Janet Wheeler.

Billie Bradley and Her Classmates: or, The Secret of the Locked Tower





CHAPTER I THIN ICE

Click! click! click! went three pairs of skates as three snugly-dressed girls fairly flew along the frozen surface of the lake.

Isnt it glorious? cried the laughing, brown-eyed one, who was no other than Billie Bradley, as she threw back her head and sniffed the crisp, cold air. Who ever heard of the lake freezing over in the middle of November? And the ice is pretty solid, too.

In spots, added Violet Farrington, a slender, dark girl with black hair and dark eyes.

What do you mean in spots? asked the third of the trio, Laura Jordon. Laura was as fair as Violet was dark, and now her blue eyes darted an anxious glance at her chum. Do you think we shall find any thin ice?

I dont know, of course, Violet answered quickly. But you notice Miss Walters told us to stay close to the shore, and that certainly looks as if she werent any too certain about the ice.

Miss Walters was the much-loved principal of Three Towers Hall, the boarding school which the girls were attending, and to the three chums, Miss Walters word was law.

As Billie Bradley had said, Lake Molata, upon which Three Towers Hall was situated, had frozen over unusually early this year. Though it was not quite the middle of November, there had been several rather heavy snowfalls. The thermometer had fallen lower and lower till it had dropped below the freezing point, and after a few days of this falling weather a thin glaze of ice had begun to form over the still surface of the lake.

At first the girls had not been too joyful, fearing that the ice was too fragile to last and that one good thaw would do away with it entirely.

But the thaw had not come, and as day after day the prematurely cold weather continued, the girls at the Hall had grown more and more excited. Finally they could stand it no longer and dispatched a committee of three to Miss Walters among whom had been Billie asking for the unique privilege of skating over the frozen surface of Lake Molata in the middle of November.

The petition had been granted, with the reservation, as Vi had said, that the girls should stay close to shore and not venture out into the uncertain center of the lake.

When the jubilant committee of three had brought back the glad news to the eagerly waiting girls the dormitories had been the scene of wild but noiseless fancy dancing in celebration of the great event.

Soon after was heard the clinking of skates and the babble of excited girls voices as those of the students who were lucky enough to have prepared their lessons for the next day, and so had the afternoon free, made ready for the fun.

Then, down the sloping lawn of Three Towers Hall, the hard, crusted snow crackling merrily under their feet, down to the edge of the lake where skates were put on, mufflers tightened and woolly caps pulled well down to protect ears that already were feeling the nip of the cold, rushed the crowd of excited, happy girls.

Fun! Any one who has tasted the joy of skating over freshly-frozen ice on a crisp winter day when the sun, pouring down, seems only to make the air more chill, any one who has tasted that joy, knows that there is no other sport like it.

So, singly, in groups of two or three, in parties of four, the girls spread out over the lake, their gayly hued caps and sweaters making vivid patches of color on the surface.

Although they had started out with the rest of the girls, Billie and Laura and Vi had become separated from them some way or other, and they now found themselves skimming merrily along with not another person in sight.

This did not worry them, however, because they had learned by experience that whenever the three of them were together they were always sure of having a good time.

A week from now, Billie cried, strands of hair escaping from under her tam-o-shanter and whipping about her glowing face, the lake will probably look as though we had dragged a farmers plow across it.

A week from now we may not have any ice at all, added Vi pessimistically.

Laura, who was skating between them, let go their hands for a moment to fasten her sweater still more closely about her throat. The wind had stung her face to a vivid red.

I must say you both sound cheerful, she said reproachfully, adding with a gay little toss of her head: From the way this wind feels, Id say we were going to have ice all winter.

Dont wake her up, she is dreaming, sang Billie mockingly, adding, as Laura gave her a push that would have unbalanced a less skillful skater: Who ever heard of Lake Molata being frozen over all winter?

Well, who ever heard of its being frozen over in the middle of November? Laura retorted, adding with a grin as Billie looked nonplussed: I guess that will hold you for a while.

Laura Jordon, said Vi, folding her mittened hands and trying to look very prim and teacher-like, report to Miss Walters immediately. That is the third time you have used slang this morning.

The girls giggled, and this time it was Vi who got the push.

Go long with you, said Billie gayly. You cant imitate the Dill Pickles in a red sweater and a green cap.

The Dill Pickles, as my old readers will remember, were two teachers, Miss Ada and Miss Cora Dill, who had recently lived at the Hall. The two had done their best to make the girls lives miserable and had finally, after the students had revolted and marched out of the school, been sent away by Miss Walters.

The vacancies had been filled by teachers who were as different from the Miss Dills in every way as they could be, and since then life at Three Towers Hall had been one happy round of study and fun for the girls.

Thank goodness the Dills have gone forever, said Vi, in response to Billies observation.

Yes, agreed Laura, reminiscently. It was a lot of trouble, getting rid of them, but it was worth it.

There are only nice teachers up at the Hall now, said Billie, contentedly. Especially Miss Arbuckle.

Isnt she ducky? said Laura, enthusiastically, if disrespectfully. I was afraid she might change her mind and take up her old job of governess to those two kiddies.

I wouldnt have blamed her much, if she had, Vi said, with a chuckle. She might make the little children behave, while with us

She hasnt a chance, giggled Billie.

Just the same, put in Laura, with unusual gravity, you notice that we all do what Miss Arbuckle says. She isnt stern like Miss Race, either, nor nasty like the Dill Pickles used to be. I guess we just obey her because we all like her, she finished simply.

Thats right, and Billie was saying when suddenly the ice cracked under her skates and with a cry she lunged forward. Luckily her feet struck on solid ice beyond the cracked part, and with difficulty she regained her balance.

The ice! she gasped, as Laura and Vi stared at her. I struck a thin spot, I guess. Goodness, that scared me!

I should say so, agreed Laura, with a little whistle of astonishment as she edged over to the treacherous place in the ice which was crisscrossed over with long cracks. Look here, girls. I could almost push this ice through with my finger.

Well, dont try it, advised Vi, backing away anxiously from the dangerous spot. I wonder if there any more places like it.

Spose there are lots of them, said Billie, who had recovered from her fright and was disposed to treat the whole thing as a joke. The thing for us to do is to keep out of their way, thats all.

Sounds easy, grumbled Vi as they joined hands again and skated on more slowly over the frozen surface. But how are we going to know where the thin places are unless we step on em and fall through, maybe?

Praps wed better go back if Billie was beginning uneasily when a sudden, terrified scream cut her short. It was a childs scream and it was followed by another, and yet another.

Oh! cried Laura wildly, somebodys getting killed.

CHAPTER II NEARLY FROZEN

The screams for help seemed to be quite near the girls, but whoever was in trouble was hidden from them by a sharp bend in the lake shore.

Without further thought of danger to themselves, the chums skated forward swiftly, the long fringed ends of their scarfs flying out behind them and their bodies thrown eagerly forward.

Maybe somebody is drowning!

Its some great peril, you may be sure of that otherwise they wouldnt scream so.

They are children!

Yes, and little ones at that, if I am any judge of voices.

Thus talking excitedly the girls skated forward along the lake shore. Then came a sudden scream from Vi. She had skated too close to an overhanging tree and a branch caught in her hair as she tried to sweep past.

Wait! wait! she cried. Dont leave me behind!

Whats the trouble? came simultaneously from the others.

Im caught my hair is fast in the tree.

Pull yourself loose, cried Billie. Hurry, do! Oh, just listen to those cries! she added, as scream after scream rent the wintry air.

In frantic haste poor Vi tried to do as bidden. But the tree was a thorny one, and she had considerable trouble to liberate herself.

Then came fresh trouble as Billies left skate became loosened.

Ive got to fasten it, she said, and bent down to do so. Then the classmates swept forward as before.

They rounded the bend in the lake a minute later and then drew up suddenly as they came upon a singular scene.

Three small children, a boy and two girls, were standing up to their waists in the icy water. Evidently they had ventured out upon the lake in a spirit of mischief, and had stepped upon thin ice which had given way beneath even their slight weight. Luckily they had not got far from the shore, for if the ice had broken through in a deeper part of the lake they must surely have been drowned. As it was, they were three very badly frightened children who were beginning to feel numb with the cold.

At sight of the girls they began to wail afresh and held out their little arms imploringly.

The sight was too much for Billie, and she began to edge her way cautiously along the thin ice, calling to the girls to follow her example.

Be careful, she warned. If we went through, too, it would be hard to get out, and while we were trying it the kiddies would probably freeze to death. Look out! she exclaimed, as the ice cracked treacherously under her weight. It is paper-thin right here.

And while the girls are busy at their work of rescue we will take a few minutes to tell those who are meeting Billie Bradley and her chums for the first time something of the good times the girls have had in other volumes of the series.

In the first book, called Billie Bradley and Her Inheritance, the girls had many and varied adventures, some of which were thrilling and others only funny. Just when Billie was wondering how to raise one hundred dollars to pay for a statue which she had accidentally broken, a queer old aunt of hers, Beatrice Powerson by name, died and left to her an inheritance which had at first seemed a doubtful blessing, namely a rambling gloomy old homestead at a place called Cherry Corners.

The house dated back to Revolutionary times and had many weird and romantic legends attached to it. The girls, anxious to see the old place for themselves, had decided to spend their vacation there, and a little later some boys had joined them.

They had an unusual and exciting time of it and the climax of the whole outing was the finding of a shabby old trunk which was hidden away in the attic. This trunk contained five thousand dollars worth of rare old coins and queer postage stamps, and this small fortune enabled Billie not only to replace the statue she had broken but gave her more than enough to send herself to Three Towers Hall and her brother Chet to Boxton Military Academy.

But we forgot entirely to introduce the boys! And they at least considered themselves by far the most important part of the story. Here they are then First of all comes Chetwood Bradley, Billies brother, whom his friends called Chet for short. Chet was a lovable boy, good-looking, quiet, reserved and devoted to Billie whose real name, by the way, was Beatrice.

Then there was Ferd Stowing, an all-around good-natured boy who always added a great deal to whatever fun was at hand. And last, but not least, Lauras brother Teddy. Teddy was fifteen, as were the other boys, but, unlike them, he looked quite a good deal older than he was. He was tall, with wavy hair and handsome gray eyes and an athletic build which was the envy of most of the boys at North Bend, where the young folks lived. Teddy had always liked Billie a lot because, as he told his sister, Laura, Billie was the nearest like a boy of all the girls he knew. She liked sports almost as well as he did and so as a matter of course they played tennis and hiked and skated a good deal together.

Returning from their vacation in the old homestead at Cherry Corners, the girls went straight to Three Towers Hall, the boarding school to which their parents were sending them, partly because the young folks wanted to go and partly because the high school at North Bend was hopelessly inefficient and unsatisfactory.

At the same time, the boys departed for Boxton Military Academy which was only a little over a mile from the boarding school and which was also situated close to Lake Molata.

The good times the young folks had at school are told in the second volume of the series entitled, Billie Bradley at Three Towers Hall. The most startling thing that happened during the year was the capture of the man whom the boys and girls had named the Codfish on account of his peculiarly fish-like mouth. The latter had once attempted to steal Billies precious trunk, and had later on been suspected of planning and carrying out a robbery at Boxton Military Academy. Later, he had robbed Miss Race, one of the teachers at the Hall.

The girls had made new friends and enemies also, at Three Towers Hall. Chief among the enemies were Amanda Peabody and her chum, Eliza Dilks. The girls were both sneaks and tattletales, and the former, being jealous of Billie and her chums, had done her best to make life unbearable for them at Three Towers. That the disagreeable girls had not succeeded, was not in the least their fault.

Another enemy of Billies had been Rose Belser, a pretty, black-haired, very vain girl who was also jealous of Billie because of her unusual and immediate popularity with the girls. However, even Rose was won over to Billies side in the end and became sincerely repentant for her mean behavior.

Connie Danvers, a pretty, fluffy-haired girl, became a staunch friend of the chums at once, and it was she who had invited Billie and Laura and Vi to spend their vacation at Lighthouse Island where her parents had a summer bungalow. Connies Uncle John, an interesting, bluff character, lived at the lighthouse on the island.

The girls had become very much interested in a mystery surrounding Miss Arbuckle, one of the very nice new teachers who had come to Three Towers to replace the disagreeable Dill Pickles. They had also met a queer looking man one day when they were lost in the woods, and they had wondered about him a great deal.

It seems Miss Arbuckle had been very greatly disturbed over the loss of an album, and when Billie, accidentally stumbling upon the book, had returned it to the teacher, the latter had wept with joy. Turning over the pages of the album until she came to the pictures of three beautiful children she had cried out: Oh my precious children. I couldnt lose your pictures after losing you.

Of course this exclamation, together with Miss Arbuckles strange conduct, considerably puzzled the girls, and they wondered about it all during the vacation at Lighthouse Island. Then one day a terrible storm came up and a ship was wrecked on one of the treacherous shoals which surrounded the island. The girls, helping in the work of rescue, discovered three children lashed to a rude raft, and after releasing the little victims, the girls had carried them to the Lighthouse to be cared for.

Later, Billie saw a marked resemblance in the three children to the pictures of the children she had seen in Miss Arbuckles album, and what strange discovery this led to is told in the third volume of this series entitled Billie Bradley on Lighthouse Island.

And now the girls were all back at Three Towers again in search of further education, likewise, they hoped, much fun and adventure.

Dont come any farther, Billie said to Laura and Vi, as she stretched herself out at full length on the ice and reached out to grasp one of the children in the water. Lie down on the thick ice, both of you, and hold on to me just as hard as you can. When I say pull pull!

Obediently Laura and Vi flopped down on the ice, each grasping one of Billies feet and holding on stoutly.

Id like to see you get away from us now, said Laura.

Leaning over, Billie grasped the nearest child under the arms and tugged with all her strength.

Pull! she gasped to the girls, Im slipping.

The girls pulled and dragged her, child and all, out on the more solid ice. They set the child on his poor shivering little feet and then went back for the next one. A moment more and all three of the little things were standing huddled together on the ice, shivering and crying miserably.

I wanna do home! wailed the little boy. I wanna do home.

CHAPTER III POLLY HADDON

Where do you live? asked Billie, turning to the oldest of the three children. Tell us quick, so we can get you there.

We live wiv our muvver, Polly Haddon, said the little one quaintly, pointing with a shivering finger out across the lake. We runned away dis mornin.

So we see, said Laura, adding, as she turned to Billie: I think I know where they live. Teddy pointed the house out to me one day when we were taking a hike through the woods. Said he and the boys had stopped there one day and had bought some waffles and real maple syrup from Mrs. Haddon. Of course, I dont know whether it is the same one or not

Well, come on well find out, said Billie, lifting the largest of the three children in her strong arms. You and Vi can manage the other two kiddies, I guess. You lead the way, Laura, if you know where the house is.

But hadnt we better take our skates off and walk around? suggested Vi.

We can make it quicker on skates, said Billie impatiently, because we can cut across the lake

But the ice! Laura objected. It may not be solid

Well have to take a chance on that, Billie returned, adding with an exasperated stamp of her foot, if you dont hurry and show us the way, Laura, Ill do it myself.

So Laura, knowing that nothing could change Billies mind when it was once made up, caught the little boy in her arms and started off across the lake, Billie and Vi following close behind her.

Luckily the children were not heavy, being thin almost to emaciation, or the girls could never have made their goal. As it was, they had to stop several times and set the children down on the ice to rest.

And more than once the treacherous ice cracked under their feet, frightening them horribly. They made it at last, however, and with a sigh of relief set the children on the ground while they fumbled with numbed fingers at their skate straps.

Is this where you live? asked Billie of the elder of the two little girls. Billie had undone the last strap buckle and was peering off through the woods in search of some sort of habitation.

Yes, answered the little girl through chattering teeth. Our house is just a little way off, along that path.

She pointed to a narrow foot path, or rather, to the place where a foot path had once been. For now it was obliterated by snow and was indicated only very faintly by footprints recently made.

Billie, seeing that the other girls were ready, caught up the little girl again, holding her close for warmth and started down the snow-covered path, Laura and Vi following.

The snow was hard, which made the going a little easier, and in a minute or two they came in sight of a shabby cabin set in the heart of a small clearing.

If the place had been a mansion, the girls could not have greeted the sight of it any more joyfully. They stumbled forward recklessly at the imminent risk of dropping the poor little children in the snow.

Before they could reach the cottage the door of it opened and a woman stood on the threshold, hatless and coatless and staring at them anxiously.

When she recognized the children she gave a gesture of relief and backed into the house, motioning to the girls to follow her.

This the girls were not in the least reluctant to do, for they were chilled through, and the warmth of Mrs. Haddons kitchen was wonderfully comforting.

They set the children on the floor, and the little ones ran straight to their mother. Polly Haddon dropped to her knees and put her arms around the three of them, cuddling them hungrily.





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