Once back in her room she scolded herself for being such an idiot, laughed at her fears, and, being a normal, healthy woman, fell almost instantly to sleep.
In the morning the girls themselves felt somewhat inclined to laugh at the fright they had had, and yet they knew that what had happened had been no figment of their imaginations. The sound, though weird and eerie, had been real—even Mrs. Gilligan would testify to that.
"Well, I tell you what we ought to do," said Ferd, as he sat down to a huge plateful of breakfast. "We fellows ought to take turn and turn about keeping watch. There must be some reason for the noise the girls heard, and I won't be happy until we find out what it was."
"I think you have the right idea," replied Chet, decidedly. "The only condition I make is that I be allowed to stand the first watch."
"You'll do nothing of the kind, any of you," broke in Mrs. Gilligan, with that slight tightening of her upper lip that the girls and boys had come to know—and respect. "That's a fine way to see all sorts of things that ain't and hear all sorts of things that never happened. Sit up in the dark, waiting for something to happen! I guess not!"
"But we can't just sit back and let the piano perform like that every night, can we?" asked Ferd, in an argumentative tone. "I'd rather stay awake part of the night than all of it."
"Don't you even want to solve the mystery?" asked Chet, in an aggrieved voice.
"Mystery—humph," grunted Mrs. Gilligan, feeling very brave and disdainful in the bright sunshine. "I don't believe there's a bit of mystery in the whole thing."
"Then what made the piano play?" Teddy insisted. "You said yourself that you heard it."
"Oh, I heard it all right," said Mrs. Gilligan, helping herself to more jam. "There isn't any doubt about that. But I have an idea what caused it, all right."
"Oh, tell us," they cried eagerly.
But their chaperone shook her head determinedly while her lip became still tighter.
"No, indeed I won't tell you," she said, adding with a little chuckle: "I want to try it out myself first. For I know that if I told you young ones about it you'd only laugh. And I don't like being laughed at."
"But we wouldn't laugh," Billie assured her earnestly. "Really, Mrs. Gilligan, we'll promise on our word of honor not to so much as even smile."
"Get out with your promises," said Mrs. Gilligan, relapsing into her brogue. "I do be knowing you better. I'll try it to-night," she added graciously, "and if it doesn't work I'll tell you about it in the morning."
"I suppose here's where I spend another sleepless night," said Violet dolefully, helping herself to more biscuits. "Oh, well, I'm getting so I can do without sleep now."
"Well, you don't look as if you'd ever lost a wink in your life," said Chet, glancing at her admiringly, for it was an open secret with the boys and girls of North Bend that Chet rather especially liked tall, dark, peace-loving Violet Farrington—perhaps because she was so much like himself.
Violet blushed prettily at this complimentary remark, and the girls looked at her teasingly.
"Who was it that said something or other was blind?" asked Laura wickedly, and Violet kicked her under the table.
"Peace, my children," said Billie. "We're having enough trouble with ghosts and things without starting a war among ourselves. Who'll have some more jelly?"
There was a simultaneous shout of approval, and the jelly dish began its fourth round of the table.
However, they did at last get through eating and wandered out on the front porch, where Mrs. Gilligan could not scoff at their ideas, to discuss the doings of the night before.
But it was only a little while later that Mrs. Gilligan put another damper on their fun by announcing that some one would have to go to town for more provisions. The boy had failed to come that morning, and their supply of canned goods was running dangerously low.
"Let's all go," Chet suggested. "We could walk down and ride back."
"But, oh, Chet, it's so frightfully hot," Billie objected. "I'm sure we'd get sunstroke or something."
"Yes, it's a terribly long walk," added Violet.
"Well, we could wait till toward evening," said Ferd. "It wouldn't be so scorching then. I admit," he added, taking a slanting squint at the sun, "that even I am not eager to take a long hike just now."
"But toward evening we'll be preparing supper," objected Laura, and the boys threw up their hands in despair.
"Well, then we'll just have to go without you," said Teddy. "But it would be lots more fun if you'd come." This last was said to Billie and for her ear alone.
That afternoon the girls watched the boys down the road till they were out of sight, then turned back to the house with a strangely lonesome feeling.
"You know," said Violet, pausing on the doorstep and looking back at the girls with a rather sober face, "I have a sort of feeling that something's going to happen."
"Well, you'd better get rid of it right away," retorted Laura. "We don't want anything more to happen—especially when the boys are away."
This time Violet proved to be right. Something did happen. It was after dark, the boys had not yet got back from the village, and the girls were setting the table in the kitchen—they had never found the courage to eat in the gloomy dining-room—when Violet set a dish down on the table with a bang that made the girls start and look at her in surprise.
As for Violet, she was too scared to speak for a moment. Then she stammered out:
"The strange motor car!" she said, while Billie and Laura stared at her. "I thought I heard it before—"
"Sh-h," cried Billie, and they listened, hardly daring to breathe.
There was the same strange humming sound that had so startled them on their first night in the house, only this time, instead of coming from a distance and passing by, the noise seemed to get louder, then softer, louder and softer, as if whatever it was were approaching and retreating at regular intervals.
At that moment Mrs. Gilligan came into the room, and the girls called to her to listen also.
"That?" she asked, with a little laugh. "Why that's an automobile of course," and started for the front door. "Only I must say it's behaving mighty queer."
But when they opened the door and looked out into the rocky road there was no sign of an automobile, and yet the humming sound still kept on.
As they listened, wide-eyed, the noise grew softer and softer and gradually died away in the distance.
The girls looked at each other wonderingly. Then it was Billie who offered a solution.
"Mightn't it be an aeroplane?"
"An aeroplane in this part of the country?" Laura was inclined to scoff at the idea, but Mrs. Gilligan and Violet both stood up for Billie.
They were about to enter into a heated argument when they saw the wagon that had by this time become familiar to them coming down the road with the boys seated in it or hanging to it in characteristic attitudes.
The girls ran out to them and deluged the lads with questions before they had time to learn what it was all about.
"A motor car?" asked Chet. "No, we didn't pass a soul on the way up here."
When the girls had poured into their interested ears the story of the queer humming sound that had just repeated itself, they agreed to one man to Billie's suggestion that it was very probably an aeroplane.
"I'll tell you what we'll do next time we hear it," said Teddy as the boys picked up the provisions they had brought and started toward the house. "We'll go up on the roof. Then we'll pretty soon see whether it's a ghost or the real thing."
"And in the meantime," suggested Chet, sniffing the air hungrily, "how about some supper?"
BOTH AT ONCE
It was not long before there came a recurrence of the strange humming noise which had so disturbed the girls. It was only a few nights later that Chet sat up in bed with the joyful feeling that here at last was a chance to investigate at least one of the ghosts that haunted the homestead at Cherry Corners.
"Ferd! Teddy! Wake up! What's the matter? Are you dead?" he called to the boys.
The latter reluctantly opened their eyes and looked at him reproachfully.
"Can't you let a fellow sleep?" Teddy asked. But Chet, with no ceremony whatever, hauled him bodily out of bed and set him on his feet.
"Don't talk," he ordered. "Run as fast as you can to the roof before we miss it."
"What are you raving about?" asked Ferd, although both he and Teddy started obediently toward the attic stairs.
"If you wouldn't talk so much, you could hear it," Chet answered, pushing up a trap door that led to a small square platform on the roof. "It's the motor sound the girls heard and that scared them so."
"It is, for a fact!" cried Teddy in a joyful whisper. "And it's coming right near, fellows, too."
"It's an aeroplane all right," said Ferd, with conviction. "Nothing else ever made a noise like that."
"Say, what are you doing up there?" a girl's voice hailed them from the bottom of the steps, and Chet thought he recognized it as Billie's. "Are you walking in your sleep or have you gone crazy? Come down here quick, we need you."
"Keep still," Chet yelled back. "We're looking for your aeroplane ghost. Can't you hear it?"
"Yes. But, oh, Chet," Billie's voice was tremulous, "the piano is playing itself again. Won't you come down? We're afraid to stay here all alone."
"Great Scott! all the spirits are roaming at once," cried Teddy, straining his eyes to see through the darkness as the humming of the motor came nearer.
"There, isn't that it?" cried Ferd, pointing eagerly through the trees toward a little patch of sky, palely illumined with stars.
"I think I saw it," said Chet, rubbing his eyes impatiently. "It's so confoundedly dark—"
"Oh, won't you please come down?" wailed Billie's voice from the spooky depths of the attic. "I'll die of fright if I have to stay here another minute."
This appeal moved the boys, and they began reluctantly to descend the ladder, keeping their eyes all the time on the pale patch of sky.
"Where are the others?" asked Teddy, as he reached Billie's side.
"They're down looking for the ghost," answered Billie, as she ran down the stairs in front of them. "They sent me to get you boys, and I found you gone. Mrs. Gilligan," she added, with a hysterical giggle, "has the broom and Laura has the poker."
"Maybe we'd better stop on the way and gather up a few bedposts," suggested Ferd, as they took the last flight of stairs on a run and landed in the lower hall.
"Hello, did you find anything?" sang out Chet, as the girls, looking scared but valiant, came out to meet them. "Where's Mrs. Gilligan?"
"Inside," said Violet. "There isn't a thing to be seen any more than there was the other night. I'm absolutely positive now that it must be a ghost."
"Well, if it is, he's got a sense of humor," said Mrs. Gilligan, rising from her knees where she had been peering into the corner behind the piano. "I've heard of all sorts of spirits, but I never heard of one who insisted upon playing the piano in the dead of night."
"He must have been a musician in his life time," suggested Chet. "That's the reason he comes and haunts the piano."
"Well, I don't see why he doesn't choose a regular piano to haunt," said Billie, feeling irritable because she was very sleepy and had been very much frightened. "It's bad enough for a live person to play, let alone a ghost."
"And where could it have gone?" wondered Laura, her eyes big and dark with excitement. "The minute we heard the noise—I guess we're sort of listening for it even in our sleep—we jumped up and came down here while Billie went to call you boys. It was playing almost up to the minute we came into the room."
"And maybe we weren't afraid to go in!" said Violet, with a shudder. "I don't know how we ever got the courage."
"Well, you only came because Mrs. Gilligan and I went ahead with the broom and the poker," sniffed Laura.
"Was it playing when you came down the stairs?" asked Chet, interested. "And did it stop as soon as you entered the room?"
"Yes," it was Mrs. Gilligan who answered this time. "And it was good for him he did. I've lost enough sleep through the miserable rascal and I was just ripe for a tussle."
"I don't blame him for running," said Teddy, with a chuckle.
"But where did he go?" asked Laura again. "We were sure that we'd see something—goodness knows what—when we turned the corner of the room."
"And all we saw was a—a large amount of nothing at all," added Violet, wide-eyed.
"Perhaps," suggested Ferd, with a chuckle, "the aeroplane we heard belonged to him—"
"A ghost's aeroplane," murmured Billie, smothering another hysterical chuckle.
"And when you girls came in he just soared skyward and went off in it."
"It's funny we never thought of that," said Teddy scornfully.
"Well, I wish we could find out what it is," sighed Billie, as they started upstairs again. "This staying awake all night isn't very much fun."
"But isn't it strange," asked Laura, stopping on the landing and looking back at them, "that both the piano and the motor should start again on the same night?"
"Yes, it is, rather," said Chet, adding seriously: "I wonder if there could really be any connection between the two."
"There's no use wondering, that I can see," said Mrs. Gilligan, preparing to send them off to their respective bedrooms. "I think the best thing we can do is not to notice them any more. Perhaps the ghosts will get tired, if they find they don't worry us," this last with a chuckle.
"Well, but they do worry us," said Violet plaintively. "Every time I hear that piano, I just about die of fright."
"Listen," commanded Billie, and as they listened they heard it again! The ghost, or whatever it was, was surely making a joke of them that night!
As soon as the boys could recover from their surprise they tumbled down the stairs, tripping over each other in their hurry, while the girls followed more slowly.
But again the noise stopped abruptly, and when they entered the room there was nothing to be seen or heard.
"Say, this thing is making me mad!" cried Ferd, glaring at the old piano as though it were the offender. "I don't mind meeting an honest-to-goodness ghost, but I'll be hanged if I'll let him laugh at me!"
"I don't see how you're going to help it," said Teddy. "Come on, fellows, it's pretty nearly morning, and we can decide then what we'll do to catch Mr. Ghost. I'm so sleepy I'm apt to fall asleep on my feet."
So they went upstairs again, feeling rather miserable and dragged out with excitement, and crawled into bed.
"If this thing keeps up much longer, I'll just be a wreck, that's all," groaned Laura, and almost immediately she fell asleep.
After a little while of staring into the dark, Billie and Violet followed her example, and once more there was quiet in the old house.
Nothing more disturbed them, but they woke the next morning, tired and cross and with a decidedly "morning after" feeling.
"I don't want to get up," complained Violet, turning restlessly in bed and punching her pillow. "I can't get more than one eye open."
"Shall we send for the doctor?" asked Billie, regarding her sleepily. "That sounds like a serious complaint."
"Humph, I don't need a doctor," grumbled Violet. "I can prescribe for my case better than he could. What I need is a rest cure."
"So say we all of us," echoed Laura sleepily. "I'm going to take another nap, girls, and if anybody dares to wake me up, I'll throw my hair brush at them."
"I'm going to get up," decided Billie. "I'll only get a headache lying here."
"Well, I hope you enjoy yourself," said Laura, and settled herself in a still more comfortable position.
While Billie was dressing the two girls fell asleep again, and as she turned to look at them she almost wished that she had followed their example.
"But I knew I couldn't sleep," she said, turning away, "and, besides, I'm getting very hungry."
But when she started down the broad staircase she found that she was the only one stirring in the house, and a strange, lonesome feeling took possession of her.
"Ugh," she cried, glancing about her distastefully, "it's the gloomiest place I ever did see. I'll be glad when we leave it. That is, I would be," she added wistfully, "if only Chet and I were going with the others to boarding school."
She wandered into the room where the old piano stood and looked at it musingly for a few minutes. Then suddenly a thought struck her, and she clapped her hands gleefully.
"I wonder—" she said, then, remembering an old rat trap that she had come across several days ago, ran into the pantry to get it. She baited it with a fresh piece of cheese and set it carefully on the piano.
"Now," she said, standing back and regarding her work with satisfaction, "we shall see what we shall see!"
A THRILLING DISCOVERY
It was ten o'clock before the girls finally came down, and it was still later before the boys appeared. Mrs. Gilligan and Billie had had breakfast together, and Billie had confided to the older woman her suspicions in regard to the ghostly player of the old piano.
"But we won't tell the boys and girls," Billie had said, with a delightful sense of conspiracy. "We'll wait and see if it works."
As the young people came in, looking famished, Mrs. Gilligan rose and put some cold muffins in the oven to heat.
"You won't get very much to eat," she warned them. "Billie and I had our breakfast at a respectable hour, and now you've got to take what's left."
"I don't care what you give us, as long as it's food," said Ferd, looking about him anxiously. "I'm just about starved to death."
"It seems to me I've heard that remark somewhere before," said Billie, laughing at him. "Hurry up and eat, you folks," she added, as she set a dish of fried hominy before them. "We girls haven't really made a thorough examination of the attic yet, and I'm just dying to poke into all the corners."
"Yes, I always did like attics," said Laura, adding, as she swallowed a delicious morsel: "But, I like fried hominy more!"
"Won't you come too?" Violet asked the boys, as, their breakfast over, the girls started up to the attic. "We'd love to have you and you might find it interesting."
"No, thanks," said Teddy decidedly. "I can think of lots better things to do than go roaming about a hot old attic when the thermometer is ninety-six in the shade. I'm going for a walk in the woods. How about it, fellows?"
"Yes, and see if we can come across those old fellows with the beards that told us the corn-fish story," chuckled Chet. "You know," he added, "I have wondered several times since then what the old fellows were up to. Somehow, I'm mighty sure they didn't tell the truth."
"I tell you what!" cried Ferd eagerly. "Let's push on in the direction we were going the other day and see what's being pulled off in there."
"Yes, and get shot most likely," sniffed Laura. "I don't think much of that idea."
"Well, we didn't ask you to come, did we?" Ferd asked.
"No, and I don't think it was very nice of you, after we invited you to our party," Violet put in, trying to look aggrieved.
"Oh, please won't you come with us?" asked Ferd, bowing elaborately before her.
Laura gave him a little push which precipitated him in a rather abrupt manner into a chair and completely spoiled his gallantry.
"I'll get even with you," he threatened good-naturedly, during the laugh that followed at his expense. "But say, fellows, you haven't answered my question. Are you game?"
"Sure we're game," they answered, and Chet added, as he picked up a stick he had found in the woods several days before and had modeled into an excellent club: "If they start any funny business they'll find me ready for them."
"Oh, boys, do be careful!" Billie begged, really afraid that their love of adventure would get them into trouble. "I didn't like the looks of those men. And they had clubs."
"Maybe—" said Violet in an awed voice. "Maybe they're—what do you call them—the fellows that make whiskey—"
"Moonshiners?" Teddy helped her out, and the boys shouted with laughter.
"All the more reason why we should find them out," said Ferd, as they started from the room. "It's our duty," he turned in the doorway to make them a bow, "to turn them over to justice."
"It must be a disease," laughed Billie, as the girls ascended the old staircase together.
"Well, I hope they live through it," added Laura, with a chuckle.
"I found a funny old closet yesterday," said Billie, as they came out into the musty attic. "I was just going to open it and see what was inside when you girls called me for something. Here it is," indicating a small door, the top of which was only on a level with their shoulders.
"I never saw so many queer things in one place in my life," said Laura, peering down as Billie opened the door. "I didn't know they grew that way."
"We'll have to stoop down to get in here," said Billie, poking her head into the stuffy dark hole disclosed. "And look, girls!" she exclaimed excitedly, as her eyes became accustomed to the gloom. "The closet runs away back an awfully long way, and there seems to be something bulky at the other end of it."
"Well, let's go in," said Laura, giving Billie an impatient little push. "We can't find anything by standing here. Billie, what's the matter?" for Billie had started back so suddenly that she had almost thrown Laura off her balance.
"It's another of those horrid old bats," she gasped, bending down as an indistinct little shape fluttered past her. "I shouldn't think they could live in the closet without air or anything to eat."
"It probably flew in when you opened the door the other day," Violet suggested.
Once more Billie bent down and felt her way into the narrow closet.
"Don't try to stand up, girls," she cautioned. "You're apt to get an awful bump on the head."
"I've already had one," said Violet, rubbing the bumped spot tenderly. "Goodness, it smells musty in here."
"Girls, it's a trunk!" cried Billie, leaning down to examine the bulky object she had seen at the other end. "A pretty big one, too, and oh," as she attempted to lift one end, "awfully heavy."
"A trunk," Laura repeated excitedly. "That sounds interesting. Can't you pull it out, Billie?"
"I'll try," replied Billie, adding with a chuckle: "But I shouldn't wonder if you girls would have to help by pulling me. My, but it's heavy!"
However, after much hauling and pulling, Billie finally succeeded in backing out of the closet, pulling the trunk after her. Then standing up and brushing the hair out of her eyes, she regarded it gleefully.
"Everything in the house is mine," she reminded them, as she stooped down again to examine the lock, "so I have a perfect right to look in anything I find."
"Well, nobody's arguing about that," said Laura, sitting down on the floor, regardless of a fine coating of dust, and helping Billie in her examination.
"Hasn't it any key?" asked Violet eagerly.
"Of course not, silly," Laura answered. "What would be the use of a locked trunk if you kept the key around where everybody could see it?"
"Well, I didn't even know it was locked," Violet said, rather heatedly for her.
Billie jumped to her feet and gave the trunk a sudden jerk.
"Girls!" she cried, "did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" they chorused eagerly.
"But, didn't you hear it rattle when we pulled it out of the closet? I thought so then. Now I'm sure. Oh, girls!"
"What is the matter, Billie?"
"I jerked the trunk," explained Billie, while the color tinged her face, "and it jingled! Yes it did, it actually jingled!"
"Billie!" cried Laura looking wide-eyed and awed, "do you mean it sounded like money?"
For answer Billie reached down and gave the trunk another jerk. Sure enough, there was the unmistakable jingle of metal against metal as though the trunk were filled with coins.
Their hearts beating fast, hardly able to speak with excitement, the girls stood and stared down at this new discovery.
"I—I feel like Captain Kidd!" gasped Billie, her cheeks crimson now. "Like Captain Kidd when he found the treasure. Girls, do you really think it is money?"
"It certainly sounds like it," said Violet in a voice tremulous with excitement, as she reached down and gave the trunk another jerk just for the fun of hearing its contents jingle.
"Well, let's get it downstairs," suggested Laura, wildly impatient to see the treasure, if treasure it were. "We certainly can't open it ourselves without a key. Oh, if the boys were only at home!" she added with an impatient little stamp of her foot "It seems to me they're never around when you want them."
"Maybe we can call them back. They haven't had time to go far," said Billie, stirred to instant action by the thought. "Come on Laura, you take one end, Vi can steady it at the side, and we'll at least get the trunk downstairs. That's the way! Now then!"
After a good deal of pushing and lugging, and a spasm of fright when the trunk almost fell on Laura, they finally succeeded in getting their burden down to the second floor.
There the girls left it and started hastily down the stairs in pursuit of the boys. They had gone only half the way, however, when they were startled by a tremendous crash and explosion outside and stood still, their hearts in their mouths.
"Oh, now what has happened?" cried Violet as they rushed down the rest of the steps and started for the front door.
Half way to the door Mrs. Gilligan met them, holding a rat trap in her hand from which hung, suspended, a dead rat.
"Where did you get that?" the girls cried in chorus.
"It's Mr. Rat, the piano player," said Mrs. Gilligan, adding as she pushed past them and ran to the door: "Did you hear that awful noise outside, girls?"
"Did we hear it?" they cried, following her.
"Oh, Mrs. Gilligan, what do you suppose it was?" asked Violet, pressing close to her.
"Somebody is probably hurt," answered the woman, adding as though to herself: "Terribly hurt! Hope it ain't the boys!"
THE WRECKED AEROPLANE
The girls never remembered very clearly what happened after that. They had a vague and confused recollection of seeing the boys gathered around something in the bushes at the brook that groaned a little and made queer sputtering noises.
Then the boys bent down and began extricating the groaning thing from the wreck of something.
"Chet, what is it?" cried Billie, with an impression that she was living a dream. She tried to push past him, but her brother stopped her.
"Stay away, Sis," he ordered. "The poor fellow's hurt—we don't know how badly—and I'd rather you would go back to the house."
"But if he's hurt, there's all the more need for us," insisted Billie, sudden decision in her voice. "We know first aid. Let us past, boys."
Not exactly knowing why they obeyed her, the boys drew aside and she ran to the side of the prostrate figure on the ground, the other girls following half reluctantly.
The boys had succeeded in removing the man from the wreckage—one glance about them told the girls that the wreck had once been an aeroplane—and the man, who was elderly, lay quite still, looking up at them with sick eyes.
"Oh, can't we get him up to the house?" cried Billie, clasping her hands in pity and looking appealingly at Mrs. Gilligan. "Then we can send for a doctor—"
But it was the hurt man himself who interrupted.
"I—I'm all in," he said, speaking with great effort. "It won't do any good to move me—"
"But it might," cried Violet, coming down and leaning compassionately over him while her eyes filled with tears. "Do you think—it would hurt—too much—"
"Come on. Let's try it, fellows," said Teddy, speaking with sudden decision. "We can't leave him here to die, perhaps," he added softly. "We can at least make an attempt to save his life."
He bent down, and, putting a hand under each of the man's arms, lifted him slightly, eliciting a moan of pain.
"You take his feet, Chet, and, Ferd, you support his back," he directed. "Now then—"
The boys started to obey, but at the first touch the man cried out in such pain that they were forced to put him down again.
"It's something in here," said the old fellow, while the girls and boys stood looking helplessly at him, not knowing what to do. He put a hand over his left side. "Something's broken. I—I was trying to—invent a new kind of aeroplane," he went on jerkily, and in spite of the tragic circumstances the young folks felt a thrill of excitement as they realized that here perhaps was the secret of that strange humming noise that had so badly frightened and bewildered them.
"The second ghost," murmured Teddy softly, as though to himself, but Billie, standing close beside him, heard.
"A new kind of aeroplane," Chet prompted, gently but with an unusual light in his eye.
"Yes. And this was its—trial flight," the old man said with a world of bitterness in his voice. "The engine exploded. I guess it shows that I'm pretty much of a failure—in every way."
"I don't see why," cried Billie, her warm heart eager to give him comfort. "There may have been just some little thing the matter that you—What's that?"
"That" was the sound of running feet and a crackling of bushes, and the next minute two men burst out into the clearing. They were red of face and breathless, and when they saw the old man and the wrecked machine they stood stock still and stared in consternation.
With a start the girls and boys recognized the men as those whom they had met in the woods that other day not so long ago—the men who had so curtly ordered them to "go the other way."
So the corn story was a fish story after all, and the old inventor's vain attempt to make a new kind of flying machine was the key to all the mystery!
"Are you very much hurt, Dad?" cried the younger of the two men, leaning anxiously over the old man. Again the young folks were startled. So one of the bearded men was the old man's son!
"All in, Son, I guess," answered the old man. With a sigh he laid his hand over his left side and whispered: "I'm all smashed to pieces. The engine exploded."
"Well, let's see about that," said the second of the two men, pushing the younger aside and beginning to rip open the old man's shirt.
Up to that time neither of the men had thrown a glance in the direction of the wondering boys and girls—in fact they gave every impression of not having seen them at all.
The older of the two men was working feverishly—he seemed to be a doctor, judging from the skill with which he tapped here and pressed there, evidently trying to find out what bones were broken, if any.
And all the time the old inventor kept up a feeble moaning.
"He must be very much hurt indeed, or very, very old," thought Billie as, with one hand clasped tightly in Laura's and the other gripping Violet's arm, she watched intently.
"Why, this isn't so bad after all," announced the man at last, looking up from his patient with a light in his eyes that made him look very boyish in spite of the beard on his face. "Your father's terribly bruised and battered up, Stanton," he said, addressing the old man's son, who had been looking on with strained attention, "but as far as I can see the only bones broken are a rib or two. We'll soon fix you up as good as new," he went on, turning again to the old man.
The latter looked surprised and left off moaning.
"You mean I'm going to live?" he asked incredulously, adding with a faint little attempt at a smile: "Why—why, I was sure I was—done for!"
"No indeed," said the "doctor-person"—as Billie had already dubbed him, rising briskly to his feet. "You'll live to fly many another aeroplane, Mr. Parsons. Now will you let your son and me take you home?"
Such is the power of mind over matter, the inventor hardly made any outcry at all when his son and the "doctor-person" lifted him between them and started off through the woods.
As he turned about, the doctor's eyes rested on the boys and girls and he stopped short, apparently really seeing them for the first time.
"Hello," he said. "I beg your pardon, but I scarcely noticed you," adding, more by way of explanation than excuse: "You see I was very much occupied."
"Oh, we don't mind," said Billie truthfully, adding as the doctor turned toward her: "Is there anything we can do to help the—the inventor?"
"Oh, so he told you then," said the doctor, with a vexed frown. "No, thanks, there's nothing you can do. We'll be back for the pieces of the aeroplane later."
And without another glance the strange trio disappeared into the woods.
For a long minute the boys and girls stood staring after the strange men dazedly, then they turned to each other with a sigh.
"Well!" said Laura explosively, "if everything isn't happening to us at once, then my name isn't Laura Jordon. To think that our ghost turned out to be an inventor after all!"
"You look as if you were disappointed," gibed Ferd, beginning to recover from his bewilderment. "We'll manufacture a brand new ghost if you say so, but it may take time—"
"Goodness, you needn't bother," said Violet, going over to the wrecked machine and regarding it wonderingly. "We've had enough of ghosts to last us a lifetime. My, that poor old inventor must have had a terrible fall."
"It's a miracle," said Teddy, who had joined her and was looking down at the wreck soberly, "that he ever came out alive. I agreed with him at first, that he was all in."
"Well, let it be a lesson to you," said Chet with mock gravity, "never to let your ambitions soar to aeroplane inventing."
"If that's meant to be a joke," said Laura bitingly, "I must say it's as much of a failure as our old inventor himself. Well, girls," she added, turning back to them, "I don't suppose there's any use staying around here any longer. Let's go back to the house."
It was not till they were entering the grim old door of the grim old house that they thought again of Billie's new discovery—the trunk that jingled.
"Goodness! how could we ever have forgotten it?" cried Billie as she, with Violet and Laura, fairly flew up the stairs, leaving the bewildered boys to follow them.
"Now what's up?" asked Teddy, as he came into the room where the girls had left their treasure. "So many things are happening all at once that it's enough to make a fellow's brain reel."
"It all depends on the brain," said Billie, looking up at him with a twinkle in her eye. And all Teddy did was to look sad and reproachful.
"Say, what shall I be doin' with this?" asked Mrs. Gilligan, and they turned to see her great bulk looming in the doorway. In her hand she held the rat trap with the dangling rat.
"Gee, where did you get it?" cried Chet, jumping to his feet from where he had been kneeling with Billie, examining the shabby trunk.
Mrs. Gilligan paused a moment and a gleam of humor shot into her eyes.
"You've been askin' to see ghosts, Mr. Chet," she said, with a chuckle, "and you sure have got your wish this day. That airman was the first. Here is the second one!"
COINS AND POSTAGE STAMPS
Chet looked bewildered for a minute—then disgusted, an expression that was faithfully reflected on the faces of the other boys.
"A ghost! That?" he said, pointing scornfully at the dead rat. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, Chet!" cried Billie, springing to her feet in her turn. "That's another thing we forgot. This is Mr. Rat, the piano player."
"Have you all gone crazy, or have I?" cried poor Chet, looking still more bewildered. But suddenly Teddy saw light.
"You mean the musical ghost," he cried, laughter in his voice. "The one that has had us chasing down flights of stairs on dark nights?"
"With the chills running up and down our spines and our hair standing on end?" added Ferd, following his lead.
"The very same," responded Mrs. Gilligan, the gleam deepening in her eyes.
"But how did you catch it?" asked Violet, for the girls, all except Billie, who had originated the idea, were as much in the dark as the boys.
"With a trap," said Billie, her own eyes beginning to sparkle.
"But who thought of it?" Violet insisted, ignoring the sarcasm.
"You see before you the girl who invented it," said Billie with a chuckle.
"Great pumpkins, another inventor!" groaned Ferd, and sent them off into a spasm of laughter.
"Oh, tell us about it, Billie," Laura entreated. "You can be the most aggravating thing!"
"Stop calling me names or I'll never tell you," threatened Billie, at which Laura looked as meek as Laura could ever look.
Thereupon Billie recounted to an interested audience the events that had led to her idea that it might be a rat that was making a joke of them all and how she had decided to put her idea to the test.
"Say, think of getting excited about a mouse!" cried Ferd incredulously, when she had finished.
"It wasn't a mouse—it was a rat," corrected Billie.
"But it might have been a mouse," Ferd protested, but Billie broke in again.
"No it mightn't," she said decidedly. "A mouse could never have made noise enough for us to hear when we were upstairs in bed."
"Right you are," said Ferd, taking off an imaginary cap to Billie. "I have to hand it to you, Billie—you're right there."
"You said it that time, old man," murmured Teddy very softly, but Billie heard him and looked up at him with laughing eyes.
"Come help us open our trunk," she said, turning away suddenly.
"Whose trunk is it?"
"Where did you get it?"
"Looks as if it had come out of Noah's ark."
These and many more comments piled one on top of the other as the boys looked at the old trunk, which did indeed appear old enough to have satisfied the most ardent collector of antiques.
"Why, it's my trunk," said Billie, when she could make herself heard above the babble. "We found it in the attic. But I don't see what difference it makes where we got it," she added impatiently, getting down on her knees once more and shaking the trunk as if it were to blame. "Won't you please get busy and open it, boys? Aren't you a bit curious to see what's inside?"
"Is there a key?" asked Ferd, and Billie looked up at him in despair.
"Of course not, silly," she said. "Don't you suppose we'd have had it open ages ago if there had been a key? You'll have to break it open, or pick the lock, or something."
"Say, she's insulting us! Thinks we're thugs," murmured Ferd, as he, with the other boys, got down on the floor and began to examine the trunk eagerly.
"Yes, where do you suppose we got our experience in picking locks?" added Chet, looking aggrieved.
"Goodness, I don't care whether you pick the lock or what you do as long as you get it open," cried Billie, half wild with impatience now that the fateful moment had arrived. "You can use dynamite for all I care."
"Maybe that's what's in it," suggested Teddy, and the girls screamed.
"Teddy! Of all the wet blankets!"
"Well, you never can tell," said Teddy, adding wickedly, as Ferd started to set the trunk on end: "Be careful there, Ferd; she may explode, as the aeroplane did."
"Somebody give me something to throw at him," cried Laura indignantly. "Anyway," she added triumphantly, "we know there isn't dynamite in it or we'd have been blown to bits long ago. We dragged it down stairs."
"Yes, and we didn't do it very gently either," added Violet.
"It has a pretty strong lock," said Chet, getting to his feet and rumpling up his hair thoughtfully. "I'll have to get a hammer and a wedge of some sort."
"Oh, there are all sorts of tools down in the tool-house," Billie cried eagerly, and Chet looked at her as though she had said she had discovered a gold mine in the back yard.
"Tools!" he repeated, his eyes shining. "Are they good ones?"
"I don't know anything about tools," said Billie. "But it looked as if there were hundreds of them—"
Chet waited to hear no more. Like a streak of lightning he was out of the room and racing down the stairs.
"Tools!" he was saying gloatingly to himself, "hundreds of them!"
Upstairs Billie turned and looked at Teddy in dismay.
"Now what have I done?" she cried. "If he once gets among those tools we won't see him for hours. Teddy," and she looked appealing enough even to melt Teddy's hard heart, "won't you go after him? You will have to just tear him away—"
However, the two boys were back sooner than the girls expected, for they were very curious about the contents of the small shabby trunk, which had so evidently been hidden away in the darkest corner of a dark closet in the attic.
"Say, those are some tools, Billie," said Chet jubilantly, as he pried away at the lock. "You could do just about anything with them—anything from making a house, to breaking into one. I say," he added, stopping work to look at her entreatingly, "don't you remember mother saying that Aunt Beatrice left you the house and me—the tools?"
The girls and boys laughed, and Billie patted his shoulder fondly.
"No, I don't remember anything of the sort," she said, imitating his tone to perfection. "But if you're a good boy and open the trunk in a hurry, I'll deed them to you, Chet—every last tool in the tool-house."
"Honest to goodness?" cried Chet, his eyes beaming.
"Honest to goodness, brother mine."
Then Chet fell to work with fresh enthusiasm on the lock.
It was a stubborn old lock, and required a good deal of patience—which the girls had not—and tinkering to make it give way.
But it gave at last, and girls and boys leaned forward with sighs of pure excitement.
"Open it," cried Laura impatiently, but Billie put her hand on the lid and faced them with shining eyes.
"We'll each have just one guess," she said, "and see who comes nearest to guessing right."
"I bet it's money," cried Chet.
"That isn't fair, I was going to bet that too."
"So was I—"
Billie threw up her hands in despair.
"Of course, if you're all going to guess the same thing it's all ruined," she said, then added, as she bent forward and started to lift the cover: "I don't know that I blame you, though, for I was going to guess the very same thing!"
"Oh, Billie, hurry! You're so slow!" cried Laura, jumping up and down with excitement. "Do get at it!"
"Shall I do it?" asked Violet, feeling an almost irresistible desire to push Billie away and fling back the lid. Why was she so slow?
"One—two—three!" cried Billie, and then the lid was off and they were staring down into the contents of the trunk.
For a minute they stood motionless. Then, as though moved by one impulse, they dropped to their knees and buried their hands in something that jingled at their touch!
The trunk was full to the brim with old coins, many quite rare, while scattered here and there were postage stamps on sheets and loose, queer, foreign looking things that made Billie's eyes glisten as she looked at them.
"It must have all belonged to Uncle Henry," she said, in an awed voice. "Aunt Beatrice once said he had a hobby for collecting postage stamps and old coins—"
"But it is money," cried Laura, finding her voice at last, her blue eyes dark with excitement. "Why, Billie, these old coins must be worth a big lot of money!"
"You bet! It's a treasure," said Teddy soberly. Then with a little smile he turned to Billie—Billie who was vivid and breathless with the great discovery. "Allow me to present to you, ladies and gentlemen, our old friend, Captain Kidd!"
"Billie, it's worth a small fortune!"
"I'll bet the stuff is worth several thousand dollars."
"Yes, every bit of it."
"Oh, boys, as much as that?" questioned Billie, half hysterically.
"Of course," came from Teddy. He was on his knees in front of the treasure box. "See these coins? Gold, every one of 'em—and as big as ten dollar pieces, too."
"Count 'em," cried Chet.
Then began a hasty move on the part of both girls and boys to count the gold and silver. Poor Billie's hands trembled so she could scarcely help.
"I make it the gold and silver alone are worth at least three thousand dollars," declared Teddy.
"And don't forget the copper coins," added Ferd.
"And remember too they are old coins and worth something extra from a collector's point of view," said Chet.
From the coins the young folks turned to the postage stamps. Chet and Teddy had done a little stamp collecting once and knew that some of the stamps were rare.
"I think they are worth at least fifteen hundred dollars more," said Teddy, "and maybe they are worth twice that. Some stamps are worth a hundred dollars apiece."
It was not until they were called below by Mrs. Gilligan that they gave up speculating about the value of the trunk. The boys went off, leaving the girls to themselves.
"It's too good to be true," murmured Billie, over and over again.
Both of the other girls put their arms about her.
"You deserve it," said Laura.
"I'm awfully glad, Billie, really I am," beamed Violet.
"Why, I'll be able to go to Three Towers Hall!" cried Billie, a little later, when thinking it all over. "And I can send Chet to Boxton Military Academy. Won't that be fine?"
"And you can have enough left to pay for that old statue," added Laura, with a smile. "I knew something good would come out of this queer old house at Cherry Corners."
"Well, you needn't take all the credit to yourself," said Billie, the lilt of happiness and excitement in her voice. "Just remember, young lady, that it was little Billie Bradley who discovered the trunk."
"You stuck up thing," cried Violet, putting a fond arm again about her. "Billie, dear," she went on in the serious voice that was Violet's very own, "I'm just exactly as glad for myself that you found the money as I am for you. Because if Laura and I had had to go to Three Towers without you we wouldn't have enjoyed a single thing."
"Yes, we've been worrying terribly about that," sighed Laura, and affectionately Billie patted a hand of each.
"There never was a girl had such wonderful friends," she said, and something in her throat tightened a little. "And it makes the trunk three times as valuable," she added, in a lighter tone, "because it makes three people happy instead of one. Which reminds me—" she stopped short and put her hand over her mouth in consternation.
"Now what's the matter?" Violet surveyed her anxiously. "Is there a pin sticking you, or something?"
"Of course not," denied Billie absently, adding as she rose hastily to her feet: "It just struck me that I've known this wonderful thing for hours and I haven't written home about it yet."
"Well, you'd better read these first," sang out a cheery voice from the door, and they turned to find Teddy coming toward them with some letters in his hand.
"Letters!" was the joyful cry. "Give them to us, Teddy, before we take them from you."
"Oh, do you really think you could?" he asked, holding them behind his back by way of challenge. "Just come on and try. I'll guarantee to hold off the three of you with one hand."
But it was Billie's pleading face that made him change his mind.
"Please, Teddy," she begged, "I've just been dying for some letters from home. Don't keep me waiting."
"All right, your word is law," said Teddy gallantly, remembering that he had read the phrase somewhere and it had sounded very good. "Here you are, and here's one for Vi and two for Laura."
"Goodness, what have I done to get only one?" cried Violet, feeling very much abused.
"Well, your one looks fat enough to make up for our two," Billie assured her diplomatically, then settled back to enjoy her own letters, while Teddy ran out to join the boys downstairs.
One of her letters was from her mother, and with a loving smile she laid it aside to be read last—she always saved the best till the last. The writing on the other envelope puzzled her.
"Now, who is writing to me from Mayport, Long Island?" she demanded, and the girls looked up inquiringly from their letters.
"Another mystery?" asked Laura, for there were not enough mysteries in the world to satisfy Laura.
"It doesn't look very mysterious," answered Billie, turning the envelope around and around in her hand and finally holding it up to the light to see if she could get any clew to its contents that way. "But I surely never did see that handwriting before. I wonder—"
"Well, why don't you open it?" Violet inquired impatiently. "It seems to me that's the best way to find out."
"Isn't she the bright child?" sniffed Laura, as Billie tore open the envelope and pulled out the letter inside. Hastily she looked for the signature at the end, then gave a little excited exclamation.
"Girls," she said, "it's from Miss Beggs!" And she looked at them with wide eyes, forgetting for the moment that she had no more reason to fear a letter from the teacher. Then she remembered, and a joyful smile dawned on her face.
"Girls, I've been sort of dreading this letter all summer," she said, her eyes sparkling, "and now when it's come I don't mind a bit. Isn't it just wonderful? I have money enough of my own to replace that horrid 'Girl Reading a Book' and two or three more like it. Now," she said, settling down with a satisfied little sigh, "if you'll allow me, I'll read my letter."
The girls watched her as she read and were amazed to see her expression change from satisfaction to surprise and from surprise to something like chagrin.
"Well, if that isn't the limit!" she cried, laying down the letter and regarding the girls disgustedly. "Here I've been worrying myself—and Chet—sick all summer about that horrid old statue and now when I've got the money to pay for it, I find out that I probably wouldn't have had to replace the old thing anyway."
"What do you mean?" the others asked, more puzzled than ever by this flow of words.
"Why," Billie went on to explain, glancing at the letter again, "Miss Beggs says that the statue had been broken before and she had attempted to mend it. She says that I'm not to worry over it, for it would have been only a matter of time before it had fallen to pieces itself anyway. Now what do you think of that?"
"I think," said Violet, with a sigh, "that we have wasted a good deal of time and worry over nothing at all."
"Well, I don't see any use of looking doleful about it," said Laura briskly. "I should think you'd be glad, Billie, that you won't have to buy a statue. It will give you that much more money to have for yourself."
"Oh, but I'll buy a little statue, anyway," said Billie decidedly. "It's awfully nice of Miss Beggs to tell me not to bother about it, but the fact is that I rebroke the statue, whether it was broken before or not. And, anyway, I'll be glad to do it now," she added, with a little gleam in her eye, "just to show Amanda Peabody that I can!"
"I say, up there, aren't you ever coming down?" called Chet's voice from the bottom of the stairs, and Laura went out into the hall to see what he wanted.
"We're making plans for the fall," Chet added, and in his voice was a little joyous thrill that made Billie's heart sing. Dear old Chet—if ever a boy deserved to get what he wanted, he did. "And if you don't come down and help us, we're going to leave you out," he added challengingly.
"Better come up here," suggested Laura, adding decidedly. "We can't come down, you know."
"I'd like to know why not!"
"We can't leave the trunk," Laura explained patiently, as if she were addressing a particularly stupid child. "It's too precious."
So in the end the girls had their way, and the boys joined them in the upstairs room which came the nearest to being cheerful of any room in the house, except the kitchen.
At first the boys talked and the girls listened. But gradually the bits of fancy work were laid aside, the girls joined in the conversation, while eyes shone bright and faces glowed with anticipation of what the autumn held in store for them.
And while Laura and Violet and the two boys were talking happily and all at once, Teddy took the opportunity to whisper in Billie's ear:
"I suppose, being a young lady with a large fortune," he said teasingly, delighting in the color that rose to her face, "you won't find time to recognize your old friends any more."
And with a dimpling smile and mischief in her eyes Billie answered him.
"Of course not," she said, adding a trifle more seriously: "Except only the friends who stood by me so loyally and offered to help when I had no 'large fortune,'"
"And are you going to tell me," asked Teddy eagerly, "the names of those favored friends? I know I didn't do anything, Billie, but am I one of them?"
"Your name," said Billie, half laughing and half serious, "is at the very head of the list."
"Do you really mean—" Teddy was beginning eagerly, when Laura called to them laughingly.
"Whispering in corners not allowed," she cried. "Come over here and help us decide what we'll eat for our first midnight feast at Three Towers Hall. We must have midnight feasts, you know."
"Of course we must," cried Billie joyfully. "Doesn't it sound delicious? Oh, we're going to have a wonderful time!"
And just how wonderful a time they had and just how merry and fun-loving they found the girls at the boarding school will be told in the next volume of the series entitled, "Billie Bradley at Three Towers Hall; or, Leading a Needed Rebellion." In that volume may be met the girls and the boys again in adventures as queer and exciting as those already experienced.
"Well, Billie, you can't complain of your inheritance after all," said Chet some time later.
"Indeed not!" she answered. "Wasn't it the best ever?"