Betty Gordon in Washington/23
The black eyes of the little man suddenly disappeared. They were so bright and glistening that their disappearance was noticeable. He had closed them tight and was laughing!
As suddenly as he had laughed, his mirth stopped, and he stared sternly at the anxious Betty.
"You expect me to believe that?" he asked incredulously.
"It is true," she said quietly.
"True—bah!" The vehemence of his tone quite startled her. "True ! When all you had to do to reach the first floor—had access to the street been your object—was to let down the folding flight to the ground."
Betty's jaw dropped. She and Bob looked at each other helplessly.
"We—we never thought of that!" she faltered.
It was true. In her excitement she had not noticed the folding flight of steps that let down to the ground in an emergency, and for protection against sneak thieves was always drawn up except during fire drills. Bob had been equally careless. As for the Littell girls, like docile sheep, they had never thought to question their leaders.
Still keeping the revolver pointed at them, the little man took down the telephone receiver.
"Bob!" whispered Betty. "Oh, Bob, this is dreadful! What will Mrs. Littell say? And those reporters! If they get hold of this, the elevator story will be nothing."
Bobby and Louise and Esther and Libbie stood in a forlorn group, their gaze fixed trustingly on Bob and Betty, whom they trusted to get them out of this scrape somehow.
As for Bob, he was handicapped by numbers. He could easily have planned a way to get himself and one girl out of the room, but to hope to spirit away five substantial maidens under the black eyes fastened unwaveringly upon him, was too great a problem for quick solution. He did not fear trouble in establishing their innocence, but the notoriety accompanying such an episode could not be otherwise than distinctly unpleasant.
"I suppose that's gold dust in the tray," thought Bob wretchedly. "Of all the poor luck, to pick out an office with gold dust floating around as free as air! Why didn't the dub lock it up in his safe?"
The little man was having trouble to get "Central." He jiggled the hook frantically in flat defiance of all telephone rules, and he shouted loudly into the transmitter, as though enough noise could rouse the number he sought.
Just at this moment the outer door opened and a man entered. He was a man of middle age with a closely clipped gray moustache and kindly gray eyes. It was Mr. Matthews, the owner of the business.
The little man, seeing him, flung the receiver into the hook with a bang and poured forth a volley of French, emphasized by wild gestures.
After listening for a few moments, Mr. Matthews turned a wondering gaze on the group of subdued looking young people. His expression soon turned to one of amusement.
After a word or two in French to the little man, evidently of thanks for his zeal, he said to Bob and the girls:
"Won't you please tell me your side of the story? I find it hard to believe that you have set forth to rob and steal."
The tale came out with a rush, Bob, Betty, and Bobby taking turns or all talking together, the others, fortunately, being content to let the three tell the story.
Mr. Matthews was sympathetic and apologetic, but he was also amused, and he laughed heartily. It seemed he knew Mr. Littell. The "robber band," as Bobby afterwards named them, laughed with him; in fact, in their relief, laughing till the tears came. The black-eyed man, meanwhile, left the room, still, evidently, suspicious of them.
"Monsieur Brissot," explained Mr. Matthews, "is a Belgian diamond cutter who has just come to this country. He seems to be suspicious of everybody, and, I fear, does not always use judgment in his handling of such matters. I am grateful, however, for the interest he takes in my business, and trust you young people will overlook his excess of zeal."
Mr. Matthews showed them to the door, and as by this time the reporters were well away intent on other affairs, they went out of the building in the regular way—a more seemly way than scuttling down fire escapes and breaking into jewelry shops, so Betty declared.
"Well, good gracious!" observed Bobby, when they were once outside. "If this hasn't been an exciting morning! First we get nearly killed, then we're rescued, and next we're almost arrested."
They boarded a street car and went to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where they spent an interesting afternoon touring the immense plant, the best equipped of its kind in the world.
The recital of their adventures at the dinner table that night provoked mingled merriment and concern.
"Never mind, it will teach 'em self-reliance," Mr. Littell insisted, when his wife protested that the girls would have to be more closely chaperoned on subsequent trips. "Falling into scrapes is the finest lesson-book ever opened to the heedless."
Sunday morning the girls and Mrs. Littell motored to Washington and attended services in one of the fine old churches. There they had an excellent opportunity to observe the President of the United States and his wife, who, as Libbie said disappointedly at dinner that day, "looked just like anybody."
"I hope you didn't expect them to get up and make a speech?" teased her uncle. "However, I'm glad you saw them, my dear. A country where the head of the government 'looks just like anybody' and goes to church as simply and reverently as any one else is the finest in the world."
Early in the new week Bobby announced that it was their duty, meaning the girl contingent, to go into the city and pay a call upon a friend of the Littells' who was staying with an aunt at one of the large hotels. They had met them at church, and a tentative promise had been given, which Bobby was determined should be kept.
"If it wasn't for me this family would have no manners," she scolded. "Now, I don't like Ruth Gladys Royal a bit better than you do, Louise; but I hope I know what is the right thing to do."
Mrs. Littell, who was hopelessly unfashionable as far as conventions that were merely polite went, announced serenely that she was going to her sewing circle and that if the girls chose they might go calling. Her engagement stood.
"Mother thinks Ruth Royal is snobbish," commented Bobby, as her mother serenely departed for the little sewing circle of the country church in which she maintained a keen interest and which she virtually supported. "As far as that goes, I think she is. But Louise told her we'd come and call on her, and I think a promise ought to be kept."
"Well, I'll go with you if Betty will," said Louise. "I don't see why you pick out a perfectly lovely afternoon to martyr us all in, but if it must be done, let's get it over with. Esther and Libbie have wheedled dad into taking them to the movies, and I suppose we can go in the car with them."
The three ascended the stairs to put on their best bibs and tuckers and came down again to find Mr. Littell and the other two girls joyously arranged on the back seat, with Carter having hard work to keep from smiling at their jokes and quips.
"How elegant we look," jeered Mr. Littell, whose injured foot was still siiff but who began to talk about returning to his office. "I don't suppose you could be persuaded to go to see 'The Rose-Pink Curtains' with us, and have a sundae afterward?"
Bobby shook her head sternly.
"Don't tempt us when we're having a hard time to do our duty," she admonished. "We have to go to see Ruth Royal; honestly we do. But we'll meet you for the sundae; won't we, girls?"
It was arranged that they should meet at quarter to five, and then the three callers were set down before the ornate hotel entrance. Just off the lobby was a pretty, richly furnished parlor where they decided to wait while they were being announced.
"Let's hope she isn't in," suggested the irrepressible Louise. "Then we'd still have time to see 'The Rose-Pink Curtains.'"
Betty sat nearest the door and from her seat she could see a section of the lobby and one of the elevators. The boy who had taken their names came back in a few minutes with the information that Miss Royal and her aunt were out.
"The clerk says they left word at the desk that they expect to be back about half-past seven to-night."
"All right, that excuses us," declared Bobby cheerfully, hardly waiting till the boy had left the room. "Come on, girls, we'll go to the movies. Betty, for mercy's sake, what are you staring at?"
Betty had risen and was peering through the velvet portières. She turned and put a finger to her lips, then drew Bobby close to her.
"Look out there in the corridor, over by the desk," she whispered. "See that man who is shouting at the clerk?"
"I hear him," admitted Bobby, screwing up her eyes and peeping through the curtains. "What do you suppose he is arguing about?"
"That," announced Betty, unintentionally dramatic, "is Joseph Peabody!"
The girls had heard about Joseph Peabody, a little from Betty, and more from Bob, who had spoken freely to their father. They knew about his miserly nature and they were acquainted with the fact that he believed Bob had stolen something that did not belong to him. The real story of the unrecorded deed both Bob and Betty had told only to Mr. Littell. It was characteristic of Bobby's loyal nature that her first thought should be for Betty.
"You don't suppose he is down here after you, do you?" she whispered, clutching Betty by the elbow in a sudden panic. "Oh, Betty, suppose he wanted to drag you back to Bramble Farm?"
Betty had to laugh, in spite of the anxiety she was feeling.
"He has no authority over me," she explained. "Besides, he would have no earthly use for me if my board wasn't paid in advance." Her face clouded involuntarily as the thought of her missing uncle thus came to her mind. "No," she went on, "I'm terribly afraid that he is here looking for Bob. You know he threatened to have him arrested that time Bob managed to escape him. I wonder if I can't get to a 'phone booth without being seen and telephone to Bob or Mr. Derby."
Louise rather impatiently pushed her sister aside that she might take a peep at the unconscious Mr. Peabody. As she put her eye to the crack between the curtains she uttered a little shriek that she tried to stifle with her hand.
"Betty!" she cried so shrilly that those in the lobby must have heard her if the harsh call of a siren outside had not sounded opportunely. "Betty, here comes Bob!"
Sure enough, in through the revolving door, neatly dressed and looking every inch the intelligent young junior clerk, came Bob Henderson, his eyes glued to a letter he had taken from his pocket.
Betty would have given even her hope of a letter from Oklahoma to have been able to call a warning. Instead, she had to stand helplessly by and watch the lad walk directly to the desk, where he put a question to the clerk. Instantly Joseph Peabody whirled and had the boy by the collar.
"Got you at last, you young imp!" he chortled gleefully. "This time I don't calculate to let go of you till I land you where you're going—behind the bars. That is, unless you hand over what you've got of mine!"
Several people turned to stare curiously, and Betty sympathized acutely with the crimson-faced Bob, who was protesting hotly that he had nothing belonging to Peabody.
"You stay here," she ordered Louise and Bobby. "There's no need of you mixing in this. I'm going to see if I can help Bob."
She sped across the hall to the desk, followed by her two faithful shadows, who were determined to stand loyally by.
"Well, I swan, if it isn't Betty!" ejaculated the farmer when he caught sight of her.