Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
BILLIE BRADLEY AND HER INHERITANCE
THE QUEER HOMESTEAD AT CHERRY CORNERS
BY JANET D. WHEELER
BILLIE BRADLEY AND HER INHERITANCE
I. AN ACCIDENT.
II. THAT HUNDRED DOLLARS.
III. CHET HELPS.
IV. THE LAST HOPE.
V. WORSE AND WORSE.
VI. DEBBIE DESERTS.
VII. A STRANGE BURGLAR.
VIII. STARTLING DEVELOPMENTS.
IX. GHOSTS AND THINGS.
X. OLD FURNITURE.
XI. BILLIE WINS OUT.
XII. GREAT PLANS.
XIII. CHERRY CORNERS.
XIV. WEIRD TALES.
XV. A NOISE IN THE DARK.
XVI. SHADOWS AND MYSTERY.
XVII. ONLY A BAT.
XVIII. A FISH STORY.
XIX. IN THE DEAD OF THE NIGHT.
XX. THE MOTOR AGAIN.
XXI. BOTH AT ONCE.
XXII. A THRILLING DISCOVERY.
XXIII. THE WRECKED AEROPLANE.
XXIV. COINS AND POSTAGE STAMPS.
XXV. “LARGE FORTUNES.”
BILLIE BRADLEY AND HER INHERITANCE
“Aren’t you glad that we are only going back to school for a little while?” cried Billie Bradley, as she gave a little exultant skip. “Suppose it were fall and we were beginning high–“
“Billie, stop it,” commanded Laura Jordon, turning a pair of very blue and very indignant eyes upon her chum. “I thought we were going to forget school for a little while.”
“Well, we’re not going back for anything I forgot,” Billie was asserting when Violet Farrington, the third of the trio, interposed:
“If you two are going to quarrel on a day like this, I’m going home.”
“Who said we were quarreling?” cried Billie, adding with a chuckle: “We’re just having what Miss Beggs” (Miss Beggs being their English teacher) “would call an ‘amiable discussion.'”
“Listen to the bright child!” cried Laura mockingly. “I don’t see how you ever get that way, Billie.”
“Neither do I,” replied Billie, adding with a chuckle as they turned to stare at her: “Just natural talent, I guess.”
The three chums–and three brighter, prettier girls it would be hard to find–were on their way to the grammar school which had just closed the week before. Laura had forgotten a book which she prized highly and was in hope that the janitor, a good-natured old fellow, would let her in long enough to get it. At the last minute she had asked the other girls to go with her.
The three chums had lived in North Bend, a town of less than twenty thousand people, practically all their lives. The girls loved it, for it was a pretty place. Still, being only forty miles by rail from New York City, they had been taken to the roaring metropolis once in a while as a treat, and it was only with great difficulty that their parents had succeeded in luring them home again.
Among other things North Bend boasted a jewelry factory, of which Raymond Jordon, Laura’s father, was the owner.
Billie’s father was the prominent Martin Bradley, well known among real estate and insurance men, and it was from him that Billie, whose real name was Beatrice, had taken her brown eyes and brown hair and even that merry, irrepressible imp of mischief that made Billie Bradley the most popular, best-loved girl in all North Bend.
Her mother, Agnes Bradley, quiet, sincere and beautiful to look upon, kept just the check on her gay young daughter that the young girl needed.
Billie had a brother, Chetwood Bradley, commonly known as “Chet”–a boy as different from his sister as night is from day, yet, in his own more quiet way, extremely attractive.
Laura’s brother, Theodore, known to his intimates as Teddy, was a handsome boy, as full of wild spirits as Billie herself. Teddy had entertained a lively admiration for Billie Bradley since he was seven and she was six. Teddy was tall for his fifteen years, and had already made a name for himself in the field of athletics.
The third of the chums was Violet Farrington, a daughter of Richard Farrington, a well-known lawyer of North Bend, and Grace Farrington, a sweet, motherly woman.
Nearly everybody loved Violet, who was tall and dark and sweet-tempered. She also acted as a sort of perpetual peace-maker between brown-eyed Billie and blue-eyed Laura.
So now she was acting again on this glorious day in July when the roses were out and the birds were singing and the sun was shining its brightest.
“What shall we do if we can’t get in?” suggested Billie, waving her hand to Nellie Bane, another girl in her class, who passed on the opposite side of the street.
“I suppose we’d have to go home again,” answered Laura, adding with a little worried frown: “Oh, I do hope I can get the book. I wouldn’t lose it for anything.”
“There goes Amanda Peabody,” cried Violet suddenly, clutching Billie’s arm.
“That makes no difference in my young life,” Billie slangily assured her.
“As long as she _goes_, it’s all right,” added Laura, glancing after the lanky figure of Amanda Peabody as the girl swung off in the other direction.
Amanda Peabody was not popular with the girls. Nor was she with anybody, for that matter. As far as the girls knew, she had not one friend in the whole school.
Amanda was red-haired and freckled; and while these attributes alone could not have accounted for her unpopularity, she added to them a tendency to spy upon the other girls and then run and tell what she had seen or heard.
It was this last characteristic that no fair-minded girl would tolerate and so Amanda had lived in practical ostracism ever since she had come to North Bend two years before.
“I don’t think we ought to be too hard on her,” said Violet, as they turned the corner that brought the school into view. “She can’t help her mean disposition, I suppose. And anyway, Miss Beggs says there’s always some good to be found in everybody.”
“Maybe,” said Billie skeptically, “but hers is so small you would need a microscope to see it. There’s the janitor now, just going out. If we run we can catch him.”
And run they did, presenting themselves a minute later, rather red in the face and out of breath, before a very much amused janitor.
“Hello,” he cried, his twinkling eyes under their shaggy brows lighting with pleasure as he looked at the girls. “Are you young ladies tryin’ to catch a train, or what?”
“Oh, no, no,” cried Violet eagerly. “We were just trying to catch you, Mr. Heegan.”
“Oh-ho! An’ it’s mighty flattered I am,” said Mr. Heegan, his Irish brogue coming to the fore. “An’ what, if I might be askin’ you–“
“It’s a book we left here,” Billie broke in quickly. “Laura wants to know if you will let us in long enough to get it.”
“Sure, an’ I will that,” Mr. Heegan assured them, leading the way into the school yard and pulling out his bunch of keys. “It must be a verra important book,” he added, smiling at them as he fitted the key in the lock, “to be bringing you back to school after school’s out.”
“It was a gift from Father,” Laura explained. “And I wouldn’t lose it for anything.”
“All right, there you go,” said the good-natured janitor, swinging the door wide for them. “I’m goin’ home, but I’ll be comin’ back in a few minutes to lock up. You’d best not be stayin’ here then,” he added, with a twinkling backward glance at them, “or it will be locked up for the night you’ll be.”
“We won’t be more than a minute,” Violet assured him, and jubilantly the girls ran through the empty, echoing hall and stopped before a door at the farther end.
“It seems so horribly quiet,” said Violet, looking around at them with her hands on the door knob. “It makes you feel like a thief.”
“Must be your guilty conscience,” said Laura wickedly. “Come on, Vi; we’ve got to hurry if we don’t want to be ‘locked in for the night.'”
“Are you sure you left the book here, Laura?” asked Billie, as Violet opened the door and they crowded in. “It would be too bad if it were gone–“
But a cry from Laura interrupted her.
“There it is,” she said, running to a desk at the farther end of the room and picking up from an inner corner a prettily bound book. “Just the very place I left it, too. My, but I’m glad to get it back again.”
“What do you think you’re doing, Billie Bradley?” inquired Laura a minute later, for Billie had seated herself at the teacher’s desk and was looking as severe as she knew how.
“Take your seats,” she now commanded, rapping vigorously on the desk and fixing them with her best school-teacher stare. “Violet Farrington, go to the board–“
But she got no further, for with an indignant cry the girls had rushed on her. Dropping both her air of command and her dignity, Billie scurried wildly around the room, keeping the desks between her and her pursuers.
“You can’t catch me! You can’t catch me!” she taunted them, as she dodged nimbly in and out among the desks. “I could keep this up all day, I could–“
“Oh, you could, could you?” cried Laura, and, making a desperate lunge, she almost had her hand on Billie’s dress. “We’ll see about that. Billie! what are you doing?”
For Billie had suddenly doubled on her tracks, rushed to the back of the room, put her foot upon a steam radiator pipe and was trying to clamber to the top of a bookcase.
It was a tall bookcase, and on the top of it stood a marble statue.
“Billie, look out!” screamed Violet as the bookcase shook and the statue seemed about to topple over by reason of Billie’s wild scrambling.
“You won’t catch me this time,” Billie was defying them, when–the awful thing happened!
The marble statue toppled once more, trembled as though it were not quite sure whether to fall or stay where it was, then came tumbling to the floor with a crash.
The girls cried out, and then stood dumbly looking at the pieces.
THAT HUNDRED DOLLARS
Billie Bradley clambered down from her perch in awed silence.
“Girls,” she said, her voice very low and solemn, “that ‘Girl Reading a Book’ statue was worth a hundred dollars.”
The girls started, and Laura cried out:
“How do you know it cost that much?”
“I heard Miss Beggs say so,” Billie replied dully. “Now I certainly have done it. Girls, what shall I do?”
“It–it couldn’t be put together again, could it?” suggested Violet weakly, leaning down to examine the pieces.
“Of course it couldn’t,” sniffed Laura, adding suddenly: “I suppose we could run away and nobody would know the dif–“
“Look,” cried Billie, excitedly pointing to one of the windows.
Following the direction of her glance the girls were just in time to see the freckled face and mean little eyes of Amanda Peabody disappear from the window.
“Oh, that sneak!” cried Laura in a rage, rushing across to the window while the other girls followed close at her heels. “I wish I were a boy and she were another one. I’d just show her!”
“Well, now she will tell and we couldn’t run away even if we wanted to,” said Billie, sinking down on a bench and looking at them wistfully. “Of course we wouldn’t really have wanted to,” she added, after a minute of uncomfortable silence. “Only it makes me mad to _have_ to do the right thing. Oh, I don’t see why somebody doesn’t run that Amanda person out of town,” she went on, doubling up her fists and looking as if it might have been just as well for that “Amanda person” that she was not there at the minute.
“Teddy says he calls her ‘Nanny,'” said Violet, with a flash of humor, “because it ‘gets her goat.'”
“Sounds just like Ted,” said Billie, with a smile. Then her face sobered again as she realized the gravity of the situation.
“Of course I’ll have to make it good,” she said, going over to the pieces again and regarding them mournfully. “But how in the world am I ever going to get together a hundred dollars? It might just as well be a thousand as far as I’m concerned.” The last was a wail.
“Won’t your father give you the money?” asked Laura, for to Laura’s father a hundred dollars was only a drop in the bucket.
But Billie only shook her head while her face became still more grave.
“He would if he could,” she said, “but I heard him say only the other day that times are hard and everything is terribly expensive, and I know he is worried. Oh, girls, I’m in a terrible fix!”
“I know you are, honey,” said Violet, coming over and putting a comforting arm about her. “But there must be some way that we can fix things all right.”
“I’d like to know how,” grumbled Laura, who had chosen to take the gloomy view. “We might,” she added generously, after a moment’s thought, “say that I broke it–“
“Laura–dear!” cried Billie, not quite sure whether to be offended or grateful for the generous suggestion. “It’s wonderful of you, of course, but you know I couldn’t do that.”
“And there’s Amanda Peabody,” added Violet. “She wouldn’t let us get away with anything like that.”
At which Laura nodded again, still more gloomily.
“Well,” cried Billie, straightening up suddenly and trying to look hopeful, “I suppose it won’t do any good to stand here and look at the pieces. Besides,” she added with a start, “we’ve been here a terribly long time, and we don’t want the janitor to lock us in.”
They started for the door on the run, but Billie suddenly turned, ran back and began gathering up the pieces of the broken statue.
“What are you going to do?” asked Violet, regarding her curiously.
“What does it look as if I were doing?” asked Billie, reaching for an old newspaper that lay in the forgotten paper basket. “I might as well have the evidence of my crime. Anyway, I want to take them to Miss Beggs.”
“Do you know where she lives?” asked Laura, stooping and helping Billie at her task.
“She sent me there one time to get some papers,” Billie explained, as she rose to her feet, clutching the newspaper package. “It’s a boarding house on Main Street, only a few blocks from here.”
“Shall we go there now?” asked Violet as they closed the door softly behind them and started down the hall.
“We might as well,” answered Billie, with a sigh. “The sooner I get it over with, the better I’ll feel. But oh, that hundred dollars!”
“Never mind, we’ll get it if we have to steal it,” said Laura firmly, as they came out into the flower-sweet air.
“That would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire,” remarked Violet, at which the girls had to laugh.
As they swung out through the gate they met Mr. Heegan coming in, and he smiled at them from under his bushy brows.
“Did you get what you were after comin’ for?” he asked them.
“Yes. And something we didn’t come for,” answered Billie, while the color flooded her face and she felt like a criminal. She smiled a wry little smile and displayed the newspaper package.
“Meanin’–” Mr. Heegan began, puzzled.
“I–I broke a statue that was on the bookcase,” explained Billie. “We were skylarking–“
“And many’s the time I’ve done the same in my day,” said Mr. Heegan, with a nod, looking not nearly as shocked as the girls thought he would. “And sure, what are you made young for, if it wasn’t that you was meant to be skylarkin’ all the time?”
The girls looked at each other. This strange sentiment had never occurred to them before, but they found it very comforting, nevertheless.
“But–but,” stammered Billie, “this statue cost a hundred dollars. And it was given to Miss Beggs by a rich uncle.”
“Well, all I have to say is, that any one who would spend a hundred dollars on a statue,” said Mr. Heegan, “deserves to have it broken on him.”
And having delivered himself of this surprising comment, the janitor saluted and ambled off into the school yard, leaving the girls to look after him with laughing eyes.
“You know I just love Irishmen,” remarked Billie with emphasis, as they started on their way once more.
In thoughtful silence, they walked the remaining three blocks to the boarding house where Miss Beggs lived.
“This is it,” said Billie, as she came to a stop before a three-story brick building that had all the respectable and uncomfortable appearance of a typical boarding house.
“Just like Miss Beggs,” Billie was conscious of thinking.
“Well, let’s go up,” urged Laura, as Billie showed no inclination to move. “We might as well get the agony over with.”
“All right, come on,” cried Billie, running ahead of them and taking two steps at a time. “As Dad says: ‘A coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave man only one.'”
The end of this quotation brought them to the porch, and Billie looked for the bell.
“Now then,” she said, and braced herself for the ordeal.
A stout, middle-aged person, without any of the outward characteristics that are so often bestowed upon landladies in general, opened the door and looked at them inquiringly.
“Is there some one you wish to see?” she asked them.
“Yes,” replied Billie in a weak little voice. “I would like to see Miss–Miss Beggs if she is at home.”
“She isn’t,” said the middle-aged person. “She went away for the summer two days ago.”
“Did she leave any address?” Billie managed to ask.
“No, she didn’t; but I guess I could find out from one of the other ladies who is a friend of hers,” the woman volunteered obligingly. “That is, if it’s very particular,” she added.
“Oh, yes it is,” said Billie earnestly. “I would be very much obliged if you could get me her address.”
“Well, I can’t just now, because the lady that knows it isn’t at home. But if you’ll leave me your address I’ll send it to you as soon’s I find it out. Have you paper and pencil?”
The girls had not.
“Wait then, and I’ll get something on which to write your address.”
The landlady went inside, closing the door after her, and in spite of herself Billie uttered a little sigh of relief. She felt very much like a reprieved criminal.
A moment later the woman reappeared with a pencil and paper and painstakingly wrote down the address Billie gave her.
“Thank you so much,” said the latter, as she turned away. “You won’t forget to send it just the first minute you can, will you?”
The woman nodded and closed the door with a little bang.
“I wonder why she didn’t ask us in,” said Laura, as they ran down the steps. “It was queer to keep us waiting outside.”
“Yes, it makes you feel like a book agent,” chuckled Billie. “But oh, girls,” she added, “I didn’t know how much I dreaded facing Miss Beggs till I found out I didn’t have to. I don’t mind writing to her nearly so much.”
With somewhat lighter steps and lighter hearts they turned toward home. But Billie could not get the hundred-dollar statue which she had broken out of her mind.
“I feel,” said Laura, as they were turning the corner into her own street, “as if I ought to pay for that horrid old statue, Billie.”
“What do you mean?” queried Billie, while Violet regarded her with wide open eyes.
“Well, if it hadn’t been for me and my old book,” she explained, “we wouldn’t have gone back to school, and then you wouldn’t have gotten yourself into all that trouble. I really do feel guilty,” she added earnestly. “I wish you would at least let me help you pay for it, Billie.”
Billie put an arm about the girl and squeezed her lovingly.
“And I suppose you’re to blame for my climbing the bookcase, too,” she chided her fondly. “No, Laura dear, it’s all my fault and you can’t make me put the blame on any one else. But, oh!” she wailed, “how in the world am I ever going to raise that hundred dollars?”
The sun was flooding Billie Bradley’s room when she awoke the next morning, and she sat up in bed with the feeling that it must be very late. She glanced at the little clock on the dresser and saw that its hands pointed to half past eight.
“Oh, I’ll be late to school,” was her first thought. Then she checked herself and laughed.
“School!” she said, stretching her arms above her head with a delicious sense of freedom. “As the old man said: ‘They ain’t no sech animile.’ I guess I might just as well get up, though, for I feel as if I were starving to death.”
She was just putting her feet into very pretty bedroom slippers when she remembered the tragedy–or so it seemed to her–of the day before.
The long night’s rest had driven from her mind all thoughts of the statue. Was it really only yesterday that she had broken it? The thing seemed to have been on her conscience forever!
“‘Girl Reading a Book,'” she said disdainfully, as she began to brush her hair vigorously. “Horrid old thing! I suppose she was a grind anyway, like Amanda Peabody.”
The thought of Amanda did not serve to lift her spirits any, and it was in a rather gloomy mood that she finally descended to the breakfast table.
To make things worse, she found that all the rest of her family, including Chet, had breakfasted bright and early, which meant that she would have to eat her breakfast in lonely state.
The room was cheerful with sunlight, for Mrs. Bradley had often said that a bright dining-room had more to do with making a happy home than any other one thing. But this morning Billie did not even notice it.
She opened the swinging door to the kitchen and peeped in cautiously to see whether Debbie, their black and much pampered cook, was in a good enough mood to cook her some breakfast.
A cheerful aroma greeted her, and she sniffed at it longingly. Bacon and eggs and–was it corn bread that Debbie was just taking out of the oven?
“Oh, Debbie, give me something to eat, quick,” she cried. “I’m starving.”
Debbie turned and favored her with a large black stare.
“Dem dat gets up at nine o’clock in de mo’nin’,” she declared, “done deserves to go hungry, Miss Billie, beggin’ your pardon.” Her tone matched the severity of her gaze.
“Oh, but, Debbie,” said Billie, using the coaxing tone that even black Deborah, tyrant of the household, could never quite resist, “remember how many mornings I have had to get up at seven and go out in the drizzling rain and–“
“All right, honey, all right,” said Deborah, her heart touched by this reference to the hardships her young mistress had suffered. “You go in ‘tother room an’ don’t bother Debbie an’ she’ll bring you in the prettiest breakfast you ever did see.”
Somewhat cheered by this promise, Billie retreated into the sun-flooded dining-room, and, going over to a window under which flowers bloomed gayly in boxes, looked out at the pretty view.
From where she stood she commanded a full view of the tennis court, on which she could see that a warm set of singles was in progress. One of the players was Chet, and as she watched she saw him fling his racket high in the air.
“My set, Tom!” he cried. “That puts us even. Play you the rubber this afternoon. So long!” and with his tennis balls in his hand and his racket under his arm he sauntered over toward home.
“Dear old Chet!” murmured Billie fondly.
Then came the thought of that hundred dollars she must get some way or other, and suddenly there flashed into her mind a little ray of hope.
“Maybe Chet could help,” she thought, and then laughed at herself for thinking it. Chet had just about as much chance of getting that hundred dollars as she had herself.
At that moment Debbie came in with her fruit and cereal, and she turned from the window with a sigh.
“I might as well eat,” she thought resignedly, “for if I starve myself to death or die of worry, there won’t be anybody left to pay for that old book worm.”
Then her irrepressible imp of mischief reasserted itself and she laughed.
“Hello, look at the grand lady,” a fresh young voice called to her from the doorway. She turned with a spoon half way to her mouth to see her brother laughing at her.
“What was that you called me?” she asked. As a matter of fact, her thoughts had been so far away that she actually had not heard what he said.
“Say, what’s the matter?” asked Chet, flinging his tennis racket into one chair and seating himself on the arm of another. “Are you sick?”
“Yes. Or if I’m not, I ought to be,” replied Billie ruefully, at which peculiar remark Chet looked still more amazed.
“Now what particular thing is worrying you?” he asked in an argumentative tone, leaning toward her. “Come, ‘fess up, Billie. What have you been doing when my back was turned? Robbing a bank?”
“Oh, much worse than that!” cried Billie unexpectedly, and her brother’s good-looking face began to take on an expression of alarm.
“Worse?” he queried. “There’s only about one thing worse–and that’s murder.”
“Oh, Chet, that’s just what I did,” she cried, her imp of mischief uppermost. “I murdered a ‘Girl Reading a Book.'”
“Well,” said Chet, taking this startling bit of information more calmly than would have been thought possible, “you don’t seem very much worried about it.”
“Oh, but, Chet, I am!” once more the cloud banished the merry gleam in Billie’s eyes. “Wait till I show you.”
She left her breakfast, ran upstairs, and was back in a minute with the newspaper parcel.
“Here she is,” she cried, displaying the contents tragically.
Chet fingered one or two of the broken bits. Then he looked at her curiously.
“Go on, ‘fess up,” he commanded. “Tell yours truly all about it.”
This Billie did in the fewest words possible and then sat down to the bacon and eggs that Debbie had placed temptingly on the table. And cornbread! Debbie’s cornbread was a masterpiece.
When Billie had finished Chet looked grave.
“Well,” he said, fingering the pieces thoughtfully, “it does seem as if the only square thing to do would be to replace it.”
“Oh, I must, Chet–I must!” she interrupted earnestly.
“But how?” he asked. “A hundred dollars is a lot of money.”
“I know,” agreed Billie miserably.
“I don’t think Dad will be able to make it good just now,” went on Chet, in that sober tone that made people in North Bend feel confidence in Chetwood Bradley, young as he yet was. “I heard him say the other day that all his capital was tied up. And then it costs so much to live–“
“Oh, I know all that!” broke in Billie desperately, then added, looking up at her brother appealingly: “Chet dear, I’ve got to find the money to replace that statue some way! Won’t you help me?”
“You bet your life I will,” cried Chet, with a hearty boyishness that made Billie’s eyes glow. “I’ll do everything I can, Sis. I tell you–” he paused as a thought struck him.
“Oh, what?” she cried, grasping his arm as he started from the room. “Oh, Chet, tell me.”
“I’ll show you in a minute,” he promised, and was off, up the stairs, taking them three at a time, judging from the noise he made.
In what seemed to Billie no time at all he was back again, holding something in his hand that jingled.
“Here’s a dollar and fifteen cents,” he said, holding out to her all his available wealth. “I almost forgot I had it. You can use it to start the fund.”
“Oh, Chet!” Billie’s eyes were wet and she hugged him fondly. “You’re the very darlingest brother I ever had!”
“And the _only_ one–” Chet was beginning, when Billie interrupted him by breaking away and putting a finger to her forehead.
“Let me think–“
“Impossible,” he cried in a deep voice.
“Chet,” she said, speaking quickly, “I have seventy-five cents myself, and that with your dollar–“
“Dollar fifteen,” Chet corrected gravely.
“Will make quite a respectable start to our fund.” And she was off up the stairs in her turn, making almost as much noise as Chet had done.
In a moment she was back again with the precious seventy-five cents and a small tin box.
“Here’s the bank,” she cried gayly. “It will be real fun filling it up.”
“Yes, but where are we going to get the money to fill it up with?” Chet reminded her and her bright face fell again.
“Oh, we’ll find a way,” she said with a confidence she was far from feeling. “Maybe Dad will help a little.”
“Have you told him about it?” asked Chet.
“No. But I will to-night,” she said, with a little sinking feeling. “I hate to tell him, awfully, but I suppose I’ll have to.”
“Well, don’t worry anyway,” said Chet, patting her shoulder reassuringly. “You know Dad says worry is a waste of time, because everything will all be the same a hundred years from now.”
But Billie’s shake of the head was very doubtful.
“I don’t see how that helps me any–_now_,” she said.
THE LAST HOPE
That afternoon Billie took herself and a book out on the porch and tried hard, but unsuccessfully, to forget her troubles. The more she tried to fix her attention on the printed page before her, the more the broken statue rose before her eyes until at last she closed the book with a slam and bounced impatiently in her seat.
“That horrid old ‘Girl Reading a Book’ has spoiled my whole summer for me,” she said, her lips pouting rebelliously. “I wish I hadn’t gone back to the old school anyway. I might have known it would bring me bad luck. Oh, here comes Laura,” and her face brightened as she saw the familiar figure of her chum swinging up the street. “I wonder what she wants. Whatever it is, she seems to be in a terrible hurry about it.”
“Hello, what’s the rush?” she sang out, as Laura Jordon ran up the steps of the porch.
“It’s–it’s that–that Nanny goat Amanda Peabody!” cried Laura, panting a little, for she had indeed been in a hurry. “What do you think the old sneak has been up to now?”
“What?” queried Billie, as she moved over to make room for her chum in the seat beside her. “Telling tales again?”
“How did you guess it?” cried Laura, her face flushing with indignation. “And about you, Billie! Oh, I could have killed her!”
“Well, we expected it, didn’t we?” Billie asked, in a matter-of-fact tone. “We knew when we saw her looking in at the window that that was exactly what she would do.”
“Well, I know. But she went to the janitor about it.” And Laura looked as if that in some way magnified the offense.
“Well, there wasn’t any one else to go to,” remarked Billie reasonably.
“Goodness! aren’t you even mad about it?” asked Laura, her blue eyes snapping.
“Not particularly,” replied Billie, for she was beginning to be terribly tired of the whole subject. How she hated that imbecile “Girl Reading a Book” and Amanda Peabody and–and–everybody!
“I got all over being angry with Amanda Peabody long ago,” she said in answer to Laura’s incredulous look. “If I should get that way every time she did anything, I’d never live to grow up!”
In spite of her indignation, Laura chuckled.
“I never did think of it in that way,” she admitted, adding, after a minute’s thought: “Billie, dear, haven’t you thought of some way you might pay for the statue? I didn’t sleep a wink last night for thinking of it.”
“Neither did I,” said Billie gloomily, forgetting that she had in reality slept very soundly. “Chet and I have started a fund with a dollar fifteen of his and seventy-five cents of mine. That’s as far as we have got so far. I did think of Uncle Bill,” she added slowly, mentioning a great uncle who occasionally visited them.
“Great! Uncle Bill!” repeated Laura, pricking up her ears. “The uncle who used to trot you on his knee and call you ‘Bill’s Billie’?”
“Yes,” Billie nodded. “Uncle Bill and I were always good chums, and I think if I told him what a fix I’m in, he might be able to help. He has loads of money too.”
“Billie,” cried her chum rapturously, “why didn’t you think of that before? Why, it’s the very thing!”
“But I hate to ask him,” sighed Billie, not sharing Laura’s enthusiasm in the least. “I never had to ask anything of anybody before.”
“Well, everything has to have a beginning,” said Laura, lightly adding, as unconcernedly as she could: “I told Teddy about it last night.”
“You did!” cried Billie, turning upon her while the color flooded her face. “Laura, what did you do that for?”
“You don’t mind, do you?” queried Laura, wide-eyed. “I’m sure I never thought of your not wanting Teddy to know.”
“Oh, I suppose it doesn’t make any difference,” sighed Billie, adding plaintively: “Only I don’t like everybody to know how crazy I am.”
“Teddy doesn’t think you’re crazy,” said Laura, with a chuckle, regarding Billie out of the corner of her eye. “In fact, if I should tell you what he does think of you–“
“Oh, don’t be foolish,” almost snapped Billie, and again Laura chuckled inwardly.
“Well, you needn’t be so cross,” she said. “I can’t help what Teddy does or thinks. Here he comes now,” she added, glancing up the street.
“Oh, and I’m a perfect fright!” cried Billie, her hands flying to her hair–hair, by the way, which was arranged in the very best manner to set off Billie’s sparkling prettiness. “Laura,” she turned accusing eyes upon her chum, “tell the truth. Did you know he was coming?”
“No,” said Laura honestly, adding with a little chuckle: “But I sort of had an idea that he might happen along.”
If ever a boy looked handsome, it was Teddy Jordon as he swung up the street to Billie’s house. He was very tall, looking more like a lad of eighteen than the fifteen years he was. His fair hair waved back from a broad forehead, and his merry gray eyes sparkled with the joy of living.
“Hello!” he greeted the girls, as he took the porch steps two at a time and seated himself on the railing. “Laura has been telling me of your escapade, Billie Bradley, and I’ve come to find out what you mean by going about busting busts–that isn’t good English, is it?”
“It doesn’t sound just right,” agreed Billie, dimpling adorably. “You speak as if I were bust–pardon me, _breaking_ busts for a living. And it wasn’t a bust, but a whole statue. No part way things for me!”
“There’s Nellie Bane, I must speak to her,” cried Laura, and before either of the others realized what she was up to, she was gone, leaving them alone.
Quite naturally Teddy came over and took the seat his sister had vacated.
“I say, Billie,” he said, his handsome eyes regarding her frankly, “you know, I’m really awfully sorry about that business. It makes me mad that you should be troubled with it. You and I have always been pretty good friends, haven’t we?” he finished unexpectedly.
Surprised, Billie answered warmly: “The very best of friends, Teddy. We ought to be,” she added with a little laugh. “We’ve known each other pretty nearly forever.”
“Then let me help,” begged Teddy earnestly. “You know my allowance is away more than I need–“
But Billie stopped him, shaking her head decidedly.
“You’re a perfect angel, Teddy, to want to do it,” she said. “But I really couldn’t let you. Don’t you know I couldn’t?”
“I don’t see why,” grumbled Teddy, for after all he was only a boy, and just now a disappointed one. “Laura says you’re set on replacing the thing–“
“Of course I’ll have to,” Billie said.
“And if you are going around getting yourself sick with worry, what sort of good time do you think the rest of us are going to have?” he burst out indignantly, and for the life of her Billie could not help smiling.
For a moment Teddy seemed undecided whether to laugh or be angry, but ended, as he nearly always did, by laughing.
“But it really isn’t very funny,” he reminded her when they had finished.
“Goodness! you don’t have to tell me that,” said Billie ruefully. “This is the first good laugh I’ve had since I broke the old thing.”
Teddy looked penitent.
“I’m sorry,” he said, adding, with a sudden smile: “I’m glad to know I’m good for something, anyway. I can still make you laugh.”
“You very foolish boy,” said Billie, patting his hand affectionately. “As if that were all you were good for!”
“Well, if you feel that way, I don’t see why you won’t let me replace the statue,” said Teddy, still nursing his disappointment. “Girls are funny, anyway.”
“We know it,” said Billie lightly. “But we can’t help it. Listen, Teddy,” and she leaned toward him confidentially. “I still have one hope left.”
Then she told him about Uncle Bill and his fondness for her, and during the recital the boy brightened noticeably.
“Well, I hope the old boy comes up to the scratch,” he commented disrespectfully, adding hurriedly as Laura said good-bye to Nellie Bane and started toward them: “And, Billie, if you change your mind about what I asked you let me know. Promise?”
Billie promised, and a few minutes later said good-bye to the brother and sister and watched them down the street with a very warm feeling somewhere in the region of her heart.
“Isn’t it great to have friends?” she asked a robin that had perched itself on the edge of the porch and was looking at her knowingly. “And isn’t Teddy the handsomest boy you ever saw?” to which the robin, knowing little rascal that he was, nodded not once but twice.
Chet came up on the porch a few minutes later and enticed Billie out for a game of tennis with him, hoping to get her mind off the broken statue. But while she was too full of life and health not to enjoy the swift, swinging game that Chet gave her, the thought of “The Girl Reading a Book” stayed constantly in the back of her mind.
That night after dinner Billie broke the news to her father, and her heart sank as she saw the harassed look that came into his eyes.
“You say it cost a hundred dollars?” he queried, breaking a silence during which Billie had felt like a criminal awaiting sentence. Now she nodded unhappily.
“A hundred dollars,” her father repeated. “Well, that’s a lot to pay, Beatrice, for just a few minutes’ reckless fun. Of course I can pay it, but that will mean putting off some affairs of more pressing importance–“
But Billie could stand it no longer, and with a little cry she flew to him and pressed her soft cheek against his.
“Daddy, I’m a brute to worry you like this!” she cried, penitently. “Please don’t worry any more, dear. I’ll find some way to replace the old thing myself.”
Her father patted her cheek, but the worried frown still remained on his face. Billie started to leave the room but turned before she had reached the door.
“Dad,” she said hesitatingly, and he turned to her with a smile. “About Uncle Bill,” she said. “He has always given me anything I wanted. Do you suppose he would help?”
“He is out of the country–gone on a business trip that has taken him on an ocean voyage,” said her father. “He will be gone for an indefinite period. I thought you knew, Billie. Though, as he just left, I suppose it is not strange you had not heard us speak of it.” And with that Mr. Bradley relapsed immediately into his brown study.
Billie opened the door and closed it softly behind her.
“My last hope!” she sighed plaintively. “Now what shall I do?”
WORSE AND WORSE
Two weeks passed, and still Billie Bradley had found no solution to her problem. The broken statue seemed as far from being paid for as ever, and, as far as she was concerned, the summer vacation was completely spoiled.
In this frame of mind she crushed a soft straw hat down over her brown hair one day and set out to find her chums, feeling the need of their sympathy. And how was she to know, poor Billie, that the news the girls would have to tell her would serve only to make her mood the blacker?
As she neared the Farrington home, Violet herself came rushing out to meet her, looking unusually and feverishly excited.
“Oh, Billie, what do you think?” she cried, encircling Billie with her arm and fairly dragging her up on the porch. “I have the most wonderful news to tell you!”
“What?” gasped Billie, for the unexpected onslaught had literally taken her breath away. “Goodness! you might as well kill me as scare me to death.”
“Oh, but, Billie, you won’t mind when I tell you,” cried Violet, regarding her friend with dancing eyes. “The folks have decided to send me to Three Towers Hall!” Three Towers was a boarding school some distance from North Bend. “Laura is going too,” Violet continued breathlessly. “And of course you will–” But something in Billie’s face stopped her and she drew in her breath sharply.
“Oh, Billie,” she cried, her face falling, “you’re never going to tell me you can’t go!”
“I guess that’s just what I am going to tell you,” said Billie, her fists clasped so tightly that the knuckles showed white. “I might have stood some chance if it hadn’t been for that old statue. Now I can’t get enough money to pay for that–much less go to Three Towers.”
“Oh, that old statue!” cried Violet desperately, adding, while her face grew longer and longer: “What fun will there be, I’d like to know, in going to Three Towers if you can’t go with us? And oh, Billie, I was making such wonderful plans!”
Billie had to turn away to hide the tears that sprang to her eyes. For to go to Three Towers Hall had long been the ambition of the chums, and now it was doubly hard to see her chance snatched away by an accident that could have been so easily avoided. If only she had not been so foolish!
Violet came over and put a loving arm about her friend.
“Never mind, honey,” she said consolingly, forgetting her own disappointment in Billie’s. “We’ll find some way to get to Three Towers.”
Billie smiled a wry little smile and made an effort to look as if there were still something to live for in the world.
“Laura told me that you thought your uncle might help you,” said Violet, after an interval of unhappily trying to think of some way out of their trouble. “Neither Laura nor I will stir a step without you, that’s a sure thing.”
“Why, of course you will,” said Billie, stopping the swing short and looking at her chum in amazement. “I’m sure your folks aren’t going to let you stay at home from the school they’ve decided on just because I can’t go with you. Although,” and her voice broke a little, “it’s just wonderful of you, Vi, to feel that way. You will go, of course, and you can write me beautiful letters about the wonderful times you are having.”
“I won’t do it!” cried Violet, springing to her feet. “I’m not going to Three Towers without you, and that settles it. I don’t care if I had a thousand parents. Who’s that turning the corner?” she interrupted herself to ask. “There’s something familiar about that walk.”
“Why, it’s Ferd Stowing,” said Billie, getting to her feet for a better view. “My, but he looks happy about something. I wonder what’s up.”
The next moment Ferd Stowing, one of the best-liked boys in the town, came rushing up the steps like a whirlwind, and it did not take the girls long to find out “what was up.”
“Hooray!” he cried, flinging his hat high in the air. “Wuxtry! All about Ferd Stowing and Ted Jordon!”
“For goodness’ sake, stop bellowing and behave,” Billie commanded. “What have you and Teddy been doing now?”
“Plenty. But that’s nothing to what we’re going to do,” crowed Ferd exultantly. “He and I have at last persuaded our reluctant parents to send us to the military school. You know–the one that is only a little over a mile from Three Towers where you girls are going.”
Again Billie felt as if she had been treated to a shower of ice water. Teddy and Ferd were going to Boxton Military Academy, and Chet–her darling, loyal Chet–would not be able to go with them. Her own disappointment seemed nothing at all beside this new tragedy.
“I was just on my way over to your house,” Billie was conscious that Ferd was addressing her. “We haven’t had a chance to get in touch with Chet yet. But the old boy will of course go with us, won’t he? It wouldn’t be any fun without Chet.”
Almost the very words Violet had said to her, thought Billie, as she tried to swallow a sob and only succeeded in turning it into a funny little cough.
“He will, won’t he?” Ferd was insisting, while Violet watched them with troubled eyes.
“Why–why–I don’t know, Ferd,” Billie stammered, trying to make her voice sound natural. “I do know one thing, and that is that Chet is crazy to go and will if he gets half a chance.”
“Then I guess it’s all right,” said Ferd, leaning back with a sigh of relief. “Gee, I was afraid you were going to say he couldn’t go, and so spoil everything. Say, can’t you see the good times we’re going to have with you girls at Three Towers Hall and we fellows such a little way off that we can see each other every once in a while? I can’t make up my mind that it’s real yet–” And so on and on, rapturously, while Billie’s heart sank lower and lower and Violet’s own warm one ached for her friend.
Then just as Ferd started to go he spied Chet coming up the street and hailed him joyfully.
“Just, the fellow I wanted to see,” he declared fervently. “Come on up here, old man, and hear the glad news.”
Billie groaned inwardly and seemed about to speak, but Violet stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“Might as well get it over with,” she whispered. “Chet is sure to hear of it later if he doesn’t now.”
So Billie waited, but her heart ached as she watched Chet march up smilingly to hear “the glad news.”
“We’re going to Boxton Military Academy.” Ferd fairly shouted it at him. “How about it, old timer, are you going with us, or are you going to leave us in the lurch?”
The glad tidings staggered Chet for a minute, but he came on quietly and perched himself upon the railing, one foot swinging idly.
“You said you were going to the military academy?” he asked, his voice as quiet as his manner, but Billie noticed that the smile was gone. “By that I suppose you mean you and Teddy.”
“And you,” added Ferd, beaming upon him. “Billie said you were crazy to go.”
Chet looked at Billie’s unhappy face and tried to smile.
“Crazy to go!” he repeated. “I’ll say I am. But–“
“But me no buts, Chet, my lad,” broke in the impetuous Ferd. “I didn’t ask you anything. I merely stated a fact.”
“I–I’d give almost anything I own to make it a fact,” said Chet, his eyes on the ground. “But I’m very much afraid you’ll have to guess again, old man.”
“Guess again? Well, I should say not!” cried Ferd, getting to his feet indignantly. “Why, the thing can’t be done without you, Chet. Didn’t Billie say–“
“Billie only said,” interrupted Violet, coming to Billie’s rescue, “that Chet was crazy to go and would if he had half a chance.”
Ferd sank back in his chair, too dismayed to speak.
“Well, of all–Say, old man, you’ve got to go,” and he turned to Chet pleadingly. “What sort of a party do you think this is going to be anyway, with Billie at Three Towers Hall and you back here in North Bend? It’s not fair.”
“Not fair,” flared Billie. “You don’t suppose I’d go to Three Towers and leave Chet here, do you?”
“Then you’re not going either?” cried Ferd, seeing all his castles in the air coming down about his ears with a crash.
Billie shook her head unhappily.
“No, I’m not going either,” she said.
Billy Bradley really tried to be cheerful in the days that followed, but try as she would she could not altogether keep out the vision of Three Towers Hall, the boarding school to which she had wanted to go ever since–well, almost since she had wanted anything.
Laura and Violet would go without her. They would have to go, even in spite of their loyal determination not to. Their parents would have something to say about that.
And Chet was in just as bad a fix, for Boxton Military Academy had been his dream even as Three Towers Hall had been Billie’s. Oh, if only they could all go what a wonderful time they could have! Oh, well–
And Mr. and Mrs. Bradley, sensing something of all this, were very unhappy and cast about desperately for some way to give their boy and girl the advantages that the others would have. But money was very tight. Mr. Bradley had all his cash tied up in several real estate transactions.
So for a little while the Bradleys were not a happy family–although they tried bravely not to show it, even to each other.
Then one morning came a long, businesslike envelope, with a typewritten address, that caused a stir in the family circle.
Mrs. Bradley opened it with a, puzzled frown between her brows, then uttered a startled exclamation.
“What is it, dear?” asked Mr. Bradley, while Billie and Chet crowded closer to her chair.
“Aunt Beatrice Powerson is dead,” Mrs. Bradley announced with a look more of shocked surprise than of grief. “She died in Canada quite suddenly, and this is from her attorney asking us,” she looked across at her husband, “to be present at the reading of the will.”
“Well, well,” said Mr. Bradley slowly, “poor Beatrice Powerson dead at last. I suppose she got as much out of life as any of us, though, in her eccentric way.”
“It was strange,” remarked Billie slowly, “that I should have been speaking of Aunt Beatrice only the other day. Violet wanted to know if she was wealthy.”
“Was she, Dad?” asked Chet, with interest.
“I imagine nobody knew,” his father answered. “As you know, she was queer, and as tight as a clam when it came to talking about her personal affairs. The only thing we’re sure of is that she had plenty of money to travel anywhere she wanted to, and that’s saying something these days.”
“I say, Billie,” cried Chet, his eyes shining with the thought–dear, unselfish Chet, his first hope even then was more for Billie than himself, “you are Aunt Beatrice’s namesake, you know. Maybe she left you something in her will.”
“Chet,” his mother chided gently, “don’t you think it is rather heartless to be counting on what Aunt Beatrice has left when we have just heard of her death?”
“I suppose so,” said Chet, rather abashed. “But then you know we only saw her about once in every three years, and then she wasn’t very friendly.”
“Are you really going, Mother, you and Dad?” asked Billie, for it seemed impossible to her that her father and mother should go off on such a long journey and leave her and Chet behind. “Are you?” she asked again anxiously.
“Yes, I suppose we must,” said Mrs. Bradley, looking across at her husband, who answered her with a smile.
“I don’t see what else we can do,” he replied, as he looked at his young daughter. “You can keep house while we’re gone, Billie, just to see how you like it.”
“Me keep house!” cried Billie, dismayed. “Why, I don’t know the first thing about it!”
“That’s the best way to learn,” returned her father, while Mrs. Bradley began to smile. “Experience is the very best teacher, you know.”
“That’s all right, but you don’t seem to realize that she will be learning at my expense,” groaned Chet, adding as a horrible thought struck him: “Billie won’t have to cook anything, will she?”
“Of course not,” laughed Mrs. Bradley, and Chet sighed with relief. “Debbie will be here as usual to do the cooking. And, of course,” she added to Billie, putting an arm about her and drawing her close, “Debbie will help you with anything you want to know. We probably won’t be gone more than a week, anyway.”
So it was arranged, and a couple of days later, with a wildly beating heart and a rueful smile upon her lips, Billie stood with Chet upon the station platform and waved good-bye to her father and mother.
When the train had rounded the curve and disappeared with one last challenging blast of the whistle, Billie and Chet turned to each other, feeling as lost and forlorn as the babes in the wood.
“Now, what do we do next?” breathed Billie, breaking the silence at last. “I feel helpless, Chet.”
“Well, I don’t think you have anything on me,” admitted Chet slangily. “I suppose the most sensible thing to do would be to go home and see how Debbie is getting on with the lunch.”
“Goodness, that’s the first time I ever had to be reminded that I was hungry,” said Billie, and with that they laughed and felt more natural.
The rest of that day went off beautifully, and Billie was beginning to feel very confident when suddenly Debbie threw a suggestion bomb-like in the midst of her contentment.
“I hate to bother you, miss,” said the black cook, approaching her mistress the next morning–Billie, by the way, was busily dusting the living-room with a very becoming dust cap perched on top of her pretty hair, “but this is mah day out.”
“Your–day–out!” gasped Billie, sitting down hard on the chair she had been dusting and regarding Debbie’s black face with dismay. “You never can mean that you are going to desert me, Debbie? Leave me to do all the cooking and–and–everything–” The awful vision was too much for her and her voice died down to a whisper.
“I’m tur’ble sorry, Miss Billie,” said Debbie, gently but very, very firmly, “but mah young man and me we has a mos’ awful impo’tant in-gagement fo’ dis aft’noon, an’ I couldn’t break it–no’m, much as I want to.” She added that last in the evident hope of appeasing her young mistress, who was still regarding her with horrified eyes.
“But, Debbie,” gasped Billie when she could find her voice, “I don’t know a thing in the world about cooking. Have you–have you–ordered anything?”
“Yas, indeed,” Debbie assured her, going on to explain that the meal was virtually prepared anyway. “I done made a salad for you and Chet, an’ the butter beans am in de pan. Dere is some stew too, which all you has to do is to warm up, Miss Billie. An’ I done make a big peach pie, an’ dere’s some whipped cream in de ‘frig’rater. So I reckons you-all won’t starve to death,” she added, with a broad smile that showed all her strong white teeth back to the last molar.
As for Billie, she could have hugged the mountainous black figure in the relief she felt. Why, with the dinner all prepared like this it would be just a lark to put it on the table–for just her and Chet alone.
“Debbie, you’re a darling and I love you!” she cried, joyfully. “But you know you really shouldn’t have scared me so–it wasn’t fair.”
For answer Debbie grinned again and began to get her bulky figure up the stairs, preparatory to dressing for the “in-gagement” with her “young man.”
Billie watched her go, and then with a little chuckle resumed her dusting.
“I’d like to see Debbie’s young man,” she mused, a smile twisting the comers of her mouth. “He ought to be a giant. Anyway, I feel sorry for him if he isn’t. Dear funny old Debbie–won’t Chet and I have a picnic to-night?”
And as she had predicted, they did have the time of their lives. Chet refused to sit in the dining-room in lonely state, and in masterly fashion invaded the kitchen.
“Say, that smells good, Billie, old girl,” and he sniffed hungrily at the stew. “Give me an apron and I’ll help.”
“Oh, look who wants to help,” cried Billie, finding an apron nevertheless and tying it around his waist so that he looked like a butcher’s assistant. “You will probably only get under my feet and bother me to death, but I suppose I’ll have to humor you. There, if you must do something, set the table.”
Now Chet did not want to set the table–it took him too far from the appetizing aromas in the kitchen. However, he obeyed grumblingly and was finally rewarded by being given a steaming dish of stew to carry in.
“Chet,” screamed Billie, following him in and checking him just as he was in the act of putting the hot dish on the tablecloth, “put a protector under it. Don’t you know,” as Chet started and looked reproachfully at her, “that you are apt to ruin the table? And it’s almost a brand new one at that.”
“Well, you needn’t scare a fellow to death,” grumbled Chet. “I thought I’d stepped on the cat.” But he obeyed instructions.
“My! but doesn’t everything look good?” cried Billie, sniffing hungrily. “Hurry up, Chet, take off your apron and dish up the stew while I pour the coffee. What do you know about that? _I_ made the coffee. And doesn’t it smell good?”
It was the jolliest of meals and finished up in royal fashion with the peach pie and whipped cream.
In a very gale of merriment Chet and Billie cleared away the dinner dishes, and then, being tired by the unusual exertion, decided to go early to bed.
For the first part of the night Billie slept soundly, but just as the clock downstairs was striking two, she awakened suddenly and lay still in bed listening. She was frightened, though she could not have told why.
Rigidly she lay there hardly daring to breath.
A STRANGE BURGLAR
What was it that had awakened Billie Bradley?
Hardly had the girl asked herself that question when she heard it–a padding, stealthy, creeping noise that made her clutch the bed clothes and draw them tighter about her.
Then in a panic she realized that whatever it was had started upstairs.
Nearer, nearer came the stealthy padding, till Billie realized it had reached the landing. Her scalp crept and her hair began to stand on end. Her door was the nearest to the stairs, and she was all alone in the house with Chet!
Swiftly, she threw off the covers, jumped out of bed, and with her limbs trembling under her, ran to the door and softly turned the key in the lock.
Then she leaned weakly against the door and listened for the noise, but it had stopped. Evidently the burglar, if burglar it was, had paused to get his bearings.
Then another horrible thought struck her. Chet was sleeping in the next room, and Chet’s door was unlocked!
On feet that seemed too weak to hold her she crept into Chet’s room–luckily there was a connecting door between–and softly turned the key in his door also.
Evidently she was just in time, for as she listened the stealthy noise began again and it was coming toward the very door she had just locked.
She uttered a little involuntary sound, and Chet sat up in bed with a start.
“Wh-what’s up?” he demanded sleepily.
“Oh, hush,” cried Billie. Scurrying to his bed and leaning over, she whispered the awful words: “There’s a burglar in the house, Chet.”
“A burglar?” repeated Chet, wide awake by this time. “Who says so?”
“Don’t be foolish! Didn’t I hear him myself?” cried Billie in a desperate whisper. “Oh, Chet, he’s on the stairs outside.”
“Well, why doesn’t he come in? Is he bashful?” queried Chet, seeming not in the least alarmed. Billie shook him impatiently.
“He probably would have come in if I hadn’t locked the doors,” she told him impatiently. “For goodness’ sake, Chet, wake up and tell me what to do. He may have stolen everything we own by this time.”
“Hush,” cried Chet, grasping her arm, and in a tense silence they listened.
Yes, they could not be mistaken–something was surely brushing against the door.
Thank heaven, she had locked it, thought Billie, as she began to feel her hair stand on end again.
Once more came that brushing sound. And then, very distinctly, a sniff!
“Oh, Chet,” cried Billie, clutching her brother’s arm spasmodically.
“Nervy beggar,” muttered Chet. “If I had a gun I’d know what to do. But say,” he added, as a happy thought struck him, “there’s Dad’s!” He was out of bed and across the room before Billie could do more than gasp. Fearfully she followed after.
Luckily Chet had elected to sleep in his parents’ room during their absence so as to be nearer Billie, and he had happened to remember the secret hiding place that his father had shown him not long before where he kept his revolver always loaded and ready for action.
“Oh, Chet, do be careful!” whispered Billie, as Chet drew the ugly-looking thing out of the hidden drawer and examined it. “I–I think I’m more afraid of that than I am of the b-burglar.”
Chefs only answer was a grim “Come on,” from between set young lips. Fearfully they made their way over to the door.
Their burglar seemed to have gone on to some other room, for they could hear the stealthy padding at the other end of the hall. But now he had turned in their direction.
Very carefully Chet turned the key in the lock, and then, while Billie pressed both hands over her heart to quiet its pounding, Chet flung open the door and stepped into the hall. Billie was right at his heels.
And then the impossible thing happened. A dark shape coming slowly toward them stopped at sight of them and uttered a low bark.
Yes, the sound that issued from their supposed burglar was a very distinct and friendly canine bark.
For a minute Chet and Billie just stared speechlessly. Then slowly the revolver in Chet’s hand dropped to his side and he began to laugh. It was a weak laugh at first, but it gradually swelled into a roar as he took in the full humor of the situation.
And Billie, after a moment during which she seemed undecided whether to laugh or cry, presently joined him.
“A dog!” gasped Chet, when he could get his breath. “Come here, old man, and let’s have a look at you.”
The dog that had caused all the disturbance came forward at Chet’s command and stood looking up at them, his handsome brush waving genially.
As the light of a street lamp shining through the window fell upon him, Billie uttered an exclamation.
“Why, it’s Bruce–Nellie Bane’s collie,” she cried. “How in the world did he ever get in? Come here, Bruce, old boy, and explain yourself.”
Obediently Bruce went over to her and laid a cold muzzle in her hand, his soft eyes looking lovingly into her face. For Billie had made much of Bruce on her frequent visits to Nellie Bane, and the dog, with the instinct of his kind, had developed a great liking for her–though the first in his loyal dog’s heart was Nellie Bane, his mistress.
“You’re a great one!” Chet scoffed. “You get a fellow all worked up to catch a burglar, and then you produce a dog. I think you did it on purpose.”
“Yes, and I suppose I scared myself half to death on purpose too,” said Billie sarcastically, as she patted the dog’s great head. “Where are you going?” she asked, as Chet started back into his room.
“To put this thing where I got it,” he explained, holding up the pistol from which Billie shrank back. “Don’t imagine we’ll have any further need of it to-night.”
“Wait a minute,” ordered Billie, and Chet turned back surprised. “We haven’t found out yet how Bruce got in,” she explained, looking fearfully over her shoulder, for the effects of her fright had not quite left her yet. “Don’t you think we’d better take that along while we look through the house? We must have left a door or a window open somewhere. Bruce couldn’t have come through the wall, you know.”
“Something–I don’t know what it can be–makes me agree with you,” returned Chet sarcastically, but he turned to the stairs nevertheless, “Come on,” he said. “If we have left a window open it is high time that that window was shut. Go ahead, Bruce, and show us where you got in–that’s a good old boy.”
At the best it was rather an eerie business–searching through the empty house at that time of night–and it was especially nerve-trying for Billie after the fright she had had.
And then they found it. The French window that opened from the dining-room upon the porch was swinging wide open–a wonderful invitation to enter for any sneak thief who might happen to pass that way.
Billie shivered again as Chet, with a final pat, put Bruce outside and closed and locked the window.
“There, I guess we won’t have any more visitors to-night,” he said, as they started through the dark living-room to the stairs.
“Let’s hope not,” returned Billie fervently.
When they reached their rooms upstairs they felt too excited for sleep, and sat for a long time talking over the incident.
They could laugh now at their surprise in meeting friendly Bruce instead of a very unfriendly house-breaker, but more than once both of them caught themselves listening for sounds in the silent house below.
“It was just luck,” said Billie, as she rose at last to go to bed, “that it was Bruce that happened to find that open window instead of–of some one else!”
Chet and Billie were very careful to leave neither doors nor windows unlocked, and the rest of the week passed without further mishap.
Then one morning came a telegram from their parents saying that they would be home the next day.
“Goodness, now I have to get busy!” cried Billie, jumping up from the table in such a hurry that she very nearly upset Chefs coffee cup, thereby considerably surprising that boy.
“Say, do you think it’s catching?” he asked, with a smile. “What’s the matter with you, Billie?”
“Oh, of course you wouldn’t understand–you’re a boy,” remarked his sister condescendingly, as she put on the becoming dust cap and pulled some gloves on her hands.
“Don’t you see,” she added, as Chet continued to stare at her, “that this house has to be immaculate before mother gets back? I’ve simply got to live up to my reputation.”
“Never knew you had one,” remarked Chet cruelly, as he turned back to his bacon and eggs with a relieved sigh. “If you need any help,” he offered graciously, as Billie swept out of the room, “just call on me.”
“Thank you, I don’t,” called back Billie, making a face at him over her shoulder.
And then followed such a whirlwind of sweeping and dusting and throwing about of furniture that poor Chet was dismayed and was forced to take refuge on the porch.
However, when Billie, flushed and breathless and very, very pretty, took him by the arm and led him about to admire her handiwork, he told her that she was “some wonder.”
“Now how about lunch?” he asked, and Billie, appetite sharpened by work, enthusiastically agreed.
It seemed an eternity to wait until the next morning, but somehow the time came at last, finding brother and sister on tip-toe with excitement.
Long before it was time to go to meet the train, they were ready and waiting. Billie was swinging back and forth in the porch swing, grasping a cushion in each hand to keep her from jumping out, while Chet walked restlessly up and down.
“If you don’t sit down,” said Billie so suddenly that her brother jumped, “I’ll just scream.”
“Well go ahead, if it will make you feel any better,” invited Chet amiably. However, for the sake of peace he seated himself in one of the broad armed chairs.
“Isn’t it train time yet?” asked Billie, as she had asked many times during the last fifteen minutes.
“Here,” said Chet, handing over his watch, “take this and keep looking at it. My voice is getting hoarse saying ‘no.'”
“But I don’t see why we can’t go down to the station anyway,” argued Billie.
“Only that it’s about a hundred times more comfortable to wait here.”
“But we might miss the train,” wailed Billie, and Chet jumped to his feet with a chuckle.
“Oh, come on,” he cried. “We’ve missed the train several times according to you. In a minute you will almost have me worried.”
“You’re a dear old bear,” said Billie, snuggling her arm into his as they set off.
“You certainly do have a way with you, Billie, that gets you what you want,” he admitted, adding meaningly: “Besides, I’m thinking I’d better keep on the right side of you just now.”
“Why?” asked Billie, puzzled.
“In case Aunt Beatrice left you something. You were her namesake, remember.”
Billie glanced up at him, an eager look in her eyes. But her glance fell again and she shook his arm severely.
“What’s the use of raising hopes?” she said dolefully, as a vision of the broken “Girl Reading a Book” rose reproachfully before her and she thought longingly of how happy she could be if it were only possible to replace it.
And there was Three Towers Hall–but she shook off the thought and had opened her mouth to speak when the sharp blast of an engine whistle made them jump.
“Chet,” she gasped, “it’s the train! We mustn’t miss it.”
“We can make it if we run,” said Chet, as he took hold of her arm. “Come on! No, not that way–the short cut. That’s the idea.”
Warm and panting they came out upon the station platform just as the train drew in. They watched the passengers eagerly, but not at first seeing those they sought, had almost decided that they were coming on a later train when away down at the end of the platform, Billie espied a familiar hat.
“There they are! Mother!” she cried, as they came within hailing distance. “We thought you weren’t on the train. Oh, what a fright we had!”
After the greetings were over Chet and Billie both noticed that their parents seemed to be in a state of suppressed excitement, and both of them wondered.
However, they had too much to talk about just then to do much wondering about anything, and they walked slowly toward home, asking and answering a very flood of questions.
Mrs. Bradley wanted to know how Billie had got along without her, at which both Chet and Billie tried to tell the story of Nellie Bane’s collie at the same time and in the same breath.
When they had finished Mr. Bradley chuckled, but Mrs. Bradley looked grave.
“It happened to be funny,” she said. “But it might have been very serious. I hope you were careful after that.”
“Were we!” they cried, and Billie added with a laugh: “We locked and double locked all the windows and doors, and if it hadn’t been for Chet I would have piled furniture against the doors. But we want to know what you’ve been doing,” she cried, turning to her mother eagerly. “Tell us, please, quick. We’ve been waiting so long.”
Again Mr. Bradley laughed and pinched his impatient young daughter’s cheek.
“I think our news can wait till we get to the house,” he said.
“But _I_ can’t,” protested Billie.
“Anybody would think you really expected to hear something,” chuckled Mr. Bradley, who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely over something.
“Oh, please,” begged Billie, almost beside herself with impatience by this time–and Chet, in his quiet way, was just as bad. There was something about their mother’s and father’s manner that told them something was in the wind.
“I’m just dying by inches,” went on Billie.
But this time it was Mrs. Bradley who interrupted.
“Here we are at home, dear,” she said. “Can’t you give Dad and me a chance to rest, and give us perhaps a cup of tea–“
“Oh, I’m a selfish old beast!” said Billie penitently. “I might have known you would be terribly tired after that long train ride!”
And still scolding herself she hurried them before her into the house and flew to find Debbie. She had not far to go, however, for Debbie was just lumbering, like a good-natured elephant, through the hall to greet her master and mistress. As soon as the greetings were over she lumbered back again to make the necessary tea.
Billie and Chet controlled their impatience, answering the questions their mother had to ask them about all that had happened while they had been away, for Mrs. Bradley had been anxious.
When they finally left the table and Mrs. Bradley led the way back into the library, Billie uttered a long sigh of relief.
“Well,” said Mrs. Bradley, and they leaned forward eagerly, “we found that what we always supposed about the amount of money Aunt Beatrice had was right. She left only a few thousand, and that–queer soul that she was–she left to a missionary society.”
“Oh!” cried Billie, and it must be admitted that she both felt and looked horribly disappointed. She had not known just how much she had hoped, both for herself and for Chet, until this moment. And Chet, poor fellow, felt just as bad, although he showed it less.
“Then she didn’t leave anything either to you or Dad?” Chet asked.
“No. But she did leave something to you and Billie,” was Mrs. Bradley’s startling announcement.
Billie and Chet looked at one another as if to be sure that they had heard aright.
“You say she left us something?” cried Billie breathlessly.
“Yes. But don’t let your hopes run away with you,” Mr. Bradley warned them, “for it wasn’t very much.”
“Oh, tell us,” the two commanded eagerly and in unison.
“She left a gold watch to Chet,” Mrs. Bradley told them. “It is really a very beautiful watch, Chet, and worth a good deal of money. And to Billie–” She paused for emphasis and Billie wriggled impatiently. “And to Billie she left her rambling old homestead at Cherry Corners.”
“A homestead at Cherry Corners!” gasped Billie, unable to believe her ears while Chet looked interested. “What sort of a house is it, Mother?”
“I haven’t been there for a number of years,” replied her mother, knitting her brows in an effort to recall the details of Billie’s queer inheritance. “As I remember it, it is an old-fashioned rambling affair. It must have been considered rather handsome in its palmy years, and it has been in the Powerson family for generations. In fact, I believe it dates back to revolutionary days. It has great large rooms, and rather spooky, dark hallways. I’m afraid I wasn’t very much impressed with it the first time I saw it,” she finished, with a smile.
“Wh-what a funny thing to leave me,” said Billie, her eyes big and round with wonder. Then she added, without thinking–as Billie always did: “Oh, don’t I wish she had left me a hundred dollars instead! It would have been much more useful!”
GHOSTS AND THINGS
Billie was instantly sorry for her speech, as she saw the old troubled expression cross her father’s face.
“Forgive me, please!” she pleaded. “I think I must be the most ungrateful girl alive.”
“Well, I should say so!” cried Chet, to whom the description of the queer old house, while dismaying his sister, had appealed immensely. “Say, I’d like nothing better than to go out right now and look your property over, Billie. Big rooms and spooky halls and–say, Mother, it must have a cellar and an attic. What are they like?”
“I suppose,” said his mother, smiling at his enthusiasm, “that since you seem to like the ghostly part, you would be more than ever pleased with the attic and cellar.”
“As I remember it, the cellar was the most peculiar part of the whole queer place. Aunt Beatrice took me through it, and seemed immensely proud of the funny old tunnels and store-rooms that were tucked away in all sort of odd corners. The only thing I liked about it,” she finished, with a reminiscent smile, “was the shelf-lined, icy room where she kept her fruit preserves.”
“This gets better and better!” fairly crowed Chet. “A damp, gloomy old cellar with tunnels and storerooms in queer corners and–But you were going to tell us about the attic.”
“Yes, the attic!” cried Billie, for by this time Chet had made her as much interested in her strange inheritance as he was. “Did it have trunks in it, Mother–and cobwebs?”
“Trunks, yes, but not cobwebs,” smiled her mother, “for Aunt Beatrice was an excellent housekeeper–when she was at home.”
“Then the attic wasn’t spooky?” queried Chet, disappointed.
“I should say it was!” returned his mother, with an emphasis that set all his fears at rest. “It was the creepiest place I have ever been in, and I was never gladder in my life than when we left it for the more cheerful lower floor–though goodness knows that was dreary enough.”
“Say, when are we going?” cried Chet, jumping to his feet, his face flushed with eagerness.
“Where?” asked Mrs. Bradley.
“To Cherry Corners, of course,” answered Chet in a tone which very plainly meant, “why ask such a foolish question?” “To the ghosts that inhabit the garret and cellar of Billie’s new house.”
“Hold on, hold on there!” cried Mr. Bradley, who had been listening to the proceedings in amused silence. “Do you happen to know how far Cherry Corners is from here?”
“Very far?” asked Billie.
“A whole day’s ride, that’s all,” their father answered.
“Say, Dad,” cried Chet suddenly. “What do you suppose the old place is worth?”
“I can’t say, Chet,” answered Mr. Bradley. “Being so far from good roads and the railroad, I am afraid the land is not worth much.”
“But it must be worth something,” persisted the boy.
Mr. Bradley smiled faintly.
“For Billie’s sake let us hope so. But you must remember, in this state there are thousands of abandoned farms. Folks simply can’t make a living on them, and so they move away.”
“But the buildings must be worth something.”
“To live in, yes, but that is all. You can’t move an old stone house to some other spot.”
“Why do they call it ‘Cherry Corners?'” asked Billie, for she had been following a little train of thought all her own. “It’s a very queer name.”
“Oh, they come by it naturally enough,” her mother answered. “It is surrounded by a grove of cherry trees and is near a crossing of two rocky roads. So you see the reason for ‘Cherry Corners.'”
“Goodness, that sounds as if it were away off in the wilderness!” cried Billie, adding: “But wouldn’t it be awful to have to live in that spooky old house all alone? Are there any houses near it, Mother?”
“Not one for more than a mile,” said Mrs. Bradley. “They are almost as isolated now as they used to be in the old Indian days.”
“Indians!” cried Chet, pricking up his ears again. “Did you say something about Indians, Mother?”
“Why, I’ve heard Aunt Beatrice say,” answered Mrs. Bradley, beginning to share in her children’s enthusiasm, “that the Powersons who originally built the house built it especially for the purpose of resisting Indian attacks. Now that I come to think of it,” she added, her eyes beginning to shine with excitement, “that was the reason for the winding tunnels and secret rooms. As the last resort, the family could take refuge in them.”
“Oh, boy!” cried Chet, springing to his feet for the second time. “Did you hear that, did you? Indian raids and–oh, gosh!” Words failed him and he sank back in his chair with a sigh of joy.
“Isn’t it wonderful!” breathed Billie. “At first I was disappointed but now–Is that all she left, Mother?”
“Isn’t that enough?” her father interjected, with a laugh.
“I suppose so, but I thought–“
“Why, yes, that was all,” said her mother, adding the next moment, surprised that she should have forgotten the most important part of all: “Oh, I forgot to tell you–Aunt Beatrice left you the house with all its contents.”
“Oh!” breathed Billie again. “Now I know we’re going to have a wonderful time!”
“What does the old house contain?” questioned Chet. His mind was on getting some money out of the inheritance for Billie.
“I am sure I do not know,” answered his mother, “It may be completely furnished or it may be quite bare. I imagine, though, that Aunt Beatrice left it furnished. But everything is very old, and maybe the rats and moths have played sad havoc there.”
They talked for a little while more about this strange thing that had happened. Then Mr. Bradley went off to pick up the loose ends of his business and Mrs. Bradley adjourned to the kitchen to discuss supper preparations with the mountainous Debbie.
Left alone, Billie and Chet looked at each other wonderingly.
“Well,” said Billie in a slightly, awed tone, “we expected something to happen, and it certainly did.”
“But we didn’t expect her to leave you an old stone mansion,” crowed Chet. “Say, Billie,” he added, stopping before her in his excited pacing of the room to gaze at her eagerly, “aren’t you crazy to go out and see it?”
“I’d like,” said Billie fervently, “to start for Cherry Corners on the very next train. But I’m not so sure I’d like to stay in that place after nightfall,” she added on second thought.
“Why, you’re not afraid of the ghosts, are you?” he asked, with intense scorn. “Don’t you know that ghosts are all in the imagination?”
“Of course I do. Who said I was afraid of ghosts?” retorted Billie with spirit. “You know that I don’t believe in them any more than you do.”
“Well, then what are you afraid of?” insisted Chet.
“Oh, thieves and things. Tramps maybe,” said Billie thoughtfully; then she added with spirit, as Chet smiled a superior sort of smile: “I just guess you wouldn’t be able to spend a night in that sort of a gloomy old house away off from everybody without feeling nervous. Goodness! I’d be expecting every minute to have the ghosts of dead and gone Indians rise up and scalp me.”
“Thought you didn’t believe in ghosts,” gibed Chet.
“I don’t,” flared Billie, adding rather weakly: “But I’m not going to take any chances, anyway.”
“But oh,” she added after a few minutes of thoughtful silence, “I can’t help it if it is ungrateful, but I do wish Aunt Beatrice had left me a few hundred dollars instead. We’ve still got that old statue to worry about, and Three Towers Hall and the military academy.”
Chet was silent for a minute, then he said with sudden inspiration: “There’s the watch Aunt Beatrice left me, you know. Mother said it was very valuable.”