Billie Bradley and Her Classmates: or, The Secret of the Locked Tower
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“My precious little lambs, you frightened mother so!” she said. “She thought you were lost – but you are wet – or you have been!” She rose to her feet and faced the girls while the children clung to her skirts.
“Where did you find my little ones?” she asked abruptly, looking anxiously from one to the other of them.
“We found them up to their waists in icy water,” Billie explained, knowing that no time was to be lost if the children were to be saved from a bad cold. “They fell through the ice on the lake.”
“Fell through the ice!” the woman repeated dumbly, then, seeming suddenly to realize the full seriousness of the situation, she roused herself to action.
With a quick motion she swept the children nearer to the warmth of the coal stove, then started for a door at the opposite end of the room. Then as if she realized that something was due the girls, she paused and looked back at them.
“Draw up chairs close to the fire and warm yourselves,” she directed. “You must be nearly frozen.”
The girls managed to find three rather rickety old chairs, and these they drew as close to the stove as they could without scorching their clothes. They tried to draw the children into their laps, but the children were either too miserable to want to be touched by strangers or they had become a little shy. At any rate, they drew away so sharply that one of them nearly fell on the stove. This frightened them all and they began to cry dismally.
The girls were glad when Mrs. Haddon returned with three shabby but warm little bath robes which she hung close to the stove. Then she undressed the children quickly, rubbed their little bodies till they were in a glow, then slipped them into the snug robes.
And all the time she was doing it she kept up a running fire of conversation with the girls.
“Thank goodness,” she said, “I only missed the children a little while ago. They have always been so good to play close to the house, and I was so busy I didn’t look out as usual. And to think that they ran away and fell into the lake! Well, it’s only one more trouble, that’s all. It’s funny how a person can become used to trouble after a while.”
“But it would have been so much worse,” Billie suggested, gently, “if the kiddies had fallen through into deeper water.”
“Eh?” said Mrs. Haddon, looking up at Billie quickly, then down again. “Yes, I suppose that would have been worse.” Then she added, with a bitterness the girls did not understand: “It isn’t often that the worst doesn’t happen to me.”
Puzzled, the girls looked at each other, then around the bare, specklessly clean little kitchen.
That Mrs. Haddon was very poor, there could be no doubt. The shabbiness of the place, her dress, and the children’s clothes all showed that. But could poverty alone account for the sadness in her voice?
Mrs. Haddon had once been a very pretty woman, and she was sweet looking yet, in spite of the lines of worry about her mouth.She had lovely hair, black as night and thick, but she had arranged it carelessly, and long strands of it had pulled loose from the pins and straggled down over her forehead. At this moment, as though she felt the eyes of the girls upon her, she flung the untidy hair back with an impatient movement.
“How old are the kiddies?” asked Laura, feeling that the silence was becoming awkward. “They look almost the same age.”
“There isn’t more than a year’s difference between Mary and Peter here,” indicating the taller of the two little girls and the boy. “And Isabel is thirteen months younger than Peter. Mary is nine years old,” she added as a sort of afterthought.
“Nine years old!” cried Vi, in surprise. “Why, that would make Peter eight and the little girl seven. I thought they were much younger than that.”
“Yes,” added Laura, thoughtlessly, “they are very tiny for their age.”
As though the innocent words had been a deadly insult, the woman rose from her knees and shot the girls so black a glance from her dark eyes that they were frightened.
“My children are tiny – yes,” she said in a hard voice, repeating what Laura had said. “And no wonder they are small, when for years they have been half starved.”
Then she turned quickly and herded the three frightened little ones out of the room.
“You go to bed,” she said to them as they disappeared through the door.
Left to themselves, the girls looked blankly at one another.
“Billie, did you hear what I heard?” asked Laura, anxiously. “Did she really mean that the kiddies are so little because they don’t get enough to eat?”
“Sounds that way,” said Billie pityingly. “Poor little things!”
“We must find some way to help them,” Vi was beginning when Mrs. Haddon herself came into the room.
She seemed to be sorry for what she had said, and she told them so. She drew up the only chair that was left in the bare little room and sat down, facing the chums.
“You must have thought it very strange for me to speak as I did,” she began, and went on hurriedly as the girls seemed about to protest. “But I have had so much trouble for years that sometimes I don’t know just what I’m doing.”
“Have you lived alone here for very long?” asked Billie, gently.
“Ever since my husband died,” answered Polly Haddon, leaning back in her chair as though she were tired and smoothing her heavy hair back from her forehead. “He was an inventor,” she went on, encouraged by the girls’ friendly interest, to tell of her troubles. “For years he made hardly enough to keep us alive, and after the children came we had a harder pull of it than ever. Then suddenly,” she straightened up in her chair and into her black eyes came a strange gleam, “suddenly, my husband found the one little thing that was wrong with the invention he had been working on for so long – just some little thing it was, that a child could almost see, yet that he had overlooked – and we were fairly crazy with happiness. We thought we had at last realized our dream of a fortune.”
She paused a moment, evidently living over that time in her mind, and the girls, fired by her excitement, waited impatiently for her to go on.
“What happened then?” asked Vi.
“Then,” said the woman, the light dying out of her eyes, leaving them tired and listless again, “the invention was stolen.”
“Stolen!” they echoed, breathlessly.
The woman nodded wearily. She had evidently lost all interest in her story.
“My husband suspected a Philadelphia knitting company, whom he had told of his invention and who were very enthusiastic over it, of having some hand in the robbery. But when he accused them of it they denied it and offered a reward of twenty thousand dollars for the recovery of the models of the machinery.”
“Twenty thousand dollars!” repeated Billie in an awed tone. “I guess they must have liked your husband’s invention pretty well to offer all that money for it.”
The woman nodded, drearily, while two big tears rolled slowly down her face.
“Yes, I think they would have accepted it and paid my husband almost anything he would have asked for it,” she answered.
“But haven’t you ever found out who stole it?” asked Vi, eagerly. “I should think that the thief, whoever he is, would have brought the invention back because of the twenty thousand dollars.”
The woman nodded again.
“Yes, that was the queer thing about it,” she said. “When the knitting company first told us of the reward we were jubilant, my husband and I. We thought surely we would recover the precious invention then. But as the weeks went by and we heard nothing, the strain was too much. Poor Frank, after all those years of struggle, with victory snatched away at the last minute, when he had every right to think it in his grasp – my poor husband could fight no longer. He died.”
With these words the poor woman bowed her head upon her hands and sobbed brokenly. The girls, feeling heartily sorry for her trouble but helpless to comfort her, rose awkwardly to their feet and picked up their skates from the floor where they had thrown them.
Billie went over to the sobbing woman and patted her shyly on the shoulder.
“I – I wish I could help you,” she ventured. “I – we are dreadfully sorry for you.”
Then as the woman neither moved nor made an answer, Billie motioned to Laura and Vi and they stepped quietly from the room into the chill of the open, closing the door softly behind them.
CHAPTER IV – GENEROUS PLANS
The girls talked a great deal of Mrs. Haddon and her trouble as they put on their skates and slowly skated back to the Hall.
“It must be dreadful,” Laura was saying thoughtfully just as the three towers of the school loomed up before them, “not to have enough to eat. Just think of it, girls, to be hungry – and not have enough to eat!”
No wonder this condition of affairs seemed unusually horrible, in fact almost impossible to luxury-loving Laura, whose father was one of the richest and most influential men in rich and influential North Bend. To Laura it seemed incredible that every one should not have enough and to spare of the good things that, rightly used, go to make happiness in this strange old world. She had never known what it was to have a wish that was not gratified almost on the instant.
“Yes, it must be awful,” Billie answered soberly, in response to Laura’s exclamation. “And I’m sure,” she added decidedly, “that I won’t be able to enjoy another good meal until I know that those three poor little kiddies and Mrs. Haddon have had all they could possibly eat – for once, at least.”
“What do you mean?” they asked, wonderingly.
“We’ll pack a basket,” planned Billie, growing excited over the great idea which had just that minute occurred to her. “We’ll put everything in it that we can possibly think of, chicken sandwiches and a bottle of current jelly, a thermos bottle of hot coffee and another of milk for the children – ”
“Say wake up, wake up,” begged Laura, irreverently. “Where do you suppose we are going to get all this stuff anyway? It’s too late to go to town – ”
“Who said anything about going to town?” Billie interrupted impatiently. “I’m going straight to Miss Walters and tell her all about the Haddon family and ask her to let us raid the kitchen and make up the basket ourselves. We can pay for the things,” she added, as an afterthought.
“It’s a bright idea – but it takes nerve,” said Laura slangily. “Miss Walters may not like the idea of feeding the countryside.”
“I’m not asking her to feed the countryside,” Billie retorted, adding comfortably as a picture of Miss Walters, white-haired, blue-eyed and sweet, rose before her: “I’m sure she will let us do it just this once.”
For Miss Walters, strict though she was at maintaining discipline in the school, was nevertheless generosity and kindness itself to every one about her.
“But,” said Laura, uttering one last protest, “I don’t believe Mrs. Haddon would accept anything that looked like charity. She’s too proud.”
“We won’t take any chances on her being too proud to accept it,” said Billie decidedly, adding with a chuckle: “We’ll do the way the boys used to do on Hallowe’en, ring the bell and run.”
They had no other chance to talk, for in a minute they were surrounded by about a dozen of their classmates who all began scolding them at once about running away and demanded to know where they had been, so that plans for the Haddons were pushed temporarily into the background.
Laughing and shouting to each other the girls took off their skates and scrambled up the long terraced hill that led to Three Towers.
If the Hall and its surroundings were beautiful in the summer time, it was even more attractive in the winter. The ivy that covered the green-gray stone of the building was now frosted white with snow and ice, and this, catching the ruddy gleam of the afternoon sun, gave the Hall the appearance of a great, sparkling jewel.
The three towers which gave the school its name made the place seem like some castle of old, and the surrounding trees and shrubbery, heavily coated with snow and icicles, gave to the old building just the air of mystery that it needed.
The beauty of the familiar place struck Billie afresh, and she stopped short suddenly and gazed up at it with loving eyes.
“Isn’t it lovely to have a place like this to come home to?” she said, as the girls looked at her inquiringly, “when you are tired and cold and – ”
“Hungry,” finished Laura, giving her a shove. “Giddap, Billie, you’re slowing down the works.”
“Slang again,” sighed Vi, plaintively, as Billie obligingly “giddaped.” “If I should tell Miss Walters – ”
“You would never live to tell another tale,” prophesied Laura, amid a gale of laughter from the girls. “Two sneaks and tattletales are enough,” she added significantly, as she caught sight of Amanda Peabody and Eliza Dilks walking a little ahead of them.
“I wonder where Connie and Nellie have kept themselves,” said Billie, as she with the other girls crowded through the wide door of the Hall.
“They were up in the dorm, cramming for the exams when I saw them last,” said a tall girl at Billie’s elbow. She had evidently not been with the girls on the lake, for she wore no coat or hat and she carried a book under each arm as though she also had been studying.
“Oh, hello, Carol!” greeted Billie, putting an arm about the tall girl and sweeping her toward the stairs. “So you’ve been grinding away as usual when you ought to have been out getting some good fresh air. My, you look as pale as a ghost.”
For the tall girl, so studiously inclined, was none other than Caroline Brant, who had been such a good friend to Billie upon her arrival at Three Towers Hall the year before. The girls were all fond of Caroline, in spite of the undeniable fact that she was one of those usually despised students commonly known as “grinds.”
“You know I don’t skate,” Caroline said in response to Billie’s accusation. “And I never could see why people prefer freezing their toes and noses to staying comfortably indoors.”
“You’re an old lamb,” said Billie with a squeeze. “But there are lots of things that you never will see!”
As Caroline had predicted, the chums found Connie Danvers and Nellie Bane in the dormitory, curled up uncomfortably on the bed, heads bent disconsolately over two thick and bulky history books.
When the door burst open and the chums swung into the room, skates slung over shoulders, eyes bright and cheeks glowing from exercise, the two on the bed flung away their books and looked despairingly at the newcomers.
“Great heavens, here they are back already,” cried Connie, running her hands wildly through her fluffy hair. “And I haven’t learned more than five dates so I can say them straight.”
“And that’s just five more than I have learned,” cried Billie gayly, dropping her skates in a corner and flinging herself on the edge of the bed. “Come closer, girls,” she added, lowering her voice to a mysterious whisper while Nellie and Connie wriggled over to her. “I would whisper in thine ear. We have met with an adventure!”
CHAPTER V – BEARDING THE LION
The one word “adventure” was enough to make the girls all interest at once. Caroline Brant wedged herself into a square inch of space on the bed between Connie and the bedpost, and as Rose Belser came in at that moment the girls motioned her to join them.
“What’s up?” asked Rose, flinging off her cap and scarf as she came. “Billie been getting into mischief again? Or is it only trouble this time?”
“Trouble, I guess,” said Billie, and then she told them the astonishing tale of what had happened that afternoon. But instead of being interested as she had expected them to be, the girls actually seemed disappointed.
“Well, was that all you had to tell us?” asked Connie, when she had finished. “I’m surprised at you, Billie. I thought you had really done something exciting.”
“Yes,” added Rose, in her aggravating little drawl, as she rose to get ready for dinner, “it was awfully good of you to rescue those three annoying little brats and return them to their distracted mother and all that. But I don’t see anything dreadfully hair-raising about it.”
Rose read books that were too old for her and ran with girls who were too old for her and so she herself contrived to seem much older than she was. And sometimes Billie found this manner extremely irritating, in spite of the fact that she and Rose were friends – now.
“I suppose it doesn’t seem very exciting to you,” she said, as she pulled off her cap and unwound the muffler from about her neck. “But I presume you would be a little bit more interested if it was youwho didn’t have enough to eat.”
“Don’t be mad at us, Billie,” Connie begged, patting Billie’s hand soothingly. “Of course we all feel sorry for the poor little kiddies and their mother and we want to help them all we can. But you can’t blame us for being disappointed when you said you had had an adventure.”
“I wonder if you would call it an adventure,” mused Billie, more to herself than to them, “if one of us should find that stolen invention and claim the twenty thousand dollars reward for it!”
Her classmates stopped what they were doing and stared at her.
“Wh – what did you say?” demanded Connie.
“You heard me,” said Billie, with a grin.
“But, Billie, you know that’s absurd,” said Rose, in her best drawl. “How could we possibly hope to find a thing that has been missing for a couple of years?”
“It may be absurd,” said Billie good-naturedly, pulling the ribbon from her curls and brushing them vigorously. “I think it sounds foolish myself. But while there’s life, there’s hope. Hand me that comb, will you, Vi?”
A few minutes later the big gong sounded through the halls, announcing gratefully to the hungry girls that dinner was ready. And now that the vinegary Misses Dill had gone, delight reigned supreme in the dining hall.
The girls had all they could possibly eat of good satisfying food and they were allowed to chatter as much as they would as long as they did not become too noisy.
But although they had chicken for dinner and cranberry sauce and creamed cauliflower, things all of which she especially liked, Billie enjoyed it less than any meal she had ever eaten.
Again and again before her eyes arose the reproachful images of the three little Haddons, undersized, undernourished, half-starved.
She could hardly wait until dessert had been served, and then, with a murmured word to Laura and Vi, she excused herself from the table and went in search of Miss Walters.
She found that lady in the act of drinking her after-dinner coffee in the privacy of her own little domain.
Miss Walters had a suite of three rooms all to herself: a bedroom, a dressing-room and a sitting-room, and all three of the rooms were fitted up in a manner that befitted a queen.
The sitting-room was done in mahogany and blue. An exquisite Persian rug of dull blue covered the floor and the rich mahogany furniture was all upholstered in blue velour. The curtain draperies were all of this same rich blue over cream-colored lace. In the center of the room was a huge mahogany library table upon which stood a handsome reading lamp with a blue silk shade.
Billie, who had never been in this sanctum before and who had seen Miss Walters only in her office, was amazed when, in reply to her timid knock, the principal invited her to enter.
For a moment she stood dumbly staring, while Miss Walters set down her cup and looked up with a smile. The smile changed to a look of surprise and then to annoyance as the principal saw who the intruder was.
“It must be something very important to bring you here at this hour, Beatrice,” said Miss Walters, while poor Billie began to wish herself back in the security of dormitory C. She was too frightened to explain her presence, and yet she knew that Miss Walters expected an explanation. “What is it you wish?” asked the latter, impatiently.
“I – I’m sorry,” said Billie at last, backing away toward the door. “I shouldn’t have come – but I thought – that is, I thought it was important.” She was half through the door by this time, and Miss Walters, her annoyance changing to amusement, took pity on her.
“What was important?” she asked, adding, as Billie still continued to back away: “Come in here, Billie Bradley, and shut that door. There’s a draft in the hall.”
Relieved at the use of the familiar name Billie, the girl obeyed, shutting the door softly, then turned imploringly to the teacher.
“Sit down,” commanded the latter, pointing to one of the blue velour armchairs near by. “Now tell me the ‘important thing’ you came about while I finish my coffee.”
Billie made poor work of her story at first, for she was still wondering how she had ever had the courage to approach Miss Walters in the privacy of her sanctum sanctorum, but as she went on she became less self-conscious and was encouraged by Miss Walters’ unfeigned interest.
And when, at the end of the recital, Miss Walters reached over and patted her hand and told her she had been quite right in coming to her as she had, Billie was in the seventh heaven of delight.
“With poverty behind them, fortune and comfort ahead, and then again, desolation!” Miss Walters mused, talking more to herself than Billie. “How the human mind can stand up under the strain is a mystery to me. Poor, starving little mites and pitiful, noble mother, fighting for her young with the only weapons she has. Lucky mother to have come to the notice of a girl like you, Billie Bradley,” she added, turning upon Billie so warm and bright a smile that the girl’s heart swelled with pride and adoration.
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