Billie Bradley and Her Classmates: or, The Secret of the Locked Tower
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“Then you will let us help the Haddons?” she asked breathlessly.
“More than that,” smiled Miss Walters. “I willhelp you to help them. I think it is too late to follow out your plan of taking them something to-night.” But she added as she saw Billie’s bright face fall: “But we will pack a basket full to the brim with good things early to-morrow morning and you and Laura and Violet may take them to the cottage after breakfast. Only, you must walk around the lake. I could not take the chance of your skating after what happened this afternoon.”
Billie stammered out some incoherent words of thanks, Miss Walters patted her cheek, and in another moment she found herself standing outside in the hall in a sort of happy daze.
A girl passed her, eyed her curiously, went on a few steps and then came back. It was Eliza Dilks.
“In Miss Walters’ room at night,” said the sneering voice that Billie knew only too well. “No wonder you get away with everything – teacher’s pet.”
Billie started to retort angrily, but knowing that silence was the very worst punishment one could inflict upon Eliza she merely shrugged her shoulders, turned up her straight little nose as far as it would go and walked off, leaving Eliza fuming helplessly.
When Billie reached the dormitory she found the girls waiting for her in an agitated group. There was not one of them who would have dared to approach Miss Walters after school hours unless it had been about a matter of life and death importance, and they had more than half expected that Billie would be carried back on a stretcher.
When they found out what had really happened they welcomed Billie as a hero should be welcomed. They lifted her on their shoulders and carried her round the dormitory, chanting school songs till a warning hiss from one of the girls near the door sent them scuttling. By the time Miss Arbuckle reached the dormitory, they were bent decorously over their text-books, seeking what knowledge they might discover!
Next morning, true to her word, Miss Walters herself superintended the packing of an immense basket with all the dainties at her command. There were chicken and roast beef sandwiches, half of a leg of lamb, two or three different kinds of jelly, some rice pudding left over from the night before, a big slab of cake, two quarts of fresh milk, and some beef tea made especially for the Haddons.
And the girls, feeling more important than they had ever felt before in their lives, marched off after breakfast, during school hours – Miss Walters having personally excused them from class – joyfully bent upon playing the good Samaritan.
“I never knew,” said Laura, as if she were making a great discovery, “that it could make you so happy to be kind to somebody else!”
CHAPTER VI – TROUBLE
It was the girls’ intention at first to leave the hamper of good things before the Haddons’ door so that Mrs. Haddon would have no chance of refusing the gift through pride.
But when they came to the little cottage after half an hour of steady walking, they found to their dismay that Fate had taken a hand and spoiled all their plans.
For Mrs.Haddon herself, a shawl over her head and looking even more worried and anxious than she had when they had seen her before, rounded the corner of the house and met them just as they reached the door.
For a moment the girls had a panicky impulse to drop the basket and run, but on second thought they decided that that would be just about the worst thing they could possibly do. And while they were trying to think up something to say, Mrs. Haddon took the whole situation entirely out of their hands.
At first she did not seem to recognize them, but the next instant her face lighted up with relief and she opened the door of the cottage, beckoning them to enter.
“Just stay here in the kitchen a minute where it’s warm,” she directed them in a strained tone, and before the girls had time to draw their breath she had disappeared from the room, leaving the classmates alone.
“Now we’ve gone and spilled the beans,” whispered slangy Laura, eyeing the blameless hamper disapprovingly as she warmed her chilled hands before the stove. “I don’t suppose she will touch a thing now, and after we went and walked all this way, and everything, too – ”
“Sh-h,” cautioned Billie, a hand to her lips. “She’s coming back.”
At that moment Mrs. Haddon did indeed come back into the kitchen. She closed the door very gently behind her and then came quickly toward the girls.
“Listen,” she said breathlessly. “I don’t know who sent you, just now. Maybe it was God.” She caught her breath on the words and the girls regarded her wonderingly and a little fearfully. For goodness’ sake! what was she talking about?
“Anyway, you’ve come,” went on the woman, swiftly. “And if you want to, you can do me a great favor.”
“What is it?” they asked together.
“Run for the nearest doctor, one of you – or all of you,” said the woman, her words stumbling over one another in her agitation. “Peter, my little boy, is sick. If I don’t have a doctor very soon, he may die.”
“Oh, where is the nearest doctor?” asked Billie, breathlessly, her eyes big with sympathy. “Tell me and I’ll go.”
“Half a mile down the road!” said the woman. “Dr. Ramsey! In the big white house! These are his office hours. He should be at home. I just went to a neighbor’s, but she was not at home and I could not go myself. Peter would have been alone – ”
“I’ll go, and I’ll have him back here in half an hour,” promised Billie, running to the door as she spoke. But Laura grabbed her skirt and held on to it.
“No, you stay here. I’ll go,” she said, thinking desperately of the food hamper and fearing that if Billie went for the doctor she would probably have to explain their mission.
“I’ll go with you,” volunteered Vi, with the same thought in mind, and before Billie could do more than blink, her two chums had flashed through the door, closing it with a sharp little click behind them. Then it opened again for an instant and Laura put her pretty head inside.
“You always could explain things so much better than the rest of us, Billie,” she said, by way of excuse, it is to be supposed – and then the door closed again.
It was good for Billie at that moment that she had been blessed with a sense of humor. Otherwise, she might have been a little put out.
As it was, she took it as a joke on her and turned back resignedly to her task of telling why they had come to proud Polly Haddon.
The latter was pacing the floor anxiously. Then, as a little moan came from the next room, she flew to the patient, leaving Billie entirely alone.
The latter regarded the hamper uncertainly for a moment, then, with a sigh, she lifted it from the floor to the rickety kitchen table.
“I’ll let her see all the good things first,” she decided wisely, as she removed the cover from the basket, exposing to view its inviting contents. “Then maybe she’ll be too busy looking at them to be angry.”
So busy was she that she did not hear Mrs. Haddon re?nter the room. Neither did she know that the latter was staring unbelievingly over her shoulder till a slight exclamation of wonder made her start and whirl round suddenly.
“Where did you get all that?” asked the woman, her eyes still fixed on the contents of the basket. “And what is it for?”
“It’s – it’s for you – if you will take it, please,” stammered Billie, in her surprise and confusion saying what came first to her mind. “We – we thought maybe – maybe the kiddies would like the beef tea and milk and – and – things – ” she finished weakly, thinking resentfully that the girls, or one of them anyway, might have stayed and helped her out.
But after all, she need not have worried. For an instant the look that Billie had expected and dreaded flared into Polly Haddon’s eyes – a look of outraged pride. But then the woman thought of the children – and she had no pride.
“You said you brought some beef tea?” she repeated, bending eagerly over the basket. “And milk?”
“Two quarts of milk,” cried Billie, joyfully, the relief she felt singing in her voice. “And we made the beef tea fresh this morning. Why – why – what’s the matter?”
For Polly Haddon’s black eyes had filled with tears and she had turned away impatiently to hide them. Beneath the worn old shawl, her thin shoulders shook in an effort to suppress her hysterical sobs.
Then Billie ran to her and put her young arms around her and Polly Haddon, who had struggled so long and so bravely alone, clung to the girl hungrily while she fought for self-control.
“It’s so long!” she said huskily, “so long since any one did anything for us – for my babies – ” Her voice broke, and for a minute she just clung to Billie and let tears wash some of the bitterness from her heart. Then she straightened up suddenly, wiped the tears from her eyes with a handkerchief that Billie had slipped into her hand, and holding the girl off at arm’s length regarded her intently.
“It seems,” said the woman softly, while Billie looked up at her out of clear, grave eyes, “that when things get as bad as they can be the Lord sends somebody to help. This time he sent you. Hark! What’s that?”
It was only the restless turning of a feverish little body in bed, but the mother was instantly alert.
“The beef tea!” she directed, and Billie quickly handed her one of the bottles. “He has had hardly any real nourishment since day before yesterday,” Polly Haddon went on as she poured the liquid into one of the pans on the stove and sniffed of it hungrily. “Strong beef tea is just what the little fellow needs.”
Billie wondered while she watched Mrs. Haddon with pitying eyes. No nourishment for almost two days! Why, if they had not come the children might have starved to death!
“Where are the two little girls?” she asked, remembering suddenly that she had seen no sign of them.
Mrs. Haddon said nothing for so long that Billie began to think she had not heard her question. Then the woman turned and faced the girl, holding a steaming cup of beef broth in her hand.
“I’ve kept them in bed, too,” she said. “I was afraid they had caught cold, and then, too – one feels less hungry if one doesn’t move about.”
Then abruptly she turned and once more left the room. Billie would have followed, but the thought that perhaps Polly Haddon would not wish her to held her back. The woman had accepted the food for her children’s sake, because they were practically starving. But in spite of that she was very proud. Perhaps she would not wish to have Billie see the poverty-stricken bareness of the rooms beyond. So Billie stayed in the kitchen and waited.
Her eyes strayed nervously to an alarm clock that ticked away on a shelf over the sink. She wished the girls would come with the doctor. If little Peter was as sick as his mother thought he was, every minute might be precious. And besides that, they must get back to school.
Then she heard the girls’ voices mingled with the gruff tones of a man – the doctor, of course – and her heart jumped with relief. The next moment the door was flung open and Laura and Vi came in, followed by an immense man who seemed to completely fill the narrow doorway. Then Polly Haddon appeared in the doorway between the two rooms, an empty cup in her hand. At sight of the doctor she set down the cup and motioned him eagerly into the other room.
The latter glanced curiously at Billie, flung his hat on the kitchen table in passing, and disappeared with Mrs. Haddon into the sick room.
“Just luck that we happened to catch the doctor on his way out,” panted Laura, for the big man had hustled the girls back to the cottage on a run. “Say, Billie,” she added, her eyes lighting on the opened hamper, “I see you did the trick. Any bones broken?”
“Tell us about it,” begged Vi.
“I’ll tell you on the way home,” said Billie, her eye once more on the clock. “Miss Walters told us not to stay long, you know. We were to come right back.”
“Gracious, look at the time!” cried Laura, in consternation, following Billie’s eyes to the clock. “Miss Walters will think we have eloped.”
“I wish we could wait and see what the doctor says,” protested Vi, hanging back, and just then Billie raised a warning finger.
“Listen,” she said.
The doctor had raised his voice for a moment and his words came clearly to the girls where they stood near the door.
“The boy is very sick, Mrs. Haddon,” he said. “It will take good nursing to pull him through and plenty of nourishing food.” He lowered his voice again and the rest of what he said was lost in a meaningless murmur.
In the kitchen the girls stared at each other.
“Plenty of nourishing food,” whispered Billie. “Where is he going to get it?”
“I guess,” said Laura, as she opened the door, “it is up to us!”
CHAPTER VII – SETTLING A SCORE
The girls walked back to school in a rather thoughtful frame of mind. They were sorry for poor Mrs. Haddon, and they were worried about little Peter.
“The sandwiches and milk and things that we brought this morning will last them a little while,” Billie said. “But I don’t suppose Miss Walters would want us to take them food every morning.”
“Oh, and that reminds me!” cried Laura. “You haven’t told us yet what happened after we ran for the doctor and left you alone with Mrs. Haddon.”
“There isn’t very much to tell,” said Billie. “She didn’t want to touch the basket at first, but when she thought of the kiddies she changed her mind. She said that the children hadn’t had any real nourishing food since the day before yesterday.”
The girls were silent for a moment, letting this last remark of Billie’s sink in. Then it was Billie who broke the silence.
“I wonder,” she said, “how they have ever managed to get along up to this time. They must have had something to live on.”
“Why,” said Vi, wrinkling her forehead thoughtfully, “the doctor said something about Mrs. Haddon having to give up her work because of ill health. Didn’t he, Laura?”
“Yes,” said Laura, stuffing her hands deeper into her pockets. “He seems dreadfully sorry about poor little Peter. I heard him mumble something about troubles always coming in a heap.”
“Oh,” said Billie, with a big long sigh, “if somebody could only stumble across those inventions someway or other! Then we could all be happy again.”
For a moment her classmates stared at Billie blankly. They had all but forgotten about the invention. Somehow, Mrs. Haddon’s tale of a nearly won fortune had seemed unreal and vague to them – almost like a fairy story. And now here was Billie bringing it all up again and even talking about finding that knitting machine model!
“If it doesn’t always take you to think up impossible things, Billie Bradley,” said Vi.
“Just the same,” Laura spoke up unexpectedly, “you must admit that lots of times Billie has done what we would think was impossible to do.”
“Goodness, have you got ’em, too?” asked Vi, with a giggle. “We all know Billie’s a wonder, but I don’t think she is going to find an invention that has been missing for a long time. Probably it wouldn’t be any good, anyway. All rusted and everything.”
“That wouldn’t make any difference,” Billie pointed out promptly. “As long as they had the model to copy from they could make any number of new machines just like it.”
“All right, rave on, Macduff!” cried Laura, who was just beginning to read Shakespeare and who annoyed the other girls by insisting upon quoting him – incorrectly – upon all occasions. “If you can find this old thing and get a fortune out of it for Mrs. Haddon and the kiddies and twenty thousand nice little dollars for yourself, honey, nobody’ll be gladder than me.”
“I,” corrected Violet sternly. “Don’t you know me is bad grammar?”
“Well, me’s a bad girl,” said Laura irrepressibly, and the girls giggled.
A few minutes later they came within sight of the school and found to their dismay that it was lunch hour.
“Do you mean to say we have been gone all morning?” cried Laura, stopping short at the familiar sight of the girls pouring out on the campus for a breath of air before their studies should commence again. “Goodness, Miss Walters will murder us.”
“Oh, come on,” cried Billie, hurrying the girls along. “Haven’t we been on an errand of mercy – and everything? She can’t kill us for that, even if we were a long time about it.”
Greetings and laughing gibes were flung at the girls as they hurried across the snow-covered campus, but they did not stop to answer. They wanted to see Miss Walters, explain why they were so late, and get a bite of something to eat before the afternoon classes began.
They had almost reached the door when a voice called to Billie from overhead. She looked up unsuspectingly and received an avalanche of snow right in the face, almost blinding her and sending her staggering back against her chums.
Sputtering and choking, she dashed the snow from her eyes and looked up to see who had done such a mean thing. There at a window just over her head was the grinning face of Amanda Peabody. In a flash Billie realized that it had been Amanda who had pushed the snow from the window ledge upon her.
“Want some more?” asked that disagreeable person in response to Billie’s stare. “There’s just a little bit left,” and she made a gesture as if to push the rest of the snow from the windowsill down upon Billie’s upturned face.
But Billie did not wait to see whether she would really have done it. With a cry she made for the door of the school, pushing through a group of the girls who had gathered at the first sign of a fracas. Laura and Vi followed, fuming.
As usual, instead of staying and facing the consequences of her own deeds, Amanda tried to get away. But Billie was too quick for her. The former reached the door of the room just as Amanda darted through it, bent upon escape.
Her eyes blazing, Billie seized the girl’s arm and hurried her through the hall, Laura and Vi assisting, and a delighted crowd following close behind.
“You let me go – you big cowards, you!” spluttered Amanda, almost crying with rage and fright. “You let me go, Billie Bradley! I’ll tell Miss Walters.”
“Go ahead and tell Miss Walters, you miserable sneak!” cried Billie, giving the girl a contemptuous shake. “But you won’t tell her till I’m through with you.”
“What are you going to do?” whined Amanda, too scared now even to bluster. “I won’t do it again, honest I won’t. Only let me go.”
“Don’t you do it, Billie,” cried one of the girls in the following crowd. “Don’t let her off so easy.”
But Billie had no intention of letting her enemy off easily. Having now reached the outside door, she shoved it open, at the same time motioning to Vi and Laura to let go of Amanda.
Then she dragged the whimpering, whining girl over to a spot where the wind had formed the snow into a small drift. Into this she flung the protesting girl, and the next instant was upon her, washing her face with the snow, and it is safe to say that no girl ever had her face so thoroughly washed before. And the crowd of girls behind Billie cheered her on gleefully.
There is no telling just how long Billie might have kept it up, for she was enjoying herself immensely, if Laura had not brought her to her senses. The latter leaned down, took a firm grip of the belt on Billie’s coat and jerked her to her feet.
“Better let her go,” she warned. “We will have Miss Walters or one of the teachers out here in a minute. Come on, Billie. She’s had enough.”
So Billie reluctantly stepped back while Amanda picked herself out of the snow, wiped her red and dripping face on her sleeve, and pushed through the laughing, mocking crowd of girls toward the school.
She stopped just before she reached the door, however, and faced her tormentors, her face distorted with rage.
“You think you’re smart, all of you!” she cried furiously, then added, as her eyes fell on Billie, who had drawn a handkerchief from her pocket and was wiping her hands carefully. “And you, Billie Bradley, standing there grinning! Some day I’ll make you grin out of the other side of your mouth. Just wait!”
“Would you like your face washed again?” Billie demanded, darting forward threateningly. “Come on, let’s get it over with – ”
But Amanda did not wait for the threat to be carried out. She scuttled precipitately into the Hall amid delighted giggles from the girls.
Amanda, fairly choking with rage at the laughter, stopped and shook her fist in the direction of it. Then, with all sorts of plans in her heart for “getting even,” she went on toward the dormitory.
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