Billie Bradley and Her Classmates: or, The Secret of the Locked Tower
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“Oh, the sneak! The wretched little sneak!” cried Laura, making a dash for the door. But she stopped suddenly and ran back to Connie. “Has she gone to Miss Walters with that report?” she asked, her hands working as though she longed to get hold of Amanda.
“I don’t think so,” replied Connie. “She hasn’t had time yet – Laura! where are you going?” for Laura had started for the door again.
“To find Amanda, of course,” Laura cried over her shoulder, as she flung out of the room. “I’ll see that she doesn’t get to Miss Walters with that report.”
“She has the right idea, girls,” said Vi excitedly. “We mustn’t let Amanda say such things about Billie. Why, if Miss Walters heard it, it would be dreadful.”
“Come on then,” said Connie, adding recklessly: “We’ll see that Amanda doesn’t squeal if we have to gag her.”
They found Amanda and her “Shadow” haranguing a group of the younger girls at the end of the hall on the first floor. Billie’s champions, coming upon the group suddenly, overheard the last of Amanda’s speech.
“Of course her friends say that she didn’t do it on purpose,” the girl was saying. “But I know she did, and I’m going straight to Miss Walters and tell her about it.”
Laura started toward the sneak, but she drew back so suddenly as nearly to lose her balance and had to be steadied by the girls behind her.
For a familiar figure, hidden until that moment by the shadows about the great entrance door, suddenly swung into the light and faced Amanda.
“Now, what you have said behind my back,” rang out a clear voice, “you can tell me to my face!”
“It’s Billie,” gasped Laura, in joyful relief. “Say, but she looks good to me.”
“Come on. I have a notion she may need a little help,” said Connie, as she made her way to Billie’s side, causing the freshmen who had been Amanda’s audience to scatter in panic. Laura and Vi and several others followed, but Billie did not seem to notice them.
Her eyes were still upon Amanda. The latter, taken by surprise, at first looked about her for some means of escape. Then, seeing that she was cornered, she straightened up defiantly and the usual sneer overspread her mean features.
“Oh, all right,” she said. “I’m not afraid to tell the truth if you are. Did you and Teddy Jordon have a good time when you ran away to-day?”
“It’s false!” cried Billie furiously. “And I’ll make you take it back!”
“What’s this? What’s this?” interrupted a cool voice behind them, and Billie turned with tears of rage in her eyes to face Miss Arbuckle.
“Miss Arbuckle,” she pleaded tensely, “make her take it back – what she said about me. It isn’t true! Oh, it isn’t true!”
CHAPTER XIII – BILLIE IS CHOSEN
Miss Arbuckle laid a kindly hand on Billie’s shoulder and looked at Amanda inquiringly. The latter was smiling triumphantly. Billie had done what she had hoped she would do. She, Amanda, would tell what in her mean little mind she really thought was the truth, and get Billie in bad with the powers-that-be.
“What is this that you are telling about Beatrice, Amanda?” asked Miss Arbuckle, adding, impatient of Amanda’s grin: “Be quick about it.”
“She and Teddy Jordon ran off together to-day and were gone for about three hours,” she said triumphantly.“Billie just came in.”
Billie’s eyes, black in her white, set face, looked up at Miss Arbuckle steadily.
“I didn’t do it, Miss Arbuckle,” she said, her lip quivering. “I – I couldn’t.”
“I know you couldn’t, Billie Bradley,” said Miss Arbuckle, so unexpectedly that Amanda’s mouth dropped open from sheer surprise. “There must be some mistake.”
“But they were away together for three hours,” Amanda repeated, angry at having this tempting morsel of revenge snatched away from her at the last minute. “I know it.”
“That will do, Amanda,” said Miss Arbuckle sternly. “You have been guilty several times of starting stories about the girls that have had absolutely no foundation in truth. And I warn you that if you are caught again in this mischief it may mean serious trouble for you.
“You say,” she added turning soberly to Billie, “that you and Teddy Jordon did not leave the other boys and girls this morning?”
“Oh, yes, we did,” said Billie, so eager to explain that her words tripped all over themselves. “Only we didn’t do it on purpose.”
Miss Arbuckle looked grave and Amanda’s triumphant leer returned.
“Please let me explain – ” began poor Billie, but the teacher interrupted her.
“Yes, I want you to,” she said. “Only not just now. Come to me to-morrow morning at nine, Billie. And I want you to be there also, Amanda. In the meantime,” she added to the latter, “you will make no mention of this affair in any way. Do you understand?”
Amanda nodded sullenly and at Miss Arbuckle’s command the small group of girls that had gathered dispersed to their various dormitories, talking excitedly of what had happened.
Billie was too tired and cold and worn out with conflicting emotions to talk much at first. But under the tireless cross-questioning of the girls she gradually began to give them the story of her remarkable adventure.
They were very much excited about Nick Budd and the cave, and declared that they must visit it and Billie must show them the way.
But Billie, who was comfortably stretched out on her bed with Vi rubbing one half-frozen hand and Laura the other, absolutely denied that she would do anything of the sort.
“It sounds very interesting now,” she said. “But I tell you I was scared to death while it lasted. I wouldn’t go back to that place for a million dollars. Oh, girls,” she added, stretching luxuriously, “you don’t know how heavenly it feels just to be where it’s warm.”
“Didn’t Teddy keep you warm?” asked Rose Belser, wickedly, but just then the door opened and Amanda came into the room. Needless to say, Billie did not answer the question.
Promptly at nine o’clock the next morning Billie went to Miss Arbuckle and told her the story of the yesterday’s adventure just as it had happened, and Miss Arbuckle, to Amanda’s immense disgust, believed her. A little talk by the teacher on the wisdom of taking fewer chances in the future ended the interview to which Billie had been looking forward with not a little dread. And Amanda found herself once more facing the problem of how “to get even with Billie Bradley.”
The girls talked and wondered about the queer little cave and simple Nick Budd, but as the days went on and they were whirled into a veritable m?lstrom of quizzes and examinations, they gradually forgot the incident.
It seemed that the school work was to be unusually interesting that year. There were the usual number of essays to be written, and for one Miss Walters had offered a prize to the girl turning in the best work.
The title of the essay was “The World’s Greatest Generals,” and any girl in the school was entitled to try for it. There were other prizes offered, too, but Billie, whose mark in English was usually the highest in her class, thought that she would try for the composition prize.
Laura and Connie and Rose Belser were going to enter the lists with her, but Vi and Nellie Bane decided to try for the highest mark in geometry.
“Working for a prize makes the work seem more like a game,” said Connie as she happily looked up her “greatest generals.” “I’m as excited as if I were going to a party.”
“Well, you’d better not get too excited,” advised Vi, pulling a lock of her hair absently in order to solve a particularly steep problem in her beloved geometry. “Billie is sure to come off with the essay prize.”
“Oh, she is, is she?” spoke up Rose, who had set her heart on the essay prize herself and who could never quite stifle her former jealousy of Billie. “Well, maybe she is, but I’m going to give her a run for her money just the same.”
“Good!” cried Billie, looking up from her book and smiling sunnily at Rose. “That’s the kind of game I like to play.”
“And how about us?” said Laura, smiling ruefully over at fluffy-haired Connie. “We don’t seem to be in this at all.”
Besides their studies, the girls had the Ghost Club to think about and the importance of initiating new members. They had decided upon two of the freshmen for the honor, one, a fair-haired intelligent girl named Ann Fleming and the second a laughing imp of a girl with red hair and red-brown eyes who bore the name of Ada Slope.
Both girls stood well in their studies and showed a remarkable popularity among their classmates considering the short time they had been at the Hall.
And of course they were overwhelmed with joy when Billie drew them aside one day and ordered them to be in the gymnasium at not later than nine o’clock that night.
They were there before nine, shivering in the darkness of the big gymnasium and wishing that this fearful business of being initiated were over and done with.
A few minutes later the “ghosts” arrived and put the girls through a series of trials that tested their courage and endurance to the limit.
They were made to “walk the plank” blindfolded; they were prepared for “branding with a red-hot poker” and then touched with a lump of ice that made them cry out in imagined pain; they were handed all sorts of slimy things, harmless in themselves but terrifying to the overstrained nerves of the girls.
But they came out of the test with flying colors, and the members of the club were well satisfied with their choice.
“And now,” said Rose Belser – who was still president of the club – as the handkerchiefs were removed from the eyes of the new members, “we are about to put to the test a new rule suggested by a fellow ghost.”
The girls held their breath, for the announcement was a surprise to all but Billie, who had herself made the suggestion.
“It occurred to this fellow-member of our illustrious club,” Rose went on in a deep voice, looking very weird and ghostly in her long white ceremonial robe, with only slits cut in it for the eyes and nose and mouth, “that it is only fair to the new members who have stood the test, to suggest some difficult feat for one of the old members to perform – this person to be chosen by the new members of the club.”
The girls were silent for a moment, sitting there like so many actual ghosts in their white robes, and they thrilled with excitement as they realized the possibilities of the new rule if it should be accepted.
It was fair, for it would give the girls who had gone through the hazing a chance to “get even,” and it would also be lots of fun for themselves. So when Rose called in a sepulchral voice for a vote, there was a unanimous cry of “aye.”
Billie smiled under her white mask gleefully. She had known that the girls would be good sports.
“The suggestion has been unanimously accepted,” Rose rumbled on in the deep voice she adopted for such occasions. “Fellow ghosts, we will now withdraw and give our fellow members a chance to consult upon this important topic.”
“You don’t have to withdraw,” cried red-haired Ada Slope, with a giggle that she could not entirely suppress, despite the “seriousness of the occasion.” “I’ll give a nickel to any girl who will climb up into tower number three with only a candle to see by.”
“And I’ll give a dime,” said Ann Fleming decidedly.
A ripple of very human laughter ran through the ghosts, and Rose had to demand order three times before she was obeyed.
“Very well,” she said then. “Our new members have decided. It now remains for them to select one among our number to do this mighty deed. Advance, new members of the Ghost Club! Choose!”
Ann Fleming put out her hand and touched one white-robed figure.
“I choose this one,” she said.
“’Tis done!” cried Ada Slope, dramatically.
Oh, poetic justice! For the chosen one was Billie!
CHAPTER XIV – A BLOOD-STAINED HANDKERCHIEF
The next problem was to find the candle for the “ghost” to carry up to the gloomy heights of tower number three. Ada Slope, little minx that she was, had chosen this particular one of the three towers for which the Hall was named, because of a legend among the girls, starting from goodness knows where, that this tower was haunted.
Now Billie was not by any means a coward, and she had proved by her behavior in the spooky old mansion at Cherry Corners that she was not inclined to belief in or fear of ghosts.
Yet when Ada Slope ran hastily up to her room and returned bearing a tiny Christmas candle, which was all that Billie was to have to accompany her on her perilous journey, it must be admitted that her heart began to beat a little faster and she was guilty for a moment of wishing that Ada Slope had picked on any other girl but herself.
However, she acted so perfectly that there was not one of her chums but who thought that she was delighted at the chance to explore the gloomy old tower – with one little candle for company!
“Suppose – ” she thought to herself as Laura lighted the candle for her – or at least she thought it was Laura; they all looked pretty much alike in their ghostly robes – “suppose it should go out when I reach the top of the tower and I should have to find my way back in the dark!”
“Courage,” Rose Belser cried, as she pushed Billie toward the door, the candle flickering in her hand. “There are those who say that tower number three is haunted. But let me remind you, friend, that a ghost is never afraid of a ghost. Farewell!”
This was not a very encouraging speech, though Billie could not help giggling about it as she climbed the back stairs to the first floor.
The house was as still as death, for it was after ten o’clock now, and everybody, even Miss Walters, seemed to be in bed.
Billie almost ran up the second and third flights, stumbling over her white robe and shielding the flickering candle with her hand for fear it would go out.
When she reached the fourth floor, which was really the attic, she went more slowly, for the place was dark and “spooky” – so she said – and the noise of her footsteps frightened her. The tiny light of her candle seemed to make the shadowy corners of the place all the more startlingly black.
Once she thought she heard a noise and stopped short, her heart beating suffocatingly in her throat. But it was only the wind sighing drearily around the place, and she went on again, more slowly now, starting at every real or imaginary sound.
The stairway that led to the third tower was at the very end of the long attic, and as she came near to it Billie’s courage almost failed her. It seemed to her that something sinister and terrible was closing in around her, and she pressed her hand against her mouth to keep from screaming.
She could see the dim outline of the stairway right before her, but she was afraid to go forward – and she dared not go back.
What would the girls say if she went back to them and confessed that she had been too cowardly to stand the test? She would be disgraced forever in the eyes of her chums, her reputation for daring and bravery would be gone, she might even be asked to resign from the Ghost Club.
For a long minute she stood there, fighting the desire to rush back to friends and human companionship. Then, with a sharp intake of breath, she forced herself to approach the stairs.
With every step she stopped and listened, glancing about her fearfully. But nothing save the sound of her own rapid breathing broke the musty, heavy silence of the place.
“I must go on, I must go on!” she kept telling herself over and over again. “To the very top of the tower – to the top of the tower – ”
What was that?
A rattling, a scurrying, a scratching of tiny feet across the floor. Billie screamed, but stifled the sound half way by stuffing a handkerchief into her mouth. Her eyes were wide with terror, her hair began to stand on end, and with a little moan she made a rush for the stairs up which she had come a minute before.
She had almost reached them when by the light of her candle she saw something running across the floor. It was a mouse. Weakly she leaned against the wall, trying to summon what remained of her courage.
“They’re only mice, silly – they can’t hurt you,” she told herself, while her hand shook so that she could scarcely hold the candle. Then a sudden thought made her start back for the tower stairs almost on a run. The candle was burning low. She must hurry or she would be left in the dark. Just a quick dive up the stairs to the tower room and the deed would be done. She could go back then, to friends and lights and adulation. For she would be able to tell them proudly that she had done what no other girl had dared to do – climbed to the top of tower three.
With such thoughts she bolstered up her courage and ran swiftly up the stairs. But the “swish” of her garments in that silent place frightened her and she stopped before she had quite reached the top. She listened intently.
Was it imagination, or had she really heard that eerie whisper in her ear, felt the soft brushing of a dress against hers? Of course it was only imagination. She mustn’t think such things or she could never climb to the top of those hateful stairs. She must go on and on – to the top – the very top – Again that scurrying and squealing as she disturbed another nest of mice. She grasped the banister frantically to steady herself.
She must go up – up – Finally she had reached the top of the stairs, and for one joyful minute she thought that she had climbed to the top of the tower. She could go back again to the girls – she had turned toward the stairs when her eye fell on an object that made her breath catch in her throat.
Revealed by the uncertain flare of the candle was a ladder, leading apparently to some room above. Of course, that must be the tower room. Then she still had some climbing to do before her task was finished.
Billie’s heart sank as she approached the ladder, stumbling over bits of junk and rubbish that littered the floor. She must hurry, too, for the candle was burning down and she must not be left in the dark in that place. She would go crazy – or something.
Outside the wind was rising, and it wailed around the corners of the old building with an unspeakably weird and mournful sound that filled Billie with a dreadful premonition of evil.
She really felt, as she hesitated at the foot of the ladder, that she must get back to the girls or she would go mad. Her knees were trembling so that she was afraid she could never climb the ladder to the top.
But she must do it or go back to the girls disgraced.
One hand grasped the rung above her head while the other held aloft the flickering candle and she began the difficult climb, hampered by the long white robe that clung like something alive about her ankles and by the necessity of holding the candle.
Four rungs, five rungs, six rungs – was the ladder a mile long? she wondered, while the wind wailed still more dismally about the house.
Then at last she reached the top. Her candle showed a small door not more than four feet high – the door to the tower room.
Her hand felt for the knob. She grasped it. The door was locked. To make sure, Billie gave the door a vigorous shake, and as it did so something white and soft fluttered to her feet and fell on the top rung of the ladder.
For a minute Billie felt faint and dizzy, and she had to cling to the ladder desperately to keep from falling.
The next moment she saw that what had frightened her was only a handkerchief, and she stooped to pick it up. It was old and stained. What was that stain upon it?
She brought the little square of linen closer to her eyes and then with a stifled scream she flung it from her while the candle fell from her nerveless fingers and went out, leaving her in the dark.
The stain on the handkerchief was blood!
Billie never remembers to this day how she got out of that awful place. Someway she half fell, half scrambled down the ladder, stumbled and fell and stumbled again in her mad rush across the pitch-black attic to the head of the stairs.
Then down, down, down, a countless number of stairs that came up and hit her in the face – down, down to the gymnasium where thousands of ghostly figures rushed at her —
“Oh, what could have happened to have frightened her so?” she heard a voice saying from a long, long distance, and she opened her eyes to find Laura’s white face bending anxiously over her while other white-faced girls stared at her pityingly.
She struggled to her feet, but her knees wavered so that she sat down again quite suddenly.
“What’s the matter with you all?” she asked, then as the memory of what had happened came back to her in a flood she shuddered and instinctively she looked down at her hands to see if they still held that piece of linen with the stains upon it.
“Oh, I remember,” she murmured, as though talking to herself. The girls were watching her anxiously. “I threw it away.”
“What, honey?” asked Laura gently.
“The blood-stained handkerchief!”
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