Billie Bradley and Her Classmates: or, The Secret of the Locked Tower
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Then he let Billie go, and while she shivered by herself he laid hold of the branches and pulled with all his might.
“Ooh, look out!” called Billie. “There might be a bomb or something at the other end. Oh-h!” The queer doorway gave so easily before the boy’s strength that he was sent staggering back against the snowdrift and sat down in it most uncomfortably.
The next minute he was up again, had swept the branches and twigs aside, and was examining the exposed opening with all a boy’s eager curiosity. Billie peered eagerly over his shoulder.
“What is it?” she asked, breathlessly.
“It’s what I thought it was – a cave,” answered Teddy, joyfully. “Come inside, Billie. It will get you out of the wind anyway, and give you a chance to warm up.” He had put an arm about her again and was pushing her forward with his usual impetuosity, but Billie hung back.
“We don’t know what’s in there,” she protested, but Teddy refused to listen to her.
“We don’t know and we don’t care,” he informed her, masterfully, adding as she still hung back: “We’ll freeze to death out there, anyway.”
“But, Ted, suppose some wild animal should be in there? You know that bears hide in hollow trees and caves – ”
“Bears sleep most of the winter. Besides, I don’t think there are any bears around here.”
“But there might be a – a fox, or a wildcat.”
“I’ll take a chance on that. You must remember, the average wild beast will get out of your way if you give it half a chance. Come on. As I said before, if you stay out here, in this icy wind, you’ll surely freeze to death.”
This argument appealed to her, and, with a shivering look over her shoulder at the desert of whiteness behind, she stepped gingerly into the blackness of the cave.
Then with a little nervous giggle she ran back again, got behind Teddy and pushed him before her.
“Gentlemen first!” she said. “Anyway you’re bigger than I am, Ted.”
So Teddy, feeling as important as a boy always feels when he is protecting a girl that he likes, walked boldly into the cave, stretching a hand behind him for Billie to cling to.
“Come on, it’s all right,” he assured her. “You’ll get used to the darkness in a minute. The snow blinds you. Ouch! What was that?”
Billie gave a little choked scream and would have run out into the open again, had not Teddy’s grip on her hand prevented.
“Don’t get scared,” the boy said, and bent over to examine whatever it was he had stubbed his toe against. “I didn’t mean to yell like that, but, gosh, that thing did give my toe an awful wallop! I say, look at this!” and he held up an object that shone wanly white against the blackness of the cave.
Billie, whose eyes had become a little accustomed to the darkness, saw that what Teddy held looked like an old, broken water pitcher.
“A pitcher,” she said, adding disgustedly: “And that was what I was afraid of.”
At the entrance, this queer hole in the mountain had been so low that the two had been forced to stoop down to avoid knocking their heads on the roof of it.But now, as they felt their way cautiously, they found to their surprise that they could stand upright. The walls also seemed to have widened out and they realized with a thrill of excitement that they were in a real cave, dug into the side of the mountain.
In here it was darker than it had been at the entrance, and they had to feel their way about cautiously to avoid colliding with each other or the walls of the cave.
It was surprisingly warm and snug in there also, for the thick snow wrapped them in the warmest and fleeciest of blankets, and the only place for old Jack Frost to come in was the narrow entrance of the cave.
And once assured that the owner of the cave, whether man or animal, was at that moment not at home, Billie began to feel a sense of exquisite comfort. Her teeth had ceased to chatter, they were safe from the bitter north wind, and she had Teddy to take care of her. What more could any girl want?
As for Teddy, he had evidently found something over in one corner of the cave that interested him immensely. He had stumbled by accident over what seemed to be a pile of old junk, and now he was down on his hands and knees trying to satisfy his curiosity by the sense of touch.
“Now aren’t I the idiot!” he exclaimed suddenly, and Billie started at the sudden sound of his voice in the darkness. “Here I go feeling around like a blind man when I have some perfectly good matches in my pocket. Come on over, Billie, and see what I’ve found.”
Guided by the flare of a match, Billie made her way across the cave and kneeled down beside the boy. Then they both stared in utter amazement at what they saw.
Heaped up carelessly in the corner was a mass of so many and such queerly assorted articles that it is no wonder the boy and girl were puzzled.
There was an old alarm clock, rusty with age and disuse, a mirror, several gaudy articles of jewelry that looked as if they might have been found in ten-cent prize packages, a telephone receiver, a broken fishing rod that stood lamely against the wall as though ashamed of its own decrepit state, a sawdust doll, an empty tin can that evidently had once contained bait, a talcum powder box full of scented violet talc – Billie smelled it – and – but it would take too long to name all the strange things that Billie and Teddy found there in the corner of the funny little cave.
“Teddy,” murmured Billie as the boy’s match burnt out and he struck another one, “what do you think these things are for? Who do you suppose owns them?”
“How should I know?” asked Teddy, getting to his feet and looking eagerly about the place, illumined fitfully by the flare of the match. “Somebody comes here often, that’s a sure thing. And judging by those things,” he waved toward the conglomeration of junk in the corner, “he must be pretty simple.”
“Oh, Teddy!” breathed Billie, moving closer to him. “Suppose he should come and find us here?”
Teddy looked down at her with a grin.
“Why worry?” he asked. “Haven’t you got your Uncle Ted?”
He had scarcely spoken when there came a terrifying sound. It was a snarl of rage, half-animal, half-human.
The half-burned match dropped from Teddy’s fingers. They were in the dark.
CHAPTER XI – THE SIMPLETON
Billie did not cry out. She was either too frightened or too brave. But the next minute Teddy’s arm had reached out and caught her to him reassuringly.
“It’s all right,” he whispered in her ear. “Just hold tight and keep still. I’ll do the talking.”
Cautiously he drew her to the back of the cave, and there they turned and waited for whatever was to happen. They did not have to wait long.
Some one or something was coming into the cave. There was a growling and muttering in the tunnel-like entrance and the sounds increased as the intruder came slowly nearer.
Then there came a stumbling sound, followed by a coarse oath that made Billie clap her hands to her ears.
“It’s a man, anyway,” Teddy whispered, adding maliciously: “Stubbed his toe on that old pitcher, I guess. Glad of it.”
“Oh, Teddy, hush,” whispered Billie frantically. “He’ll hear you.”
Evidently the intruder had heard them. He stopped short as though listening. Billie and Teddy could distinctly hear his heavy breathing while they held their own.
Then a hoarse, strident voice challenged them.
“Who are ye?” it cried, menacingly. “Whoever y’are ye’ve got to git out. I’ll teach ye to go breakin’ into my cave and meddlin’ with my things. Come out o’thet, will ye?”
For answer, Teddy lighted a match, holding it high above his head while he studied the intruder. The latter, evidently startled by the sudden light, staggered back a little and flung his hand before his eyes.
The advantage was all Teddy’s, and for a moment it looked as though he would fling himself upon the little man who stood cowering there. But he hesitated, and while he hesitated the match burned out in his fingers and they were left in the dark once more.
“Light another match, Teddy – quick,” whispered Billie, and he did.
This time the man lowered his hands from before his eyes and stood blinking at them foolishly. He was so small and so slight and so puny looking in every way that the gruff voice with which he had greeted them in the beginning seemed little short of ridiculous.
And while they stared at the little man and the little man stared at them, Teddy’s third match went out.
“Gosh,” said he, groping in his pocket for another. “I only hope they hold out, that’s all. I’d hate to be left in the dark.”
He found a match and lit it rather shakily, for the whole thing was beginning to get on his nerves. And as the uncertain light flared out once more he saw that their queer new friend was holding something out to him.
“Don’t touch it,” whispered Billie at his elbow. “It might be – ”
“But it’s only a candle, Billie, and – ” Teddy was beginning when the little fellow himself interrupted impatiently.
“Light it, light it,” he commanded, glancing nervously over his shoulder into the spooky corners of the cave. “Your match will be burnt out and we will be left in the dark. The dark. I’m afraid of the dark. Hurry, hurry!”
To Teddy and Billie at the same instant came the startling thought that the man was a lunatic. His looks, his voice, his manner, were all proof of it.
And while Teddy lighted the candle with his one remaining match, Billie began to shiver wretchedly. If only they had not found the old cave everything would have been all right. They might even have been home by this time. For the moment she had forgotten how cold it was outside and that neither she nor Teddy knew the way home.
While Teddy glanced about for some place to set the lighted candle, she furtively studied the simpleton, into whose hiding-place they had been unlucky enough to stumble.
He was about twenty-one, she guessed, scarcely more than a boy. His features were as small as his body, his eyes little and red-rimmed and shifty, with an expression of vacancy that made Billie’s blood run cold. His hair, as nearly as she could tell in the flickering light, was red.
And while Billie watched him, he watched Teddy, and she was surprised to see his vacant eyes suddenly fill with terror. Then, when Teddy turned back, after setting the candle on a projecting piece of rock, the simpleton came close to him, holding out shaking, imploring hands.
“Have you come to take me away? Have you?” he asked wildly, and then as Teddy still continued to stare at him, he fell to the ground, groveling in the dirt at the boy’s feet.
It was not a pretty sight, and with a little exclamation of disgust, Teddy reached down, gripped the fellow’s collar and jerked him to his feet.
“For heaven’s sake, get up,” he cried. “What’s the matter with you, anyway? I’m not going to hurt you.”
“You haven’t come to take me away? You won’t put me in prison?” whined the simpleton, shaking and trembling there before them till Billie put her hands before her eyes to shut out the sight of him. “I haven’t done anything! Truly I haven’t! Don’t put me in prison. Oh, I’m afraid of the dark. I’m afraid of the dark!”
There is no telling how much longer he might have gone on in that manner had not Teddy put a hand over his mouth and shaken him into silence. Billie, cowering back against the wall, had begun to cry.
“Now,” growled Teddy, giving one extra shake to the whining wretch, “suppose you keep still for a minute and try to understand what I am going to tell you. We didn’t come into your cave to get you, and we’re not going to hurt you if you will do what we tell you. We’re lost, and we want to get back to Three Towers Hall. Do you suppose you can tell us how?”
The simpleton, relieved of his suspicion that they had come to do him harm, became suddenly sullen. Teddy had to repeat his question before the fellow answered.
“I can,” he said then, “if I want to.”
Teddy was about to answer angrily, but he remembered that he had heard somewhere that the only way you can get anything out of a weak-minded person is to humor him.
So he controlled his temper and said that he hoped very much that the fellow would want to – and the sooner the better, or words to that effect.
“What’s your name?” asked Billie suddenly. It was the first time she had spoken, and both Teddy and the simpleton started. The latter stared at her a moment open-mouthed, and then his manner underwent a bewildering change – became softer, more normal. Evidently he had not noticed before that she was a girl, for she had been nearly hidden behind Teddy.
“What’s your name?” asked Billie again.
“Nick Budd, ma’am,” answered the fellow, never taking his eyes from Billie’s pretty face. “Son of Tim Budd, the gardener up at Three Towers Hall.”
“Oh!” cried Billie delightedly, while Teddy himself felt immensely relieved. “Then you will show us the way home, won’t you? We’ll be ever so much obliged to you.”
“Yes’m,” said the poor simpleton, shuffling his feet as though embarrassed. “I’ll show you right away. But there’s a powerful lot o’ snow between us and the Hall,” he added, as he turned to leave the cave.
Teddy started to take the candle to light them out, but the simpleton, as though he had eyes in the back of his head, turned upon Teddy furiously.
“You let thet candle be,” he cried to the astonished boy, while Billie shrank back in fresh alarm. “You let thet candle be, I tell you! It’s my candle, ain’t it?”
“Whew!” whistled Teddy, feeling a wild desire to shout, yet afraid to do it for fear of angering still more this poor idiot. “Yes, it’s your candle, old man. Be sure you take good care of it. It’s very precious.”
The simpleton stared at him suspiciously for a moment, then turned his back and led the way out of the cave.
“Oh, Teddy, I’m scared to death,” whispered Billie, as the boy grabbed tight hold of her hand and started to follow Nick Budd.
“You needn’t be,” he whispered back to her. “I could clean up that little shrimp with one finger.” Which observation, though extremely slangy, was very comforting to Billie.
They found the sled outside where Teddy had dropped it when they entered the cave, and then there began a long, hard struggle with the snow and the wind that the boy and girl were to remember long afterward.
They did not talk much, for they were too busy trying to keep up with Nick Budd as he floundered through the snow, and breath was precious. However, Billie did find a chance to ask the question that had been looming bigger and bigger with each second.
“Teddy, what do you suppose the boys and girls will think of our disappearing like that?” she asked him.
“I suppose they’ll think we went off in an aeroplane or something,” he answered, trying to be funny and not succeeding very well.
“Well,” sighed Billie, “I only hope they won’t go and say anything about it at school – not till we get back and have a chance to explain, anyway.”
Teddy glanced at her quickly.
“Nobody would be mean enough to do that,” he said, decidedly.
“No-o, I guess not,” agreed Billie, but in her heart she was not at all sure. She was thinking of Amanda Peabody.
CHAPTER XII – THE ACCUSATION
Nick Budd, plunging on in the snow ahead of the young folks, hardly once turned his head to look back. Evidently he had made this trip often and was used to wading through snow half-way to his waist, for he went so swiftly that Teddy was winded and Billie pretty nearly worn out when they at last reached the road.
Oh, but what a relief it was to step out on its hard, crusty firmness after the yielding depth of the snow in the field!
Then Nick Budd turned and addressed them for the first time since they had left the cave behind them.
“This here is the road thet leads to Three Towers,” he told them, evidently in a sullen mood again. “Jest foller straight and ye’ll git thar.” And before either Teddy or Billie had a chance to thank him he turned back without another word and started to retrace his steps through the heavy snow, leaving the two standing in the middle of the road staring after him.
Then Billie turned wonderingly to the boy.
“Teddy, isn’t he the queerest thing?” she breathed.
“He sure is,” he said, soberly, adding slowly: “I’m just wondering what made him so afraid that we were going to put him in prison. He was scared almost to death until we told him why we had come.”
“But he’s a simpleton,” Billie pointed out. “Poor thing, I don’t suppose you could count on anything he says or does. People who aren’t ‘all there’ have moods, don’t they?”
“Is that why you act so funny sometimes?” asked Teddy with a grin, and Billie pouted most becomingly.
“I think you’re horrid,” she said, while Teddy’s grin became still wider. “Come on, let’s get back. I’m freezing to death. Don’t stand there grinning like an ape,” she commanded, with an impatient stamp of her foot. “You look silly.”
“Like Nick Budd?” asked Teddy good-naturedly, and Billie had to smile. “Look here,” he added, jerking the sled toward him and motioning to Billie to sit on it. “We can get back much more quickly if you let me pull you. Get aboard, Miss Billie, and I’ll give you a regular sleighride.”
“Oh fine!” cried Billie, as she settled herself comfortably on the big sled. “Only I’m ’fraid its rather a long pull, Teddy. You may get tired.”
“Just watch me!” cried the boy, and galloped off at a great rate, the sled, with Billie clinging wildly to it, bumping and swaying over the hard and rough road.
Meantime the other boys and girls had been considerably alarmed by Teddy’s and Billie’s abrupt disappearance. At first they had supposed that the two were simply playing a trick on them and would appear when they got good and ready.
But as time passed and nothing happened they became worried, and even began to talk about a search party.
“Though how they could have got lost, I don’t know,” Laura had said to an agitated group. “They certainly know their way about here well enough.”
“Perhaps they got lost on purpose,” said a nasal voice, and Billie’s chums turned indignantly to face the speaker. It was Amanda, of course, and beside her, so close as to have earned her the title of Amanda’s “Shadow,” stood her friend and crony, Eliza Dilks.
Laura was about to retort furiously when Billie’s brother Chet pushed her aside and faced Amanda.
“If you were a boy, I’d know what to do to you for saying a thing like that,” cried the boy, such fury in his face that Amanda was frightened. “But since you’re a girl I’ll just tell you to lay off that line of talk. Billie Bradley is my sister.” As Chet said the last words proudly there was many a girl present who would have been glad to own a brother as loyal as Chet Bradley.
As Amanda muttered something to herself and turned away angrily the boys and girls returned to the discussion of Billie’s and Teddy’s mysterious absence.
“I think,” suggested Paul Martinson, his face looking extremely worried, “that we had better search through the woods thoroughly in case they are lost. Something must have happened to them to keep them away this long.”
He had no sooner made the suggestion than it was carried into effect, and the girls and boys scattered through the woods in search of the two who had disappeared.
They returned in a little while, however, dispirited and more anxious than ever. There was an attempt to go on with the fun in the hope that Teddy and Billie would return in a little while to laugh at their fears, but it was no use. The fun lagged, and finally the girls broke up the party altogether by declaring their intention of going back to the school.
“Billie may be at the Hall now for all we know,” Connie said hopefully, as they started back along the road. “She may have been cold or something and asked Teddy to take her home.”
“Humph,” sniffed Laura, “that sounds a lot like Billie.”
Nevertheless they did hope that, foolish as it sounded, Billie had returned to the Hall before them. But when they reached there and found no sign of either her or Teddy they were puzzled and more worried than ever.
The boys had gone on toward the Academy, and there was not one of them who was not disturbed in his mind. Teddy was as popular at the Academy as Billie was at the Hall, and, besides, Billie was a general favorite with all the lads.
“I’ll wait a little while after I get back,” Chet told them as they tramped back silently, their sleds skidding along behind them, “and then I’ll call up the Hall. If Billie isn’t back by then we’ll have to notify the police – or something.”
And at the Hall her classmates had decided to wait a little while also before they reported Billie’s disappearance to Miss Walters.
Probably nothing serious had happened, they argued, and if Miss Walters were notified Billie might have a lot of explaining to do that otherwise she would be saved.
But as the minutes sped by and still no sign of Billie, they fidgeted and squirmed and could set their minds to nothing.
Then suddenly Connie Danvers rushed into the dormitory, her eyes blazing with wrath.
“What do you suppose?” she cried, while the girls gathered round her. “I met Caroline Brant in the hall just now and she said that Amanda and the ‘Shadow’ were spreading the report that Billie and Teddy ran away on purpose.”
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