Janet Wheeler.

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





CHAPTER XVII BILLIE ON GUARD

From this remark of Lauras it may be easily seen that she was still a little grouchy about having to give up five dollars worth of sodas and candy. But away down in her heart she derived more real pleasure from the thought of what her gold piece would buy for the Haddons than she would out of a great deal more than five dollars worth of pleasure for herself.

Billie, spoke up Vi suddenly after they had walked some little way in silence, what did you ask Mrs. Haddon about that lost invention for?

Yes, it sounded as if you really knew something about it, Laura took her up eagerly. You dont, do you?

Not a thing in the world, Billie replied quickly. Only, she added slowly, the same thoughtful look in her eyes that had been there before, so many queer things have happened to me lately that Im getting sort of queer myself, I guess. I cant help thinking about that cave Teddy and I found.

Well, I dont blame you for thinking of it, said Laura, looking curiously at her chum. I think of it myself quite often. But what has that to do with the stolen machinery models?

Nothing, of course, said Billie, adding as the three towers of the grand old Hall loomed into view. But I would like to have a look at the inside of that cave again. Maybe the models were taken there and broken up. The cave was full of junk.

Laura, really curious by this time, was about to put a question when she saw Amanda and the Shadow approaching, and the question died in her throat.

The three classmates, who never deliberately cut anybody, nodded to the two girls in a friendly enough manner, but the latter looked straight at them and never so much as winked an eye.

Whew! whistled Laura, softly, as the chums stopped and looked back after the unmannerly girls. Cut, by jinks!

And by Amanda, of all people! added Vi, in the same tone.

Well, come on, said Billie, and she turned and led the way up the steps. Theres no use standing there and looking after them like a lot of wooden Indians. Id like she added, her temper getting the better of her for the moment, I would like to wring that girls neck.

Do you know, said Vi a few minutes later when they were washing themselves in the dormitory, that Amanda has entered for the composition prize?

The girls looked at her unbelievingly.

Amanda! cried Billie, laughing at the absurdity of the thing. Why, Amanda can hardly write her own name. You know that.

Of course I know it, agreed Vi, scrubbing her face vigorously. Thats why it seems so silly. Unless she has something up her sleeve, she added meaningly.

How did you find out? asked Laura, curling up on the bed and regarding her chum severely. Did she tell you?

Tell me! repeated Vi with a chuckle. That isa good one. No, I just happened to overhear her telling Eliza that she had entered for the composition prize and that she was going to give Billie Bradley the surprise of her life.

She surely does love me, sighed Billie, as she pulled her pretty curls into place.

I dont see why she doesnt pick on somebody else for a change.

Well, youd better look out, thats all, said Vi, wrinkling her forehead seriously. Im almost sure she is planning some crooked work, and its up to us to double cross her.

Hear, hear! cried Laura delightedly. And Vi is the one who is always calling me down for using slang. Fine for a beginner, Vi darling. Keep it up.

The result of this revelation of Vis was to make the girls watch Amanda and the Shadow more carefully than ever before. And if it had not been for just this watchfulness there is no telling what might have happened to Billie Bradley, and through her, to her classmates.

And this was the way it happened.

Luckily for the three North Bend chums, Amanda and her Shadow shared the dormitory with them and Rose Belser. And so it was that Billie, coming in unexpectedly one day heard the very end of a sentence spoken in a loud whisper by Amanda. And though it was only the end of the sentence, it told a great deal to Billie, whose suspicions had already been aroused.

at ten to-night, in Miss Races room, were the words she caught. The fact that Amanda stopped speaking at sight of her and grew an unsightly brick red, gave Billie further proof that the girl was plotting mischief. Very probably the scapegoat was to be herself.

She gave no sign that she had heard anything out of the ordinary, but when she had found the book she had come for and was out in the hall once more, her heart was pounding heavily and her face was hot.

Ever since they had come to Three Towers Amanda had done her best to discredit Billie. She had not succeeded so far, but some time she might. Was this the time? thought Billie, a dull rage taking possession of her.

No! She would not let Amanda get the better of her. She would outwit her, now that she had been warned. Then a dreadful thought came to her.

Suppose Amanda, thinking she had given her secret away, postponed her miserable plot, whatever it was, until another time? No wonder Billie answered questions queerly that afternoon, so queerly, in fact, that one teacher asked her if she were ill and would like to be excused!

But Billie did not want to be excused that would mean more time to herself to think. And so she blundered through the miserable afternoon and her heart jumped with relief when the last gong sounded that meant liberty.

Connie and Laura overtook her in the hall on the way to the dormitory and Laura looked actually anxious.

What was the matter with you this afternoon? she asked. Why, you answered no three times when it should have been yes, and it sounded so silly Id have had to laugh if I hadnt been scared to death!

What is it, Billie? added Connie, putting an arm about her friend. You look dreadfully white. Arent you feeling well?

Then, pulling them into a secluded corner of the dormitory, Billie told them what she had heard, and as Vi came in just as she had finished, she had to tell it all over again, just for her benefit.

Of course the girls were all angry, and Laura wanted to go and have it out with Amanda at once, but Billie, who had had all the afternoon to think out the best thing to do, commanded her to say nothing about it to any one.

Listen, she said, tensely. Somebodys apt to come in at any minute, and then I cant say it. This is what we will do to-night.

Well pull our nighties on over our clothes, get into bed and pretend to go to sleep. Then well wait till Amanda starts whatever shes going to do, and well follow her and see what shes up to.

And then, said Laura, driven to more forceful slang by the necessity for emphasis, well just aboutsettle her!

True to their plans, they retired to the dormitory that night before Amanda or the Shadow or Rose Belser arrived there, and they hurriedly slipped their nightgowns over their clothes and got into bed.

Poor Connies wailing her heart out, chuckled Laura, because shes in another dorm and cant be in at the death. I say, Vi, push the collar of your dress down. It shows outside your nightie.

Sh-h, warned Billie. I hear somebody coming

The somebody proved to be no other than Amanda and Eliza, and when they entered they found Billie and Laura and Vi sleeping peacefully with a cherubic expression of utter innocence on their faces.

It seemed to the girls that they had never lived through an hour so long as that between nine oclock and ten that night. And it was with more than relief that they heard a slight stir at last and saw a shadowy figure slip out of bed and make noiselessly for the door. And while they held their breath for fear their breathing might betray them, they saw a second shadow flit after the first one. The Shadow, in fact!

They waited till the conspirators had had time to get well down the hall, then they too slipped quietly out of bed, pulled their nightgowns off, and started in pursuit.

Sh, whispered Billie. Take your time. We want to let them do it before we catch them at it.

When they reached Miss Races door they were surprised to see a light in the room. Was it possible Amanda had been brazen enough to turn on the light herself?

Cautiously Billie peeped into the room and saw that Amanda and Eliza were busily at work doing something to the teachers desk at the other end of the room. They were alone, so it must have been Amanda who had switched on the light. The girl was bold with the courage of stupidity.

Laura uttered a stifled exclamation, and would have pushed past Billie but the latter held her back. For still another minute she hesitated, then called to the girls softly.

Now, she said, and ran swiftly into the room, Laura and Vi beside her. So quickly and silently did they come that they were almost upon the two girls before either of them looked up. Then

Amanda Peabody! cried Billie, her voice choked with anger. Weve caught you this time! Now lets see what you were doing!

CHAPTER XVIII AMANDAS REVENGE

Amandas jaw dropped and she sprang back while Eliza cowered behind her. The former held an ink bottle which she had been about to turn upside down in Miss Races desk.

With a quick movement Laura snatched it from the girls hand and held it aloft triumphantly.

Look, Billie, she said in a loud whisper. Amanda was going to spill this in the desk and then blame it on you.

Amanda made a quick dart for the door, but Billie ran after her and pulled her back.

Not yet, she said, grimly. Youll wait till were through with you or Ill go to Miss Walters and report the whole thing. You had better not try to get funny.

Amanda started to bluster, but on second thoughts decided not to. Billie and her chums had the argument all on their side this time, and the thought made her fume inwardly.

As for the Shadow, her homely face was pale with fright, and she stood motionless and scared on the spot where the girls had first discovered her.

The plan of the two conspirators had evidently been to upset the teachers desk and then blame the whole thing on Billie. But how could Amanda hope to prove that Billie had done it all?

Thus thought the girls as they rummaged through the desk in search of some further trick. And then, they found it.

Look at this! cried Billie, holding aloft a little square of linen at sight of which Amanda grew more sullen and Eliza quaked. Its my handkerchief with my initials and my laundry mark on it. Those those girls were going to leave it here after spilling the ink, and when Miss Race found it she would of course think that I was the guilty one. Oh what shall we do to them?

She glared at the tricksters while Amanda tossed her head defiantly and Eliza shrank still farther back into the corner.

But that would have been so silly, cried Laura, who had snatched the handkerchief from Billie and was examining it eagerly. Vi, in her turn was trying to pull it from her. Miss Race would know that you would have sense enough not to give yourself away by leaving your handkerchief. Their heads sure are made of bone, and she favored the girls with a contemptuous glance that was harder to bear than Billies anger.

I wouldnt leave my handkerchief on purpose of course, Billie pointed out. I might have dropped it by accident, though.

But how did they get the hanky, wondered Vi, wide-eyed at this example of depravity.

Probably stole it out of my pocket when I wasnt looking, said Billie contemptuously, and at that Amanda made a show of defense.

You neednt call me a thief, Billie Bradley! she exclaimed, but Laura cut her short with a flippant observation.

Would you rather she would call Miss Walters? she asked, which effectively closed the girls mouth.

Lets make em clean up, suggested Billie. Id call Miss Walters, only theyre not worth spoiling her sleep for. Come on over here, you two, and get busy.

We wont do it, said Amanda, but as Billie started toward her she quite suddenly changed her mind.

Oh, all right, she said angrily, as she flounced over to the desk, pulling the limp Shadow after her. Well do it this time. But you just look out, Billie Bradley. Ill make you pay for this.

Laura struck a dramatic attitude.

Look out, she cried. The worm is turning. Let us nip it in the bud!

It was all right for them to laugh at Amandas discomfiture then and treat the whole thing as a joke, but in the morning they were not quite sure that they had done the right thing.

I think we ought to have reported her to Miss Walters, worried Vi. Then she and the Shadow would have been expelled, or suspended at least, and we would have had no more trouble with them. As it is

Oh, dont be an old gloom hound, commanded Billie, seizing her chum round the waist and whirling her about the room in a fantastic dance. Theyve never been able to do anything to us yet, so whats the use of worrying?

Sure, agreed Laura, busy marking passages in her Life of Washington. Thats what I say. Were too many for em.

But in spite of their optimism, in their hearts the girls decided to watch Amanda and her cowardly Shadow more closely than ever in the future.

And the girls would have been put even more on their guard if they could have peeped into the library one afternoon and overheard the curious conversation that took place between two girls seated in a far corner of the big room.

Ive got it at last! gloated one of the girls, who was no other than the plotting Amanda herself. Eliza, of course, was her inevitable companion.

I dont know what youre talking about, said the latter rather snappishly. For, since the fiasco in Miss Races room, she had not entered into Amandas schemes quite so whole-heartedly as she had before. I dont see why you should be so pleased about finding a musty old book.

Of course you dont see, said Amanda, patronizingly. Thats what Im going to explain to you.

She paused a moment, regarding the musty old book in her hand lovingly. Eliza moved impatiently in the seat beside her and Amanda grinned at her.

You remember I told you I was going to try for the composition prize?

Yes, said Eliza crossly, adding with a frankness that might have been disconcerting to anybody but Amanda: And I thought you were crazy even to think of it. You havent a chance in the world beside Billie Bradley or Rose Belser or any of those girls.

I know I wouldnt as a rule, admitted Amanda, her small eyes gleaming with triumph. But with this book, she caressed the little volume fondly, they wont have a chance against me!

And still I havent the slightest idea what youre talking about, snapped Eliza. I wish youd stop grinning to yourself and get to the point if there is one, she added under her breath.

All right, said Amanda, too delighted with her own cleverness to notice her shadows bad temper. Listen then, and Ill tell you just how I came to think about it.

I was rummaging through some books on the top shelf one day, trying to find one I needed, when down behind the rest of them I happened to come across this little old book of biographies of the great generals of the world. It was covered with dust, and so old and shabby-looking that I was sure it hadnt been touched in an age.

Yes, said Eliza impatiently, as Amanda paused for breath.

Of course that was before the composition prize was offered, so I put the book back where I found it and forgot all about it. But now she paused and the Shadow saw a gleam of light.

And now, Eliza finished, you think you are going to get material enough out of this musty little old book to take the prize away from Billie Bradley. I see.

Oh no, you dont see. It was Amandas turn to be impatient. Im not going to try to write an original composition at all. Listen, she lowered her voice to a whisper although they two were the only ones in the large room. Im going to copy it from this book word for word!

For a moment Eliza stared at the grinning girl, pop-eyed. Then as the daring of the thing sank into her muddled brain she sank back in her chair and shook her head slowly.

Dont do it, she said. If they should find out

But nobodys going to find out, cried Amanda, as gleeful as though the coveted prize were already in her hands. This is an old book, and probably nobody in this place has even heard of it. Say, wont that Bradley girls eyes stick out when she sees me walking off with the prize? Oh my, oh my! This is the time Im going to settle her!

It was just about this time that a furor was caused in the school by the disappearance of articles belonging to the students.

The articles were small and seldom valuable so insignificant were some of them, in fact, that the owners never missed them until the report of numerous other losses spread through the school and woke them to the realization that they, too, were victims of the petty thief whoever she was.

For that the guilty one was one of their schoolmates there seemed to be little doubt. For what outsider would care for such things as pencils and erasers and old jackknives?

It was true that one or two of the losses were valuable. A gold-mounted fountain pen for instance, which had been a Christmas present to one of the girls, who lamented her loss with loud wailings and gnashings of teeth, as Laura described it.

It was when the excitement over this strange series of events was at its height that Billie drew Laura and Vi aside one day and whispered a startling decision in their ears.

Girls, she said, Ive dreamed of that locked room in tower three two nights in succession, and Ive found an old bunch of keys and one of them may fit. Are you willing to come with me? Or have I got to go alone?

CHAPTER XIX THE TOWER ROOM

For a moment the girls looked as though they thought Billie had gone mad. The proposal had been made to them so suddenly that it took their breath away.

But, Billie, arent you afraid after finding that blood-stained handkerchief and everything? demanded Vi, round-eyed.

Of course Im afraid! But Im going just the same, said Billie stoutly. Ive wondered and wondered about what might be in that locked room till Im nearly crazy. And if you wont go with me, Im going alone, she repeated.

Dont be foolish, commanded Laura. If you go, of course well go. But suppose none of your keys will fit? she added, glancing at a half dozen rusty keys on a still more rusty key ring which Billie was jingling nervously. Billie had found the key ring on a nail in a dark corner of her locker the day before. She had been about to deliver it to the lost and found office when the inspiration had come to her. She would try the keys first to see if by any chance one of them could be used to unlock the little door in tower three. It would be time enough afterward to report her discovery.

Now at Lauras question she looked somewhat provoked.

Dont you spose Ive thought of that? she said, adding, with a twinkling smile: Somebody is always taking the joy out of life!

We can try em, anyway, said Laura doubtfully, still speaking of the keys. But they dont look very promising.

But, girls, Vi protested weakly, suppose we should find something horrible up there a skeleton or something?

Well, the poor old skeleton couldnt hurt us, returned Laura, adding with a giggle: Probably it would be glad to see us after being up there alone so long.

But the blood-stained handkerchief Vi whispered.

Oh, that! said Laura, with a lofty wave of her hand. Thats nothing. I told you before that probably somebody had a nose-bleed.

Which made even Vi giggle and had the effect of stilling her fears for the time being, at least.

They had hard work getting away from their classmates without arousing their suspicion, but they succeeded at last. The three girls ran lightly up the three flights of stairs that led to the musty old attic.

Now that the moment was at hand they were more excited than nervous, and their hearts beat high with the hope that they might really find a mystery hidden behind that locked door. But what could it be?

The queer sounds and heavy musty smell of the attic that had seemed so dreadful to Billie on that never-to-be-forgotten night seemed natural and even funny in the revealing daylight.

The shadowy corners that had seemed so sinister when lighted only by one tiny flickering candle were only corners now, cobwebbed and dusty, to be sure, but harmless.

Mice scuttled across the floor squeaking angrily at being disturbed, but although Vi screamed and Laura side-stepped nervously, Billie only laughed. To-day they were only little mice more afraid of her than she was of them. That night they had been monsters waiting to devour her.

But just the same, some measure of her nervousness returned when they reached the stairway down which she had nearly tumbled in her wild flight.

Laura and Vi seemed to share her uneasiness, for they stopped at the foot of the stairs and held back a little.





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