Billie Bradley and Her Classmates: or, The Secret of the Locked Tower
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They caught up to the simpleton just as he was sneaking around to the janitor’s entrance of the school, and the fellow shrank from them like a frightened animal.
“Wh-what do you want?” he stammered, his hands out as though to ward them off. “I haven’t done nothin’. Ye can’t arrest me. I haven’t done nothin’, I tell you.” His terror was pitiful, but Billie followed up her advantage ruthlessly while the girls stood by in admiring silence.
“You have done something,” she told him sternly, while he cowered still further back from her. “You’ve stolen things – lots of things. And we willhave you arrested – ”
“Oh no – oh no,” he cried out, fairly gibbering in his terror and slinking further back against the wall. “Ye’re tryin’ to scare me. I haven’t done nothin’, I tell ye.”
But Billie took him by the sleeve and shook him as she would a bad child.
“I tell you I know,” she cried, conviction in her tone that carried even to the poor muddled brain of the simpleton. “And I know where they are, too. They are in your cave, hidden away. Every-last-one-of-them!”
Of course Billie was taking a big chance, but the shot went home.
The simpleton stared at her for a moment out of his blood-shot eyes while his big mouth dropped open. Then he began to cry, great tears that ran down his grimy face and made crooked streaks upon it.
It was an indescribably terrible and pitiful sight, the poor silly fellow in his abject terror, and ordinarily Billie would have felt sorry for him. But she thought of Polly Haddon, and the thought gave her courage. Polly Haddon had suffered, and now if it was this poor simpleton’s turn, it was no more than he deserved, after all.
“Listen to me carefully,” she said, pulling at his sleeve again and speaking very distinctly. “If you will take us to the cave and promise to give back everything you have stolen to the people you have stolen from, we will try to keep you from being arrested.”
“You won’t put me in jail?” jabbered the simpleton. “You won’t let the policemen get me?”
Billie shook her head, adding quickly: “But you must take us to the cave right away and help us bring back the things you have stolen. Otherwise we will have you arrested to-night.”
They were hardly prepared for his sudden acceptance of the ultimatum. He turned, with the swiftness that had surprised Billie and Teddy before, and strode off through the heavy snow, the girls, after a minute of indecision, following.
“What do you suppose Miss Walters will say?” Laura whispered in Billie’s ear. “Do you suppose she will mind our running away like this?”
“I don’t know,” answered Billie, adding with a hint of premature triumph in her voice: “I don’t imagine she will say anything though if we come home with the knitting machinery models, the blue prints, and an armful of stolen things besides.”
“Oh, if I can only get back my watch, I’ll be happy,” sighed Connie, as she plodded along beside Vi.
“‘If’ is right,” said Laura, ruefully.“We haven’t got anything yet, you know.”
“Now who’s the wet blanket?” cried Billie gayly. She was feeling amazingly happy and confident all of a sudden. For had not she just won the first prize for the best composition? After that she felt that she could accomplish anything.
It was no easy task to make their way through the woods. Nick Budd trudged along sturdily, hardly looking at the girls.
“He may be simple-minded, but he is as strong as a horse – at least, when it comes to walking,” remarked Laura in a whisper.
“Many simple-minded folks are strong,” answered Billie. “Why, some lunatics are noted for their strength – I once heard my father say so.”
They had to pass over an exceedingly rough rise of ground and then down through a hollow where the bushes grew close together. Here the walking was very uneven and Connie gave a sudden cry of pain.
“What’s the matter?” demanded Billie quickly, and came to a halt beside her classmate.
“I slipped into a hole and I – I guess I wrenched my ankle,” and Connie made a wry face.
“Can’t you go on?” questioned Vi.
“I – I guess so, but I’ll do a little limping,” was Connie’s reply.
“We’ll have to be careful,” warned Billie. “We don’t want to hurt ourselves if we can help it.”
After an hour of trudging through the snow they came at last to the twig-entwined entrance to Nick’s cave. Luckily the simpleton had beaten a sort of path through the snow from Three Towers to the cave – a fact which showed that he had made frequent visits to the school – or the girls almost surely could not have made the trip.
Nick pulled aside the twigs that concealed the entrance and dived inside, leaving the girls to follow as best they could.
But the girls did not follow – immediately. They were no cowards, but the sight of that yawning dark mouth was enough to make them hesitate. And besides, there was a simpleton at the other end of that dark passage, a simpleton who might be mad enough by this time to do any desperate thing.
“You go first, Billie,” Vi urged nervously. “He is afraid of you – ”
But at that moment a dancing light flickered down the dark passage and immediately Nick Budd himself appeared, carrying a lighted candle which he carefully shielded from the wind.
The terror had not left his face, and he looked at Billie abjectly, like a beaten dog.
“Will ye come in?” he asked in a barely audible voice. “Or shall I bring the things out here?”
But as the latter course would give the simpleton an excellent chance to retain some of his loot, Billie replied firmly that they would come in and see for themselves.
Vi made a noise that sounded something like a groan, and Connie echoed it pathetically. But they joined the queer little procession just the same, following Nick Budd down the dark passage to the still darker cave, guided only by the flaring light of his one candle.
It was a dangerous thing for the girls to do. The simpleton, with the cunning of the mentally-deficient, might have decided to attack them all there in the darkness of the cave. And he would have had a good chance of doing it, too.
But the gods that favor the daring watched over the girls that day and brought them safely through their adventure.
Billie had evidently thoroughly cowed the simpleton, and his one thought was to get rid of his stolen goods as quickly as possible and thus evade the dreadful prison that loomed more horrible to him than death.
There in a corner of the cave the girls found the knitting machinery model and the precious blue prints, besides a great pile of small trinkets that comprised pretty nearly everything that had been stolen from the girls during the last few weeks.
They were no more eager to linger in the cave than Nick Budd was to have them. So they eagerly pocketed as many of the trinkets as they could – Connie snapping the precious recovered wrist watch about her wrist with as much joy as though it had been three times as valuable as it really was – and Billie, taking the candle from Nick Budd’s fingers, ordered him to carry the wooden machinery. She herself took charge of the blue prints.
When they had reached the outside world once more, Billie blew out the candle, threw it into the cave, and readjusted the twigs at the entrance as best she could.
Then she ordered Nick Budd to lead the way back to the Hall. This the simpleton did, although he sometimes staggered under the weight he carried and several times had to put his burden down.
But in spite of the delays and the cold, the return journey seemed short to the girls, for they were triumphantly happy and chattered like magpies all the way back.
“I’ve got my wrist watch! I’ve got my wrist watch!” crowed Connie over and over again till the girls got tired of hearing her and Laura asked her if she would mind changing her tune.
“And won’t the girls be surprised when we tell them what sleuths we are,” added Vi.
“Humph,” sniffed Laura. “Billie is the real detective. We’re only – what do you call ’em? – ‘also rans.’ We come in at the end and clap noisily.”
“Nonsense,” laughed Billie. “I couldn’t have done a thing without you girls. Look out,” she cried sharply, as Nick Budd stumbled and almost dropped his load. “If you should break that thing, Nick Budd, I’d murder you.” But this last was delivered in an undertone. The poor simpleton had troubles enough without being threatened.
“Oh,” giggled Laura, incorrigibly, “ain’t she the vicious thing?”
One would have thought that the girls had had about enough excitement that day, but it seemed that fate still held a little more in store for them.
They were coming up the winding path that led to the Hall when they saw a black-clad figure that looked strangely familiar hurrying on before them.
“Isn’t that Polly Haddon?” asked Vi, eagerly. “Yes, it is. Oh, what luck!”
She was about to call out, but Billie stopped her.
“We’ll want to break it to her gently,” she warned, but her warning came too late. Polly Haddon had heard their voices and had glanced back indifferently.
Then, recognizing the girls, she turned and came hurrying toward them. At sight of her, Nick Budd dropped his burden in the snow and ran for all he was worth back the way he had come.
Billie tried to put herself between Polly Haddon and that bulky object in the snow, but once more she was too late. For the woman had seen.
With a little cry, Polly Haddon crumpled suddenly and lay out in the snow, as inert as a bundle of old clothes.
“Good gracious!” cried Laura frantically. “Now just when everything is beautiful and lovely, she’s gone and died!”
CHAPTER XXV – PRETTY FROCKS
But Polly Haddon had not died. One very seldom does – of happiness. Some way the girls managed to get her inside the Hall and administer hot drinks and hot food and in a surprisingly short time she was herself again.
Not quite herself, for she was beautified and transfigured with happiness into a very different Polly Haddon from the one the girls had known.
Miss Walters was summoned and made her come into her own private rooms. Of course the girls went also, and while Mrs. Haddon was stretched luxuriously on a couch in Miss Walters’ sitting-room, Billie told how she had frightened the simpleton into confessing his guilt and restoring the stolen goods.
Billie was so modest about her leading part in the affair that Laura was forced to interrupt occasionally, and, disregarding Billie’s frowns, add a bit of explanation here and there that enabled her audience to visualize the thing just as it had happened.
The machinery model had been brought inside and deposited in one of the study halls, and now Miss Walters asked Mrs. Haddon what she wished done with it.
“We can keep it here for you, in the big school safe,” she suggested, “or we can have it carried over to your house, just as you wish.”
“Oh no, leave it here,” said Polly Haddon quickly. “I will notify that Philadelphia knitting company that the invention has been recovered, and if they still wish to buy it, it probably will not remain here long. Oh, how can I thank you all – ” her voice broke, and for a little while all of them felt a bit uncomfortable while Polly Haddon sobbed out her happiness and gratitude.
It was over at last, however, and the girls were free to go back to their dormitory and the curiosity of their friends.
Here, perched on the bed with Connie and Vi, Laura gave a graphic account of everything just as it had happened to a sympathetic audience of some twenty girls.
She rang Billie’s praises to such an extent that the poor girl tried to hide herself in an inconspicuous corner, only to be dragged forth into the limelight again by a couple of laughing and heartless maidens.
“You get up there where you belong,” cried one of them, shoving Billie up into the center of the bed which was already over-crowded with giggling girls. “Don’t you know that you’re a real, honest-to-goodness heroine?”
“And for the second time to-day,” drawled Rose Belser, her eyes fixed a little enviously upon Billie’s pretty, flushed face. “Wasn’t it enough to win the prize, without going and getting yourself in the limelightagain?”
Laura and Vi flushed angrily, for there was a little malice under the question. But Billie took it all good-naturedly.
“Well, I didn’t do it on purpose – not the last part, anyway,” she said.
“We know you didn’t, honey,” said Connie, ruffling Billie’s dark curls fondly. “You’re just naturally talented.”
“By the way,” asked Laura, after an interval of skylarking, “does anybody know what happened to Amanda?”
“She was suspended,” replied one of the girls.
“And I thought it was a pity she wasn’t expelled,” spoke up another.
“Poor Eliza!” drawled Rose. “I wonder what she will do without her master.”
“Does anybody know who won the second prize?” asked Laura carelessly.
“What a queer question to ask,” said Caroline Brant, who had been dreaming about the thesis she was going to write and had hardly heard a word of the conversation. “You did, of course!”
It took a little time for this to sink in, for Laura had long ago given up hope of winning a prize for herself. But when it did finally beat its way into her mind she straightway proceeded to turn the place upside down in her hilarity.
She found Billie’s sewing basket, dumped out its contents, and turned it upside down on her head for a crown.
Then she draped a bedspread about her shoulders, queen fashion, and two of her classmates caught up the dangling ends that formed a train.
Then they marched through the halls crying, “Way for the queen!” and gathering a crowd of giggling girls as they went.
“What’s it all about?”
“Queen indeed! Just look at her with that workbasket on her head!”
“They are having the sport because Laura took the second prize in that composition contest.”
“Oh, that’s it, is it? Well, I’m glad they showed up Amanda – and Billie Bradley certainly deserved the first prize.”
The merriment grew louder, and presently the crowd made Laura mount a stand and deliver what they called “an oration.”
“Tell us about making linen dusters for the Laplanders,” suggested one girl.
“Or overcoats for the heathens in Africa,” suggested another.
“Or how to make sponge cake from live sponges.”
“Or why Washington didn’t use submarines when his army crossed the Delaware.”
“I can talk but I can’t make a speech,” declared Laura. “In other words, I could say something if I could only frame my speech, properly – that is – ”
“If she could only get her tongue to working,” broke in Vi, and at this the assembled girls roared.
It was only when rumor said that Miss Walters was coming their way that the hilarious party broke up and scurried for home and safety.
“Take off that ridiculous thing,” cried Billie, jerking at the bedspread, herself weak from laughing. “And give me back my work basket, woman, before Miss Walters catches you and sends you after Amanda.”
“Goodness,” said Laura, meekly handing Billie her property, “do you think she would? It may suit Amanda fine to be suspended, but I’m more comfortable the way I am.”
And so the time wore on with studies and lessons and fun until the girls woke up one day to find that the summer holidays were almost upon them.
Mrs. Haddon had sold the knitting machinery model to the Philadelphia concern at a price that was a fortune to her.
The little white cottage had been remodeled and furnished prettily, and Polly Haddon had grown prosperous and handsome and oh, so happy.
But the most remarkable thing to the girls was the change in Mary and Isabel and Peter Haddon. The children, who had been such sorry little waifs in their poverty, had grown almost beautiful in the days of their prosperity. Polly Haddon’s pride in them and their pretty clothes was almost pathetic.
The North Bend girls and Connie were often visitors at the little cottage, and sometimes the boys went with them on their visits and were treated to a dinner of waffles and maple syrup that, to quote Chet, “would make an Indian’s hair curl.”
And now, as the girls realized how fast the time was flying, they conceived the idea of giving a party. Not a small party, but a real one with cake and ice-cream and snappers and everything.
“I wonder,” breathed Vi daringly, “if Miss Walters would mind if we should ask a few of the boys – just a very few, you know.”
“There would have to be enough to go around,” interposed Billie.
“I should say so!” said Connie with emphasis. “Especially as Billie is sure to have at least two of them. I want to dance with Teddy and Paul Martinson once or twice myself, my dear,” she said, eyeing the laughing Billie sternly.
“And I’m quite sure dear Rose will, too – especially Teddy,” murmured Laura, maliciously.
They found that Miss Walters was quite willing to let them have the party and the boys, too – provided the latter did not stay too late – and then the plans began in earnest.
They sent invitations to about twenty of the boys at the Academy and the invitations were accepted promptly and eagerly.
About two days before the great event, the girls decorated the two big sitting-rooms on the ground floor which Miss Walters had said they could use, and when they had finished no ballroom ever looked prettier – even the girls said so.
Then at last came the morning of the great day, then the afternoon and then – the evening – and time for the girls to dress.
They had brought out their best party frocks for the occasion and the closest chums had compared colors carefully so that they would be sure not to “clash.” Billie was to wear pale green net with a touch of pink, Laura light blue, Connie had chosen a lovely rose pink that went well with her fluffy fairness, and Vi had decided on golden yellow that made her look like a queen. Rose Belser was dressed in an expensive black frock that was far too old for her but that set off her dark prettiness admirably.
There was Nellie Bane in white, and a number of other girls were in pretty frocks of varied hues. All were flushed and laughing and excited, and their happiness made every one of them pretty.
“Oh, aren’t I beautiful?” cried Laura with engaging frankness as she pirouetted before the mirror. Then she turned to Billie and hugged her rapturously. “And you’re gorgeous, honey,” she cried. “I see where we don’t get even a boy apiece to-night.”
The boys arrived early. It was lucky that Billie could dance with only one boy at a time – or there might not have been “enough to go around.”
“I say, Billie,” Teddy cried once, waltzing her over into a corner and gazing at her wonderingly, “I never knew you could look like that. What is it, anyway? This green and pink thing?” lifting a piece of filmy net gingerly between his thumb and finger.
Billie looked up impishly in his face while one foot kept time with the music.
“Don’t ask me,” she said. “It’s because I’m so happy, I guess. Oh, come on, Teddy, let’s dance!”
It was some time later that the three classmates happened to find themselves together and alone.
“Desoited!” cried Laura dramatically. “Where’s yours, Billie?”
“Gone to get me some ice-cream,” said Billie.
“Wonderful,” cried Laura. “So has mine!”
“And mine!” added Vi.
They giggled happily for a minute and then Billie reached out and put an arm about each of her chums. She hugged them close, regardless of pretty frocks.
“Girls,” she said contentedly, “I think I’m the very happiest girl in the world.”
“Except me,” said Laura.
“And me!” echoed Vi. “And to think – ” she added, after they had contentedly watched the happy crowd for a few moments. “To think that in a few short weeks vacation will be here.”
“Well,” said Laura decidedly, “if we have any more fun this summer than we’ve had this winter, we’ll have to go some!”
“We shall indeed,” said Billie, happily.
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