Janet Wheeler.

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





CHAPTER VIII JUST LIKE BILLIE!

Several days followed during which the girls settled down earnestly to their studies. For scholarship was held very high at Three Towers Hall, and any one who did not stand well in class was apt to find herself not only in ill favor with the teachers but with the students as well.

The girls had reported to Miss Walters the result of their visit to Polly Haddon, and the principal had seemed unusually interested and sympathetic.

Now that you girls have taken the Haddon family under your wing, she had said, smiling at the chums, I think we shall have to see the thing through at least until the mother is strong enough to begin work again. But in the meantime, she had added, with a nod of the head that meant dismissal, I dont want interest in the Haddon family to make my girls neglect their studies. I expect great things of you this year.

And so the girls, feeling warm all over, as they always did after a talk with Miss Walters, went back to their work, confident in the thought that the Haddons would not be left to starve, at least.

Saturday we will go over ourselves and see how little Peter is, said Billie, as, pencil in hand, she prepared to wade into a geometry problem. Listen, Laura, she added, looking up at her friend hopefully, if you will help me with this geometry Ill coach you in history. Is it a go?

Laura declared it was a go, and so they settled down to work. But no amount of work could keep their thoughts from straying time and again to the Haddon family and the mystery of the stolen invention.

As the girls who have read the former adventures of Billie Bradley already know, Billie and her chums had been admitted to the Ghost Club, a secret society to which only the most popular girls and those who stood highest in their studies were admitted.

The membership had never exceeded fifteen, for the girls knew that to have too large a membership would only cheapen the club. Rose Belser was the president of it, and Connie Danvers and several other of the girls good friends were members. Caroline Brant had been asked to join long before, but had refused because she thought it would take too much time from her studies.

Last years Commencement had taken two of the clubs members, so that now the girls were watching the freshmen for good material. They were very careful in choosing, however, for it was far easier to get members into the club than it was to get them out.

The club was to have its first real meeting in two weeks, and it was at that meeting that the names of prospective members were to be tentatively submitted to the president. After that, a period of close watching, and then the fun of initiations.

But first came news that ran through the Hall like wildfire. Some of the boys from Boxton Military Academy were coming over to the big hill behind the Three Towers Hall for the first real sledding of the year, and they had invited as many of the girls as they knew and their friends to meet them there.

Chet and Teddy and Ferd were coming over, of course, and as the day approached, anticipation grew accordingly until the girls could think and talk of nothing but the fun they were going to have.

I wonder if Teddy will bring Paul Martinson with him, said Vi, after trying vainly for half an hour to fix her mind on an essay she must hand in the next morning.

Hes ever so much fun, dont you think?

It was in Paul Martinsons motor boat, which he had named the Shelling in honor of Captain Shelling, who was master of the Military Academy, that the boys had visited the girls on Lighthouse Island the summer before.

Paul Martinson was a splendid-looking, fine boy whom all the girls liked Rose Belser, in particular but who, himself, seemed to prefer Billie. Like Teddy, Paul thought that Billie was the very best sport he knew, and declared that a fellow can have more fun with her any day than he can with another boy.

Of course Teddy did not like this a bit. Having known Billie practically all his life, he naturally felt that he should have first right to her. And so there was a good-natured rivalry between the boys that amused Billie and Vi and Laura and rather piqued Rose Belser and Connie Danvers and some of the other girls at the school, who thought that Billie had more than her share.

For, as Connie declared once to a sympathetic group of girls, its ever so much more fun to be paddled around in a canoe by a boy than to have to paddle yourself, and its lots of fun to skate with them because they fairly haul you along. And here when we havent nearly enough to go around, Billie goes and takes two of the nicest ones. Shes a darling, of course, but I think she might be content with one!

And so when Vi had happened to mention innocently that Paul was ever so much fun, Rose Belser, who was preparing for a botany quiz at the other end of the room, looked up and made a face at her.

How do we know whether hes any fun or not? she said. You had better ask Billie.

But Billie was too busy studying so that she might be free for the next days fun to hear, and Roses shot was lost.

As though autumn had regretted giving way to winter so soon, it had been unexpectedly warm that day and the girls had worried for fear a thaw might spoil their sledding. But a cold wind rose in the night and the morning dawned clear and cold enough to suit even them.

As soon as breakfast was over the coasters donned sweaters and caps and mufflers and ran down into the storeroom next the gymnasium to get their sleds. Then up once more and out into the bright morning sunshine, their cheeks glowing with health and their eyes sparkling with anticipation of the fun ahead of them!

There were twenty-five of them in all, but as they filed out of the side door of the school they looked like a small army.

Isnt it funny, giggled Laura to Billie, how many more of the girls turn out when they know the boys are going to be there?

Its sad but true, admitted Billie, with an answering chuckle. After that first heavy snowfall when we said something about an all-girls sledding party, they didnt seem awfully anxious about it. Said it was too early in the season and they hated dragging sleds up the hill.

Now I suppose they will expect the boys to do the dragging, laughed Vi.

When they had climbed almost to the top of the hill that made such a fine toboggan they heard the sound of boys voices.

Goodness, they must have started before breakfast, said Connie Danvers, who was puffing with the effort to get her plump little body and her heavy sled up the steep incline. Say, give me a lift, will you, Billie? This hill is so slippery.

You mean that youre getting too fat, said Laura wickedly, as she reached over and grabbed Connies line. I told you you were eating too much candy.

Billie reached the top of the hill first and with dancing eyes she looked down at the long, steep, ice-covered incline. The slight thaw of the day before had been the one thing needed to perfect the sledding. For the surface of the snow had melted, then frozen over again, forming a solid coat of ice.

As she took this all in gleefully, the first of the boys emerged from the trees at the foot of the hill and an impish impulse seized her.

With a shout of warning she pulled up her sled, flung herself upon it, gave a little push, and was off! Down the hill she hurtled at a terrific rate of speed, the glaze of ice forming almost no resistance to her flight.

Taken by surprise, the boys had no more than time to get out of the way before she literally dropped among them.

She swung off to the right, where an abrupt rise of ice-covered ground checked her speed, and, after almost reaching the top of this small hill, the back runners of the sled were caught in the ice and she was tumbled head over heels, to land in an undignified heap at the boys feet.

Then she sat up, rubbed her head and smiled at them gleefully.

I went some that time, didnt I? she said.

Yes, and you might have broken your neck, too, said Teddy, in an awfully gruff voice, as he took both her hands and pulled her to her feet. The other boys were looking on in admiration at Billies feat. Dont you know you should never have taken that turn to the right? That hills too steep.

I know it is now, said Billie ruefully, feeling, for the first time the horrible suspicion that she had skinned her knee.

You should have taken one of these paths, spoke up Chet, pushing his way through the crowd of boys and regarding Billie sternly, as an older brother should. I thought you knew that.

Of course I know that, returned Billie, mimicking Chets tone to perfection. But will you please tell me how I could take either one of the paths when both of them were chock full of boys?

The paths about which they spoke branched off from the foot of the hill. One had been an old wagon road which had become overgrown with bushes and stubble and the other was only a foot path. Nevertheless, either one was wide enough to permit easily a sled to pass through and the ground was level for a long enough distance to allow the sleds to come to an easy standstill.

From the top of the hill the girls had been watching Billies escapade, and now as she started with the boys up the long slope they looked at one another, smiling.

Goodness, there she goes again! sighed Connie plaintively. She isnt satisfied with two of the boys any more. Now she has the whole crowd of them!

CHAPTER IX INTO SPACE

For a glorious hour the girls and boys enjoyed what was to them the best sledding of their lives. They coasted down the hill and dragged their sleds up again, shouting and calling to each other while their cheeks and, it must be admitted, sometimes their noses, too, glowed with the sting of the sharp wind and they had to stamp hard on the frozen ground to keep their toes from freezing.

The best sport ever! cried Paul.

All to the merry, came from Chet. What do you say, girls? and he turned to Billie and her classmates.

What did they say? All shouted at once that such fine sport couldnt possibly be beaten.

Cant be beat! sang out Chet gaily. Just like old Ma Jacksons rag carpet.

Ma Jacksons rag carpet? What do you mean? asked Laura.

She couldnt beat it for fear it would fall apart, was the sly reply. And then the merry lad had to dodge a hard chunk of snow Laura threw at him.

Burr-r! isnt it cold? cried Billie, taking a mitten from one of her hands and blowing on her numbed fingers. Id never know what it was to feel cold if it werent for my fingers and toes. Teddy! Stop your pushing! What do you want now?

For Teddy had seized her by the shoulders and had sat her firmly down upon his big bobsled.

Youve let Paul Martinson take you down three times to my once, he accused her, while he settled himself comfortably behind her on the sled. And now its my turn. Hey, look out there, you fellows were off!

And before the astonished Billie could do more than utter a giggling protest, they were indeed off, flying down the ice-glazed hill at a rate that took her breath away.

Some speed, eh? chortled Teddy in her ear. This old boat of mine has got em all beat. I bet we could race them all to a standstill.

Why dont we try? Billie yelled back at him. It would be lots of fun. Oh, Teddy, look out! she shrieked, for they had reached the foot of the hill and Teddy had skimmed so close to the trunk of a tree that Billie afterward declared they had scraped off a piece of bark.

Dont worry, Teddy said, reassuringly. Nothings going to happen to you when youre with your uncle Ted.

At which remark Billie could not help giggling to herself. Boys did think they were so awfully much! Then suddenly she cried out:

Teddy, thats the wrong path! We have never been down it before.

Thats why Im trying it, said Teddy recklessly, as he swung down the strange path that ran at right angles to the one they were on. The ground slopes, too, so we ought to have some more fun.

Billie said nothing. She would not for the life of her have Teddy guess that she was afraid. They had never been down that path before, because never before had a sled had momentum enough to carry it that far.

And the ground was sloping more and more and the sled was going faster and faster with each second. The path was by no means straight, either, and if Teddy had not been pretty good at keeping his head they would most surely have run into something and have had a nasty spill.

Oh, Teddy, cant we stop? asked Billie at last, unable to keep her fright all to herself. We dont know where this leads to. Cant you stop, Teddy?

Not very well, answered the boy uneasily. We will surely run on to level ground in a minute. Dont worry.

But even as he spoke he jerked the sled around a sudden turn in the path and they came, apparently, to the end of the world. With a nasty little scraping sound the sled dived off into nothingness!

It all happened so suddenly that Billie did not have even time enough to scream. She had a sickening feeling of falling through space, and then she struck something something that yielded, luckily, under her weight, and she sank, down, down, down, coming to rest at last in a world where everything was white and slippery and cold oh, so cold.

She must have lost consciousness for a minute, for when she came to herself again in this strange new world she heard somebody calling her name wildly and a moment later Santa Claus poked his head over a snowbank and peered down at her.

At least, she thought at first it was Santa Claus, because his face was so very red and the snow was clinging to his fuzzy cap in such a funny manner.

But in a moment more she realized her mistake, for the red face and the funny hat disappeared and in their place were shoved two legs that she was very sure belonged to Teddy. And in a moment more Teddy himself slid down beside her.

Hello, she greeted him with a smile. I thought you were Santa Claus. Why werent you?

Teddy stared at her for a minute, anxiously.

I say, he cried, taking one of her hands and rubbing it gently. I guess that loop the loop of ours knocked you silly.

Im always silly, was Billies amazing reply, as she sat up and began feeling herself all over carefully. But it certainly did knock me!

Are you all right? demanded Teddy, watching her as she stretched out first one leg and then the other. You didnt break anything, did you?

Nothing but my dignity, she answered, with a giggle that brought an answering grin from the boy. Teddy, she demanded, turning to him suddenly, what did happen, anyway?

Im sure I dont know, except that we came to the end of that path and jumped off, answered Teddy, feeling gingerly of his forehead on which Billie could see that a large purple lump was beginning to swell. If I had had a chance to see what was coming I could have rolled off the sled and pulled you with me. But that turn in the road brought us right on top of it. Its a sort of precipice, I guess, he went on to explain, while Billie eyed with sympathy the swelling lump on his forehead. Its about fifteen feet high, I think, and if there hadnt been snow on the ground we surely would have got hurt.

If there hadnt been snow on the ground, we wouldnt have been sledding, Billie pointed out, adding, so unexpectedly as to make Teddy jump: Who hit you?

Wh what? he gasped. Then seeing that her eyes were fixed on the bump that he was still fingering gingerly, Teddys face grew redder than it already was, if such a thing were possible, and his hand fell quickly to his side. Oh, that! he said, loftily, as if it were nothing at all. I guess the runner of the sled gave me a whack just as we dumped over. It doesnt hurt, though. Not a bit.

I bet it does, too, said Billie, as the boy pulled his cap down tight over the tell-tale spot. Where is the sled, Teddy? she added.

Out there, somewhere, sticking in a drift, answered the boy. I didnt have time to pull it out because I thought you had been killed or something and I had to come to look for you.

Thanks, she laughed at him. Then her face became suddenly serious, and she struggled to her feet, trying to brush off the snow that seemed to cover her from head to foot. How are we going to get out of this, Teddy? she asked, looking at him seriously.

Ask me an easy one, he returned, his good-looking face extremely anxious and puzzled. The snow is awfully deep, and I dont believe we could ever get up to that path again. It would take us a couple of hours to go around, and besides, Im not sure just how to go.

In other words, said Billie, trying her best to speak gayly while her heart sank at this unusually long speech of Teddys, were lost, arent we?

I guess it amounts to that, Teddy answered soberly, and for a long minute they just stood staring at each other.

Then Billie gave herself an impatient little shake.

Help me out of this, she said, as she tried to push through the heavy snow that seemed to press in upon her from every side. Id like to have a look around, anyway.

She found that even with Teddys help it was no easy task to clamber out of the snowdrift that she had fallen into, and both she and the boy were panting with exertion when they had finally managed to get out into the open.

Even there they stood up to their waists in the clinging snow, and Billie, looking desolately out over the white expanse, began to realize that she was very, very cold.

Theres the sled, said Teddy, pointing to two runners sticking out of the snow and marking the spot where the sled had struck. Wait here and Ill get it.

Billie watched him as he struggled through the drifts, and suddenly she was aware of an overwhelming desire to sit down where she was and cry.

But that wouldnt do any good, she told herself sharply, even if this place does look more lonely than a desert. If we dont get where its warm pretty soon well turn into icicles ourselves, I guess.

The wind had become stronger and more biting, and Billies teeth had begun to chatter. She was glad when Teddy floundered back to her, the rope of his sled looped over one arm. He slipped the other arm through hers protectingly.

Well find a way out of this soon, he said, comfortingly. You just watch your uncle Teddy.

Billie tried to laugh but she could not, her teeth were chattering so.

You said that before, she told him hysterically. And we we went over the cliff!

CHAPTER X THE CAVE

The next minute Billie was sorry for what she had said. Teddys face clouded over and he looked at her unhappily.

You ought to know that I didnt get you into this on purpose, he muttered.

Oh, Teddy, d-dear, I didnt mean it, you know I d-didnt, she stammered, trying hard to control the chattering of her teeth. Im a bad, mean, horrid girl. T-truly I didnt mean it, and she put her cold little hand penitently over his great big one.

I know you didnt, said Teddy, his face clearing instantly. Youre cold and tired and all upset. Poor little kid, I wish I could do all thefeeling.

Well, Im glad you cant, said Billie, snuggling up close to him for warmth. For you have troubles enough of your own. Teddy! She drew up suddenly and stared at an object that caught her eye. What is that thing over there that looks like a tangle of twigs and leaves? No, not that way. Over there to the left.

Teddy followed the direction of her pointing finger and his face lighted up with excitement. The tangle of twigs and branches, as Billie had described it, was close to the side of the fifteen-foot precipice over which he and Billie had plunged a little while before.

The fact that the branches were not covered with snow certainly looked as if they had been put there rather recently in a crude effort to hide the entrance to something perhaps a cave.

Thats worth having a look at, he said, jerking the sled up to him and tightening his hold on Billies arm. Can you make it, Billie? The snow seems to be deeper over this way.

Oh, I can make it all right, answered Billie, stoutly, as she clenched her teeth and shut her eyes and floundered on through the clinging snow. I guess Ive got to make it! she added, to herself.

They had almost reached their goal when suddenly they stepped into a hole hidden by the snow and sank down in the icy whiteness until Billie was almost up to her neck.

Gosh, cried Teddy, as he struggled out to higher ground, pulling his thoroughly frightened companion after him, I hope there arent many more places like that around here. Well make it all right, Billie. Say! youre not crying, are you? he broke off, with a boys utter terror of tears, as Billie dug two mittened and numbed hands into her smarting eyes.

No, Im not crying, she answered, giving him a rather watery smile. Im laughing. Cant you see I am?

Poor little kid, said Teddy for the second time that afternoon, and the sympathy in his voice pretty nearly did send Billie into a downpour of tears. She was so thoroughly miserable that it was all she could do to keep from wailing her grief aloud. But Teddy had put one big protecting arm around her now and was half carrying her over to that strange object that looked so dark against the gleaming bank of snow.





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