"Oh, but it's all perfectly glorious," said Billie softly. "Just think, girls, if we hadn't found that darling old trunk we wouldn't have been here—at least I wouldn't."
"And if that man—What was it you and the boys called him?" Laura paused and looked inquiringly at Billie.
"The 'Codfish?'" asked Billie, guessing at what she meant.
"Yes. And if the 'Codfish' hadn't got scared and dropped the trunk in the middle of the road you would have lost it after all."
"Yes," sighed Vi, "and that would have been worse than not finding it at all."
"The only thing that bothers me," said Billie, with a little frown, "is that we didn't go after that man and get him. He may be a regular thief for all we know, and if he is he ought to be in prison where he belongs. Every once in a while," her voice lowered and she looked over her shoulder nervously, "I dream about him, and when I do he always has a mask or something over his eyes, but his codfish mouth is always there sort of grinning at me——"
"Billie!" cried Laura and Vi in the same voice, and Laura got up suddenly, sat on her pillow, and regarded Billie with startled eyes.
"But you never told us!" she said. "Have you—have you dreamed that often?"
"No, only once or twice," said Billie. "Just the same, I wish we could have caught him. I always have a sort of feeling that if he robs anybody else it will be our fault for not having had him arrested when we had the chance. Of course, he may not be a regular thief at all. But, oh, girls, he was an awful looking thing. And I feel sure some day I'll meet him again."
"You said he had red hair, didn't you?" asked Laura, a delicious little thrill running up and down her spine. "And little eyes and that broad codfishy mouth. Goodness! I wish I'd been with you when you chased him. It must have been no end of fun."
"Fun!" exclaimed Billie. "I should say it wasn't fun. Not when I was afraid I was going to lose the trunk and everything. I was just scared stiff."
"But do you really think you'd know the man again if you saw him?" Laura insisted.
"Why, of course I would," said Billie. "Didn't I tell you I've dreamed of him a couple of times—just as he is? I couldn't miss him."
"Wouldn't it be fun," cried Laura eagerly, "if he should try to rob the Hall or something and we caught him?"
"Laura!" they cried, and Billie added with a shiver: "It might be your idea of a good time, but it wouldn't be mine. I hope I'll never have to see his old codfish mouth again."
"Oh, I don't know," said Laura, putting the pillow under her head and lying down again. "Sometimes when I'm very brave I wish something really exciting would happen—you know, a burglary or something. I'd just like to see what I'd do."
"Well, I know what I'd do——" Vi was beginning, when the "lights-out" gong sounded through the hall and the girls scurried wildly for their beds.
Amanda and Eliza were already in theirs, and Rose, coming in at the last minute, fairly flew into her nightgown and then scurried over to put out the one remaining light.
The room had been in silence and darkness for nearly five minutes when suddenly Laura leaned over and whispered to Vi.
"What would you do if a burglar got in?" she asked.
"I'd just get under the covers," said Vi, "and die off fright!"
TOO MUCH TO EAT
If any one had told the three girls that the second day would hold more of excitement and pleasure than the first, they would not have believed it. But so it was.
Billie woke early that morning and found the sun shining gloriously through the window. It took her a minute or two to realize just where she was. Then she sat up in bed and looked across at her two sleeping chums.
Laura lay on her side, hugging her pillow, and Violet was flat on her back, blissfully unconscious of the ray of sunshine that fell across her face.
Billie's glance traveled from them to Rose Belser, who looked as pretty asleep as she did awake, and from her to Amanda Peabody and Eliza Dilks.
She made a little grimace as she looked at them, for their straight, stringy hair and pinched, freckled faces were a striking contrast to Rose's prettiness.
"Oh, I wish everybody'd get up," she thought. "It must be nearly seven o'clock."
Even as she spoke the first bell rang, and the sudden sharp noise through the still Hall made her start up in bed. It roused the other girls, and they yawned and stretched sleepily.
"Goodness, is it time to get up already?" asked Laura, glaring at Billie as if it were all her fault. "Why, I just this very minute got to sleep."
"You'd better stop talking and get up," Rose called to them, flinging back her black hair and jumping to her feet. "We have only half an hour to get ready for breakfast, and if you're late and haven't any excuse—well, don't expect any sympathy from Miss Cora, that's all."
The girls did not need any second hint to make them hurry, and full ten minutes before the breakfast gong rang they were ready and waiting.
There was great excitement in the dining hall, for this was the day when the old students of Three Towers Hall were expected, and the girls who had remained at the school for the summer vacation were eager to renew old friendships.
It was about ten o'clock when the girls began to pour in, and from then on excitement and confusion reigned.
"It makes you feel kind of lonesome," said Laura, with a sigh.
"And the older girls look awfully dressed up and—and—stuck up," said Vi, snuggling up to Billie as if for comfort. "Do you suppose they really are, Billie—stuck up, I mean?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said Billie, feeling a little nervous herself. "For all we know," she added, with a chuckle, "we may look stuck up ourselves."
"Well, maybe we are," Laura giggled. "That's what Amanda is always calling us, you know."
"Oh, look," whispered Vi suddenly. "There's Rose Belser with one of the new girls. I wonder who she is."
The new girl in question was a nice looking, rather serious girl who wore glasses and looked to the girls—so they said later—as if she might really like to study. She was carrying a grip and had evidently just arrived.
While the girls watched, she and Rose turned and started in their direction. For a minute Billie could have sworn Rose did not mean to stop. However, she did stop, and rather reluctantly introduced the stranger to them.
"This is Caroline Brant," she said, adding as she turned to the strange girl with a queer little smile: "These are some of the new girls who are in our dorm, Caroline. Billie Bradley, Violet Farrington and Laura Jordon."
Caroline Brant shook hands and smiled a grave smile that seemed "just made to go with her glasses," Laura said afterward. When the girl had passed on with Rose toward the stairway, the chums had a queer sense of comfort—as though they had found at least one good friend at Three Towers Hall.
Lunch came and went, and so absorbed were the girls in the fun and excitement of meeting new girls and listening to stories of good times had during the summer that dinner caught them before they knew it and they found that the day was gone.
Everybody went to bed early that night, for Miss Walters had sent around an order that all lights should be out by nine o'clock sharp. The next day the real work of the term was to begin, and she wanted all her girls bright and fresh for the start.
The next week would have been perfect for the girls, but for one thing. They liked their classrooms, which occupied all the second and third floors, they liked their studies, and they loved most of their teachers—especially Miss Race, the mathematics teacher.
But they soon found that what Rose Belser and Connie Danvers had said about Miss Cora and Miss Ada Dill—the "Twin Dill Pickles," when nobody was around—was terribly and awfully true.
The Dill twins never seemed to miss an opportunity to make the girls feel bad. They were sarcastic in class, and seemed to take real delight in hurting the feelings of their pupils whenever it was possible.
It was only a few days after the opening of the school year when Billie had her first little set-to with Miss Cora Dill. The latter had just finished calling the roll and had pushed the book from her. Then she looked sharply at Billie.
"Your name is Beatrice, is it not?" she asked in a tone as acid as her dill pickle nickname.
"Yes, Miss Dill," answered Billie, wondering nervously if there were anything wrong about her name and miserably conscious that the eyes of all the girls were upon her.
"But the girls call you 'Billie,' do they not?" asked Miss Cora.
"Yes," said Billie again.
"But 'Billie' is a boy's name," said Miss Cora tartly, boring Billie through with her black eyes. "And it is extremely unladylike for a girl to bear a boy's name. Extremely unladylike," she repeated, staring at poor Billie, who was as red as a beet and filled with a wild desire to run away and cry.
She might have done it, too, at least the crying part, but a titter from one of the girls in the back of the room saved her. She was no longer afraid, only angry—horribly angry.
So she just looked up in thin-lipped Miss Cora's face and said very quietly: "I never thought about my name being unladylike, Miss Cora, and I'm sure it hasn't made any difference with me. Mother says that it is the way one acts that counts."
"Well, see that you take care of your actions," retorted Miss Dill tartly, and turning to one of the other girls called upon her for a recitation.
But it was Billie who had won the day. The girls knew it and Miss Cora knew it, and this helped to make the latter feel in a still more unkindly mood toward the girl with the "unladylike name."
"I'll watch her," thought Miss Cora angrily. "She isn't the kind to be trusted."
Laura and Violet were furious, and when they returned to the dormitory to prepare for lunch began to hatch all sorts of wild plans by which they could "lay this one of the Dill Pickles low."
"What's the excitement?" asked Rose, and Laura began heatedly to describe what had happened in the schoolroom, while several of the other girls gathered around.
When she came to Billie's answer the girls looked pleased and one of them clapped her hands.
"Good for you, Billie Bradley!" cried a dark girl, joyfully. "You must have given the Dill Pickle the surprise of her life."
"She bearded the lion in his den, the Pickle in her Hall," quoted another of the girls. "You know, I'd have given anything to have been there."
"And you a new girl, too," said another, looking at Billie with admiring eyes.
From that time on Billie became a noted figure among the hundred girls at Three Towers Hall, and her fame and popularity grew in leaps and bounds.
Rose Belser viewed this new state of affairs calmly at first, then with alarm, and later with dismay. That a new girl should come to Three Towers and immediately begin to shoulder herself into the limelight was unthinkable, impossible, it couldn't be done. And yet Billie Bradley was doing it!
After a while she began to draw away from Billie, look indifferent when one of the girls spoke of her praisingly, slighted her in a hundred little ways that Billie herself could hardy put her finger on. And yet she felt it.
Billie had one other constant enemy at Three Towers, and that was Miss Cora. Miss Cora never missed a chance to humiliate her—or at least try to humiliate her. But Billie was so happy and having such a wonderful time that she never gave these attempts any more attention than she would so many mosquito bites, thereby fanning Miss Cora's dislike of her.
Meanwhile the two Miss Dills grew more and more sour and crabbed until the girls began to wonder "why they didn't die of it." Then one noon time Laura came running into the dormitory, her eyes big and round with excitement.
"What do you think?" she cried, while the girls gathered round her. "I heard Miss Cora and Miss Ada talking together. I was in the lab and they were in the hall and they didn't know I was anywhere around."
"Well?" asked the girls impatiently as she paused for breath.
"They were talking about our meals," Laura went on. "They said we got altogether too much to eat."
"Too much to eat!" echoed the girls, looking at one another wonderingly.
"Why, we don't get any more than we want," said Billie.
"What else did they say, Laura?" urged Vi.
"That was about all." Laura had gone over to the wash basin and was washing her hands hard as though to get some of her dislike of the "Dill Pickles" out of her system. "I was so surprised I couldn't help hearing a couple of sentences. Then I coughed and came out of the lab and they looked as if they'd like to kill me. 'The girls are getting altogether too much to eat,' said Miss Ada." Laura mimicked her to perfection. "'Yes,' said Miss Cora, 'we must give them less—a good deal less.'"
"Well, I'd just like to see them try it, that's all," said Billie, adding with a sigh: "Thank goodness, we still have Miss Walters, anyway. She won't let us quite starve to death!"
"Are we really going to have one, Billie Bradley? Oh, how wonderful!"
Several weeks had passed, and this afternoon the five of them, Laura Jordon, Vi, Nellie Bane, Connie Danvers and Billie, were sitting close together at the very farthest end of Billie's dormitory talking over some plans that made them feel delightfully like conspirators.
"A real feast!" said Violet Farrington eagerly. "With sandwiches and pickles and cake and—and—everything! Oh, Billie, who all are going to be in the party?"
"All the girls from Nellie's dorm, we four and Caroline Brant," Billie said, in a voice scarcely above a whisper.
"But I don't think Caroline will come," said Laura doubtfully. "You know she would lots rather study than go to a party. That's her idea of a good time."
For although Caroline Brant had proved a good friend to the chums, especially to Billie, they had tried in vain to draw her into their little escapades. She was what the girls usually referred to scornfully as "a grind," yet, strange to say, they all loved her.
She willingly helped them with their lessons, had often coached some of the more backward of them for tests, passing them when otherwise they would have hopelessly flunked, and cheerfully helped them out of scrapes when they needed help.
So now it was not strange that Laura should expect her to refuse an invitation to this new escapade—the most forbidden of all forbidden escapades, the midnight feast.
"Well, I'm going to ask her, anyway," Billie said in answer to Laura's objection. "The worst she can do is to say she won't come."
"But you're going to ask Rose, aren't you?" Connie broke in, adding, as Billie frowned and looked doubtful: "She'd never in the world forgive you if you didn't."
"Yes, we'll ask Rose," said Billie, after a minute's hesitation. "Here she comes now," she added, as the door opened and Rose entered. "Come on over here," she called, "I want to ask you something."
She was just about to tell Rose the plans and invite her to the party when the door opened again and Amanda entered with Eliza Dilks. Amanda was never seen without Eliza trailing along in the background, and for this reason the girls had nicknamed the latter, "The Shadow."
By this time the girls at Three Towers Hall had learned to dislike the two sneaks as much as the girls of North Bend disliked Amanda.
Wherever anything was going on, especially of a secret nature, Amanda and "The Shadow" were sure to be prying about, saying mean little things, forcing the girls to move over to some other place where they could be private for a little while.
And now here they were again!
"What do you want?" asked Rose, not noticing the two who had come in after her. Rose's voice was not very pleasant, for she was beginning to show her growing dislike of Billie openly.
"Nothing just now," Billie answered, looking behind Rose to where Amanda and "The Shadow" stood, apparently talking together, yet listening to every word that was being said. "I'll tell you later."
Amanda looked up and her mean little eyes twinkled angrily.
"Don't mind us," she said. "If we're in the way, of course we'll get out. Come on, Eliza," and with their noses in the air she and "The Shadow" sailed out of the room.
"Some day I'm going to kill 'em," said Laura, glaring ferociously at the closed door.
"Go on. What were you going to tell me?" drawled Rose, turning to the mirror and eyeing her pretty reflection with satisfaction.
"You'd better not say anything, Billie," Nellie Bane warned her. "They're probably listening at the keyhole or something."
"It must be horrid to hate everybody and have everybody hate you," mused Connie, smoothing back her pretty hair.
"But they seem to hate Billie most of all," said Vi. "I'm sure I don't know why. It's because she's so popular, I suppose."
Then to Rose, still fussing with her hair before the mirror, came the dawn of an idea. It would be hard to do anything to hurt Billie herself, for, whatever her faults, Rose was not a sneak. But she might make use of Amanda——
It was several days later—the day that had been set for the greatest of all adventures, a midnight feast in the dormitory.
It was Billie who had arranged it all, and although the feast itself was by no means a new idea, she had thought up something to make it a little more interesting and daring.
Each girl had been instructed to learn some little piece or poem which she was to recite on the great occasion. Some of the girls protested on the ground that they were poor at memorizing, but Billie had been firm.
"No recite, no eat," she had said; and so the girls, some joyfully, some reluctantly, had set to work to learn their pieces.
And Billie, full of energy and enthusiasm, had gone to work and got up a regular program with the names of the girls and the recitations they would give. Laura and Vi had helped her make duplicates of the program so that there was one for each girl.
And the strangest thing about the whole affair was that Caroline Brant, junior student and grind, had agreed to make one of the party.
Billie's chums called her a witch, for since Caroline Brant had come to Three Towers Hall she had never been known to take a hand in one adventure, no matter how harmless it may have been. And Rose, growing more and more resentful as she saw even her most faithful followers deserting her for Billie, became more sure that she would have to make use of Amanda and "The Shadow."
Neither Billie nor any of the other girls knew Caroline Brant's real reason for accepting Billie's invitation. The fact was that Caroline had fallen in love with Billie at first sight, perhaps because she was just the opposite of Caroline herself, and had since become as fond of her as if she had been her younger sister.
But all the time, while she had seemed to be engrossed in her studies, she had been keeping one eye on Billie, and with that one eye had seen pretty nearly everything that had happened.
She was as proud of Billie's growing popularity as if it had been herself, but she knew Rose would never stand for the taking of her place by any one. And that was what Billie was very surely doing.
She knew that Amanda and Eliza disliked Billie and would do almost anything to get her into trouble.
And then there was that fourth enemy of Billie's, Miss Cora Dill. Caroline knew that if Miss Cora were to catch Billie in any sort of scrape she would never in the world give her the benefit of the doubt.
And most of all, Caroline knew that Billie, with her imp of mischief, would be the very last to try to keep out of a scrape, and that sooner or later one of her four enemies would get just the proof she wanted to take to Miss Walters.
In that case, so great was her affection for Billie, Caroline had desperately decided that she would go to Miss Walters herself and plead for Billie.
And all this, nobody seeing Caroline, quiet, reserved, studying furiously for the mid-term examinations that were coming dangerously near, would have guessed at. Nor would they have guessed that Caroline was breaking her rule and going to Billie's party simply to keep Billie from harm.
BILLIE SNORES SUCCESSFULLY
It was a wonder any of the girls could keep their minds on their lessons that morning. As a matter of fact, they recited so poorly for Miss Ada and Miss Cora that the two "Dill Pickles" turned sourer than ever and threatened to report them to Miss Walters.
But what did they care? The night was before them!
Seven o'clock came, then eight o'clock, and then nine. The gong rang for "lights out," and every girl was in bed and, apparently, sound asleep.
But underneath the bed of each and every girl who was to be in the party was a box or a basket filled to the brim with smuggled dainties.
These containers held cold meat and pickles from the delicatessen shop near by. There was jelly. Olives and biscuits and fancy cakes with foolish icing on top were there—everything in fact that goes to the making of a first class midnight feast.
Miss Ada Dill, making her evening round of the dormitories to see that all was well and every girl in her place, found nothing to arouse her suspicions until she came to Billie's dormitory. Then she paused, started to close the door, opened it again and stood still, intently listening.
And it was Billie who, in her eagerness not to be discovered, almost gave the thing away. For Billie was snoring, gently but decidedly snoring, and to Miss Ada's trained ear, the snore did not sound natural.
So in she came, and Billie, watching out of the corner of one eye, felt a panicky desire to pull the covers over her head and hide.
Suppose Miss Ada should discover that five of the girls in dormitory "C" were not undressed at all, but wore their nightgowns over their clothes?
Suppose—but this was too awful even to imagine—Miss Ada should discover those baskets under the beds. Billie shivered and almost gave the thing away a second time.
Miss Ada slowly made the rounds of the beds, scrutinizing each girl sharply and passing them by one by one reluctantly until she came to Billie's bed.
Billie was still snoring gallantly—she did not know what else to do. If she stopped now it would be a dead give away. And yet to keep on was almost impossible.
Poor little Billie! Afterward she could laugh at it, but at the time it seemed nothing short of a nightmare. She knew that Laura and Vi and Rose and Caroline were awake and waiting for the terrible moment when Miss Ada should discover the conspiracy.
If she could only keep on snoring for a minute longer! thought Billie desperately. And then the unbelievable thing happened. Instead of commanding her in no uncertain tones to get out of bed, Miss Ada turned—slowly but surely turned—and marched out of the room.
Not until the door was shut could Billie believe that she was really safe. And not until she heard Miss Ada's footsteps die off down the hall did she dare to stop snoring.
Then she drew a long breath and stretched out arms cramped by lying so long in the same position. And in the dark stillness of the dormitory she heard four more sighs—distinct and very plaintive.
For a full five minutes the girls lay still, hardly daring to breathe, afraid that Miss Ada would change her mind and come back again.
But as the minutes passed and nothing happened, their courage returned and Billie began to feel jubilant. She must be a good actress indeed to fool Miss Ada!
Five ghostly figures sat up in bed, pushed back the bed clothes, and slid silently to the floor. Once on their feet they shed their nightgowns and their dark dresses only made a blurr in the blackness of the room.
Still noiseless as mice, they drew out the precious baskets from under the beds and crept over to where Billie was waiting for them.
"Where do we go from here, girls?" said Laura in a hysterical whisper. "Goodness, but I'm scared to death."
"Keep quiet or you'll have something to be scared about," Billie directed in a fierce little whisper. "Come on—I think the road's clear."
They tiptoed to the door, and Billie opened it cautiously and peeped out. There was no one in sight, and she stepped out into the hall quickly, motioning to the girls to follow her.
Caroline, the last to leave the dormitory, stopped for a moment and looked about at the sleeping girls. Then, satisfied that they were really asleep and that none of them suspected the prank, she followed the other girls out into the hall and closed the door carefully behind her.
They found their fellow conspirators in dormitory "F" already up and stirring. The lights were lit, hampers were out on the table ready to be opened, and the real fun of the party was commencing when the five arrived.
They were greeted with subdued enthusiasm, for no one dared to speak above a whisper, and Connie demanded to know why Billie was late.
"We couldn't do a thing without you," she said. "You had the program and everything——"
"And besides," finished Nellie, "we'd promised not to start anything until you came."
"We thought you'd been caught," Connie added reproachfully.
"We were just about to put out the lights and get into bed ourselves," chimed in another girl, "because we thought if you were caught, Miss Ada would come over here and catch us too."
"But what made you late?" asked Connie again.
"If you'll stop talking and listen a minute," said Billie, her eyes shining with excitement, "I'll tell you what a narrow escape we had."
The girls gathered around eagerly while she told her story, and when she had finished they gazed at her with horrified eyes.
"Billie, what ever made you do such a thing?" cried Nellie. "Why, if you had just kept still she probably would never have suspected a thing."
"I know that now," said Billie ruefully. "It was a crazy thing to do, but when I'd once started it I didn't dare stop."
"Well, I think you deserve a gold medal," said Laura loyally. "If it had been me——" this wasn't correct English, but Laura was too excited to notice it—"I'd have giggled or something and given the whole thing away."
"Goodness! wouldn't Miss Ada be happy if she could really catch us at something," said Nellie, but the girls would not listen to her.
There wasn't a bit of danger. Weren't they going to have somebody at the door to mount guard and to warn them of the slightest noise downstairs?
They had decided to draw lots to see who should be chosen for this very disagreeable position of guard and now they set to work at once to "get the agony over with" as Rose Belser said.
Rose had been very quiet, for her, and there was a queer expression in her eyes when she looked at Billie that would have made the latter wonder if she had had time to notice it. However, there was one girl who did notice it, and that was Caroline Brant.
Strangely enough, it was Rose who drew the blank that made her "guardian of the portal" for the first twenty minutes. At the end of that time the girls would draw again and let another poor unfortunate take her place.
Rose was inclined to grumble at her hard luck at first, for she wanted to be in the fun as much as any of the girls. But suddenly there came to her an idea—a way that she might punish Billie for daring to become so popular at Three Towers Hall.
Of course, she could not hurt Billie without hurting all the rest of the girls but—her lips shut tight and her eyes narrowed to slits—goodness knew they deserved it. It was they who had helped to make Billie so popular.
The plan she had thought of was very easy. All she had to do was to slip from dormitory "F" into her own, leaving both doors open a little so that the light from one could shine into the other.
Then, as she passed Amanda Peabody's cot, just a little jostling to awaken her and the thing would be as good as done. Amanda, seeing the light, would be sure to investigate, and, while she was gone, she, Rose, could undress quickly, put on her gown, and slip into bed. Then when the discovery came—and Rose knew Amanda well enough to be sure there would be a discovery—she would be safe in bed and unsuspected. That is, unless the girls should tell.
She looked over her shoulder at the happy scene in dormitory "F," and for a minute she felt guilty. Then one of the girls came over and put an arm about Billie and her lips tightened again.
Of course if the girls knew that she had been the one to give them away, no one would have anything to do with her. She would probably have to leave Three Towers Hall.
But how would they know? She could tell them that she had slipped into dormitory "C" to get a handkerchief—or something else, she could think that up later—and while she was gone, Amanda had slipped out and given the alarm. It was all very simple.
She looked back into the room where the fun was in full swing and once more her heart forsook her. It would be a dreadful thing for the girls. They would probably be expelled from Three Towers.
But here was her chance, if she was going to do it—and it might be her only one. One of the girls was giving a whispered and funny recitation, and the girls were doubled up with laughter, fairly holding on to themselves to keep from making a noise.
The look in Rose's eyes hardened. She forsook her post
A PLOT FAILS
Caroline Brant had been watching from behind a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles, although nobody, not even Rose, could have told it.
She had seen Rose glance into the room, had noticed how queerly she had looked at Billie, and now, as Rose started across the corridor, Caroline was at her heels, quick as a cat.
It was not till Rose's hand was on the knob of the door across the hall that Caroline spoke.
All she said was, "Where are you going?" in a quiet little whisper, but Rose whirled upon her fiercely.
"You're following me," she cried, almost forgetting to whisper in her fury. "What do you mean?"
"You'd better not make so much noise," said Caroline calmly. "We'll have Miss Ada or Miss Cora down upon us if you're not careful."
"Miss Ada or Miss Cora," mimicked Rose, actually trembling with fear and rage at being caught. "What do I care for Miss Ada or Miss Cora!"
"Well, I care a lot, if you don't," retorted Caroline, urging the excited girl back toward the lighted dormitory. "I don't know what you're so mad about anyway," she added, as Rose glared at her. "Your time for playing guard was up, and when I came over to tell you about it I found you were gone."
Caroline was fibbing—or, at least, partly so—but Rose had no way of knowing that. What she did know was that she had made a goose of herself for nothing, and all at once she hated Caroline more than she hated Billie or any one else on earth.
But she did not dare show it. The only thing for her to do was to try to pass the thing off the best she could. So when they reached the door she looked up at Caroline with the best smile she could manage and tried hard to keep her voice steady.
"I'm sorry I spoke as I did," she said. "I was just going to slip into the dorm and get a bottle of olives that fell under the bed. And when you spoke to me so suddenly it frightened me—that's all."
"It seems a pretty big chance to take—for a bottle of olives," said Caroline gravely, and in spite of herself Rose flushed. Oh, how she hated "grinds" that wore horn-rimmed spectacles!
The two were greeted joyfully by the rest of the girls, who would never know just how near they had been to discovery.
"I guess the time's up for your watch, Rose," said Billie. "Come on, let's draw lots and see who's the next."
Laura made a dash for the glass bowl that served as a lottery but Caroline interrupted her.
"I'll stand watch for a while," she said, adding as the girls started to protest: "It's hot in here and it's cool in the hall, and I need cooling off. Will somebody hand me a sandwich once in a while?"
"I'll say we will," they cried, and immediately began plying her with so many sandwiches and pickles and biscuits that she laughingly protested.
"And don't make too much noise," she said, as she started for the door. "You know Miss Ada may be a little suspicious that there's something up and come snooping around again."
"Well, you know the signal," Billie whispered after her. "Scratch twice on the door."
Caroline nodded, glanced at Rose, and went out to her post, sandwiches, pickles, biscuits and all.
The rest of that evening was not very pleasant for either Caroline or Rose. Caroline was wondering whether she ought to tell Billie and the other girls that she had found Rose sneaking, yes, actually sneaking, into the room across the hall when she should have been at her post.
"Of course, I don't know that she was going to do anything wrong," she kept telling herself, yet in her heart she knew that Rose had been up to some mischief. "But it isn't fair to Billie not to say anything," she worried. "I know Rose, and she's sure to try to get even some time, and Billie ought to be told to look out." And all the time she was thinking, her ears were strained for the slightest noise below stairs.
As for Rose, she would have pleaded a headache, for by that time she really had one, and gone to bed, if she had not been afraid of being laughed at by the girls.
And so she stayed on and on, trying to act as if nothing were the matter, laughing and joking with the other girls, eating sandwiches and cake till she was sick of the very sight of them, while all the time she was wondering, wondering, what Caroline was going to do.
"She can't really tell anything," she worried, while her head ached harder and harder. "I didn't really do anything."
But all the time she knew that just leaving her post at the door when so much depended upon the girls not being discovered was a terrible thing and one that the girls would find it hard to forgive should they find her out.
"If only Caroline doesn't say anything," she thought, adding spitefully: "And now I suppose I've got to be nice to the old thing, whether I want to or not."
Meanwhile, the rest of the girls were having a gay time. Never had a forbidden feast gone off so beautifully before, and they were in hilarious spirits.
As the hour hand of the little clock on Nellie's dresser crept near to midnight the girls packed up the fragments of the feast, and, after they had pushed the baskets out of sight under the beds, drew their chairs together to form a semi-circle and began joyfully to tell the most blood-curdling ghost stories they knew.
Each girl had to tell some story she had read or heard, or if she was so unfortunate as never to have read or heard any, was forced to make one up "out of her own head."
The fun waxed fast and furious, each story being more hair-raising than the last until it came to Billie's turn.
"But I don't know any ghost stories, and I'm no good at making them up," she protested when the girls looked at her expectantly. "I like adventure stories about treasure hunting and robbers and murderers and things——"
"Well, that'll do," said Laura joyfully, while the other girls shivered delightedly and drew close together. "Tell us a murder story, Billie."
Billie was about to open her mouth in protest when Vi suddenly made a suggestion.
"I've got the very thing," she cried. "Tell the girls about the 'Codfish,' Billie."
"'The codfish'?" they repeated, looking puzzled, while Rose added with a little yawn: "Yes, do tell us about the codfish, Billie—it sounds so interesting."
The tone more than the words made Billie angry, but before she had time to retort the girls broke in, eagerly demanding the story of the "Codfish."
"We caught one one time on a family fishing trip," said one of the girls, taking it for granted that this particular codfish was of the swimming variety, "and we had fried codfish steaks for a week afterward."
Billie chuckled while Vi and Laura openly giggled.
"But this wasn't that kind of a fish," said Billie. "It was a man."
This was almost too much for the girls, who were beginning to think that Billie and Laura and Vi had suddenly gone crazy, but Billie hurried on to explain about the "Codfish," growing more and more interested in her story as she went on.
As for the girls, well, they simply hung on her words, and when she came to the part where the thief had dropped her precious trunk in the roadway they exclaimed so loudly that Caroline had to warn them to be quiet. By this time the guard at the door had been removed, as there was little danger of discovery at so late an hour.
"Well," sighed Connie Danvers, when Billie had finished her story, "I wish something like that would happen to me sometime. It sounds just like a story book."
"But you should have caught him," Nellie objected. Though Nellie had heard of Billie's wonderful good fortune in finding the old trunk, she had never heard the details of the part the "Codfish" had played in it until to-night. "It gives me the shivers to think that an awful thing like that, with red hair and a fishy mouth, should be wandering around loose."
"I'm sure I'll dream of him to-night," said one of the other girls plaintively.
"Speaking of dreams," said Billie, getting to her feet so quickly that she almost upset the girl beside her, "don't you all think we'd better get back to our dorm? It's after midnight, and—I'm awfully afraid of Miss Ada."
"Well, I'm not—not after to-night," said Laura. "You surely did fool the Pickle with your snoring, Billie."
"Yes. But next time somebody else will have to do the snoring," said Billie, with a rueful little smile.
There followed whispered good-nights interspersed with giggles, and finally the five girls from dormitory "C" tiptoed across the hall, and, silent as mice, crept into their own room.
Quickly they undressed and slipped into their white nightgowns, listening breathlessly every once in a while for some sound that might tell of discovery.
None came, however; the big house was as silent as a tomb and Billie was just about to slip into bed when she happened to look out of the window.
The moon was bright, bathing the smooth lawn of Three Towers in a light almost as bright as day, so that Billie could not have been mistaken in what she saw.
A man ran quickly, furtively, across the lawn and disappeared in the shadow of the trees bordering the lake. Billie's heart amazingly skipped a beat and then stood still.
For several minutes Billie Bradley stood at the window straining her eyes in the direction in which the man had disappeared, scarcely daring to breathe.
Then, when she was sure that whoever the fellow was he did not intend to come back, she turned from the window with a little sigh of mingled excitement and relief.
It was only a sigh, but it sounded so loud in the stillness of the room that it suddenly brought Billie to her senses.
Shivering a little, she crept into bed and drew the covers up under her chin. It would never do to be discovered by Miss Ada at this last minute, and she certainly could not do any good by standing there staring out of the window.
Whoever the man was, he had gone now and would not return. But could she be sure of that? Suppose he had been a thief—she shivered and drew the covers over her head. In that case she should have roused Miss Ada and told her the story.
But then, Miss Ada's first question was sure to be, "How did you happen to be standing by the window at twelve o'clock at night?"
Then would come suspicion, a search, perhaps, and discovery. No, she couldn't, she couldn't! But what had that man been doing?
For more than an hour she lay, too excited to sleep, shivering at any sudden sound, wondering—wondering. Toward morning she fell asleep, only to dream of picnics where one did nothing but catch codfish and eat them, of a strange man with a stooping figure, running across a lawn bathed in moonlight.
Luckily for the girls who had been at the party, there were other girls in dormitory "C" who had gone to bed at the usual respectable hour—Amanda Peabody and Eliza Dilks, for instance—and who, as usual, heard the rising bell. If it had not been for them and the noise they made Billie and the others of the five might have slept on till noon.
As it was, they rose resentfully, finding it hard to get their eyes open, looking for their clothes half-heartedly, grumbling at everything and everybody.
It was Billie, who had slept less than any of them, who whispered a warning to them. She had seen Eliza and Amanda eyeing them suspiciously. It would never do, after having managed the party so successfully, to let the cat out of the bag after the affair was over.
The argument appealed to the girls, and they woke up with a suddenness almost more suspicious than their former sleepiness had been.
It was not till noon that Billie found a chance to tell the girls what she had seen from the dormitory window after the rest of them were in bed.
By that time the last evidence of last night's party had been cleared away, and the girls were beginning to feel secure again.
One by one they had run back to the dormitories between classes, made the remnants of the feast into small paper bundles, and had smuggled them down to the cellar and deposited them in the big box where all the papers and other rubbish was kept until the man of all work about Three Towers carted it off into the woods to be burnt up.
So now, in hilarious spirits, they answered Billie's call and flung themselves in various characteristic and joyful attitudes upon her bed.
"Speak, woman, speak," Laura commanded her, stealing a chocolate from Vi's sweater pocket. "What have you got to say for yourself?"
"Yes, what do you mean by getting up such a disgraceful affair as happened here last night?" added Nellie Bane in such an exact imitation of Miss Ada's manner that the girls giggled delightedly.
"Look out," cried Connie Danvers, in a whisper, for Amanda and the "Shadow" had just come into the room. "If you are not careful our wicked plot will yet be discovered."
"What is it you wanted to say, Billie?" asked Caroline in her matter-of-fact tone. "If it's anything very private, I guess we'd better move."
Caroline had been thinking about Rose and the happening of the night before—thinking till her head ached—but she had not yet decided what to do about it. As for Rose—her head ached, too—she knew what she was going to do about it. Some way or other she was going to get even with Billie! And Caroline, too, big snooping, spectacled thing!
"It isn't a bit private," said Billie, looking so serious that the girls suddenly became serious too. "It was about something I saw last night after——" she was about to say "after the party," but as Amanda and her "Shadow" had come dangerously near and were listening with all their ears, she decided not to.
"Well, what was it you saw?" the girls demanded impatiently, as she hesitated.
Billie lowered her voice and spoke hurriedly.
"I saw him going across the lawn. He was running, and while I watched he disappeared among the trees near the lake."
"A man?" asked Vi while the others stared.
"Of course," Billie nodded impatiently. "What did you think it was—a grizzly bear?"
"It might have bees from your description," Vi retorted, but right here the girls broke in with a running fire of questions and Billie was kept busy trying to answer them all at once.
"But, Billie, why didn't you tell somebody?" Vi asked, but Laura crushed her with a look.
"Tell somebody?" she repeated scornfully. "How could she and give the whole——"
But this time it was Laura who suddenly came to a standstill, the reason being a vicious little pinch from Billie in the fleshy part of her arm.
"Hush!" she whispered fiercely while all the girls looked alarmed. "Haven't you any sense at all?"
And Laura, feeling very sheepish, did not even answer back. For Amanda and the "Shadow" were still making excuses to hang around.
"But, Billie, what are we going to do about it?" asked Connie nervously.
"Yes, we don't want funny looking men wandering around our campus at night," said Rose, lazily straightening a ruffle on her dress.
"No, nor in the day time either," said Nellie, looking fierce.
"Well, you all needn't look at me as if it were my fault," said Billie plaintively. "I certainly didn't ask him to come and keep me awake all the rest of the night."
"But nobody's answered my question," Connie objected. "I want to know what we're going to do about it."
"Why, there's nothing to do about it," said Billie. "I suppose all we can do is to wait till we see him again—if we do—and then tell Miss Walters about it."
At that moment the gong rang and hands flew to straightening hair and belts and ruffles preparatory to starting the afternoon classes.
"Well, all I have to say is," said Nellie as they turned toward the door, "that I hope your strange man stays where he belongs, Billie, and doesn't come back here."
"So say we all of us," said Connie, adding with a shudder: "Ugh! Your story about the 'Codfish' last night, Billie—and now this! It's enough to scare a person to death."
"There you go blaming me again," said Billie plaintively.
In the weeks that followed the girls very nearly forgot about the unknown man, who certainly had no business roaming around Three Towers Hall after midnight.
The only thing the chums did not like about the boarding school was the Twin Dill Pickles. The latter were getting more and more miserly—insisting that the girls were getting too much to eat and that they should be allowed a great deal less liberty. In short, if the twin teachers had had their way Three Towers might have been a prison instead of a boarding school.
"However," said Billie one day, after Miss Cora Dill had been unusually unpleasant, "perhaps we need the Dill Pickles. If we didn't have them we might be too happy."
The girls from North Bend had now become fully settled at the school. They had made a number of other friends, but so far their enemies seemed to be confined to Amanda Peabody and her constant companion, Eliza Dilks. Except Billie, that is, who added Miss Cora Dill and Rose Belser to her enemy list. Amanda was becoming known as the sneak of the school, but for this she did not seem to care.
"I wouldn't want such a reputation as that," said Laura one day.
"Nor I, either," answered Billie.
The boys from Boxton Military Academy had been over to see the girls several times. Rules were very strict at Three Towers Hall, and if the lads had not been related the boys could probably never have been admitted at all. But Chet and Teddy could come in, and once or twice they managed to smuggle poor Ferd along.
"I wish we could go out for a row on the lake," remarked Billie one evening, as she gazed at the moonlight on the water.
Her wish was gratified the very next day. The boys invited them out, having first obtained Miss Walters' consent to let them go.
Rose Belser had looked and smiled her prettiest—and that was a good deal—the first time she happened to meet the boys and girls together. But as the boys were too much interested in the fun they were going to have to take much notice of her, she had merely tossed her pretty black head and sauntered off in the opposite direction.
"Somehow or other I can't get next to that girl Rose," remarked Chet to his sister, when the whole crowd was out on the lake.
"Well, Rose is rather peculiar in some respects," answered Billie, not caring to say too much.
"What do you say to a race?" cried Teddy, after they had been rowing around for a while.
"Don't upset!" exclaimed Vi warningly.
"No upsetting to-day, thank you," put in Ferd, who was in the crowd.
The girls were quite willing that the boys should race, and away they went up the lake for half a mile or more. Teddy was carrying Billie, and, of course, he exerted himself to the utmost to win the race.
"Here is where we put it all over you!" cried Chet, who was carrying Laura.
"This race belongs to me," panted Ferd, who had Vi as a passenger.
A number of the boys and girls on the lake shore were watching the contest, and wondering who would win. In the crowd, more out of curiosity than anything else, were Amanda and Eliza.
"Huh! I wouldn't care to be on the lake with those boys," snapped Amanda. "First thing they know they'll upset."
"They must be splashing water all over each other," was Eliza's comment.
At first it was almost an even race, but gradually Chet and Teddy drew ahead.
"Oh, I guess it's going to be a tie," murmured Billie.
"Not much!" gasped Teddy, and put on an extra spurt which soon sent him quite a distance ahead.
"Hurrah! We win!" shouted Billie triumphantly.
"All right, I guess you do!" flung out her brother. "I guess I ate too much for dinner. That's the reason I couldn't row so well," he explained lamely.
"Oh, dear! I wish we got as much as that to eat," sighed Laura.
The boat race had just come to a finish when those out on the lake heard a cry from the shore. There seemed to be a great commotion among the girls from Three Towers Hall.
"We'll go back and see what's up," shouted Ferd, and those in the rowboats lost no time in following the suggestion.
They were still a hundred feet or more from the lake shore when they saw what had happened. In their eagerness to see the finish of the race Amanda Peabody and Eliza Dilks had ventured out on a soft bank, holding to some low bushes for that purpose. Bushes and bank had given way suddenly, and both girls had gone floundering into the water and mud up to their waists. Now they had been pulled to safety, and their chums, seeing that they were not hurt, set up a shout of laughter.
"You are mean things, that's what you are!" cried Amanda, in vexation.
"The meanest ever was!" echoed Eliza.
And then the two dripping figures hurried for the friendly shelter of the boarding school.
"Gracious, what a happening!" was Vi's comment. And then she added quickly: "But they deserved it."
"They certainly did," responded Laura. "What a fine thing it would be if they would leave this school."
There was a secret club among the girls at Three Towers Hall, and only the students who stood first in their classes could be admitted to the chosen circle.
Also the girls who were lucky enough to be elected to the "Ghost Club," for that was what the society was called, must be popular among their fellow students. There was an unwritten law that membership in the club should not exceed fifteen.
Rose Belser was president of the club, while Connie Danvers and several of the other girls with whom Billie and her chums were on the best of terms, were fellow members. Caroline Brant had been asked to join but had refused on the ground that the club took too much time from her studies. It was a compliment to Caroline that, in spite of her refusal, the girls—all except Rose Belser—liked her just the same.
Billie and her chums had not been in Three Towers a week before they had heard of the secret club—no one but the members themselves even knew the name of it—and had realized how much all the girls longed to be members of it.
So when one day Connie came to Billie and whispered something in her ear, it was no wonder that Billie's heart beat a little faster.
But all Connie had really said was: "We want to see you and Laura and Vi outside near the old maple tree at ten to-night. It's very important. Don't keep us waiting!"
And Billie, in a voice she tried hard to keep natural, said that they would not keep her waiting. And when she imparted the mysterious message to Laura and Vi they gaped at her, then pulled her down on a bench—it was noon and they had come out for a bit of sunshine and fresh air before the afternoon lessons—and showered her with questions.
"But, Billie, didn't she say why she wanted to see us?" cried Laura.
"And who wanted to see us?" added Vi.
"I've told you just exactly what she said," Billie answered a little impatiently, while her eyes shone with excitement. "She said it was very important and not to keep them waiting."
"I bet I know what it is," said Laura, almost afraid to put her hope into words. "It's the secret society, Billie."
"The secret society!" Vi repeated in an awed voice, while two girls who were passing paused and looked at them curiously. "Oh, Laura, it couldn't be! Billie, do you think it is?" She looked eagerly at Billie. Then her gaze traveled on to the two curious girls who were still lingering within earshot, and she sat up so straight that Billie and Laura looked at her in surprise. As usual the loiterers were Amanda and her "Shadow" and as they saw Vi's eyes upon them they smiled unpleasantly.
"Hello," said Amanda coming over to the girls while the "Shadow" lingered behind. The latter was not quite as bold as Amanda—nor quite as mean. "I heard you say something about the secret society. Are you invited?" The last words were said with such a sneer and the grin on her face was so aggravating that the girls felt their blood begin to boil.
Billie jumped to her feet and faced Amanda, both hands clenched at her sides.
"We've stood just about as much as we're going to from you, Amanda," she said, her eyes blazing. "You've done nothing, you and Eliza, but spy upon us ever since we came to Three Towers, and I'll tell you right now we're tired of it."
"Oh, you are!" said Amanda, her grin a little wider, while Laura and Vi, alarmed at what they saw was going to be a real quarrel at last, got up and stood beside Billie. Other girls who had come out on the campus gathered around them curiously. "Well, what do you think you're going to do about it?"
"I don't know yet," said Billie, trembling with fury—for usually good-natured, fun-loving Billie had a whirlwind of a temper when it was roused. "But we'll make you stop your spying and mean tricks if we have to try your stunt and go to Miss Walters about it."
"What's this?" asked a cool pleasant voice behind them, and the girls turned quickly to find Miss Walters looking on gravely. "What is it you want to come to me about, Beatrice?"
But Billie turned all colors of the rainbow and stood as if stricken suddenly dumb. A minute before she had been furious. Now she was only ashamed.
How could she explain to Miss Walters without telling about Amanda? That would be telling tales, and, in spite of her threat, that was the very last thing Billie wanted or intended to do. Beneath Miss Walters' steady gaze she hung her head.
"Come, speak up, Beatrice," Miss Walters commanded, not unkindly, for, like almost every one in Three Towers Hall, she had come to love reckless, sweet-natured Billie, and even laughed at her pranks in secret. "I've asked you a question, and my girls are in the habit of answering me."
"Please," said poor Billie without looking up, "I want to answer you, Miss Walters, but I don't know how I can without t-telling tales."
"Was there a quarrel?" questioned Miss Walters, her face still grave, for she disliked that kind of thing. "If you can't tell me about it without telling tales," here the faintest of smiles flitted across her face, "I want you at least to tell me that you are no longer angry and that a scene of this kind will never happen again. Here, Beatrice, shake hands with Amanda and be friends again."
Billie looked more startled at this than at anything that had happened so far. Shake hands with Amanda? Pretend they were friends again? Why, they never had been friends! Instinctively she put her hands behind her back. Then she looked up at Miss Walters appealingly.
"Please, Miss Walters," she said, "won't it be enough, if I tell you I'm sorry I made a scene and that I'll never do it again? I won't, truly I won't."
"Yes, that will do," answered Miss Walters, her eyes really smiling now. She was thinking that if she had had a daughter she would have liked her to be like Billie. "Only remember, I have your word that it will never happen again. Come now, it is almost time for afternoon class," and she led the way back across the lawn.
The girls followed in groups of two and three while Amanda and the "Shadow" brought up the rear. There was a smile on Amanda's face, and for the first time since she had come to Three Towers she was exultant. She had succeeded in making Billie furious, had seen her called to account—gently of course, altogether too gently, for "Billie was Miss Walters' pet"—but called to account nevertheless and before a crowd of her classmates. That ought to hold her for a while!
As for Billie herself, and Laura and Vi, they were desperate.
"You ought to have told Miss Walters about Amanda, Billie," Laura said over and over again. "You shouldn't have let that little old sneak get away with it. Did you see her smile when Miss Walters turned away? Oh, if I could only give her what I want to give her!" Laura's hands clasped and unclasped nervously as she talked and her eyes snapped.
"Yes, that's just what she was waiting for," said Vi, hardly less furious than Laura. "If you only hadn't answered her, Billie. Had just looked at her with your nose in the air and turned away. That makes her mad enough to murder you."
"Oh, I know it, I know it," said Billie, still ashamed to look any one in the face. She had broken one of the rules and had been reprimanded for it by Miss Walters in public. There was no getting over that. If it had been one of the "Dill Pickles" she would not have minded so much. But Miss Walters!
"Never mind," Vi whispered in her ear. "Miss Walters doesn't like Amanda any more than we do, and she just scolded you because she had to. And I know she liked the way you refused to tell tales. I saw it in the way she looked at you."
At this Billie brightened and glanced up hopefully.
"Well, I'm glad if there's something she can like about me," she answered, and just then the gong echoing through the hall, sent them scurrying to their classes.
In the excitement of the scene with Amanda the girls had almost forgotten their mysterious engagement for ten o'clock that evening. But when they did think of it again it had the effect of making them forget everything else.
The afternoon dragged on, evening came with supper, and then at last they were in the dormitory, pretending to undress with the other girls, while they really left most of their clothing on.
When everything was dark and the whole place seemingly asleep, they got out of bed quietly, stole softly down the stairs, and finally came out into the moonlit night.
The old maple tree where they were to meet Connie was a magnificent old giant which the girls had always admired, set back a little way in the woods.
The place had probably been picked out because nobody, happening to look from the windows of Three Towers, would be able to see anything but shadows and waving branches.
When the girls, moving softly over twigs and branches, so as to make no noise, finally came to the meeting place they were surprised and a little alarmed to find no one there.
The woods were dark and silent, save for the soft murmuring of the wind among the trees.
"Nobody's here," said Vi, glancing nervously over her shoulder.
"Suppose nobody comes," whispered Laura. "Maybe it's all a joke."
"Well, if it is," said Billie with a rueful little smile, "the joke is on us."
THE "CODFISH" AGAIN
It seemed an age while Billie and Laura and Vi stood under the maple tree before anything happened. It really was only about five minutes. Then a sound was heard through the darkness. It was the cracking of a twig.
The girls started, and Billie, drawing some bushes aside, peered out in the direction of the sound. What she saw made her draw in her breath sharply and Laura and Vi drew closer, looking over her shoulder.
Ten ghost-like figures were coming quickly toward them across the moonlight-flooded lawn that surrounded Three Towers Hall.
It looked as though each figure had draped itself from head to foot in a flowing sheet with places for the eyes and nose and mouth rudely cut out. The girls, watching in half-frightened silence, were reminded of the "Ku-Klux Klan" of post Civil War days, which they had seen once or twice in moving pictures.
"Do you suppose it's the girls dressed up like that?" Laura whispered, beginning to wish herself back in the security of her dormitory.
"Of course. Who else could it be?" said Billie, trying to make her voice sound natural when the skin on the back of her neck was beginning to crawl. "For goodness sake, don't let them think you're scared, whatever you do," she whispered fiercely, as the first of the white-draped figures reached the woods. "That's probably just what they're trying to do."
The leader of the "ghosts," as they had already dubbed them in their minds, came to a halt just a few feet in front of the chums, and her followers drew up behind her.
Then they stood there, motionless as the trees around them, looking at Billie and Laura and Vi through those ghastly white masks until the girls thought they must scream.
They afterward found out that this was the "silence test," that unless the girls passed this first test they were unworthy to belong to the "Ghost Club." And passing the test consisted of doing what the girls were doing now—although they did not know it—just standing still and waiting for the head "ghost" to speak.
And finally, when the girls felt that they could no longer stand it but must dash out of the dark woods and away from the ghostly, motionless figures, the "head ghost" spoke.
"We have come," it said, "to ask you a question."
There followed another silence, and Billie, not knowing just what was expected of her, but wishing to be polite, said, rather weakly: "Yes, ma'am."
For a minute it looked as if the meeting would be broken up, for who could be dignified and ghostly when addressed as "ma'am"? There was a giggle from among the ghosts, and one or two of them began to double up as if with silent laughter. But once again the head ghost lifted its hand, or what looked more like a wing, under the sheet and her followers straightened up.
"And that question is," said the head ghost in a voice not quite so solemn as before: "Do you believe in ghosts?"
This was a poser. The girls never had believed in ghosts, but how could they say so to this white-clad group. They had either to tell a fib or offend their visitors. Billie, acting as spokesman, chose the fib.
"We never used to," she said, and for the life of her she could not keep the laughter out of her voice, "but I think we shall after to-night."
"Ah," said the head ghost softly, and it seemed as if there were a little stir in the group behind her. "Then come closer for I would ask you yet one other question."
Obediently the chums came closer,—although they would much rather have stayed where they were—and the head ghost put her second question.
"Listen," she said solemnly, lowering her voice at least two degrees more. "Listen well, for it is a matter of great import. Would you be one of us?"
In the silence that followed the girls could almost hear their hearts beat. This was the secret society to which every girl in Three Towers longed to belong, and they, Billie, Laura, Vi, were being asked to join. The last question of the head ghost could mean nothing else.
They hesitated a moment, too dazed to answer, and the head ghost repeated its request.
"Would you be one of us?" it asked. "Answer quickly—yes or no?"
Billie took a chance on her chums and took the plunge.
"Yes!" she answered breathlessly.
"Ah, 'tis well," came in solemn tones from the white mask of the leader. Then she waved her arm toward the white-clad figures behind her and the latter moved up till they were close to her.
"You understand," said the leader then, "that one cannot change from a human to a ghost in a minute. There are different stages to be gone through. Spider!" She lifted her hand again and one of the girls separated herself from the group and came forward. As she faced the leader she shivered as if with a chill, raised her hands in the air, and, still shivering horribly, lowered them to her sides again.
The girls learned afterward that this was only a sort of salute which every member of the "Ghost Club" was supposed to give its leader.
But here at night, with the wind sighing through the trees, and weird shadows all about, the thing looked so uncanny that once more the girls had a wild desire to run away and hide.
"What is it, your Ghostship?" asked the one addressed as Spider, and although the voice was disguised the girls were sure it belonged to Connie Danvers. They began to feel more at home.
"Tell these humans," the head ghost ordered, "what they will have to go through to be initiated into the Ghost Club. Come forward, one at a time."
"But would it not be better to show them?" asked Spider, and this time the girls were sure it was Connie.
"Show them, by all means," said the head ghost, and then the girls knew they were in for it.
They had heard of initiations before and what ridiculous things the girls and boys who were lucky or unlucky enough to be initiated had to go through with. But in every case they had heard of the clubs and fraternities had been human ones. The initiation into a ghost club was sure to be much worse.
The leader of the ghost club raised her hand again, and three girls sprang forward from the group behind her. Before the girls knew what was happening to them they found their hands pinned behind them while huge sheets were flung over their heads.
The girls that were doing all this to them tied something that felt like ropes around their waists, pulled the sheets into shape and the girls found to their great relief that there were eye and nose and mouth holes similar to those in the strange robes worn by the ghosts themselves.
After that they went through strange and weird experiences that they remembered in their dreams for a long time afterward.
They were taught the "shiver salute," bandages were tied over their eyes, or rather eye holes, and queer, slimy crawly things were pressed into their hands.
They were forced to swallow things that felt like particularly fat and squirmy worms. It was no wonder that the stomachs of the girls threatened to turn inside out. Several times they were on the point of revolt, but always they choked back protests and did as they were told. For to have come so near being members of the secret society of Three Towers and then to lose out at the last minute because they had not nerve enough to go through with the initiation, would have been real tragedy. So they gritted their teeth and went ahead.
At last it was over, the bandages were taken off their eyes, and they were led before the head ghost to take the final oath of allegiance when a strange thing happened.
Billie, happening to glance through the trees to the bright patch of lawn beyond, uttered a startled cry. For across that bright patch of lawn a man was running, crouched and furtive.
"Girls!" she cried, forgetting the club, forgetting everything but this new and startling fact. "Look! Quick! Here, through the trees!"
They crowded behind her, stirred by the note of excitement in her voice, straining their eyes in the direction she had pointed out.
The man was just about to enter the shelter of the woods when the snapping of a twig under Laura's foot caused him to stop and look about him, startled.
In that brief second the moon shone full upon his face, and with a start of sheer amazement Billie recognized him.
"It's the 'Codfish'!" she cried. "Girls, it's the 'Codfish'!"
"The Codfish?" they repeated in excitement, and Laura shook her arm wildly.
"Billie, are you sure?" she asked, then gave a gasp of amazement and dismay.
For Billie, forgetting how ridiculous she must look in her ghostly garb, had started in pursuit.
"She's crazy!" cried the "head ghost," speaking this time in the voice of Rose Belser. "Some one go after her quick and get her back. Suppose one of the Pickles should see her from the house!"
But before she could finish Laura was racing like mad after her chum.
Billie had stopped at the edge of the woods and was listening for some sound that might tell her in what direction the man had disappeared.
Laura grasped the sheet that enfolded Billie and tugged at it wildly.
"Billie, come back, come back!" she cried. "We may be seen from the house any minute."
"But it was the 'Codfish,'" cried Billie wildly. "If I only had a—a gun, or something!"
"Yes, but you haven't, and he probably has." Laura was dancing with impatience, glancing now over her shoulder at the dark woods, now toward the house, standing out boldly in the moonlight. "Billie, for goodness sake, don't be so crazy. We can't do anything!"
So Billie at last allowed herself to be dragged away. They found the "ghosts" talking excitedly about what had happened. And every once in a while a girl would glance nervously over her shoulder into the dark shadows of the woods.
"Goodness, he must be a regular robber," Connie said in an excited whisper.
"And to think it's Billie's 'Codfish', the man who stole her trunk!" said another. "I'm scared to death!"
"D-don't you t-think we'd better go back?" asked Vi, her teeth chattering.
"I guess so," agreed Connie, looking fearfully about her. "He may be in the woods now. He may even be listening to what we say!"
This was enough for the girls. Without even a backward glance they scurried across the lawn like so many little white phantoms and in at the side door of Three Towers Hall.
For days the girls could think of little else than the initiation into the "Ghost Club" and their startling meeting with the "Codfish." Whenever they could get together between classes or at noon or before they went to bed, these were the topics of conversation. And of these, the "Codfish" held first place.
"He must be a real burglar," Connie said during one of these gatherings.
"Of course he was," said Rose, looking a little bored. "Respectable men don't sneak around places at all hours of the night."
"But what in the world did he want?" Laura asked wonderingly. "You wouldn't think he'd come out from the woods at all—especially when there's such a bright moon. He might be sure some one would see him."
"Oh, I don't know," said Billie thoughtfully. "He probably knows the rules of Three Towers and that the girls are all supposed to be in bed before ten o'clock, and I suppose he felt safe enough. We should have been in bed, you know," she added, dimpling mischievously.
"But I wonder what he was sneaking around Three Towers for," Laura went on, unwilling to change the subject. For to Laura, mysteries were the very breath of life.
"Maybe he's waiting for a chance to rob us," said Vi in an awed little voice, and the girls shuddered.
"Well, I hope he changes his mind," said Nellie Bane anxiously. "I never did like burglars very much."
But as the days went by and nothing further happened, the mystery of the "Codfish" was pushed a little into the background.
In the first place, the chums were having the time of their lives in the "Ghost Club," and proud as could be of having been chosen for membership.
The only one who was not particularly happy was Rose Belser. Of course she had not wanted the girls in the club at first. But the rest of the club did want them, and she was afraid that if she was the only one who voted against them it would make her unpopular with the rest.
Then, too, she reasoned with herself, if she hoped to get even with Billie, the only thing was to have her around until she saw her chance.
And all the time the "Twin Dill Pickles" were getting so obnoxious that more than once the girls were upon the point of revolt. From day to day it was only Miss Race, the mathematics teacher, who stood between them and open rebellion.
For Miss Race was a staunch friend of the girls, and in her heart disliked Miss Ada and Miss Cora as much as they did. Whenever things got a little bit too bad, Miss Race would have a secret conversation with Miss Walters, who in her turn would have a little talk with the two Miss Dills. Then for the space of a day or two the girls would have comparative comfort.
However, in spite of all efforts on the part of Miss Race, conditions were steadily growing worse for the girls.
Things went on very much the same, without much change one way or another, while autumn merged into winter and the snow began to fly.
There was a good deal of snow the early part of that winter, and sledding parties became more and more frequent. There was a splendid hill for coasting near Three Towers, and here the girls gathered almost every afternoon after classes.
Sometimes, very often in fact, there were boys, too, brothers and friends of the girls, boys who attended Boxton Military Academy. It was great sport, even more thrilling than rowing or canoeing had been, so that when Lake Molata froze over the girls were joyful at the prospect of more fun. There would be skating, and Billie Bradley and her two especial friends were splendid skaters.
Before long the lake was full of joyful, shouting boys and girls whenever the weather was fine. And as for Chet and Teddy and Ferd, they walked the mile from Boxton Academy almost every afternoon.
"Let's have a race," Billie suggested one day, skating up to a group of her chums. Her cheeks were rosy with wind and exercise, and her brown hair had escaped in little curling strands about her ears.
Teddy, looking up at her, thought that she looked like the picture of a girl on a magazine cover that he had seen not so very long before.
"All right," he said, doing a fancy step on the ice that almost landed him on his nose. "Shall we take partners? Yes we shall. Billie, will you be mine?"
The rest of the girls giggled—all but Rose, who had taken a great liking to handsome Teddy and did not at all fancy the way he always singled out Billie, "the little cat"—and Billie made a face at Teddy.
"I'll think about it," she teased, then drew the boys and girls around her while she outlined the course of the race. "Now," she said, "we'll skate straight ahead till we come to where the lake takes that sudden bend. Then we'll double, and whoever passes the big maple tree first will win. Who's going in this race?"
It seemed that nearly everybody wanted to—everybody who could get a partner, that is—and in a minute or two a score of merry young figures were flying over the ice in a gallant effort to make the turn and get back to the old maple first.
It was a pretty scene, at least Caroline Brant thought so. But Rose Belser, sitting close beside her, scraping her skates along the ice until she made two ugly little ridges in it, did not agree with her.
There was Billie, taking the center of the stage again as usual, and there was Caroline looking after her with a smile. Well, Caroline could smile. She had never been the most popular girl at Three Towers, although most of the girls did like her, at that. Billie wasn't taking her place. And she dug still more viciously at the ice.
"Better not do that," said Caroline, bringing her eyes back from the flying figures and looking at the ugly ridges Rose had made. "Somebody's apt to tumble over them and get hurt."
"I wish they would," said Rose savagely, then added with a mean little smile that suddenly reminded Caroline of Amanda Peabody: "I suppose Billie would like to fall so that Teddy Jordon would have a chance to pick her up."
"Rose, stop saying such things!" Caroline said. But further speech was prevented when a girl's voice hailed them excitedly. They turned to see Nellie Bane running toward them at full speed.
"Girls, the most awful thing has happened!" she panted when she came within speaking distance. "Miss Race was coming home from town a few minutes ago, and suddenly a man stepped out from the bushes near the road and held her up."
"Held her up!" they gasped, and Caroline added sharply:
"Do you mean she was robbed?"
"Yes," answered Nellie, still panting and with eyes wide with excitement "And from what she said, I'm sure it was the 'Codfish.'"
At that minute the skaters sped down upon them, Teddy and Billie winning triumphantly by about a yard. Caroline skated over to them, calling her story as she went. It was a minute or two before she could make them understand.
"You say one of the teachers was robbed?" asked Ferd.
Then Caroline told the story all over again, while Nellie shouted to them from the shore—for Nellie had on no skates and did not dare venture out on the ice without them. Before she had finished the boys were tearing wildly for the bank with the girls close behind them.
There they sat down and tore their skates off, asking questions all the while.
"Did you say it was just the other side of the gate?" Chet asked. "Say, if we hurry, fellows, we may have a chance to find him. Who would ever have thought of that old Codfish turning up again?"
"Don't talk—work," cried Teddy, getting rid of his skates and stamping his numbed feet to get the blood back into them. "We missed that fellow once before, and we're not going to miss him again if we can help it. Ready, fellows?"
"You bet!" Ferd and Chet cried, and the three were off on a run, the first of the boys to start. Behind them the girls were still fumbling with numbed fingers at their skates.
CHET PLAYS THE HERO
The boys stopped at the gate of Three Towers Hall, not knowing just what to do next. All they knew was that Miss Race had been held up and robbed only a few hundred feet from the gate and that the robber had disappeared in the bushes at the left-hand side of the road.
"We'll have to spread out," Teddy said in an excited voice. "Probably the fellow doesn't expect to be followed, because he thinks there are only women and girls around Three Towers and he's probably around near here somewhere counting over his loot.
"There are five of us," he went on quickly, noticing that two more boys had come up from the lake on a run. "And if we go in the woods one at a time and circle about we ought to find the thief."
"Don't you think we'd better get Miss Race?" asked Chet eagerly. "She'd be able to show us just where the fellow disappeared, and everything."
"But it will take too long," Ferd was objecting, when Miss Race herself, with two or three of the other teachers and Miss Walters, came hurrying toward them.
"What are you going to do, boys?" asked Miss Walters, looking worried.
The boys explained quickly, and Teddy, turning eagerly to Miss Race, asked her to go with them as far as the woods and point out the place where the thief had disappeared.
Miss Race was still white from her fright. But she was angry, too, for the pocketbook she had lost contained a good deal of money.
"Yes, I'll go," she said, then added, turning quickly to her principal: "That is, if you don't mind, Miss Walters."
Miss Walters still looked troubled, but she shook her head slowly.
"I think it will be all right," she said, adding as the boys started eagerly off: "Only be careful, boys, and don't get hurt. The man may be desperate if he finds himself cornered."
The girls started to follow the boys, but Miss Walters checked them.
"You can't help," she said when they looked at her reproachfully. "And since I'm responsible for you, you will stay right here."
Meanwhile, the boys and Miss Race were running down the road. Yes, even Miss Race, who was never very dignified, was running.
Suddenly they came to a trampled place in the road, showing that some struggle had taken place there.
"It was right here," said Miss Race, her eyes black with excitement. "And he ran across the road and disappeared in that thick mass of bushes. Then he covered me with his gun and told me to 'beat it while the beating was good.'"
"The rat!" cried Chet indignantly. "Come on, fellows! I want to get my hands on that rascal."
Eagerly the boys started for the woods, but Teddy turned back suddenly and called to Miss Race.
"You'd better go back now," he said, and Miss Race's eyes twinkled at his grown-up tone. "There isn't anything more you can do, and if there are any bullets flying around we don't want you to get them. Please," he added impatiently, as she did not move.
"No, I'm going to stay right here," she answered him firmly, and when Miss Race spoke in that tone everybody knew that she meant what she said. "Go along, but don't take too many risks. Remember the man is armed."
So Teddy disappeared after his comrades and Miss Race waited nervously in the road, expecting she hardly knew what.
It seemed a long time that she stood there, dreading any moment to hear a shot, blaming herself for sending the boys on such a hunt.
"I'd rather lose a hundred pocketbooks," she scolded herself, "than have a finger of one of those boys hurt. I wish I hadn't said anything about it."
As for the boys, they were beginning to despair of ever finding the thief and were calling themselves all sorts of names for ever thinking they would, when suddenly Chet walked out of the woods and almost upon him.
It was so sudden that the boy almost yelled in his surprise, but all he really did was clap his hand over his mouth and stare. For he had come so softly that the man had not even heard him.
He was crouched over something that Chet could not see—probably the stolen pocketbook. His revolver lay beside him on the ground, close to his right hand.
With his heart in his mouth—for after all, with all his courage, he was only a boy and the robber was a man, and armed at that—Chet crept forward, fearful each second of stepping on a twig and giving his presence away.
Nearer and nearer he crept, hardly daring to breathe, until he was right behind the thief and the revolver was almost under his feet.
Then with a motion as quick as a cat's, he stooped and caught tip the revolver. The next moment he stepped quickly back and covered the thief with it.
"Hands up!" he cried. "Quick there, before I shoot!"
So sudden, so noiseless, had been his action that the thief was taken completely by surprise. With an exclamation he reached his hand out for his revolver, then, not finding it, stumbled to his feet.
"Hands up!" cried Chet sharply. "Quick, now. This blamed thing might go off."
The man's hands went up, but he still kept his back to Chet, his little furtive eyes glancing about for a means of escape.
"Turn around," Chet commanded, then as the man did not move he clicked the trigger meaningly. "Say, I think you want to taste the lead in this thing," he added, and there was something in his tone, boyish though it was, that made the man turn quickly.
Chet uttered a gasp of recognition.
"So it is you," he said. "I thought it was all the time, but I couldn't be sure till I'd seen the color of your eyes. So you're really the 'Codfish.' Please to meet you, old man."
"Say, cut that out," snarled the "Codfish," making as though to spring upon Chet, but the latter waved his pistol and the man evidently changed his mind, for he stood where he was, hands above his head, eyes glaring.
"And so there's the pocketbook and the nice fat roll of money you just stole from the Three Towers teacher," Chet went on, his glance shifting from the man to the pocketbook with the money stuffed hastily in it where the man had left it on the ground. "You thought it was easy, didn't you? Well, you didn't know you had me to reckon with." Chet was boy enough to want to strut a little. Never before had he had a chance to play the real hero. He probably never would have again, so he wanted to make the most of this.
"You little puppy!" the man spat out at him. "You think you can get the best of me, don't you? Let me tell you, no kid can do that."
He made a sudden lunge forward, and Chet, taken by surprise, stepped backward, caught his foot in a root and stumbled a little.
He recovered himself in a minute, but in that little space of time the "Codfish" had gone, disappeared as if the earth had swallowed him up.
Then Chet went mad. To have had the thief and then to lose him! He started off wildly into the woods, but his foot struck against something, and, looking down, he saw the pocketbook with the money still in it.
He picked it up, feeling that he had partly played the hero anyway, for if he had not caught the thief, he had at least recovered the money.
Then he started off on his hunt again, and this time almost stepped into the arms of Ferd and Teddy.
"Say, what's the row?" the former yelled at him. "We heard the talking, and thought we'd have a look—say, stop pointing that thing at me, will you?"
"Then get out of my way," yelled Chet, his mind on only one thing. He must catch the "Codfish." "I'm after the thief, I tell you! Get out of my way!"
"Say, has he gone crazy?" asked Teddy. Then his eyes fell on the pocketbook that Chet was still holding tight in his hands.
"He got the money! Say, Ferd, he got the money! Chet you're some hero. Where's the thief?"
By this time Chet knew he had no chance of catching the "Codfish," who, now that he was discovered, was probably running into hiding as fast as he could, so he turned back with the boys and began excitedly to tell them what had happened.
"And you really had him and you let him go again!" cried Ferd in disgust. "Well, you poor old fish!"
"I got the money, anyway, didn't I?" Chet defended himself, adding in a superior tone: "It's more than any of you did, I guess."
"You're some boy, Chet," Teddy repeated heartily. "Come on and let's tell the good news to Miss Race. Make believe she won't be glad to see her wealth again."
"Where are the other fellows?" Chet asked, as they started back.
"Oh, they'll be along soon," said Ferd indifferently. "When they can't find old 'Codfish' they'll come wandering back again."
"I wonder if Miss Race has waited," said Teddy, adding as he came near the roadway: "Yes, there she is, looking pretty white and scared, too."
As they clumped through the heavy bushes Ferd looked at Chet gloomily.
"Say, make believe I don't envy you, you lucky dog," he said slangily. "Gosh, all the girls will be wanting to skate with you and everything now."
"Sure! Well be left out in the cold," added Teddy mournfully.
RAIDING THE PANTRY
As a matter of fact, Teddy and Ferd and all the other boys, too, were left out in the cold more than even they had expected.
Miss Race greeted rapturously the return of her money. And as for the girls—well, they hung around Chet, showering him with questions and praise until it was really a wonder they did not spoil him entirely.
But when the first excitement was over, the boys had gone home, and everything was quiet again, they could not help feeling sorry that Chet had not kept the Codfish when he had him. And Miss Walters, though she said nothing to the girls, was more worried than any of them.
"Why, we'll be afraid to go out at all after dark," Billie said, wide-eyed and excited.
"And I'm sure I'll dream of him every night," Laura added with a shudder.
But as the days went by the girls found other things to worry about than the Codfish. They were having more and more trouble with Miss Ada and Miss Cora. Then one day there came news that brought the whole matter to a head.
Miss Walters had received a telegram calling her away suddenly and had no way of knowing just when she would be back.
And in the meantime—this part of the news the girls received in horror-stricken silence—Miss Ada Dill and Miss Cora Dill were to be left in entire charge of Three Towers Hall.
It was nothing less than tragedy to the girls, for they knew that now at last the "Dill Pickles" had their chance. And they knew, too, that Miss Ada and Miss Cora would make the most of it.
The day came when Miss Walters left, and the girls watched her go with puckered brows and stormy eyes.
"The meals have been bad enough, goodness knows," Laura grumbled, as they gathered up their books for the first class. "But now I suppose we won't get anything to eat."
"We'll just be prisoners, that's all," said Billie, her eyes rebellious. "I know Miss Cora's hated me from the very first, and now she'll be able to do just about what she pleases to me. But if she gets too funny, I'll—well, I don't know what I'll do," she ended rather helplessly.
And during the next week the girls' worst fears were realized. All the liberty that they had enjoyed under Miss Walters was taken away from them, and, as Billie had predicted, they were practically prisoners.
That they could have stood perhaps; at least until Miss Walters returned. But that was by no means the worst of it.
The two Miss Dills had always said that the girls could get along just as well on far less to eat. In fact, Miss Ada was positive they could study better if "they didn't cram themselves so full of food." And now they set to work to prove their theory.
The meals became skimpier and skimpier, until one day after the noon meal the girls left the table feeling positively hungry.
The afternoon seemed unbearably long, and for the life of them they could not keep their minds on their books. All they could think of was delicious juicy steaks, French-fried potatoes, chicken pie and strawberry short cake.
And when girl after girl failed in her recitations, Miss Cora and Miss Ada scolded them so harshly and said such sarcastic things that it brought the angry red to their faces. But, as the girls said later, they were "almost too hungry to fight back."
Two more days passed with conditions getting worse and worse until the girls were becoming weak from lack of food. Two of the younger girls became faint and sick.