted gently. "I want to ask you a question. About Bob Henderson. You know you were interested in the records of the Oliver County almshouse, and you thought you might know something of his people."

The old man pushed his spectacles up on his forehead fretfully and regarded the girl impatiently from a pair of near-sighted blue eyes.

"The books weren't worth anything," he told her seriously. "I spent near a day going over 'em, and there wasn't a volume worth bringing back with me. Folks get the idea in their heads that a book's worth money just because it is old. 'Tain't so—I could fill my tables and shelves with old trash and still not have any stock. Jim Turner don't know a valuable book from a turnip."

Mr. Hale gave every indication of returning to the absorbing volume before him, and Betty plunged in hastily with another question.

"You know a boy named Bob Henderson, don't you?" she urged.

"Yes, he was in here some time last week," answered Hale calmly. "Was it Wednesday, or Tuesday—that load of old almanacs was delivered that same afternoon."

"Well, I'm a friend of his." Betty almost stuttered in her eagerness to explain before the old man should be lost again in his book. "He worked on the farm where I spent the summer, and he told me about you and how anxious he was to see you and find out about his people. I've been anxious, too, to learn if he reached Washington and whether he is here now. Do you know?"

Now that the shopkeeper's mind was fairly detached from his printed page he seemed to be more interested in his caller, and though he did not offer to get Betty a chair, he looked about him vaguely as though he might be seeking a place for her to sit.

"I don't mind standing. I mustn't stay long," she said hurriedly, afraid to let him fix his attention on outside objects. "Didn't Bob Henderson say where he was going? Did he mention anything about leaving Washington?"

"Well, now let me see," considered the old man. "Bob Henderson? Oh, yes, I recollect now how he looked—a manly lad with a frank face. Yes, yes, his mother was Faith Henderson, born a Saunders. That's what caught my eye on the almshouse record book. Years ago I traced the Saunders line for a fine young lady who was marrying here in Washington. She wanted a coat of arms, and she was entitled to one, too. But there was a break in the line, one branch ending suddenly with the birth of Faith Saunders, daughter of Robert and Grace. I never forget a name, so when I read the almshouse record and saw the name of this lad's mother there I knew I had my chart complete. Yes, the boy was interested in what I could tell him."

Betty, too, was interested and glad to know that Bob had succeeded in finding the old bookseller and learning from him what he had to tell. But if Bob was still in Washington, she wanted to see him. He could doubtless tell her what to do in case she did not hear from her uncle within a few days—and Betty was growing exceedingly anxious as no answer came in reply to her telegram. And above all, she wanted to see an old friend. The Littells were kindness itself to her, but she craved a familiar face, some one to whom she could say, "Do you remember?"

"Didn't Bob say where he was going?" she urged again.

"Going?" Mr. Hale repeated the question placidly. "Oh, I believe he went to Oklahoma."

Oklahoma! Betty had a sudden wild conviction that her thoughts had been so centered on that one locality that she was beginning to lose her mind and imagine that every one repeated the word to her.

"Did you—did you say Oklahoma?" she ventured. "Why, how funny! I have an uncle out there in the oil fields. At least we think he is in the oil fields," she added, a sudden look of worry flashing into her eyes. "It seems so funny that Bob should go away off there."

The old man peered up at her shrewdly.

"Aye, aye, funny it may be," he croaked. "But suppose I should tell you I advised the lad to go there? Would that seem funny, eh?"

Betty stared in complete bewilderment.

"Oh, it isn't always in the story books, sometimes it happens to real boys," he nodded exultantly. "Suppose I told you, in strictest confidence, young lady, for I think you're a true friend to him, that he has relatives out there? His mother's two sisters, both of 'em living on the old homestead? Neither of 'em married and without near kith or kin so far as they know? Suppose I tell you that the old farm, as I locate it, is in the oil section? Suppose the lad is entitled to his mother's interest in the place? Eh? Suppose I tell you that?"

He made a question of each point, and emitted a dry cackle after every assertion.

"I told the lad to go out there, and if he had any trouble proving who he was to come back here to me," said Hale importantly. "I can help him straighten out the tangles. I've untied many a knot for families more tangled up than this. So he may be back, he may be back. Drop in any day, and I'll tell you whatever I know."

Betty thanked him warmly and he followed the girls to the door, repeating that he would be glad to tell them everything he knew.

They were going to one of the large shops to do a few errands for Mrs. Littell, and since their visit to the bookstore had taken so long they agreed to separate and each do one or two commissions and then meet at the door within half an hour.

Betty's mind was busy with the astonishing revelations Lockwood Hale had made, and as she deftly matched wool for a sweater, she turned the information over in her mind.

"I don't believe Bob has gone so far West at all," she said to herself firmly. "He wouldn't have money enough, I'm sure. I suppose he has written to me, but my mail will go to the farm, of course, and Mr. Peabody would be the last person to forward it. I must write the postmaster to hold and redirect my mail—when I know where I am to be."

Although she had promised herself not to worry, Betty was becoming very anxious to hear from her uncle. She had written to the Benders in Laurel Grove and to Norma Guerin at Glenside, explaining her situation and asking them to let her know as soon as the quarantine in Pineville should be lifted. She knew that she could visit friends there indefinitely. But that did not much lighten the burden. Anxiety for her uncle and growing fear that she might never again hear from him, it had already been so long a time since his last letter, at times oppressed her.

Their shopping finished, she and Bobby were reunited and were glad to enter the car and drive quietly home to luncheon. It was still raining, and they found the other girls impatient for their return.

"We know all about beaten biscuit," boasted Esther. "And I stirred up a gold cake every bit myself."

"Practising all done," reported Louise. "And I'm just aching for a good lively game. No wedding stuff, Libbie, I warn you. I can see a romantic gleam in your eye."

Libbie said nothing then, but after lunch when they were debating what to do, she had a suggestion.

"Let's play hide-and-go-seek," she said enthusiastically.

"Well, I didn't know you had that much sense," approved Bobby, who was blunt almost to a fault but undoubtedly fond of her younger cousin. "Come on, girls, we'll have one more good game before the family begin to hint I'm too old for such hoydenish tricks. We'll go up to the attic and make as much noise as we can."