Billie Bradley and Her Classmates: or, The Secret of the Locked Tower
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CHAPTER XV – A DISCOVERY
It took the other girls some time to get the whole story from Billie, but when she had stammered it out to them they broke into a babel of excited exclamations that threatened to bring one of the teachers to their hiding place.
It was Billie herself who thought of this danger and who finally managed to calm them down a little.
“Not so loud,” she entreated, still feeling faint and shaky from her experience. “You know what will happen if somebody finds us here.”
“But Billie,” protested Laura, though her voice sank to a more cautious whisper, “we’ve got to do something about it, you know. There may have been a murder or something up there.”
“Perhaps we’d better all go back with Billie and try to get into that little room at the head of the ladder,” suggested one of the girls, but the mere idea made Billie shudder.
“You can go,” she said decidedly. “But I’m through for to-night.”
“Oh, well, if you won’t go,” said the girl dejectedly, “it’s all off, of course. We need a guide – ”
“I don’t see why,” protested Billie. “Nobody gave me a guide.”
“No. And it was a shame to send you away up there all alone,” said Vi, putting a protecting arm about her. “It’s a wonder you didn’t die of fright.”
“I suppose,” said Ann Fleming, thoughtfully, “we might tell one of the teachers about it – or Miss Walters, perhaps – and she could go with us up to the tower – ”
“Say,” interrupted Rose Belser with her most pronounced drawl, as she looked contemptuously upon the freshman who had proposed so foolish a thing, “it’s easy to see you haven’t been at Three Towers long, Ann. Now just what do you suppose would happen if we told Miss Walters that we were up after hours initiating and doing stunts?”
“I – I didn’t think of that,” stammered Ann, completely crushed.
“I thought you didn’t,” answered Rose dryly.
For some time afterward the girls discussed in awed whispers the startling thing that had happened, and then somebody suddenly conceived the idea that it would not be a bad thing to go to bed.
Billie was looking very white and shaky after her ordeal. Then, too, it was getting late, and there was always the chance of discovery by some “over-curious teacher.”
“But I’ll never, never, sleep a wink,” said Vi, as they filed ghost-like out of the gymnasium. “I know I’ll be dreaming of blood-stained handkerchiefs all night long.”
“And I don’t think it’s fair,” pouted Connie, “for Billie to have all the adventures. First she gets lost with Teddy and discovers a perfectly good cave, and then she unearths a thrilling mystery, like this. Too much good luck for one person.”
“Good luck!” repeated Billie ruefully. “Well, if you call that good luck, I certainly would hate to be the one to find out what bad luck is.”
“Hush,” ordered Rose, once more assuming the deep voice of the head of the ghosts. “Some one may hear you and we’ll all be shot at sunrise.”
“I never get up that early,” giggled Laura.
Many and varied were the plans the girls made for a storming of tower number three in the hope of solving the mystery of that little locked door and the blood-stained handkerchief.However, there seemed to be so many obstacles in the way of carrying out these plans that they reluctantly decided to give up the idea, at least for the time being.
“And, anyway,” Laura had said in one of their discussions, “the blood stains on that handkerchief might not have meant anything mysterious at all. Maybe somebody had a nose-bleed.”
“How romantic!” drawled Rose while the other girls giggled at the idea.
Their studies and the race for prizes absorbed the classmates in the days that followed and gradually the mystery, if indeed it was a mystery, faded from their minds.
Billie worked hard, and thought she was getting along finely. She commenced to grow a trifle pale, and at this Vi and Laura shook their heads.
“Don’t overdo it, Billie,” said Vi.
“No kind of prize is worth one’s health,” added Laura.
“Don’t worry about me,” declared Billie, with a smile. “I know what you want to do – make me let up so you can pass me.”
“Oh, you know better than that!” cried Laura.
“Of course she does,” came from Vi. “Now remember, don’t study so hard that you get sick.”
“No danger,” retorted Billie airily.
It was nearly a week later when Billie suddenly realized that there was another thing they had almost forgotten, and that was Polly Haddon and her unhappy little family.
“And poor little Peter!” said Vi penitently, when Billie spoke to her about it. “He must be either better or dead by this time.”
“Suppose we go over to-morrow” – the next day being Saturday – Laura suggested. “We can walk to town first. Or maybe we can get Tim Budd to drive us over in the wagon. We can get some good canned stuff, soups and things, and take them over to the Haddons when we go.”
The next day the girls sought out Tim Budd, who was the gardener at the Hall and who was also, alas! the father of poor, simple Nick Budd with whom Teddy and Billie had had so queer an experience. After a great deal of coaxing, they succeeded in getting the gardener to take them to town in the carryall. From this it may be seen that Tim acted as chauffeur also upon occasion.
They were in hilarious spirits all the way to the town and back again, and it was not until they had almost reached Three Towers that Vi made a suggestion that somehow clouded their faces.
“Suppose she won’t accept these things?” she said, giving the well-stocked basket at her feet a little shove. “You said yourself she was awfully proud, Billie.”
Billie looked sober for a moment, but Laura, as ever, found something to laugh at.
“Why worry about that?” said the incorrigible one, gaily. “If she doesn’t want ’em we’ll have a midnight feast and use them ourselves.”
Tim Budd let them out at the Hall and they walked the rest of the way to the little cottage. Mrs. Haddon herself opened the door, but she looked so pale and wan that they hardly recognized her.
The woman welcomed the girls absently, as if her mind were a great way off, but when her eyes fell on the basket a resigned little smile played about her lips.
“More charity,” she muttered, as though to herself. “Well, I will take it because I must. But I’ll pay it back.” She turned proudly upon the girls and her fine eyes flashed. “No one can say of Polly Haddon that she left her debts unpaid.”
Taken aback by this unexpected declaration, the girls said nothing, but shifted their feet uneasily, wishing fervently that Polly Haddon would turn the fire of her black eyes on something else.
But almost instantly the woman’s mood became softer, and, seeing the girls’ embarrassment, she tried to put them at their ease.
“Thank you so much,” she said. “Won’t you sit down? The basket is heavy and you have come a long way.”
The girls, not knowing what else to do, sat down on the three spindly chairs awkwardly enough, and Laura and Vi sent distress signals Billie-wards. For Billie was always their spokesman.
So Billie, who had been as much abashed as any of them at their rather queer reception, found her tongue with difficulty and asked Mrs. Haddon how Peter was.
“He is dreadfully low,” Mrs. Haddon answered softly. Her head drooped wearily and her hands were crossed listlessly in front of her. “The doctor says it is not even an even chance whether he lives or dies.”
The girls murmured their very real sympathy, and Billie started to ask another question when the door at the other end of the room opened and the two little girls, Mary and Isabel, entered.
At sight of the visitors they looked startled and started to retreat, but their mother called to them.
“Come here,” she said, and the children sidled slowly up to her where they stood, their large eyes fixed shyly on the girls. “Don’t you know these young ladies?” asked the mother, putting an arm about each of the poor little thin things caressingly and drawing them up close to her. “They are the ones who brought you home that day that you were naughty and ran away, and they have been very kind to us since.”
There was a slight sound from the room beyond where poor little Peter lay so desperately ill, and Mrs. Haddon rose suddenly, leaving the two little girls and the three big girls together.
It would have been hard to tell at first who was the most embarrassed. But as no children had ever known to resist Billie for very long, the two little Haddons were soon won over and chatted to the three big girls in careless, innocent child fashion.
“We get good things to eat now,” said Isabel, confidentially, speaking of the thing that loomed biggest and most important in her starved little life. “A man comes almost every night with a basket – just like this,” and she eyed the basket which the girls had brought with hungry eyes.
“Yes, an’ he’s a funny little man, too,” added Mary, her big eyes round with eagerness. “He has whiskers and he stoops – dreadful.”
A glance of understanding passed between the chums.
“That description – ” Vi began.
“Suits Tim Budd – ” added Laura.
“To a T,” finished Billie.
CHAPTER XVI – CHRISTMAS CHEER
So Miss Walters was seeing to it that Polly Haddon received food regularly – “almost every night!” Of course Miss Walters had promised to look out for the family, but the girls had hardly expected her to be so generous.
And while they were still turning the revelation over wonderingly in their minds, Polly Haddon called to them softly from the other room.
It was a bare little room into which they stepped – barer and poorer than even they had imagined. And in the midst of a little iron bed lay Peter, so pathetically white and emaciated that it tore their hearts to look at him.
“Is he very bad?” asked Billie, turning to weary-eyed Polly Haddon.
“The doctor says he almost surely will die,” answered the latter in a toneless voice. “He has just one chance out of a hundred.”
And as though speaking the doctor’s name had brought him there, the big man himself entered at that moment and the girls took that opportunity to say good-bye.
“Poor little Peter,” sighed Billie, as they walked slowly homeward. “I suppose if he dies poor Mrs. Haddon will nearly die too.”
“I wish there was something we could do,” said Vi, frowning.
“I don’t know what more we could do than we have done,” said Laura gloomily.
“Except,” said Billie thoughtfully, her eyes fixed on the far horizon, “find that invention of hers. I imagine that would make her so happy that she might even persuade poor little Peter to live.”
“Good gracious!” cried Laura, throwing up her hands in a despairing gesture. “She’s raving again, girls, she’s raving again!”
Billie laughed, but her eyes were still very thoughtful.
But the holiday season was upon them and it was impossible for the girls to be gloomy or unhappy for very long. They wished with all their hearts that Polly Haddon and her pathetic little brood might be made happy and prosperous once more, but even while they were wishing they could not shake off the exultant thought that Christmas was coming. And Christmas to most of them meant home and family and turkeys and cranberry sauce and presents – oh, oodles of presents!
“No holiday quite as good as good old Christmas,” observed Laura, gaily, as she danced around with a package she had just been doing up in a red ribbon.
“I’m with you on that,” declared Billie. “Oh, do you know, sometimes I can hardly wait until Christmas comes!”
“But you’ll wait just the same,” drawled Vi. “We all will.”
“It’s waiting that makes it worth while,” declared Billie. “It’s like the small boy and the circus. Tell him in the morning that you will take him in the afternoon and it doesn’t amount to much. But tell him a month ahead and he’ll get a whole month’s fun out of it before it comes off.”
“All right, Billie, I’ll tell you a secret,” whispered Vi, with a twinkle in her eyes. “About a year from now we’ll have another Christmas. Now is your time to start thinking about it.” And then there were giggles all around.
“I’ll wait for one Christmas to be over before I think of the next,” declared Billie.
Billie had asked Connie Danvers to come home with her for over the holidays, but Connie, after, writing eagerly home for permission, had had to refuse the invitation. Mrs. Danvers thanked Mrs. Bradley and Billie, but there was to be a big reunion of the Danvers family that Christmas and they had all counted on having Connie with them. If Billie could come home with Connie for Christmas – but here Billie shook her head decidedly, though the invitation was an enticing one. She knew that her mother would certainly want her at home for the most wonderful day in all the year.
And so when the time came, the classmates went their several ways after many fond embraces had been exchanged – to say nothing of various mysterious little green– and red-ribboned parcels.
The Christmas spirit is a wonderful thing, intangible, yet so real that even the most hardened old reprobate will thrill to the magic of it. And as these girls were neither hardened nor reprobates, they were kept in a continual state of excitement and joyful anticipation for two whole weeks before the great day arrived.
Ever since the opening of Three Towers Hall in the fall, the girls had used their spare moments to sew on little mysterious things which were immediately hidden upon the arrival of any of their fellow students, and now these same pieces of needlework began to blossom forth in gay be-ribboned boxes that passed between the girls in a continual stream.
Sometimes one would be found between the sheets of a girl’s bed when she jumped in at night and the touch of it would elicit a muffled shriek, to be followed by hysterical giggles when the gift was pulled from its hiding place and disclosed in all its glory to be admired and exclaimed over by the girls who had not been lucky enough to bark their shins on gifts of their own.
And sometimes another be-ribboned parcel would find its way into the stocking of a lucky maiden while she slept or be discovered in an out-of-the-way corner of her desk, nearly covered by books and papers.
And as the time drew still nearer, even interest in their studies flagged, and the teachers, wisely forbearing to force them, entered into the fun themselves, knowing that one could not study much while the Christmas cheer was in the air.
The girls had fondly hoped that Teddy and Chet and Ferd would be able to make the return trip with them, but as Boxton Academy did not close for the holidays until the day after the official closing of Three Towers, the girls were forced to give up the idea.
“Oh, well,” Billie said resignedly, “as long as they get there for Christmas it will be time enough.”
The day of release came at last and found the three North Bend girls doing a two-step of impatience on the station platform, waiting for the train, which was already half an hour late.
“Goodness, but your bag looks stuffed, Billie,” remarked Laura, stopping before Billie’s big suitcase whose bulging sides did look as though they might burst at any moment and disgorge the contents.
“It has twenty presents in it,” confided Billie, surveying her fat property with a loving eye. “I only hope it holds out till we get home, that’s all!”
Then the train puffed around the bend and slowed up to the station. And several hours later three very much flushed, very much excited, and very pretty young girls popped off the train at North Bend and straight into the arms of their doting families.
“Merry Christmas!” they cried to every one in general and no one in particular. “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Oh, isn’t it glorious to be at home!”
The boys arrived the next day, and they all had a great reunion at Billie’s home, where they exchanged presents and talked in hushed tones of what they hoped that Santa Claus would bring them – to-morrow! For this was Christmas Eve!
But the party broke up soon, and they all went to bed early so that they could get up at six o’clock the next morning – at the very latest.
Oh, the fun of anticipating and the joy of Christmas Day. First of all, the bulging stocking with its lumps of coal and pieces of carefully wrapped sugar with really pretty things stuck in between.
Then the mad rush for the Christmas tree and the admiring exclamations over its glittering beauty. And then – the opening of the gay, be-ribboned boxes. The laughter, the joy, the tears, as each little parcel disclosed something prettier or funnier or dearer than the last. It was all so wonderful that it was a pity it could not have lasted forever.
Then, after Christmas, one glorious, ecstatic week of fun that passed like a day. There were dances and parties and sleighrides and so many other festivities that there was hardly a minute of the day that was not accounted for.
It was not till the week was almost over that the girls thought penitently of the Haddons.
“I wonder,” said Billie, as she turned over and over in her fingers a ten dollar gold piece that had been a gift from an aunt, “what kind of Christmas poor little Peter has had.”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, Billie!” Laura replied a little impatiently, “what is the use of spoiling all our fun by bringing up the unhappiness of some one else? We can’t help it if the Haddons haven’t had as nice a Christmas as we have. We certainly have done all we could.”
But Vi had been eyeing Billie’s gold piece, and suddenly she had a bright idea all her own.
“Listen,” she said, pulling out her pocket book and fumbling in it eagerly. She brought out a glistening five dollar gold piece. “We all got a little money in gold this Christmas. Suppose we do it up in a box and leave it at the Haddons’ door when we get back. We have enough money to get along with for the rest of the term, anyway.”
For a moment Laura looked a little undecided, but Billie jumped up, ran over to Vi and hugged her.
“You’re a perfect angel!” she cried. “That’s just exactly what I was thinking myself. Only I wasn’t going to ask you girls. I was just going to leave mine and say nothing about it.”
“Oh, well,” grumbled Laura, taking her own bright coin from its hiding place and handing it over reluctantly. “If you girls are going to be foolish I suppose I’ve got to be too. Only it’s no joke,” she added, in a plaintive tone that made the girls giggle, “when you think of all the sodas and candy it would buy!”
At last the long anticipated holidays were at an end and after a few days of readjustment at the school, the classmates settled down to work in earnest. For the rest of the semester was crowded with work and the prizes were held out as a glittering bait to spur them on to fresh endeavor.
Only once, after their return to the Hall, the girls found time to run over to see the Haddons, hoping to be able to hide the generous gift they had decided to make in some inconspicuous place where it would not be discovered until they had had time to make their escape.
Polly Haddon seemed very glad indeed to see them, but she had no good news to report of Peter. He was still very low, but the doctor, great man that he was, was bending every energy to bring him through.
“But he will die,” said the mother, despairingly. “There is so little left of him now that I wonder that every breath he draws is not his last. Oh, my little boy! My poor little boy! I’ll not let him be taken from me!”
They comforted her as best they could, and then Billie, to the astonishment of her chums, began asking questions about the knitting machinery model, the disappearance of which had so changed life for this distracted woman.
“Was the model large or was it small, so that it could easily be stolen and hidden away?” she asked, while Polly Haddon looked up at her with something like surprise in her black eyes.
“It was large,” she answered. “And rather heavy. It could not be easily stolen, and neither could it have been hidden away in any small place. That is why we wondered. But why do you ask?”
“I don’t know,” answered Billie honestly. “Perhaps it is just because I would like to help you so much.”
The woman reached over and patted her hand gently, but her eyes had become listless again.
“You – everybody – have been so good to me,” she said, tonelessly. “I don’t know why you have been so good – no one ever was before. But there is one thing you can not do for me. You can not restore my poor husband’s invention, the loss of which caused his death. That would be a miracle. And in these days no one is working miracles.”
Mrs. Haddon left the room for a moment, and in that moment Billie slipped the little box containing their three precious gold pieces behind the alarm clock that stood on a shelf over the sink.
The woman returned before Billie had quite finished, but she was too worried and anxious and unhappy to notice anything unusual. And the little box was still safe in its hiding place when the girls took their leave a few minutes later.
“Won’t she be surprised when she finds it?” crowed Vi delightedly. “I feel like Santa Claus.”
“Well, you don’t look like it,” returned Laura, “Your face isn’t red enough.”
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