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Billie’s face lighted for a moment, then fell again.

“But you know Uncle Bill always said that you never could get anything like the value for old gold. And anyway,” she rose and put a loving arm about him, “I couldn’t let you do that for me, Chet, dear. I think you’re the dearest brother in the world.”

A few hours later Laura Jordon and Violet Farrington came over, trying their best not to look curious. They had waited as long as they could, but knowing about the death of Billie’s queer old aunt and knowing also that Billie, as her namesake, might expect some share of the fortune–if there was one–they had been filled with excitement, and now as they ran up the steps to Billie’s porch it was all they could do to keep from blurting out the question.

For both Laura and Violet had been perfectly certain that Billie’s Aunt Beatrice had been some sort of miser who had piled up an immense fortune simply for their chum’s benefit.

“Just think,” Violet had said in one of their excited conferences on the subject, “what a wonderful thing it will be for Billie just now when she is so worried about that miserable old statue. And for Chet too!”

“Yes, it would mean they could both go to school and we’d all have such a good time,” Laura had chimed in. “Goodness!” she had added with a chuckle, “I feel almost as much obliged to Aunt Beatrice as Billie will.”

But now that the great moment had come, they sat decorously in Billie’s porch swing and tried to appear not at all curious as to whether Billie had gathered in a fortune since they last had seen her or not.

And Billie, her little imp of mischief at work again, guessed the object of their visit and decided with an inward chuckle to keep them guessing.

She managed to accomplish her purpose for just about five minutes. Then Laura, unable to stand the suspense a moment more, took the bit in her teeth and bolted.

“For goodness’ sake, Billie,” she cried desperately, “why don’t you tell us?”

“Tell you what?” asked Billie, trying to look innocent. “Haven’t I been telling you–“

“Yes, about the way Debbie makes potato salad,” cried Laura disgustedly. “You know well enough why we came.”

“Why you came?” Billie repeated, looking still more surprised. “Why, naturally, I thought you came to see me.”

“Billie Bradley, if you don’t tell us what we want to know this instant,” cried Laura, jumping to her feet and making a threatening movement toward Billie’s mischievous head, “I’ll–I’ll–oh, I don’t know what I’ll do. Are you going to be good? Are you?”

“Yes, yes,” cried Billie, pretending immense fright, while her eyes danced with mischief. “Tell me what it is you want to know and I’ll do my best, Your Highness,” this last in such a very humble tone that Laura chuckled.

“All right, go ahead then,” she said while Violet leaned forward eagerly. “What did your aunt leave you?”

“Straight from the shoulder,” Billie murmured. Then as Laura made another threatening gesture toward her, added hurriedly: “All right. Don’t shoot and I’ll tell you everything. Only it will take time.”

Billie paused, to allow the proper amount of emphasis, then said, in a deep whisper:

“She left me a–haunted house!”

CHAPTER X

OLD FURNITURE

Laura screamed and Violet jumped clear out of her seat.

They stared at Billie, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

“Wh-what did you say?” asked Laura when she could get her breath.

“I said,” said Billie, speaking very distinctly and enjoying the sensation she had caused, “that Aunt Beatrice left me a haunted house.”

“Th-then I wasn’t dreaming,” stammered Violet, while Laura just continued to stare. “Is th-that all, Billie?”

“Isn’t that enough?” asked Billie, just as her father had done a few hours before.

“It’s either not enough or it is too much,” replied Violet. “If I had to have the ghosts, I should want some very substantial compensations to make up for such housemates as those airy and playful ladies and gentlemen are said to make.”

“But it is a house,” persisted Billie. “And you know it isn’t everybody who can own a haunted house.”

“A haunted house!” said Laura, speaking in a hushed tone. “Is it a real haunted house, Billie, or are you fooling?”

“Well, I don’t know that it is a regular honest-to-goodness one,” admitted Billie reluctantly. “You see, it is the house Aunt Beatrice used to live in when she was at home, and she left it to me, with everything in it.”

“How perfectly glorious!” cried Laura, clapping her hands with delight. “Tell us about it, Billie. What made you say it was haunted?”

Then did Billie tell them all that her mother had told her about her inheritance and, if the truth be told, even added a few details of her own.

However that may have been, the fact remains that when she had finished the girls were as perfectly wild as Chet had been to visit the queer old place and, if need be, even confront its “ghosts!”

“Think!” cried Laura, clasping her hands rapturously. “Just think of being able to roam all over that romantic old place and pry into corners–“

“And get your hands dirty,” interrupted Billie drily.

“Why, Billie,” Laura stopped in her transports to regard her friend with wide eyes, “aren’t you simply wild about the place too?”

“Oh, I suppose so,” said Billie, adding as a shadow crossed her face: “The folks think I’m awful, all ‘cept Chet, and I suppose I am–but I’d give the whole place, tunnels, spooky hallways, ghostly attic, and everything for just a few little hundred dollar bills.”

The girls were silent for a few minutes, realizing that Billie’s strange inheritance did not do a thing toward solving the old problems of the broken statue and of going to boarding school.

Then Violet, who was always thinking up some happy way out of a difficulty, gave a little bounce in the swing.

“How do we know,” she cried, as the girls looked at her half hopefully, “but what you could sell some of the furniture in the old house and get enough to pay for the statue?”

“We might, at that,” said Billie, her face lighting up again. “But mother said it must all be awfully old,” she added doubtfully.

“All the better,” cried Violet, growing more and more enthusiastic. “You say that the old house dates back to revolutionary times, Billie. How do we know but what some of the old furniture would be very valuable as antiques?”

“Violet, you’re a wonder!” cried Billie, hugging her so hard that she gasped for breath. “I’d never have thought of that in a thousand years. Now you speak of it,” she added thoughtfully, “I remember some antique furniture that Uncle Bill has in his library. He says it’s worth all sorts of money, but I wouldn’t give two cents for it.”

“Well, as long as somebody will, what should we care!” cried Laura flippantly. “Maybe you’ll make a fortune for yourself after all, Billie.”

“Oh, and think what it would mean!” cried Violet, her eyes shining. “It would mean that you could pay for that beastly old statue, Billie. And it would mean that you could go to Three Towers with us.”

“And Chet could go to the military academy with Teddy and Ferd,” Laura added.

“For goodness’ sake!” cried poor Billie wildly. “You make me feel dizzy. What is the use of getting my hopes all raised? Probably Aunt Beatrice’s furniture will be old, fallen-to-pieces stuff that nobody would give two cents for.”

“Goodness, what a wet blanket!” cried Laura reproachfully.

“Well, I’d rather be a wet blanket,” retorted Billie desperately, “than to plan for a lot of fun and then be disappointed. I–I’ve been disappointed enough, goodness knows.”

There was a quiver in Billie’s brave little mouth and instinctively Violet and Laura put an arm about her.

“We know what you mean,” said Violet, soothingly. “And if you don’t want us to, we’ll try not to hope too hard.”

“Or if we do, we’ll keep it to ourselves,” added Laura, and Billie hugged them fondly.

“I don’t want you to stop hoping,” she cried plaintively. “And I don’t want to be a wet blanket, either. I’m just afraid, that’s all.”

The girls swung back and forth in silence for a few minutes. Then it was Laura who spoke.

“When are you going out to look over your property, Billie?”

“Why, I don’t know,” answered Billie thoughtfully. “As soon as we can arrange it, I suppose. Dad says it’s a full day’s trip to get there, so we would have to make some arrangement to stay over night.”

“Couldn’t you spend the night in the house?” suggested Violet.

“We might,” Billie answered doubtfully. “Although I must say I wouldn’t like to–not the first night anyway. I’d want time to become acquainted with the place first.”

“If you will promise on your word of honor not to laugh at me,” said Violet after another short silence, “I’ll tell you that I have another idea.”

“We won’t laugh,” they promised, and Billie added eagerly: “Tell us about it, Violet. Even if we do laugh at your ideas at first, we generally end by following them.”

“But you said you wouldn’t laugh this time,” Violet reminded her, adding, as the worst threat she could think of: “If you do I won’t let you follow out my idea.”

“All right,” said Billie. “As Chet would say–‘shoot.'”

“Why, I was just thinking,” said Violet, looking at them intently, “that we haven’t a plan in the world for spending our vacation–“

“Vi!” cried Laura joyfully, not waiting for her to finish, “you _have_ a good idea this time. You were going to say, why not spend our vacation there?”

“At Cherry Corners?” asked Billie surprised, adding with a demure glance: “Nobody seems to think of asking me about it. And it’s my property, you know.”

“Gracious, isn’t she stuck up?” cried Laura flippantly. “I’ll have you know you’re not the only property holder in the community, Billie Bradley. Dad gave me the deed to three lots in some outlandish place, I don’t even know where it is.”

“Probably didn’t have anything else to do with them, so wished them on you,” said Billie cruelly.

“Shouldn’t wonder,” said Laura, adding with a rueful little smile: “I’ve never been able to find out whether it was an April Fool’s present or not.”

“Well, I don’t see what all that has to do with my proposition,” put in Violet patiently. “Now own up–don’t you think it’s a great idea?”

“Wonderful,” said Billie unenthusiastically. “I don’t know when I’ve ever heard of anything so brilliant.”

“There’s something wrong with Billie,” said Violet, beginning to look anxious. “Don’t you think we’d better send for a doctor, Laura?”

“I think you are the one who needs a doctor,” retorted Billie. “Who ever thought of spending a vacation out in the wilderness a million miles or so from nowhere in an old tumbled-down house that makes your flesh creep and the hair rise on your head just to look at it?”

“My, but that must feel funny,” said Laura, the irrepressible. “That’s one experience I never did have.”

“What?” asked Billie.

“Have my hair rise on my head. Please excuse me, Billie,” as Billie in her turn looked threatening. “What was it you were about to say?”

“Goose,” commented Billie and then turned to Violet. “Did you really mean that about spending our vacation there?” she asked.

“Of course I did,” said Violet. “And I don’t see what’s so very funny about it anyway. We could take a chaperone, and maybe the boys could come along too.”

“Oh, that would be fun,” cried Billie, then flushed as she met Laura’s laughing eyes. “I meant,” she added, angry because of the blush, “that the place wouldn’t be quite so lonesome and horrid with the boys around.”

“Oh, yes, we know,” said Laura, with an aggravating twinkle that made Billie long to shake her. “We know all about it, honey.”

Why, thought Billie, as she ignored the remark, pretending not to hear it, would Laura always be such a goose as to make a joke of the very real friendship between her and Teddy Jordon? She liked Teddy immensely and she was not going to stop liking him even if Laura would persist in being foolish.

“Then you will admit it is a good idea?” Violet asked eagerly.

“I liked it all, but Billie only likes the last part–about the boys,” said Laura, and again Billie had a wild desire to shake her.

“It will be lots of fun,” she said, beginning to see the possibilities in a vacation spent at Cherry Corners. “Mother says the rooms are large and there are plenty of them so we could have as big a party as we wanted. But I don’t know how comfortable you would be,” she warned them.

“Who cares about being comfortable on a lark like that?” cried Laura airily. “The more uncomfortable we are the more fun we’ll have. I say, Billie, don’t you think we’d better take Gyp along?” Gyp was a thoroughbred bull terrier of which Laura was the proud owner. “He might come in handy if any ghosts showed up.”

The girls laughed at her.

“As if Gyp would be any good against ghosts!” scoffed Violet. “Why, they would walk right through him.”

“Well,” said Laura, with a little chuckle, “he could at least bark and let us know when they were coming!”

CHAPTER XI

BILLIE WINS OUT

“But whom shall we get for a chaperone?” asked Laura Jordon, after they had thoroughly discussed these new and startling plans for a vacation. “We don’t want to get any one who is too old and grouchy, and yet the folks probably wouldn’t let us go unless we did.”

Billie and Violet laughed, for they realized the truth of what she said.

“We do seem to be ‘up against it,’ as Ted says.” Laura was always using her brother for an excuse for her own slang. “I can’t think of a single person jolly enough to please us and dull enough to please the folks.”

“How about one of our mothers?” Violet suggested.

“I know my mother wouldn’t do it,” said Billie. “The last time I asked her to chaperone us girls she said she would as soon chaperone a trio of eels.”

“And when I asked mother,” Laura added, “she said she would have nervous prostration in a week.”

“My, we must have a terrible reputation,” sighed Violet. “I never knew we were as bad as all that.”

“Oh, I have an idea!” cried Laura suddenly, clapping her hands.

“Well, don’t let it bite you,” murmured Billie.

“Wait till you hear and you won’t be so sarcastic,” retorted Laura. “I’m sure I have just the very person that we want.”

“Oh, who?” cried Violet.

“Maria Gilligan, our housekeeper,” Laura announced, and then sat back with an air that said just as plainly as words: “There! how’s that for an inspiration?”

“Maria Gilligan, your housekeeper?” Billie repeated.

“I think it’s a rather good idea, Laura,” said Violet. “Isn’t Mrs. Gilligan the one who is always playing jokes on her husband?”

“Yes, she’s the funniest thing you ever saw,” Laura answered, her eyes beginning to twinkle at the memory of some of Mrs. Gilligan’s escapades. “Why, one April Fool’s Day she set the clock back an hour and Mr. Gilligan got up grumbling that it was awfully dark for six o’clock. Then when he was all ready and was starting out to work she told him about it.”

“What did he do?” asked Violet, interested.

“I know what I’d have done if I’d been in his place,” sniffed Billie. “I’d have tied her in a chair and gagged her and left her there all day.”

“Billie! how barbaric!” cried Violet. “What would you have done that for?”

“Just so she could have thought over her sins,” said Billie with a chuckle. “I never did believe in practical jokes.”

“And then another time,” said Laura, her eyes twinkling, “she was upstairs straightening up the store-room when she pretended to have a tumble. You know she weighs about two hundred pounds–“

“At a rough guess, I should say three hundred,” murmured Billie, for Billie was in a very contrary mood that day.

“And she came down with a thump that shook the chandeliers,” Laura went on, ignoring the interruption, “and when Mr. Gilligan–you know he weighs only a hundred and fifty and is about half her size–“

“Now I _know_ she weighs three hundred,” interposed Billie again. “It’s just a matter of arithmetic.”

“There she was with her head in her hands,” went on Laura, too much amused by her story to notice the interruption, “sobbing as if her heart would break. And when he got down on his knees to comfort her, she just looked at him with a grin and said: ‘April Fool.'”

“Well, I should say he was,” said Billie, with another sniff. “And not only an April Fool, either. She would try a trick like that just about once with me.”

“Well, anyway,” Laura concluded, “I think she would be just the one to take on our trip with us. She’s jolly and full of fun and yet she’s old enough and fat enough to please our fathers and mothers. What do you say?”

“Do you suppose she’s fat enough to scare away the ghosts?” asked Billie, with a chuckle.

“My, but I’d be sorry for any mistaken ghost that tried to have a set-to with her,” laughed Laura. “She’d just laugh at them and say: ‘Shoo, ghost, don’t bodder me.'”

“All right, let’s ask her,” decided Billie. “Now that we have made up our minds to change Cherry Corners into a summer resort, I can’t wait to get started.”

“If only the folks will be willing,” said Violet, looking worried. “Mother is funny about letting me go anywhere away from home without her.”

“I guess all our parents are,” said Billie, then added, with a sudden inspiration: “I tell you what! Let’s all go together and ask them. Three are always stronger than one.”

“You do have a good idea once in awhile, Billie!” exclaimed Laura, jumping out of the swing and holding out a hand to each of them. “Come on, we can’t afford to waste any time.”

“Where shall we go first?” asked Violet.

“To Laura’s,” Billie decided. “If we can get her mother and father to consent and then can get Mrs. Gilligan to go with us as chaperone, we’ll have a pretty good argument to give our folks. Eh, what?”

Gaily the girls set off to win Laura’s parents over to their side, and they were lucky enough to find Mrs. Jordon at home. Also Teddy was there, sitting beside her on the veranda. At sight of Billie the boy jumped to his feet and came running down to her.

“Hello,” he cried. “I was just coming over your way, to see if Chet didn’t want to fight out our singles tournament. He’s two sets ahead of me now, and I’m thirsting for r-revenge.”

“I think he’ll give it to you all right,” laughed Billie, as Violet and Laura ran up the steps in front of them. “I’ve never seen the time yet when Chet refused a tennis game.”

“All right, I’m off then,” he cried, and was starting away when she called him back.

“Don’t you want to know about my–inheritance?” she asked him, with a demure little glance.

“Your what?” he cried, then suddenly he grasped her two hands and swung them joyfully back and forth. “Do you mean to say,” he cried, “that your aunt really left you something? What is it, Billie? Go on, tell me.”

“If you want to hear all about it just stay around for a little while,” she laughed, leading him toward the group at the other end of the porch, two members of which were already in animated conversation.

“May we get in on this?” she called, interrupting an eloquent appeal on Laura’s part.

“Oh, yes, come here, do,” cried Laura, clutching at her dress and dragging her into the circle. “Mother’s beginning to shake her head, and you mustn’t let her, Billie. She’ll do anything for you.”

Mrs. Jordon laughed and made room for Billie on the divan beside her.

“Now perhaps you’ll tell me,” she said, “what this crazy daughter of mine is talking about. So far I’ve got a sort of confused jumble of a haunted house and vacations and Mrs. Gilligan. I must confess I don’t see how the three can possibly be connected.”

Then Billie told all over again the story of her strange inheritance, while Mrs. Jordon and Teddy listened with interest and Violet and Laura now and then put in a word to plead their cause.

As for Teddy, he was so busy watching Billie’s flushed, excited and altogether charming face that he more than once lost the trend of the conversation.

“I don’t wonder Laura said mother couldn’t refuse her anything,” he thought. “I don’t see how any one could refuse her when she talks and looks that way. Billie’s a wonder, that’s all.”

And in this case Billie did indeed prove herself to be a wonder. Within half an hour she had not only won Mrs. Jordon over to their side, but had persuaded her to let the girls borrow Mrs. Gilligan for the time of their vacation.

“Of course,” Mrs. Jordon warned them, as the girls were hugging each other triumphantly, “we aren’t at all sure that Mrs. Gilligan will want to undertake such an expedition. I couldn’t blame her very much if she didn’t,” she added, with a rueful little smile, “knowing you girls as she does.”

“I’ll get her!” cried Laura, and promptly put her words into action.

She appeared the next minute, dragging a very much astonished housekeeper after her, and proudly presented her prize to her mother.

“She said she was busy, Mother, and couldn’t stop,” Laura said, adding, with a bright smile: “But I told her it was something awfully important you wanted to say to her.”

“Sure and I suppose the young girl is up to some of her tricks,” said Mrs. Gilligan, beaming fondly upon her captor, “but I came with her, thinking it possible you might really have something to say to me, Mrs. Jordon.”

“Yes, I have, Mrs. Gilligan. Sit down, won’t you please? It may take some time to persuade you–“

And then and there began another campaign. However, with Mrs. Jordon as a powerful ally the girls had little trouble in overcoming Mrs. Gilligan’s objections, and in the end came off with colors flying.

“Now to see Billie’s mother!” cried Laura.

The girls hugged Mrs. Jordon, waved to their new chaperone, and ran gayly down the steps. Teddy, with a whispered word to his mother, followed them.

“Say, wait for a fellow, can’t you?” he cried, and they turned to wait for him.

“Come on, Vi,” cried Laura, catching hold of Violet’s arm and hurrying forward. “Ted and Billie will get there some time. We can’t wait for them.”

“How do you like our new plans?” asked Billie, looking up at him with sparkling eyes.

“I think you ought to have all sorts of fun,” he told her, adding with a funny little smile: “But I can’t quite make out yet where we fellows come in.”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” she asked, surprised. “Why, you are going with us!”

CHAPTER XII

GREAT PLANS

After permission for the outing was gained from all the parents concerned everything was bustle and excitement. For a week the girls spent the whole of every day at each other’s houses, planning their vacation, talking about the clothes they would need to take with them, and generally enjoying themselves.

As the time drew near they could hardly contain their excitement, and the boys, who had decided they would follow the girls some days later, were almost as bad.

“I don’t see why you don’t come with us,” Billie pouted one night, when the entire crowd of young folks had assembled at her home. “It would be lots more fun on the train if you boys were with us.”

“But there is the tennis match we promised to play with the fellows of the south end,” Chet pointed out for perhaps the hundredth time. “We couldn’t back out of it at the last minute, you know; they’d think we were afraid.”

“Now how do you know,” Violet pointed out, “but what we will all have been eaten up by the ghosts by the time you get there?”

“Ghosts!” scoffed Ferdinand Stowing, who was to go with Chet and Teddy. “I don’t see where you girls get this ghost stuff. Just because a house happens to be old doesn’t say it’s haunted.”

“Gosh! listen to him,” cried Chet indignantly. “Some one is always taking the joy out of life.”

“Say, you don’t think it’s haunted, do you?” asked Ferd, in surprise.

“Of course not,” answered Chet, adding, with a chuckle: “But I have my hopes.”

“Well, so have I,” spoke up Laura promptly. “If there isn’t a family ghost or two about the place, we just won’t have any fun. What’s the use of going off into the wilderness to a spooky house if we’re not going to meet a ghost?”

“Well, you know I didn’t promise any ghosts,” said Billie, looking up from a piece of fancy work she was embroidering. “If you are disappointed, you needn’t blame it on me, Laura, or you either, Chet.”

“Well, I don’t see why we shouldn’t have a good time without ghosts,” put in Violet. “In fact, I don’t think I’d particularly enjoy meeting somebody’s great-great-ancestor in the dark.”

“Oh, Vi, you give me the creeps,” said Laura with a little shiver. “Billie, do you think half a dozen middies’ would do? We won’t want to dress up very much.”

“No, the ghosts probably wouldn’t know the difference,” said Teddy wickedly. “By the way, boys,” he went on, imitating Laura’s tone to perfection, “that’s one important thing we haven’t decided, yet. What are we going to wear?”

“You poor fish!” cried Ferd, throwing a cushion at him. “Who let you in?”

“Stop wrecking the furniture,” exclaimed Billie, from her corner. “And do stop talking all at once. You make my ears ache. And besides, I want to say something.”

“Silence,” cried Chet, in a dramatically deep voice. “The queen is about to speak.”

“He said something that time,” whispered Teddy in her ear, and a little pink flush mounted to Billie’s face, making her look prettier than ever. It was so nice to have one’s friends like you!

“Why, I was just thinking about the cooking,” she said. “Do any of you boys know how to cook?”

“Heavens, listen at her!” cried Ferd in alarm. “Is she going to set us to work already–before we get there? What’s the idea, Billie?”

“Well,” replied Billie, biting off her thread calmly, “we have to eat while we’re there, you know.”

“No!” cried Chet sarcastically. “You may, sweet sister, but not us. We are too ethereal.”

“Say, is he insulting us?” cried Ferd indignantly. “Say that again, I dare you–“

“Oh, for goodness’ sake keep still!” cried Laura, clapping her hands to her ears. “You make me deaf, dumb and blind. Now, Billie, what were you going to say?”

“Simply, that since we do have to eat, Chet or anybody else to the contrary,” she looked at her brother and dimpled adorably, “we will have to decide who is going to do the cooking.”

“Why, I suppose we’ll take our turns at it, as we’ve done before when we have been camping,” said Laura, in surprise.

“I know. But what I want to find out is, are the boys going to do any of the work?”

“Good land, is she asking us to cook?” asked Ferd. “Why, Billie, we don’t know a thing about it!”

“And don’t want to learn,” added Chet fervently.

“Oh, you big fibbers!” Billie’s eyes danced as she looked at them. “I remember–oh, I have a very good memory,” and she glanced sideways at Teddy, who was beginning to look uncomfortable. “I remember a certain person telling me how beautifully you boys cooked while you were at camp.”

“Say, Billie, that’s not fair,” cried Teddy, with a guilty note in his voice that made his two comrades look at him accusingly.

“Aha, we see the villain!” cried Ferd threateningly. “What’ll we do with him, Chet?”

“Nothing’s bad enough for such a crime,” said Chet ruefully. “What did you make such a break for, Ted? I thought I’d brought you up better.”

“Gee, Billie, do you see what you’ve let me in for?” said Ted miserably, but Billie only regarded him with laughing eyes while Laura and Violet seemed to be enjoying the situation immensely.

“I don’t see what I did,” Billie replied innocently. “I thought I was paying you boys a compliment by saying that you could cook well.”

“But we can’t,” cried Ferd, seizing the opportunity eagerly. “Gee, Billie, you couldn’t eat the awful messes we make. Why, you’re a good cook–“

Billie raised a cushion threateningly in the air.

“None of that! None of that!” she warned him. “We see through you, villain!”

“Say, she must think you’re one of the Cherry Corners ghosts,” broke in Teddy whimsically. “It’s pretty hard on a fellow when you can see through him, Billie.”

“But honest you couldn’t,” Ferd insisted, not to be defeated in this one last hope. “Really, I don’t know enough about an egg to take the shell off when I fry it.”

“Idiot,” cried Billie, throwing the pillow at him in earnest. “Who ever heard of fried egg in the shell?”

“I did,” cried Ferd, unabashed by the laughter and the scornful glances turned his way. “Ladies and gentlemen, you see before you to-night the man that invented it.”

“Well, but nobody has answered my question,” said Billie demurely, after the laughter had subsided. “Are the boys going to help cook or are they not?”

“I tell you what,” said Chet desperately. “We’ll cook if you will promise to eat it.”

“Billie,” cried Laura in alarm, “don’t make any rash promises. They would probably put some awful thing into the food on purpose.”

“Laura, that’s some idea,” cried Ferd, looking at her admiringly while Teddy and Chet chuckled. “Thanks. We never would have thought of that ourselves.”

“Well,” said Billie with a little chuckle, “I imagine we would rather eat our own cooking anyway, so you needn’t worry. Only,” she added warningly, as they sighed with relief, “there is one thing you _will_ have to do.”

“And what’s that?” they cried fearfully.

“Help wash the dishes,” she said; and in her tone was no relenting.

And so, even to the impatient girls the time passed quickly until at last the great day arrived.

It was a wonderful day, sunshiny and warm without being too hot, and all three of them were up with the birds. They were to catch the eight o’clock morning train, and so they had no time to waste in bed.

Billie was in a joyful mood as she got herself into the pretty new dress she was to wear on the trip. She ran around the room, humming to herself and every once in a while doing a little dance step as she realized that they were at last to embark upon their adventure.

And an adventure she somehow felt sure it was to be. For even though, contrary to Chet’s hopes, and she smiled as she thought of him, they did not meet with ghosts at Cherry Corners, there would be the fun of seeing for the first time her inheritance.

It might be a queer old house and the contents and the grounds about it might be of small value, but there was a wonderful thrill nevertheless in being the owner of it.

And there was the fact that it dated back to revolutionary times, it was really historic and–it all belonged to her!

No wonder she sang as she gave a last fond pat to the pretty dress and tucked a wandering little strand of hair into place. Her eyes danced and her face was flushed, but Billie never noticed how pretty she was.

She was the first in the dining-room that morning, but her mother soon came in, scattering advice as she came and all through the meal Billie tried hard to listen dutifully to all the “must nots” and “don’t dos.” But all the time her eyes were on the clock and her mind was saying over and over again:

“In just half an hour we’ll be on the train. In just half an hour we’ll be on the train.”

Then Chet came in and her father, and, finding that it was almost train time, postponed their breakfast to see her off. A few minutes later they started off to pick up the girls on the way to the station.

They found them waiting impatiently, and wildly eager to be off. About a block from the station they heard the whistle of the train, and the girls would run for it, though they really had plenty of time.

At last they were in the train with the boys and their parents waving to them. Then suddenly they realized that they were moving. They were actually on their way!

“Give my regards to the ghosts!” cried Chet as the train moved off, “and don’t scare them all off before I get there!”

CHAPTER XIII

CHERRY CORNERS

As the train drew out of the station Billie leaned back with a sigh of pure happiness.

“You know,” she said, looking at the girls with sparkling eyes, “this is the very first time that I have ever been away from North Bend without the folks.”

“But don’t forget you’ve got me to look after you,” put in Mrs. Gilligan, with a twinkle in her eyes. “I’m goin’ to see that you don’t get into mischief.”

“I don’t know but what we shall have to look out that you don’t get into mischief,” said Laura with a chuckle. “Mr. Gilligan told me once that you weren’t to be trusted out alone.”

“Huh,” retorted Mrs. Gilligan good-naturedly, “it’s him that I wouldn’t be trusting. But what,” she asked, looking curiously at Billie, “did your brother mean by saying not to scare away the ghosts before he gets there?”

“Oh,” laughed Billie, “he has a sort of idea that the house at Cherry Corners is inhabited by spirits–just because mother said that the halls and rooms were spooky. He will be terribly disappointed if he doesn’t see half a dozen ghosts.”

“Well, I wouldn’t,” said Violet with a shudder, for now that they were on the way to their adventure, her courage was beginning to fail.

“Ghosts!” repeated Mrs. Gilligan, with a fun-loving light in her eyes. “Better not any ghosts come around me or I’ll give ’em a taste of the rolling pin.”

The girls laughed. The picture of Mrs. Maria Gilligan assaulting a ghost with a rolling pin was indeed a funny one.

“Well,” said Billie a little later, as she started to unpin her hat, “I don’t know about you girls, but I’m going to be comfortable. We have a long ride before us.”

“I suppose we might as well take off our hats and stay awhile,” agreed Laura, following suit. “Say, girls,” she added, as she stuck her hat up in the rack above her head, “I just thought of something last night.”

“Was it anything important?” asked Billie, with a wicked little look.

“I don’t know whether you would think so,” Laura retorted calmly. “I was wondering why we didn’t take the night train that reaches Roland, the nearest station to Cherry Corners, in the morning.”

“That would have been a good idea, wouldn’t it?” said Billie. “Now we will reach the house after dark.”

“When all the spooks are roaming,” added Laura, in a ghostly voice.

“Goodness!” cried Violet, turning uncomfortably in her seat, “if you girls don’t stop talking about ghosts I’ll just get out and go home.”

“Got your car fare?” asked Laura.

“No. But I could always walk,” returned Violet. “And I’d almost rather do it than spend the night in the company of ghosts.”

“Well, you’d better decide in a hurry,” said Billie, with a chuckle, “because the longer you take to make up your mind, the farther you will have to walk back.”

“All right,” said Violet, suddenly goaded into an unusual firmness. “You promise me this minute that you won’t say another word about ghosts until we get there, or I’ll get off at the very next station and walk back.”

“It’s ten miles,” Laura warned her.

“I don’t care if it’s twenty,” she returned stoutly, and laughingly the girls promised.

“It would be a crime to wear out those perfectly good shoes,” said Laura, looking at Violet’s trim suede footgear. “Especially with prices going up.”

Billie groaned.

“I think I’ll have to try Violet’s trick,” she said. “If anybody mentions the high cost of living to me while we’re away on this vacation, I’ll get out and walk home. I don’t care if it’s a hundred miles.”

“Going up?” laughed Laura, but they promised just the same. For underneath Billie’s lightness they knew that she was still puzzling her wits for some way to pay for that broken statue.

“Here comes a man with magazines,” said Laura. “We’d better get a couple to pass the time away. An all-day trip is pretty tiresome. At least I’ve heard mother say so.”

They bought the magazines, but they might just as well not have done so, for when they reached Roland late that afternoon they had hardly peeped inside the covers.

The scenery was so beautiful and wild, the whole trip was so wonderfully novel that the time flew, and before they realized it they had reached the station next to Roland.

“Goodness, I didn’t think we were anywhere near there, yet!” cried Violet, as she began to gather up her things. “I never knew a day to go so quickly in my life. Billie, are these your candies? You’d better not leave them on the seat.”

“Who said I was going to?” cried Billie, rescuing her sweets just as Laura was in the act of sitting on them. “Here, there’s just room for them in the corner of my grip. Mrs. Gilligan, have you got the trunk checks?”

“I hope so,” said the woman, opening her hand bag.

The girls watched her breathlessly and sighed with relief when she drew out the checks.

“All safe and sound,” she said. “Now get on your hats and coats, girls. We’re apt to have a wild scramble at the last if you aren’t ready beforehand.”

So, laughing and excited, the girls obeyed her, putting on their wraps hurriedly and laughing at Laura when she got her hat over one eye.

“Here, put it on straight,” cried Billie, performing that service for her friend. “We don’t want to have our reputations ruined the minute we step on the platform. Who ever heard of a perfect lady with her hat over one eye?”

“Well, if you don’t like my company–” Laura began good-naturedly, as she squinted at her distorted reflection in the little two-by-four mirror set in the tiny space of wall between the windows. “Gracious, Billie, you took it off of one eye to put it over the other. Do I look more like a perfect lady with my hat over my right eye?”

Billie chuckled and pushed the hat over Laura’s nose, at which Laura would have protested vigorously and, if must be, forcefully, if there had not been other passengers in the train besides themselves. As it was, she had to be content with an indignant stare, which Billie, with twinkling eyes, calmly turned her back upon.

“Roland! Roland!” called the conductor in stentorian tones, and with little squeals of excitement the girls found their hand baggage, gave one last little pat to their hats, and started toward the door.

“You go first, Mrs. Gilligan,” cried Violet, pushing that woman before her.

“I wonder if Vi expects the ghosts to meet us at the station?” chuckled Laura in Billie’s ear. “She reminds me of a relative of ours who always pushes her escort in front of her when she meets a strange dog.”

Billie giggled, caught her grip on the arm of one of the seats, rescued it again, and finally made her way with the others to the platform.

It was a rather old and broken-down platform, just as Roland proved to be a rather old and broken-down place, and the girls stood on it ruefully as they watched the train rumble off in the distance.

“Now we’re in for it,” said Billie, her eyes taking in a disconsolate-looking store or two and a drooping post-office. “I wonder if this is what they call the village?”

“Well, we’re not going to live here,” said Mrs. Gilligan briskly. “And you can’t expect to find a thriving town away off a hundred miles from nowhere. Come on, let’s see if we can find some sort of a wagon to take us and our belongings to Cherry Corners. I don’t suppose,” she added, as they crossed the street toward a building a little more dilapidated than the rest that had the words Livery Stable painted on a blurred sign over the door, “that there is any sort of hotel or boarding house where we might put up for the night.”

“Mother didn’t remember about that. You see she had been here only once,” said Billie. “But I don’t imagine there is–any place that we would want to stay at,” she added, making a wry little face.

The place, in truth, was not attractive, nor did it promise much, outwardly at least, as a refuge for the night. Besides the street on which were the forlorn looking stores and the post-office and a few other nondescript looking buildings that might have been used for almost any possible purpose, there seemed to be but two streets on which were built the dwelling houses. These, for the most part, were simple and plain enough, each with its yard, well or ill kept, in front and a garden and chicken yard behind. Only one was a little more pretentious in appearance, but that, too, had attached to it its garden and chicken yard.

However, they found that there was no necessity for their finding a place, if place there was to be found to stay for the night. They found the owner of the livery stable with two old but well-preserved vehicles which he was eager to place at their disposal.

They spent some time in getting enough provisions to last for a time and to supplement what had been sent from North Bend; then, in half an hour more, with their luggage coming on behind, they were lumbering off over a very rocky road toward the house at Cherry Corners.

Mrs. Gilligan was sitting in front with the driver while the three girls were wedged uncomfortably in the back seat.

“It–it’s lucky we’re not fat!” gasped Laura, as a particularly rough place in the road fairly shook the breath out of her. “I don’t know where we would have put ourselves.”

“One of us would have had to sit on the trunks on the cart,” chuckled Billie. “Ouch!” she cried, as they bounced over another “thank you ma’am,” “I’m glad we haven’t any more than five miles to go. There wouldn’t be any of us left alive.”

“Five miles!” grumbled Violet. “And my foot’s asleep already.”

“Here, have some candy,” offered Billie soothingly, fishing one out of her pocket. “It may make you feel better.”

“Well, it couldn’t make me feel worse,” said Violet, accepting the offering, “Although,” she added, with a laugh, “I don’t see how it is going to help my sleepy foot.”

“Well, get up and stretch,” advised Laura. “Seventh inning.”

Violet started to follow her advice but was flung back full force into Billie’s lap, thereby squeezing out a startled “Umph!” from the sufferer.

“Say, you needn’t take it out on me,” cried Billie indignantly. “I didn’t put your foot to sleep.”

“She’s no nurse girl,” murmured Laura.

The girls laughed and forgot their discomfort.

After a long time of jostling and squeezing they rounded a turn of the road and Billie cried out.

“There it is!” she said, standing up in the jolting vehicle. “Over there through the trees! Oh, girls! doesn’t it look gloomy?”

CHAPTER XIV

WEIRD TALES

“Aye, and it is gloomy.”

Startled, the girls looked around for the voice, then realized that it was their driver who had spoken. He had been silent all the way from the station, and they had all but forgotten him.

“What made you say that?” asked Billie, rather wonderingly. For although the man had only repeated her own words, the tone in which he said them made them appear twice as ominous.

“It’s a gloomy place,” he said once more, with a shake of his head. “Aye, and there be some folks around here as says it is haunted.”

“Do–do they really think so?” stammered Violet Farrington, beginning to wish herself back in North Bend.

“Aye, they think so,” he answered, in the same monotonous voice. “And there be some times that I don’t blame ’em for what they thinks.”

“Do you think it’s haunted?” asked Billie, with the hint of a laugh in her voice. Even here, in this forsaken place, with dusk coming on and the prospect of spending a night in a house people called haunted, Billie’s sense of humor did not altogether leave her. “Do you?” she repeated, the laughter still more marked in her voice.

The driver twisted around in his seat to see her before he answered.

“It’s all very well for you to laugh now,” he answered. “But maybe you won’t feel so much like laughin’ in the morning.”

In spite of herself, Billie shivered a little, and the other girls looked frightened.

“If I was you,” the driver went on with his unasked advice, “I’d turn right back an’ spend the night in Roland. There’s a boardin’ house–“

“Nonsense, we’re not going to turn back,” spoke up Mrs. Gilligan, a trifle sharply, for she could see that the driver’s evil prophecies were getting on the girls’ nerves. “If there are any ghosts in that house–which of course there ain’t–they’d just better show their faces around me, that’s all. I’ll give ’em such a taste of my rolling pin that they’ll get discouraged for good and all.”

She nodded her head vigorously, and the girls laughed.

“All right, all right,” grumbled the driver, disgruntled at having his ideas treated in this highhanded manner. “You can laugh all you’re wanting to. But I tell you, if it was me–“

“Which it isn’t,” Mrs. Gilligan interrupted shortly.

“I wouldn’t stay in that there haunted place for a farm, I wouldn’t.”

“What makes you think it’s haunted?” Laura persisted, for, of the three girls, Laura was by far the most curious. “Do people see lights and hear funny noises and such things?”

“Laura–” began Violet in protest.

“Why no, Miss,” said the driver reluctantly. “I don’t know as they actually seen things, but they has heard queer noises. There was some boys once,” he went on, warming to his task of story teller, “as thought they’d have some fun. You know the old lady what owned the place was nearly allus away and just left it to a caretaker that didn’t take over much care of it–” He stopped to chuckle, and the girls leaned forward eagerly.

“What about them?” asked Billie impatiently.

“Well, they thought as they’d play burglar an’ break into the place an’ make a regular lark of it.”

“Weren’t they afraid they’d get caught?” asked Laura.

“Not with Sheriff Higgins on the job,” chuckled the driver, in high good humor now that he was getting off his favorite yarn. They were nearing the house and the girls hurried him on impatiently.

“Well, they heard such funny humming noises and jingling like the rattling of chains an’ things,” said the driver, “that they got most scared to death and ran back home like the old Nick was after them. Ever since then folks has said the place was haunted.”

“Stuff and rubbish!” said Mrs. Gilligan, as the team came to a stop before the house. “A nice lot o’ talk I call that to fill the girls up with. Rattlin’ of chains and hummin’ noises! Huh!” And with her nose in the air to show her contempt of all such notions she swept out of the carriage.

The girls followed, and ran back to the wagon that contained their luggage and some provisions. The boy who had been driving this wagon was already unloading it, and the old fellow who had told them such gloomy tales came hobbling back to lend a hand.

Billie fished in her pocketbook for the key to the house which was supposed to be haunted, and, finding it, held it up with a hand that was not quite steady.

“Come on,” she said. “We’ve got to do it, I suppose.”

“Wh-who’s going first?” asked Violet, regarding the gloomy bulk of the rambling old house, now half hidden in the dusk, with troubled eyes.

“I am, of course,” said Billie stoutly, adding with a gay little laugh: “I guess it’s my right, isn’t it? Why, this is my house–the first I’ve ever owned!”

“And welcome you be to it,” murmured the old man, to be promptly cowed by a withering look from Mrs. Gilligan.

“Come on,” cried Billie again. “I’ll go first, but you’ll have to promise to follow me in.”

“Why, of course we’ll follow you in,” said Violet, loyal through all her fear. “You don’t suppose we’d let you go into that awful place alone, do you?”

“Well, I like that!” cried Billie, leading the way up the stone-paved walk. “Calling my beautiful old homestead an awful place.”

“Yes, I’m surprised at you, Vi,” added Laura, as she followed close at Billie’s heels. “Don’t you know you should have some tact? Even if it is awful, you shouldn’t talk about it–“

Billie stopped and stared indignantly.

“If you say another word,” she threatened, “I’ll make you go first.”

The threat had the desired effect, and both Violet and Laura protested that it was the most beautiful place on the face of the earth, or words to that effect.

“You’d better be giving the key to me,” said Mrs. Gilligan. “We can’t stand out here talkin’ all night. Besides, the door probably has an old-fashioned lock on it, and they ain’t a lock anywhere that can fool me.”

Billie meekly handed over the key, and Mrs. Gilligan marched majestically before them up to the front door. She bent down to examine the lock, then fitted the key into it.

With a groaning and squeaking of rusty hinges, the heavy door swung inward, and the girls found themselves staring into a black well of hallway that seemed to have no windows anywhere.

“Gracious! did anybody think to bring matches?” asked Laura in an awed whisper.

“Sure and I did,” Mrs. Gilligan’s matter-of-fact voice reassured her. “Five whole boxes I brought. But I’ve got something even better than that for the present occasion.”

She drew from the pocket of her coat a small electric torch and flashed it into the interior of the house. The bright light showed them glimpses of queer chairs standing about in odd corners and finally lighted up a broad stairway.

“It’s the hall,” announced Mrs. Gilligan. “Now forward march, and we’ll soon find out where the lights are.”

“There must be a push button somewhere,” suggested Violet, and even in their present nervous state the other girls laughed at her.

“A push button!” cried Laura. “Do you expect to find electric lights out in this wilderness?”

“We’re lucky if we find a chandelier somewhere,” added Billie. “I hope we don’t have to burn candles or lamps. They aren’t just exactly what you might call cheerful.”

“And something cheerful is what we need,” added Laura ruefully.

“Well, if you’re after acetylene gas I guess you’ll be disappointed,” said Mrs. Gilligan as her torch lighted up a wonderful old-fashioned richly carved candelabrum containing a dozen candles, half burned and looking rather wilted. “It’s candles we’ll be burning while we’re here.”

The girls groaned.

“But they give such a ghostly, flickering light,” protested Violet, as if it were in some way Mrs. Gilligan’s fault. “I know I’ll never be able to stand it,” and she glanced nervously over her shoulder.

“Well, could you stand the dark any better?” asked Mrs. Gilligan practically, as she began to light the candles one after another. “There will probably be other candelabra in the house, and if you get enough of them burning there’s nothing in this world that is prettier. For myself I just love candle light.”

“Yes, when you’re in civilization,” put in Laura. “But not out here.”

“I’ve found another one!” cried Billie, who had been prospecting on her own account. “And here’s another! Why we’ll have a big illumination before we’re through.”

“That’s the way to talk,” said Mrs. Gilligan approvingly, as she crossed over to Billie’s side of the large hall and began to light the other candles. “If we just make the best of everything and make up our minds to have a good time, we’ll have a good time. And if we don’t we might just as well take the driver’s advice and go home again.”

“Go home? Well I should just say not!” cried Laura. “The very idea of such a thing! The boys would tease the life out of us. We’d never hear the end of it.”

“Well then, we’re going to have a good time,” Mrs. Gilligan decided, adding, as she turned toward the door: “Where have those men gone? I told them to bring in the things.”

She went out to see about it with the girls at her heels and found the old man and the boy in a heated argument over something.

“Well, if you want to go into that there haunted house, it’s your concern,” the old man was saying in a querulous voice. “As for me, I wouldn’t step a foot inside of it, no sir, not if you was to give me a farm!”

CHAPTER XV

A NOISE IN THE DARK

“Maybe you wouldn’t do it for a farm,” said Mrs. Gilligan, striding resolutely toward the man and the boy, while the two drew apart and stared at her in surprise, “but you’re goin’ to do it for me. If you think I’m going to lug those trunks and provisions and things into the house all by myself, you never was so much mistaken in your life. What do you suppose I’m paying you my good money for? Now, get a move on and hurry those things inside, or I’ll have to take a hand in the matter myself. Trunks first!”

And too much surprised by this deluge of words to refuse, the old man turned to the trunks, and, assisted by the boy, carried them into the hall.

“This is far enough,” he said, but Mrs. Maria Gilligan, accustomed to having her own way, would have none of it.

“Upstairs,” she ordered. “You don’t suppose we are going to sleep on the ground floor, do you? And we’re not going to carry them ourselves, either.”

And once more the old man obeyed her, while the boy, wicked youngster, laughed at him behind his back.

“If you meet a ghost coming downstairs, Gramper,” he taunted, “just tell him to be careful and not stumble over you. There now, be careful, will you? You almost dropped the thing on my foot.”

The girls watched the two go upstairs with Mrs. Gilligan bringing up the rear to make sure they did not stop half way, and then turned to each other with a queer expression, half of amusement, half of uneasiness, on their faces.

“Well, we always wanted an adventure,” said Laura, as they turned back to the open door, feeling an instinctive need of getting out of the house, “and now we’re having one.”

“A regular one,” agreed Billie, adding decidedly: “And I’m going to enjoy myself. Why, Laura,” with a touch of excitement, “did you notice those funny old chairs and things? They’re really very pretty, and they are surely very old. I shouldn’t wonder–“

“Oh, Billie,” cried Violet rapturously, “do you suppose you could get real money for them? If you could,” she added with the air of a martyr that made the girls laugh, “it would be worth even braving the ghosts for.”

“You don’t really believe that silly thing, do you?” asked Billie, turning back into the hall. “It’s all in a foolish old man’s imagination.”

“All right. And now you can bring in the provisions,” they heard Mrs. Gilligan directing. “I don’t know where the kitchen is, but I suppose there is one somewhere. I’ll find it while you start to bring the things in.”

“We’ll each take a candle,” cried Billie, her eyes shining in the flickering candle light, “and look for the kitchen. Come on, girls, follow the leader.”

So, with Mrs. Gilligan at the head, they marched through what seemed to be a library, seen dimly by the light thrown by their four candles, into a room whose table and chairs showed it to be the dining-room.

“The kitchen must be just beyond, then,” said Laura, beginning to enjoy herself immensely. “There’s a door, Mrs. Gilligan. Look out–don’t bump your head.”

But Mrs. Gilligan had no intention of bumping her head. She swung open the door in question, and they found themselves in a butler’s pantry that seemed almost as large as Billie’s bedroom at home.

“Goodness! the Powerson that first built the house must have expected to entertain lots of company,” exclaimed Violet, looking with wonder at the rows of curtained cupboards. “I wonder if there are dishes in all of them?”

“We haven’t time to look now,” said Mrs. Gilligan, stopping her as she was about to peep inside a closet. “We can do all that to-morrow when we have daylight. Ah, here’s the kitchen,” she added, as she stepped into a huge room–the regular type of a very old kitchen that could be used as sitting-room as well.

“Gracious, it’s a house!” cried Billie, moving her candle about in an effort to light up the corners of the place. “There isn’t any end to it.”

“I’m glad I don’t have to keep it clean as a steady job,” said Mrs. Gilligan grimly. “Now, girls, let’s go back and find our two friends with the provisions. I don’t know how you feel about it, but as for me, a little something to eat wouldn’t go at all bad.”

“We’re just starved,” they cried, and began a concerted rush back to the front of the house where their “friends with the provisions” were.

However, when they arrived there, they found the provisions spread upon the driveway but the man and boy had disappeared.

“Humph!” grunted Mrs. Gilligan, her mouth straightening to a grim line, “I had more than a notion that that old fellow would clear out, and of course the young one wouldn’t stay alone. I shouldn’t have trusted them out of my sight!”

She began picking up bags and packages, and the girls followed suit. Before very long they had gathered up all the provisions and were staggering back, arms laden, toward the house.

They found their way back to the kitchen again and dropped the things thankfully on the table.

“Now for something to eat!” cried Laura. “What shall we have, Mrs. Gilligan? I suppose it will have to be a cold supper,” she added, looking about for some means of cooking and discovering only an immense coal stove.

“I suppose it would take forever to make a fire in that,” said Billie, indicating the stove and thinking longingly of hot steak and potatoes, “even if they have any coal.”

“Here’s plenty of coal,” said Mrs. Gilligan, who had been finding things out in her own practical and efficient way, “and here is plenty of wood and old newspapers to start it going. Indeed and we’re not going to have any cold supper,” she added, while in imagination the girls already were sniffing the aroma of broiling steak. “Not after that long ride an’ cheerful conversation!”

With the prospect of supper, and a hot supper, so close at hand, the girls could laugh at the gloomy stories of the old driver.

“We’ll help,” cried Laura. “Come on, girls, let’s see if we can find enough dishes to set the table.”

So they went gayly to work, setting the table and peeling potatoes, which Mrs. Gilligan proceeded to fry, and enjoyed themselves immensely.

“Shall we eat in the kitchen?” asked Violet, pausing with a pile of plates in her hand. “Or shall we be very proper and eat in the dining-room?”

“Oh, the kitchen’s a lot more cheerful,” said Billie, shivering a little in spite of herself as she thought of the dark, rather dreary room just the other side of the door.

“Besides, what we want we want in a hurry,” said Laura, taking the dishes from Violet and setting them decidedly on the table. “To-morrow will be time enough to put on airs. Just now all I want to do is to eat!”

While they were waiting for the supper to cook and after they had done as much as they could toward its preparation, the girls looked about the kitchen and the gloomy dining room a bit. The latter room was dark and cheerless, and they wondered that any one should have selected it for a dining room. The woodwork was all of black walnut, and there was much of it, the window frames and door frames being heavy and ornate and the room being wainscoted with the same dark wood. The room was large, too, and there were windows at one end only, and that toward the north.

“Oh, come! let us get out of here,” finally cried Laura, grabbing each of the other girls by an arm and running with them out into the more cheerful kitchen.

“Oh, that steak!” cried Billie longingly, as she drifted over to the stove. “Isn’t it nearly done, Mrs. Gilligan? This is cruelty to animals.”

Mrs. Gilligan chuckled and turned the steak on the other side.

“Almost ready now,” she said, adding another piece of butter to the golden browned potatoes. “Have you girls cut the cake? It’s in one of the packages I brought in–on the end of the table. Don’t cut it all now,” she warned, as there was a joyful rush for the cake. “We want some of it left for to-morrow.”

The girls did not cut it all–quite. But they did cut a good two-thirds of it–and ate it all, too!

It was a strange sort of meal–the candle-lit kitchen, the hastily set table, the faces of the girls and Mrs. Gilligan brought out in bold relief by the flickering candle light.

The meal was delicious, and the girls ate ravenously, but from time to time one of them would shift uneasily in her seat and look nervously over her shoulder into the dark corners of the room.

Instead of the dinner making them more courageous, it seemed to be having the opposite effect, for when they had finished their cake and the steaming hot coffee, they found themselves talking in whispers as if they were afraid of the sound of their own voices.

Billie, suddenly realizing this, spoke aloud, and Laura and Violet jumped nervously.

“What’s the matter with us?” Billie asked, her voice sounding strangely loud and unnatural even to herself in the hushed stillness all about. “We never used to be so awfully quiet. And I’m sure we don’t have to whisper about it”

“I–I suppose,” shivered Violet, “that it’s because everything else is so quiet. It sort of has its effect on us. I wish,” she added, with a sudden little outburst unusual in Violet, “that that horrid old driver hadn’t told us that horrid story. I catch myself listening for noises all the time.”

“But that’s foolish,” said Mrs. Gilligan, in that every-day, matter-of-fact tone that never failed to give the girls courage. “There isn’t one of us who believes anything he said, so why let it worry us? Come on,” she said, rising and beginning to gather together the dishes, “we’ll get these things put away in a hurry, and then go up to bed. I think a good night’s rest is what you need.”

“Oh, but I don’t want to go up in the spooky upstairs part,” whispered Violet to Billie, as she scraped some odds and ends off on a plate. “Oh, why didn’t we travel by night, so that we could have reached here in the morning?”

“Well, we didn’t, so there’s no use worrying about it,” said Billie sharply, for the situation was beginning to get on her own nerves. She had caught herself dreading the moment when they must leave the more or less cheerful kitchen for the upper floor of the house.

And then the minute came.

“Take a couple of candles apiece and follow me,” Mrs. Gilligan said. “I had your grips all put in the upper hall. Now then, let’s find out what kind of beds we have to sleep in–if any!”

So, with little creepy chills chasing themselves up and down their spines, the girls obeyed, keeping close together and looking fearfully into the dark shadows.

They had just started up the stairs when Violet cried out, her voice sounding sharp in the stillness:

“What’s that?”

Right over their heads there came a creepy, slithery sound, followed by a loud thump.

The girls groaned and clutched each other.

“The ghost!” said Violet, in a terrified whisper.

CHAPTER XVI

SHADOWS AND MYSTERY

“Well, if it’s a ghost,” announced Mrs. Maria Gilligan in a loud voice, “I never did hear one that sounded so much like a suitcase sliding off a trunk.”

The girls giggled and followed Mrs. Gilligan as she strode up the stairs. The flickering candles made grotesque shadows on the walls; the house, after that noise, was as still as a tomb, and despite the comforting presence of their valiant chaperone, the girls kept close together for protection.

“D-do you suppose it was only a s-suitcase?” stammered Violet.

“Don’t whisper in my ear–you tickle,” hissed Billie, and again they laughed hysterically.

“Look out, now, go slow,” Mrs. Gilligan was cautioning them. “We don’t want to stumble over this luggage and get a broken leg or two. Ouch!” she exclaimed, as she stubbed her toe against something hard. “I guess I’m the first casualty!”

She bent down to find what she had stumbled against, while the girls glanced nervously into the corners of the hall which the flickering candle light only seemed to make more dark.

“Goodness, if we feel like this now, I don’t see how we’re ever going to spend the night here,” cried Laura, shivering a little. “I don’t believe I’ll be able to sleep a wink.”

“Oh, yes, you will,” said Billie, trying hard to make her voice sound natural and unconcerned. “We’re all so tired we couldn’t help sleeping anywhere.”

“Just as I thought,” said Mrs. Gilligan, referring to the object she had stubbed her toe against. “Your suitcase, Billie, and the creepy noise we heard was when it slid off the trunk. Come on now,” she added, holding her candle high over her head again, “let’s see what we can find in the way of bedrooms.”

“Let’s go in the first door we reach,” suggested Billie, and at the moment Mrs. Gilligan’s candle showed a wide, high doorway leading into a black cavern of a room.

“Well, here’s the first one,” she said. “If we have luck and find some bedding–“

She was already feeling her way cautiously between several chairs and tables, with the girls following close behind.

“There’s the bed!” cried Laura. “Oh, isn’t it funny? A regular old four-poster.”

“With a canopy over it!” marveled Violet.

“And it’s made up with clean things,” added Billie, making another discovery. “Goodness, it makes you feel like the ‘Little Princess’ when she found all the good things in her room.”

“Sure enough, it has been made fresh,” said Mrs. Gilligan, as she wonderingly turned down a somewhat dusty spread and disclosed snowy sheets beneath.

“Somebody’s been keeping house anyway,” said Laura.

“Here’s room for two of you girls,” said Mrs. Gilligan.

“Oh, we all three want to sleep together,” cried Violet, fearful that she might be picked to sleep alone. “There’s safety in numbers.”

“All right, but I have to sleep somewhere,” Mrs. Gilligan reminded her with a wry little smile. “Aren’t you going to help me find some place? This may be the only bed that’s in sleeping condition in the house.”

“Then we’d have to sleep four in a bed,” said Billie, with a chuckle. “But come on, let’s see if some kind fairy hasn’t prepared for you too, Mrs. Gilligan.”

Laughing, the girls pushed out into the hall and looked for the next doorway. They no longer glanced fearfully in the corners for something they were afraid to see. The thought of the nice clean bed pushed all their weird fancies into the background. Ghosts and clean beds did not seem to go together!

They found another room just as clean as the other one, and also with a canopied four-poster in one corner. With cries of delight the girls discovered that it also was ready for occupancy.

“Goodness, I wonder who could have done it?” mused Violet, as she dropped down on the edge of the bed and regarded the girls wonderingly.

“Maybe it was a ghost,” said Laura, with a chuckle, and Violet glanced around uneasily.

“Can’t you forget about ghosts for five minutes?” she asked rather irritably, for she was tired after the long day’s trip. “Just when I’m beginning to be happy–“

“There, there,” cried Billie soothingly. “Don’t go and get mad, Vi, darling, or our last hope will be gone. I guess Aunt Beatrice left it this way. Gracious! what’s that?”

“Only me opening a door,” said Mrs. Gilligan from the farther end of the room. “My, but you girls are jumpy! Better get to bed,” she added, crossing over to them with a decided step. “You’re tired, and everything will seem better in the morning. Off with you now. No, not that way,” as they started toward the hall, the way they had come in. “I’ve found a door between our two rooms–it was opening that that made you jump. See?”

“A connecting door!” cried Billy delightedly. “Oh, that’s fine!”

“Yes, you can lock your door, Mrs. Gilligan, and we’ll lock ours, and we’ll all be as snug–“

“As bugs in a rug,” finished Laura, putting an arm about Violet and pushing her into the other room.

“Aren’t you going to take your candles?” Mrs. Gilligan called after them. “I fancy you’ll need them to undress by.”

“I fancy I’ll need mine all night,” said Laura in an undertone with a wry little grimace, as Violet went back for the candles. “I’m just scared to death to stay here in the dark.”

“But we won’t be able to keep these burning all night,” said Billie, pausing in the act of unlacing her shoe to gaze at her half-burned candle. “They will probably burn out in a couple of hours.”

Laura looked panicky.

“Well, some one will have to go down and get some more,” she said, and gazed at Billie thoughtfully.

“Goodness, you needn’t look at me when you say that,” said the latter, going energetically to work on the other shoe. “I wouldn’t go down into that gloomy place again for all the money there is in the world.”

“But we’ll be left in the dark,” said Laura, staring at Billie as if it were all her fault.

“Who said anything about being left in the dark?” asked Violet, returning with a candle in each hand, the flickering light illumining her face and making her look like some saint.

“I did, and we will if you don’t go down and get more candles,” said Laura, turning her fire against the newcomer.

“Go down and get candles all by myself?” asked Violet. Then she walked over to the table and set the two candles down with a decided thump. “You’re crazy,” she said.

“Well, the best thing I can see to do,” said Billie, letting down her long hair and brushing it vigorously, “is to get to bed, go to sleep, and forget all about it.”

“Yes, if we _can_ sleep,” said Laura doubtfully, as she took her nightgown out of the grip.

The girls undressed as quickly as they could, said their prayers, and crawled under the sheets, pulling them up tight beneath their chins.

“You know,” whispered Billie, after they had been quiet for some time staring up at the ceiling, “I have an idea that I’ve got the worst of this bargain.”

“Now what are you raving about?” asked Laura, turning a pair of unnaturally bright eyes upon her.

“Why, you chose the middle of the bed and Vi took the end nearest the wall. That leaves me on the outside to ward off the ghosts. It isn’t fair.”

“Oh, but, Billie dear, you’re ever so much braver than we are,” said Violet cajolingly. “Don’t you remember how you’ve said right along that you weren’t afraid of ghosts?”

“Well, I’m not,” said Billie stoutly, while her eyes searched the far corners of the room which were beginning to get very indistinct and creepy in the flickering uncertain light of the fast shortening candles. “And, anyway,” she added, the thought seeming to comfort her, “I locked the door.”

“Well, don’t you know a ghost can walk right through a door?” asked Laura, and Violet bounced in the bed and came down with a thud.

“Stop it,” she commanded. “I’m trying my hardest to get to sleep before those candles burn out. When it gets pitch dark in here I never can.”

“And all this comes under the head of pleasure,” murmured Laura with a little chuckle.

“All right–we’ll keep still,” agreed Billie. “I think myself that the best thing we can do is get to sleep. Night, girls. We’ll all feel better in the morning.”

“If we’re here to feel anything,” added Violet gloomily.

For a long time the girls lay wide-eyed and quiet, but gradually the law of nature asserted itself. Their eyelids drooped, and the deep regular breathing showed that they were asleep.

It was about three o’clock in the morning that it happened. Tortured by dreams in which she was being chased by a ghost in goggles and a green motor car, Violet finally awoke and lay staring out at the dark.

Then suddenly she sat up. Her dream had followed her into the world of reality. There was the same strange, weird purring noise that sounded like, yet was strangely unlike, the chugging of a motor car.

She sat absolutely still with every nerve tense, feeling chilly and scared.

At last she could stand it no longer and, leaning over, touched Laura gently on the arm.

“What’s the matter?” cried the latter, starting up fearfully. At the same moment Billie opened her eyes.

“That noise!” whispered Violet. “Listen!”

CHAPTER XVII

ONLY A BAT

The three girls sat quiet, every nerve tense, that same chilly sensation creeping up their spines, and their hair beginning to stand on end.

Out there in that wilderness, at three o’clock in the morning, a noise that sounded something like a motor car and yet was unlike anything they had ever heard before, might have frightened more experienced people than three fourteen-year-old girls.

“H-here it comes!” whispered Violet, clutching at Laura’s arm, while Laura in her turn clutched at Billie’s. “It’s coming closer! Oh, girls–is it in the house?”

“Sh!” cried Billie. “It’s a machine–it must be a machine–out on the road.”

“But in this forsaken place, in the middle of the night?” cried Laura, beginning to shiver as though she were cold. “It–it can’t be, Billie!”

“Sh-h,” said Billie again. “Listen!”

The purring sound was coming closer, seemed almost in the house, it was so near–Then came an awful thought to Billie. Could it really be in the house? Was it possible that those awful stories about ghosts were true?

But no, the noise was passing on, getting softer, softer, dying off in the distance.

“It–it must have been a machine,” said Laura, beginning to laugh hysterically. “Vi, what did you go and wake me up in the middle of the night for just to hear an automobile? I was having such a lovely sleep.”

“But I’m not so sure it was a motor car,” insisted Violet stubbornly, the spell of the dream still upon her. “It didn’t sound like it.”

“But it couldn’t have been anything else,” said Billie, trembling a little with the reaction. “We heard it coming down the road, heard it pass the house, and go on. It simply must have been a machine.”

“Oh, all right,” said Violet, adding with a little sigh: “Well, I guess none of us will sleep any more to-night. I’m not even going to try.”

“Well, I am,” said Billie, leaning back and closing her eyes, yet knowing that she was as wide awake as she had ever been in her life. “I don’t see any use in lying here and listening for things. Good night once more, girls–I’m off.”

“Meaning you’re crazy?” asked Laura, to which Billie made no reply.

As a matter of fact, even while they were saying they could sleep no more that night, the girls did go to sleep, and, what is more, slept soundly until they were awakened by Mrs. Gilligan’s voice calling to them from the connecting doorway.

“Do you expect to sleep all day?” she was asking them, her face rosy and herself very nice and trim in a light blue house dress. “This is the third time I’ve spoken to you, and I was beginning to get worried.”

“Wh-what time is it?” demanded Laura sleepily.

“About eleven,” Mrs. Gilligan answered calmly, and they gasped.

“Eleven!” repeated Billie, sitting up in bed and rubbing her eyes hard. “For goodness’ sake, how did it get that way? I feel as if I hadn’t had any sleep at all.”

“Well, I’ve had the most awful dreams,” complained Violet, turning over as if she intended to go to sleep again. “I’ve done nothing but dream of ghosts and motor cars all night.”

At the mention of ghosts Mrs. Gilligan broke into hearty laughter.

“Ghosts?” she said, her eyes sparkling. “I shouldn’t think you’d be talking of ghosts any more. Here you’ve spent a whole night in the house and no spirits have bothered you yet. I should think you’d be satisfied.”

“Oh, but didn’t you hear that noise in the night?” Violet asked her, turning over and forgetting the nap she had been about to take. “We girls were just about scared to death.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Laura, who, whether she had really been frightened or not, never liked to have anybody tell her about it.

“You were scared too, what’s the use of denying it?” Violet demanded hotly, but Mrs. Gilligan interrupted them.

“Never mind about that,” she said, with a smile. “Just tell me about this noise you thought you heard.”

So the girls told her about their weird experience of the night before, all talking at once and making it as hard as possible for Mrs. Gilligan to understand what it was all about.

“A noise that sounded like a motor car,” she said, when they had finished and had paused for lack of breath. “Well, I don’t see what’s so very queer about that. May have been some joy-riders or something.”

“But who would be joy-riding in this part of the country?” Laura objected. “The country people hereabouts probably don’t know what the word means.”

“That particular sport does seem to belong to the idle rich,” Mrs. Gilligan agreed, with a chuckle. “Well,” she added, getting up and starting for the door, “whatever it is, or was, we needn’t go without our breakfast because of it. How would you like some bacon and eggs and biscuits?”

The suggestion worked like a charm, and before Mrs. Gilligan had finished the girls were out of bed and feeling about for their clothes.

“You know the room doesn’t look half bad by daylight,” remarked Violet, as she was arranging her hair before an elaborately framed old mirror. “And it surely is quite clean.”

“But it’s horribly gloomy, just as mother said.” Billie was regarding the dingy woodwork, now almost black with age, and the huge four-poster with its funereal canopied top, and the large pictures of dead and gone ancestors that adorned the walls. “The only really good things in the whole room are the tables and chairs. They look,” she added hopefully, “as if they might bring in a little money. Perhaps I’ll be able to pay for the statue after all.”

“Oh, and I’m just crazy to see the rest of the house by daylight,” said Laura, clapping her hands. “Come on, you slow pokes, aren’t you ever going to be ready?”

“We’re ready now,” said Billie, putting an arm about Violet and hurrying her to the door. “Oh, is that bacon I smell–and coffee?” she asked as through the open door came a whiff of the good things below.

“You said it!” cried Laura, making a rush for lower floor with Billie and Violet not very far behind her. “And it isn’t going to be more than about two minutes before I taste that same bacon and eggs.”

When they reached the lower hall they were surprised to see that it looked almost as gloomy and forbidding as it had the night before, in spite of the fact that the front door was open and sunlight was streaming through.

“Ugh!” said Laura, with a shudder, “I don’t wonder that they had gloomy dispositions in the old days if they had to live in houses like these. It’s enough to give one the creeps.”

“I’m glad you like my property so much,” said Billie, with a demure little smile. “I haven’t heard you say one nice thing about it yet.”

“We have treated our hostess rather rudely, haven’t we?” laughed Violet, putting an arm about Billie and drawing her out into the sunshine. “But really, Billie, we’re quite sure that you don’t like it any better than we do.”

“And you are quite right,” Billie assured her, then added, breaking away and running a little in front of them: “Girls, let’s see if we can find any signs of that car we heard last night.”

Eagerly they scanned the rocky road, but could see no traces of any vehicle that would be big enough to make the noise they had heard the night before.

“The plot thickens,” said Laura, as they started back to the house to eat the bacon and eggs and biscuits. “We hear a car, but see no traces of it.”

“It must have been a spirit car,” said Violet, adding, with a plaintive little sigh that made the girls laugh: “In spite of all my perfectly good training, I’m beginning to believe in ghosts.”

After breakfast the girls roamed around the big house, nosing into corners, calling each other’s attention to this and that queer ornament or article of furniture–and there were plenty of them,–and otherwise thoroughly enjoying themselves. But as yet they did not venture into the gloomy cellar with its mysterious tunnels.

In the drawing-room they found a queer old piano which Violet declared must date back farther than Revolutionary days and which Billie, amid gibes and laughter from her chums, tried to play.

After she had tried and failed on half a dozen different compositions, she gave up the attempt, and they roamed upstairs, looking through one room after another until Billie accidentally opened the door that led to the attic.

“Here’s where we want to go, girls,” she cried. “Mother said this was the spookiest place in the whole house–except the cellar.”

“Hadn’t we better get Mrs. Gilligan to go with us?” asked Violet, holding back. “After last night I’ve had enough spooky experiences to last me a week.”

“Oh, come on,” cried Laura, running ahead of them up the stairs. “I’ll show you two ‘fraid cats–“

“Who’s a ‘fraid cat?” cried Billie, starting in hot pursuit. “I’ll have you know that nobody dares call me such names and get away with it. Come on, Vi, let’s murder her.”

“Just try it,” Laura hissed at them dramatically from the head of the stairs. “I’d turn into another ghost and haunt you!”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake, leave her alone, Billie,” Violet entreated. “We’ve got enough ghosts around here without Laura. What’s that?”

“If you’re going to scare me again,” began Laura, but it was Billie this time who commanded silence.

“Hush, I did hear something queer,” she said, and all three listened intently.

It came again, a weird little noise like the brushing of wings against some hard object, and the girls scarcely dared to breathe. Then out into the hot open attic fluttered a tiny little object with webbed wings and the body of a mouse.

“A bat!” cried Laura, sinking down weakly and shaking with hysterical laughter. “Oh, girls, if I have to stay here another week I’ll just die of heart failure–I know I will!”

CHAPTER XVIII

A FISH STORY

The days passed without further scares until the time finally came when the boys were to arrive.

During those days the girls roamed around the farm attached to Cherry Corners. They found it for the most part a rocky place, with here and there dense patches of woods. There was a brook and in this they saw some small fish darting about.

“Maybe the boys will want to go fishing when they come,” suggested Billie.

The cherry trees also interested the chums–there were so many of them. The late cherries were ripe, and they spent a day in picking them, donning overalls for that purpose. Mrs. Gilligan took the fruit and made several delicious pies and also a number of tarts.

The place was certainly a lonesome one. Only once did they see two men tramp by. The men eyed the girls curiously, but tramped on without speaking.

“Certainly not very sociable,” was Violet’s comment.

At last came the time when the boys were to arrive.

The girls were in a fever of excitement and anticipation, for they knew that they would have just about twice as much fun with the boys as without them.

“We can go on picnics,” said Laura, putting on her hat over one eye as she had a habit of doing when unusually excited, “and long tramps in the woods, and–oh, all sorts of things.”

“I wonder if that old wagon will ever come,” said Violet, looking anxiously down the road. “If it doesn’t hurry we’ll be too late to meet the train.”

The boy who daily brought them provisions from the village had been commissioned to send the antiquated carriage after the girls so that they could get down to the village in time to meet the early train. But the girls, with no confidence in the country lad’s memory, had been sure he would forget all about it.

“If he doesn’t come pretty soon, the boys will get off the train with no one to meet them,” Violet went on worrying. “They won’t know where to go.”

“Goodness, they’ll know where to go just as well as we did,” said Billie, regarding herself sideways in the mirror to be sure she had not forgotten anything. “They aren’t infants, you know.”

“Here it comes! Here it comes!” sang out Laura from her place at the