Billie Bradley and Her Classmates: or, The Secret of the Locked Tower
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“But you must remember that he is a simpleton and not accountable as sane people are,” put in Miss Walters hastily; but apparently the woman did not hear her.
“We must catch Nick Budd and make him confess,” she said impatiently: “Then perhaps we shall find out where he has hidden my property.”
“Miss Walters!” cried Billie excitedly, jumping up, and walking over to the principal, “I think I know where we can find everything that Nick Budd has ever stolen.”
“What do you mean?” asked Miss Walters. “Speak quickly, Billie.”
“In Nick Budd’s cave!” cried Billie, triumphantly.
CHAPTER XXII – FIRST PRIZE
“Billie, you’re a wonder! Come on, let’s go!” cried Laura, then clapped her hand over her mouth and turned a panicky red as she caught Miss Walters’ eye upon her.
But Miss Walters was looking through and beyond Laura, and her gaze came quickly back to Billie. Polly Haddon’s eyes were fixed on the girl, too, with passionate intensity.
“Tell us what you mean, Billie,” commanded Miss Walters. “Quickly!”
Billie, remembering suddenly that Miss Arbuckle was the only one of the faculty who knew of her adventure with Teddy, was embarrassed for a moment. But she plunged bravely in and told them the whole story from beginning to end, sparing no details.
Miss Walters was intensely interested, and when she had finished even Polly Haddon looked encouraged. The latter wished to set forth at once in search of the cave, but Miss Walters proposed a plan that appealed to everybody, especially the hungry girls.
“Wait and have lunch with me in my rooms,” she said to Mrs. Haddon. “For it is almost lunch time now. Then we can start to hunt for the cave as soon as we have finished.”
Mrs. Haddon looked tempted, but she shook her head.
“There are the children,” she said. “And little Peter. There is no one with them.”
But Miss Arbuckle settled this objection by offering to go over and stay with the children and see that they were well taken care of during their mother’s absence.
“I was a governess and sort of children’s nurse combined, at one time, you know,” and she smiled graciously upon the mother. “And I assure you that I know how to care for children.”
Almost upon her words the lunch gong rang, and Miss Walters thereupon dismissed the girls to the dining-hall.
“Remember, we will start directly after lunch,” she said to them as they fled.
“Billy, it’s just like a story book or a movie!” cried Vi joyfully, as they took their places at the table among the noisy, chattering girls.
“Are you certain you can find the cave again, Billie?” asked Laura, as she attacked her heaped-up plate of good things ravenously.
Before Billie could answer Rose Belser leaned across the table and asked with a drawl where they had been keeping themselves all morning.
“We’ve made a snowman,” she chuckled. “But we needed Billie’s artistic touch to make the face.I can’t get the nose to look right.”
Instinctively the girls glanced out the window and saw that it was snowing. And they had never noticed it!
“Why, it’s snowing, girls!” remarked Vi brilliantly. “It looks almost like a blizzard.”
“Are you just waking up?” asked Connie Danvers, a little crossly. Connie was cross because it was the first time in her intimate friendship with the girls that they had had a secret from her. “Now I know you’re crazy.”
Billie guessed at Connie’s grievance and, reaching over, she pressed the hand of her classmate under the table.
“We’ll tell you all about everything to-night,” she promised, and Connie’s face brightened miraculously.
The snowstorm did indeed look like the beginning of a blizzard, and as the girls went to get their wraps they worried not a little for fear this new development might put an end to their adventure.
However, Miss Walters decided that they would try it, at least, and Mrs. Haddon was eagerly anxious to be off.
“We’ll try anything once,” whispered Laura to Billie, as they went out into the already ankle-deep snow, the wind lashing bitingly against their faces. “Thank goodness, we can die but once!”
“Die but once is right,” said Billie grumpily. She was worried for fear she would not be able to find the path leading to the cave.
It would have been hard enough if the ground had been clear, but with the snow rapidly obliterating every landmark, it was well-nigh impossible.
“I wish Teddy were here,” she said, half to herself, and her voice was very wistful.
“Don’t you though!” echoed Laura, heartily. “It seems an age since we’ve seen any of the boys.”
“Say, Billie,” broke in Vi, who was shivering in the bitter cold despite her warm furs, “are you sure you are going right? It wouldn’t be any fun to be lost in these lonely woods with maybe a blizzard coming on.”
At this observation Billie stopped and turned to Miss Walters and Polly Haddon, who were following close behind.
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking up at Miss Walters appealingly. “If it weren’t snowing I might be able to find the way, but as it is I’m afraid I would only get you all lost. I’m lost myself now.”
“All right, honey. Don’t look so distressed about it,” said Miss Walters, patting her kindly on the shoulder. “You would have to know the way pretty well to be able to find it in this storm. We shall have to give it up to-day, and try again as soon as we can.”
“Yes, that will be best,” said Polly Haddon, through chattering teeth. Her thin shawl formed scarcely any protection against the freezing weather. “Thank you all so much for bothering with my affairs. Now I must get back to the children. Good-bye.”
Before they had fairly realized she was going, she was gone, and the girls and Miss Walters turned back to the Hall.
“Bother the old snow,” said Laura crossly. “I always liked it before, but now I hate it.”
They were all glad when the warmth of Three Towers Hall closed in about them again. Miss Walters said a few words to them about saying nothing of this affair to any one. Then she dismissed them to the dormitory while she herself hurried off to do a little work that she had neglected all day. For around examination time, Miss Walters was not always free, even on Sunday.
Some of the girls had seen Billie and Laura and Vi come in with Miss Walters, and they demanded to know what “all the excitement was about.” And the fact that the girls would not talk made their classmates all the more curious.
Connie was the only one to whom they would tell the story, for they knew that they could trust her as they trusted themselves.
“And it’s still snowing,” mourned Billie, as she cleared a space on the misted window and looked out at the snow-covered world. “It looks as if we shouldn’t get out of here for weeks!”
Billie’s gloomy prophecy was fulfilled. The storm developed into one of the worst blizzards that part of the country had ever known, and for almost two weeks the occupants of Three Towers were practically house-bound.
It was good that the school boasted a well-stocked larder. Otherwise the girls might actually have gone hungry. And they wondered a great deal about Polly Haddon and her little brood.
“Suppose she hasn’t enough in the house to eat?” worried Vi. “Why, they may starve!”
“Maybe she used the gold pieces we left her to stock up when she saw the blizzard coming on,” suggested Billie, and the suggestion comforted them a great deal.
The day was approaching when those competing for the composition prize were to hand in their essays. Billie and Laura and Connie and Rose Belser and the half dozen other girls who had entered the lists were writing like mad – and biting their pens to bits – in an effort to get their essays in on time.
And in the heart of each was the fervent hope that she would be the winner. Only Amanda had no need to hope. She was sure! The prize was hers!
She had carried out her intention of copying her essay straight from the little musty book. So sure was she that her ruse would not be detected that she had not bothered to alter a word. And while the others worked, she smiled.
At last came the day when the finished essays were to be handed in, and all day long Miss Walters was closeted in her office with Miss Race and one or two of the other teachers, reading and tabulating the manuscripts as they came to her.
So busy had Billie been in rewriting a phrase here, changing a word there, that she handed in her essay the very last of all – just a scant half hour before the time was up. But she was happy, because she knew that she had given her best effort.
“I imagine we shall enjoy reading this,” Miss Walters remarked to her associates, tapping Billie’s manuscript with a thoughtful finger. “Billie Bradley has real literary talent.”
The result of the contest was to be announced the next morning in the auditorium and the prizes to be awarded to the winners.
When the longed-for, yet dreaded, moment arrived, the girls filed into the auditorium, the contestants near the front, and almost the entire school occupying the seats behind them.
Billie’s heart was hammering so loudly that she glanced about her to see if anybody else seemed to notice it. But the majority of the girls were babbling away too excitedly to hear anything but themselves.
Billie was surprised to see that even the girls who were expecting to hear their fate within the next few moments were talking – chattering away excitedly, to be sure – but still talking. As for herself, she was sure she could not have uttered a word just then if her life had depended upon it. She did want that prize so dreadfully!
“Cheer up, Billie,” whispered Vi, slipping a loyal hand into hers. “You’re not afraid of missing the prize, are you? Why, you couldn’t miss it if you tried.”
Billie did not say anything, but she gripped Vi’s hand hard. And she was still holding on to it when Miss Walters ascended the platform and a deep hush spread over the room.
“As you all know,” came the clear, sweet voice of the head of Three Towers Hall, “I have come here this morning to announce the winners of the composition prize.
“I and my associates have had difficulty in choosing the winning essays, for the reason that they are all so excellent. We are only sorry that we have not a prize to attach to each.”
A buzz broke out in the audience, but when Miss Walters raised her hand it instantly died down again.
“And now,” she said, “not to keep you any longer in suspense, we will announce the winners.”
Billie’s grip on Vi’s hand tightened till it hurt.
Then into the tense silence Miss Walters threw the bomb of her announcement.
“The first prize goes to Amanda Peabody,” she said. “Will she please step up upon the platform?”
CHAPTER XXIII – DISGRACED
For a moment there was intense silence while Amanda rose triumphantly and flounced up to the platform.
Then an amazed, angry buzz rose from the audience of indignant girls. Amanda, who was proverbially stupid, to have taken the prize from some of the brightest girls in the school! It was impossible – incredible! And yet it was only too true!
Miss Walters, with a few words of congratulation, handed the prize – a fine set of books – to Amanda, and the latter swept haughtily back to her seat, triumph in every line of her figure as she passed the other pupils.
She had beaten Billie Bradley at last! And her revenge was sweeter than even she had dreamed it would be.
But Billie, tears of anger and disappointment stinging her eyes, felt sure that she had not been beaten fairly. Amanda had played a trick on her, on the rest of the contestants for the prize, on Miss Walters herself. But, in Teddy’s vocabulary, Amanda had “gotten away with it.” The prize was in her possession.
“It’s a shame,” she heard in angry protest all about her.
“She never did it honestly.”
“Somebody ought to tell Miss Walters. She doesn’t know Amanda as well as we do.”
But Miss Walters had raised her hand for silence, and in a few seconds the angry murmurs died down again.
“I have the pleasure of awarding the second prize,” the principal announced, “to Beatrice Bradley. Will you step up on the platform, Billie?”
The second prize! She didn’t want the second prize, Billie told herself, when Amanda had come in first. To march up there on the platform with that girl’s gloating eyes upon her —
But Vi and Laura were pulling her out of her seat, pushing her out into the aisle – and while Billie hesitated Miss Walters had impatiently repeated her summons.
Someway Billie found her way to the platform, thanked Miss Walters incoherently for the fine volume of poetry which was the second prize, and stumbled back to happy oblivion among her schoolmates.
“It’s a shame, honey,” Laura whispered in her ear, generously forgetting her own disappointment in Billie’s. “But never mind, you got the second prize anyway – which was more than the rest of us did,” she added, with a little stab of regret at her own failure.
“And you would have won the first prize if it hadn’t been for that cat,” added Vi fiercely.
Billie pressed their hands gratefully and glanced for the first time at her prize.
“I’d like to throw it away!” she cried fiercely.
“Sh-h,” whispered Vi, for Miss Walters was making an interesting announcement.
“The winning compositions will now be read,” she said. “Miss Arbuckle has volunteered to give us that pleasure.”
There was a great clapping of hands as Miss Arbuckle stepped on the platform and smiled down at them. For the little teacher was a great favorite with the girls.
“We will read Amanda’s composition first,” she said, “as it has had the distinction of winning the first prize.”
Again there was tense silence in the Hall. The girls were agog with curiosity to hear this wonderful composition which had been written by one of the notoriously stupid girls of the school.
As for Amanda, she had not foreseen this event. She had not expected to hear her stolen composition read aloud, and before all this assembly of stern young critics. The prospect made her a trifle nervous, but her smile was as proudly triumphant as ever.
Her chief concern was with Eliza. For the girl was so white and scared that she threatened to give the deception away.
Amanda gave her a sharp nudge with her elbow.
“Cheer up, will you?” she muttered fiercely. “You’re not at a funeral.”
Miss Arbuckle began to read, and as she read the well-rounded phrases, the telling metaphors, the girls became more than ever stupefied with astonishment.
“Could it be,” they asked themselves incredulously, “that Amanda had remarkable literary ability that they had never suspected? Could she really have written a thing like that?”
The same thought seemed to be in Miss Arbuckle’s mind, for as she read on her brow became clouded and she paused now and then as though she were trying to recollect something.
Finally she stopped altogether, looked across at Amanda for a thoughtful moment, then laid the manuscript down and turned to Miss Walters. She said something that the girls could not catch, then hurried from the room.
This was something no one had counted upon. Amanda, her triumphant smile gone at last, quaked as she heard again the excited buzz of the girls about her.
Miss Walters’ voice rose over the murmur, clear and very grave.
“Miss Arbuckle thinks she has made a discovery,” she said. “She will be back in a moment, and until then I must ask that there be absolute silence in the room.”
Miss Sara Walters possessed that rare gift of authority that needed no raising of the voice or undue emphasis to command obedience.
Instantly the murmuring stopped and the girls waited in breathless silence for Miss Arbuckle’s return.
They did not have to wait long. A moment later the teacher re?ntered the room, holding a book in her hand, the sight of which made Amanda’s craven heart sink in consternation.
The book looked like an exact copy of the one from which she had copied her “original” prize composition!
“Miss Walters,” said Miss Arbuckle in a voice which indignation made vibrant, “I am sorry to have to admit that one of the students of Three Towers Hall has been guilty of so disgraceful an act. But the composition that I have just read, the essay that was handed in as original by Amanda Peabody, has been copied word for word from this book.
“It is an old book that has been in my possession for years – was my father’s before it was mine – and doubtless the girl thought herself perfectly safe in copying from it. Here is the passage.” She had been marking a place with her finger, and now she opened the book at the place and handed it to Miss Walters to read.
What a hideous minute for Amanda! If she had been awaiting a death sentence she could hardly have felt more terrified.
To be publicly disgraced, to have all the girls laughing at her, gloating over her —
With intense gravity Miss Walters closed the book and laid it on the table. Amanda knew that her moment had come.
“Amanda,” said Miss Walters sternly, “will you please stand up in your place?”
Amanda stood up, conscious of a score of curious and contemptuous glances focused upon her. Her heart was beating suffocatingly, her hands were clenched tight at her side.
“You have been guilty to-day,” Miss Walters’ clear voice pronounced sentence, “of blackening the good name of Three Towers Hall by a most disgraceful act. But by your wretched duplicity you have injured yourself far more than you have injured any one else. You will go to my office. I will see you there.”
There was intense silence while Amanda, her head hanging, walked from the room. Then the eager murmur rose once more, but again Miss Walters lifted her hand for silence.
“I am sorry,” she said. “More sorry than I can express that such a thing could have happened here. Of course the first prize will now go to Beatrice Bradley and I will decide later to whom the second prize belongs. That is all.” With a little gesture she dismissed them and she herself walked quickly from the room.
Then the riot that had been suppressed so long broke loose and the girls formed into little groups talking excitedly and all at once about the dramatic turn events had taken.
Billie, the center of a little group of her own, was fairly overwhelmed with congratulations.
“We knew all along that you should have been the winner!”
“To think that Amanda should try to get away with a thing like that!” said Laura, disgustedly.
“She might have, just the same,” Connie reminded her. “It was just luck that Miss Arbuckle happened to have that book.”
“My, but I bet you’re happy, Billie Bradley!” sighed Vi. “I shouldn’t let anybody speak to me if I were in your place.”
“What’s the matter, honey?” asked Laura, regarding Billie’s sober face curiously. “I say, cheer up, old dear. What have you got to gloom about?”
“I was just thinking about Amanda,” said Billie, with all her sweet sympathy for the unfortunate. “I was wondering how it would feel to be in her shoes now.”
“Out, out upon such doleful thoughts,” Laura sang out airily. But Billie, who had turned toward the window, suddenly clutched her by the arm.
“Look!” she said, excitedly. “There’s Nick Budd!”
CHAPTER XXIV – TRIUMPH
Before her classmates knew what she was about or had fairly taken in what she had said, Billie had darted from the room and was flying toward the dormitory.
“She’s crazy again,” cried Vi. “Come on,” and she and Laura and Connie flew after her, overtaking her as she reached the stairs.
“What’s the big idea?” gasped Laura, as they ran together down the hall toward the dormitory. “What do you expect to do to poor Nick – sandbag him?”
“Something like that,” returned Billie, slipping hurriedly into her coat and hat and motioning impatiently for the girls to do the same. “If we can only get hold of him we may be able to frighten him into telling us where the machinery is.”
“Oh, and maybe I’ll be able to get my watch back!” added Connie, pulling a dark cap down over her fluffy hair and carefully adjusting it at the right angle.
“We won’t get anything if you don’t hurry,” said Billie, regarding her impatiently. “What do you think you’re going to, anyway? A party?”
“You had better put on your leggings,” suggested Vi, looking doubtfully at the rubbers Billie had pulled on over her shoes. “The snow’s awfully deep.”
“Haven’t time,” cried Billie, adding distractedly: “For mercy sake, hurry! While you girls are dolling up for a party, Nick Budd will be gone.”
At this dreadful thought the girls stopped fussing and followed Billie hurriedly down the stairs. They slowed down in the lower hall, however, for there they were apt to meet a teacher, and undue haste might be thought suspicious by one of these “unreasonable beings.”
At sight of Nick Budd, a plan had come to Billie. She remembered how terrified he had seemed when he had found Teddy and her in the cave that day and thought in his crazy mind that they had come to arrest him.
So she was going to take a chance of so frightening him with a threat of arrest that he would confess, and perhaps even be prevailed upon to lead them to the cave.
In case this plan should fail, she had not an idea in the world what she would do next. But the plan did not fail. It worked more perfectly than she had dared to hope.
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