Billie Bradley and Her Classmates: or, The Secret of the Locked Tower
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“Who goes up first to meet the skeleton?” asked Laura, with an attempt at a laugh that sounded strained even to herself.
“You do,” said Vi, adding maliciously: “You were the one who said he wouldn’t hurt us.”
Seeing that Laura was about to argue the point, Billie pushed impatiently past them both and ran defiantly up the stairs. Laura, thus challenged, took the stairs two at a time after her and Vi followed reluctantly.
“Look! There’s the handkerchief,” said Billie, kicking the tiny square of blood-stained linen over toward Laura, who jumped nervously out of the way.
“Well, you needn’t wish it on me,” she said resentfully, picking up the handkerchief by the very tip of a corner and presenting it to Billie with a low bow. “Here, take back your gold – ”
“What are you two whispering about?” demanded Vi, petulantly, for by this time she was beginning to wish she had not come.
At her question Laura whirled suddenly about and poked the blood-stained handkerchief directly beneath Vi’s startled nose.
“There,” she said. “Want it?”
Vi gave one look, screamed, and fled down the stairs. She had gone only halfway, however, when Laura overtook her and dragged her back.
“None of that,” she cried. “You can’t back out now. Besides, we’re only beginning to have some fun.”
“Fun!” groaned Vi, keeping a wary eye on the handkerchief that Laura still held. “Well, I’m glad I know what to call it.”
“Come on,” said Billie, jingling her rusty keys and starting up the ladder. “Now we’ll see whether one of these keys will fit.”
“I hope it doesn’t,” said Vi, under her breath, but Laura caught her up sharply.
“What did you say?” she demanded.
“Oh – nothing,” said Vi.
By this time Billie was on the top rung of the ladder and her fingers trembled as she tried to fit the first of the keys into the lock. She had more courage than Vi, yet almost she echoed the other girl’s wish – that she would not be able to find a key to fit.
She wanted to see what was on the other side of that locked door, yet for some reason – perhaps the blood-stained handkerchief – she was afraid to find out.
She had tried every key till she came to the next to the last, while Laura and Vi fidgeted at the foot of the ladder.
“Won’t they fit?” asked Laura, impatiently and in a high-strung tone.
“Yes,” said Billie unexpectedly, as the key slipped into the lock and turned easily under the pressure of her fingers. She hesitated and looked down at the two girls before swinging the door wide.
“Aren’t you coming?” she asked, and she could not, for the life of her, keep a little scared quality out of her voice.
“Of course,” cried Laura, recovering from her surprise – for she had really not expected that any of Billie’s keys would fit – and ascending the ladder hand over hand. “‘Lead on, Macduff, to victory or to death!’”
Vi groaned again and gingerly put a foot on the ladder.She did not know which was worse, to remain there by herself or to follow the girls to – goodness-knew-what. But the squeak of a mouse behind her made her decide in favor of company, and she scurried in a panic up the ladder.
Meanwhile Billie and Laura were experiencing rather severe pangs of something – they could not have told whether it was disappointment or relief.
They had braced themselves to find something horrible – or at least interesting – in the tower room, and they were rather taken aback at finding themselves confronted with a large amount of nothing at all.
There seemed to be a great deal of junk scattered about, but in the gloom of the place they could not even make that out very clearly.
There were windows all about the tiny room, but they were so encrusted with ancient dirt and cobwebs that the bright sunlight of the out-of-doors was reduced to a weird and spooky twilight, which seemed somehow to correspond to the forlorn aspect of the place.
“Well,” said Laura, drawing a deep breath, “we come up here expecting to find something interesting and we get – stung!”
“It does look that way,” admitted Billie ruefully. “Seems as if we might at least have met a good live ghost or two.”
“Live ghost!” sniffed Laura crossly, for she was really feeling very much injured. “All the ghosts that I ever heard about were as dead as a doornail.”
“For goodness’ sake, stop talking about dead people,” said Vi querulously from the doorway. “If there isn’t anything in here – and thank goodness there isn’t – let’s go back.”
“Not yet,” said Billie. Her eyes, become more accustomed to the dim light, had lighted upon something interesting among the junk. What had caught her attention was a large, clumsy-looking thing like a queerly shaped wooden box. The girls watched her curiously as she bent over to examine it.
“You haven’t found your ghost, have you?” asked Vi, in a voice that was meant to be sarcastic.
“No,” said Billie, a thrill of wonder and excitement creeping into her voice. “But I may have found something! Girls, come here and have a look at this!”
The girls picked their way over the rubbish that littered the floor. What had seemed like a peculiarly shaped box proved on closer inspection to be some cunningly fashioned wooden machinery.
The girls looked at each other in awed silence. To them all in an instant had come the same thrilling thought.
“The lost invention!” murmured Billie. “And we thought there was nothing here!”
CHAPTER XX – STOLEN
“Oh, but how do we know?” protested Laura. “It looks like machinery of some kind, but we have no way of proving that it is the stolen invention.” “No,” said Billie, still in a kind of daze. “It may be just some old worthless thing that has been put up here because it is of no use to anybody. But then again – ”
“Oh, I think Laura’s right,” put in Vi, to whom this new find of Billie’s was not very interesting. It seemed absurd to put any value on that queer-looking thing. And besides, she was anxious to get out of that musty, ill-smelling place. “I thought of Mrs. Haddon at first too, but – ”
“Hello! I wonder what this is,” Laura interrupted her. There had been some blue prints lying on the floor near the wooden machinery. In the poor light they had remained unnoticed until Laura had stumbled upon them quite by accident.
In her eagerness, Billie forgot to be polite. She snatched the papers from her chum and made her way to the nearest dust-begrimed window.
She scanned the prints eagerly and finally came to the thing she had so wildly hoped to find. It was only a name, but it told a great deal.
The blue prints were evidently the design of some sort of machinery, and down at the foot of one page the designer had put his name – Henry Haddon.
“Girls, girls, look!” cried Billie, almost beside herself with excitement at her discovery. “Now maybe you’ll dare to say I’m crazy and I don’t know what I’m talking about. I dreamed of it two nights in succession, and now my dream has come true – ”
“Well, for goodness’ sake, stop waving that thing around and tell us what you’re raving about,” commanded Laura, snatching the blue print from Billie in her turn, while Vi crowded close, looking curiously over her shoulder.
“Here! At the bottom of this page!” crowed Billie, pointing out the name. “See it? Henry Haddon!”
“Henry Haddon!” repeated Laura excitedly. “Then it looks as if that really were his invention.”
“It is the knitting machinery model!” cried Vi, forgetting that a moment ago she had scoffed at the idea.
“Of course it is, you gooses – I mean you geese,” cried Billie, incoherent in her happiness. “I told you so right along, didn’t I? Next time maybe you’ll believe your Uncle Billie.”
“I – guess – yes!” said Laura, still staring at the blue prints as though she could not believe they were real. “You surely did have the right idea that time, Billie.”
“Of course I did!” cried Billie impishly, bubbling over with excitement. “And now I’ve got an idea that’s righter yet. Let’s go to Mrs. Haddon and tell her about it.”
“Agreed!” cried Laura. Then she glanced uncertainly at the blue prints. “Shall we take these along?” she asked.
Billie hesitated, then shook her head.
“No,” she said, “I think we had better leave everything just as we found it.”
So Laura put the important papers back on the spot where she had found them, or as near to it as she could remember.
She then backed out of the room and felt her way down the ladder. Vi followed, treading on her fingers, so that she let go and very nearly tumbled to the floor.
Billie came last, for she was to lock the door.
But a strange thing happened. Either excitement had made Billie’s fingers clumsy or something had really happened to the rusty lock. At any rate, she could not get the door locked again and after a few minutes of nervous fumbling, interspersed with remarks from the girls that were anything but encouraging, she gave up the attempt.
“Oh, well, we’ll be back in a little while, anyway,” she said, as she came down swiftly hand over hand and dropped to the floor beside the girls. “Come on now, let’s hurry and find Mrs. Haddon.”
They scurried down the stairs and were hurrying to their dormitory to get on coats and hats when a voice hailed them and they stopped impatiently to find Rose Belser hurrying toward them.
“Have you heard the latest, girls?” asked the dark-haired girl excitedly, for once forgetting her sleepy drawl.
“No,” said Billie, trying not to sound as impatient as she felt, while Laura and Vi frowned openly.
“It’s up on the bulletin board,” Rose told them, too full of her own news to notice their annoyance. “Connie Danvers has lost a gold wrist watch and Miss Walters is very much upset about it. She says that the thief, whoever it is, must be found. And she has ordered that no girl leave the Hall until to-morrow morning.”
The girls looked at each other and groaned.
“Till to-morrow morning!” said Billie, her face as long as though a death sentence had just been pronounced upon her. “Oh, why couldn’t Connie have held on to her old watch!”
Rose’s look of surprise was so genuine that it put Billie instantly on her guard. The chums were not ready yet to take anybody into their confidence about the new discovery.
And so she covered her slip as well as she could, and they went on together to the dormitory, exclaiming sympathetically over Connie’s loss.
The next morning came at last, however, and as it was Sunday, the girls were free to go as soon as the morning chapel hour was over. But as Miss Walters would not allow any girl to leave the building without special permission from her, the classmates were forced to go to her and tell her about their invasion of the tower room and their discovery.
She was displeased that they had not asked her consent before taking such a step. But she was also very much interested in their story, and readily gave them her permission to go to Polly Haddon.
“Bring her back with you, if you can,” she said, “and we will all go together to the tower room.”
“Now for the fun!” cried Laura, as a few minutes later they stepped out into the crisp air. “Whew! I think we got off lots better than we expected. I thought Miss Walters would be awfully mad.”
“Probably she would have been if she hadn’t had so many other things to worry about,” said Vi.
“Poor Connie!” said Billie. “It surely is too bad about her watch. It was a beauty, and she was so proud of it.”
“I hope Miss Walters finds the thief pretty soon,” said Laura, frowning. “Everybody thinks it is one of the girls, and I’m even beginning to feel guilty myself.”
“Do you think – ” Vi began, then flushed as the girls looked at her and stopped.
“What?” asked Laura adding, as Vi still hesitated. “Come on – we won’t eat you.”
“Nothing – only – I was wondering if the thief might not be Amanda.”
“Oh, no,” cried Billie quickly. “I’m sure it couldn’t be, Vi.”
The suggestion from Vi startled her, and it troubled her too, for the very reason that the same idea had been in her own mind.
And suddenly Laura spoke up in support of Vi.
“I shouldn’t wonder if Vi is right,” she said. “Amanda is mean enough for anything.”
Billie had no answer for that, and so she said nothing. But she was more than ever troubled.
As they neared the little white cottage that had seen so much trouble, they forgot Amanda in anticipation of Polly Haddon’s joy at the good news they were bringing her.
They knocked on the door, and the moment it was opened pushed eagerly inside and turned to face the astonished widow.
Billie started to speak, but Laura, with her usual impulsiveness, was before her.
“We’ve got good news, Mrs. Haddon,” she blurted out. “We’ve found your lost invention.”
Billie gasped with dismay as Mrs. Haddon turned deathly white and grasped the back of a chair for support.
“Oh, Laura, you shouldn’t!” cried Billie, as she put an arm about the woman and helped her into a chair. “Get some water, quick! There’s a glass in the sink.”
But Mrs. Haddon brushed her impatiently aside.
“I’m not going to faint,” she said brusquely. “Tell me why you said that. Hurry!”
But Laura thought she had done enough speechmaking for one day, and it was Billie who answered the woman’s questions.
“It must be ours,” said the latter, at last. “I will go with you and make sure. Peter? Yes, he will be all right till I get back. He is much better. I will be ready in a moment.”
She returned in less than a minute, a hat perched carelessly on her head and a shawl around her shoulders. Her eyes burned bright in her thin face.
No one spoke on the way back. Mrs. Haddon, her lips set and her eyes fixed straight ahead, said not a word, and the girls were too awed by her emotion to break the silence.
Miss Walters met them in the hall, said a few words to Mrs. Haddon, then, seeing that the woman was keyed to the breaking point, led the way straight to the tower room.
The girls ran up the ladder ahead of the two older women. The latter followed more slowly. Billie pushed open the little door and entered the room.
Then she started, gasped, rubbed her hand across her eyes to make sure she was not dreaming. For the spot where the queer wooden machinery had stood was empty. The invention was gone; and the blue prints were gone, too!
CHAPTER XXI – MORE MYSTERY
Billie Bradley turned cold all over. To have brought Polly Haddon here – to have practically promised her a fortune – and then to find – nothing!
“Billie! They’re gone!” said a voice at her elbow, and she turned sharply to find Laura and Vi peering inquisitively over her shoulder.
“I know they’re gone,” she cried, almost sobbing in her rage and disappointment “Oh, girls, what, can we do? We can’t tell Mrs. Haddon – ”
“What’s this you can’t tell me?” asked Polly Haddon herself, and Billie looked at the woman miserably.
“The model,” she said, her voice almost inaudible. “It was here yesterday, and now it’s gone.”
“Gone!” cried Miss Walters sharply. “How can that be? Is it possible that somebody else is in the habit of visiting this tower?”
But Mrs. Haddon pushed her aside.
“Do you mean that the model is gone – again – after bringing me here?” she cried wildly. “Oh, you could not be so cruel, you could not!” The last word caught in a sob, and Miss Walters put an arm about her compassionately.
“Listen to me a moment,” she said, in a gentle voice of authority. “If the girls are certain that the machinery and the blueprints were here as late as yesterday – ”
“Oh, we are, we are!” cried Billie eagerly.
“Then whoever has taken them since could not have got very far away with them in this short time,” she went on reassuringly. “Your husband’s invention – if indeed it was his model the girls found here – must still be in this neighborhood, perhaps in this very building. Though who,” she added thoughtfully, “in this place could wish to steal such a thing is indeed a mystery.”
“Oh, Miss Walters!” cried Billie eagerly, “I’m sure nobody here in the Hall has stolen the invention. Nobody would have any use for it, and besides, it isn’t a thing that could be hidden very easily.”
Suddenly Laura had what she thought was a bright idea.
“Maybe somebody stole it who had a grudge against Mrs. Haddon,” she suggested.
Miss Walters looked inquiringly at the woman who had drawn away from her embrace and was wiping her eyes resignedly.
“Is there any one you know of who might hold a grudge against your family?” Miss Walters asked.
Mrs. Haddon went over to one of the dust-begrimed windows and stood there for a moment looking out, her fingers tapping a restless tattoo on the windowpane. Then she slowly shook her head.
“No, I can’t think of any one,” she said, adding bitterly: “We were too poor and unimportant to make enemies of any one. But what does it matter?” She turned quickly from the window with one of her fierce changes of mood. “The invention is gone. I was a fool to think that any good fortune would ever come to me. Let me go home.”
She brushed fiercely past Miss Walters, but the latter put out a gentle hand and detained her.
“Wait a little,” she begged. Her heart ached for the other woman’s suffering. “Come into my office with me while I make inquiries and find out if any suspicious person has been seen about here lately. I am confident,” she added with an assurance that reached the other woman, “that before long we shall be able to recover your property. Will you trust me and believe that I want to help you?”
“Yes,” said Polly Haddon, faint hope once more stirring in her heart. “You are more than kind to me.”
With what different emotions the classmates left the tower room from those with which they had entered it so hopefully only a few minutes before.
The girls supposed that now that Miss Walters had taken charge of Mrs. Haddon’s affairs, they would have no further interest in the matter. But, to their surprise and gratification, Miss Walters motioned them into her office also.
Then she summoned the teachers to her one after another and questioned them carefully as to whom, if anybody, had been seen around Three Towers since the afternoon before.
Through it all Mrs. Haddon sat with an expression of utter hopelessness on her face. Evidently the faint hope that Miss Walters had for the moment revived had died away again.
It seemed that none of the teachers had seen anything that might arouse suspicion, and even the girls were beginning to despair when they were at last given a clue to work on.
It was Miss Arbuckle who gave it to them.
She showed considerable surprise at first at being questioned. But after wrinkling her forehead thoughtfully for a few minutes she remembered having seen somebody loitering about the building late on the preceding afternoon.
“Could you identify the person?” asked Miss Walters quickly, alert at once.
“No,” said Miss Arbuckle, hesitantly, “I couldn’t be at all certain because it was dusk and I saw him only from the window. But it looked like that simple son of Tim Budd, the gardener.”
“Nick Budd!” cried the three girls together, and at the name Polly Haddon also roused from her reverie.
“You could not say certainly that it was Nick Budd?” said Miss Walters, questioningly.
“No, I couldn’t,” returned Miss Arbuckle. “But I remember thinking at the time that the fellow was acting in a rather peculiar manner, and I even thought of reporting him. I was called away by some duties then, however, and when I looked from the window again he was gone.”
“Nick Budd!” cried Polly Haddon, in an agitated tone, her hands clasping and unclasping in her lap. “You asked a while ago if there was anybody who might bear a grudge against my family, and I said there was no one. But I had forgotten poor foolish Nick Budd!”
“Yes, Mrs. Haddon?” prompted Miss Walters, while the girls exchanged excited glances.
“At one time my husband employed him as a handy man about the place,” the woman hurried on. “But after a while we noticed that things began to disappear – things that were worthless to any one else, but dear to us because of their associations.”
The girls and Miss Walters were intensely interested now. They were thinking of the numerous petty thefts that had taken place in the Hall during the past few weeks. Could there be any connection between that and Polly Haddon’s story?
“My husband charged the simpleton with taking the things,” the woman went on. “He did it gently enough, too, for he was sorry for the poor fellow, but Nick fell into one of his rages and slammed out of the house, muttering to himself. He never came back, and we never saw him again.”
“Then this boy did have some reason for wishing to get even with your husband,” said Miss Walters, all interest. “It begins to look as if he were the one who stole your invention in the first place. And if this was really Nick Budd whom Miss Arbuckle saw loitering about the school yesterday, it is probable he had something to do with its second disappearance – ” she broke off suddenly, for Polly Haddon had risen to her feet.
The girls thought they had never seen such a picture of concentrated fury. She stood clutching the back of a chair fiercely and her eyes flashed fire.
“If it is proved that Nick Budd did this thing,” she said in a low, tense voice, “I think I shall – shall – ”
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