"We can't stand this much longer," said Billie.
The girls were gathered in Billie's dormitory after supper, and one by one girls from the other dormitories joined them. It was fast becoming a mass meeting.
"We simply can't stand it," Billie went on, her little fists clenched angrily at her side. "It's all right if they want to take our liberty away. We can stand that for a little while, until Miss Walters comes back. But when they begin to starve us——"
"But what are we going to do?" asked one girl, helplessly.
"We could run 'em out, I suppose," said one of the older girls gloomily. "But I suppose we'd be run out ourselves as soon as Miss Walters got back."
"I don't see why Miss Walters left 'The Pickles' in charge, anyway," spoke up another of the girls fretfully. "She knew how horrid they were and how they've all the time been picking on us girls."
"Well, I don't see that it makes any difference why Miss Walters did it," Billie broke in, and there was something in her tone that made the girls stop talking and look at her expectantly. "The fact is, she has left the 'Dill Pickles' in charge and they're trying to starve us to death. Now what I want to know is this: Are we just going to stand around and let them do it? Or are we going to fight?"
"Fight!" they cried, their pale faces beginning to flush with hope.
"What do you want us to do, Billie?" asked Laura eagerly.
"Listen and I'll tell you." She leaned forward and one could almost have heard a pin drop in the room. "There's only one way I know of that we can get food that 'The Pickles' don't give to us."
"Is to raid the pantry and storeroom," said Billie, her eyes gleaming. "We'll probably find plenty of cooked things in the pantry, and if we don't, we'll go on into the storeroom and get canned sardines and vegetables and soup. I know I don't care what I eat, as long as I get enough of it."
The girls were silent a minute, staring at Billie half hopefully, half fearfully. To raid the pantry and storeroom? It had never been done in all the history of Three Towers. It would be open rebellion! And yet they were hungry—terribly hungry—two of them had been faint and sick from lack of food.
"Will you do it?" asked Billie, her eyes blazing at them.
"We will!" they almost shouted, and then rose such a pandemonium that Billie, trying to scream above the noise, found her voice drowned completely.
After a minute they quieted down a little—enough to listen to her, anyway.
"Please don't make so much noise," she begged. "We'll be likely to make our raid a great deal easier if we wait until the cooks are gone and the teachers are in bed. We don't care if we are caught, but we don't want to be caught until after we've had something to eat."
The girls realized the common sense in this, but it was all they could do to be patient and wait. The thought of something to eat—all they wanted to eat—after a week of starvation made them ravenous, furiously impatient of delay.
The time passed at last, however, and when the "lights out" gong sounded through the hall the girls were apparently in bed and fast asleep.
Hardly five minutes had passed before the doors of the different dormitories opened, and the girls crept singly or in twos and threes toward the farther end of the hall until all the hundred-odd girls of Three Towers were gathered there except two. Two of them had stayed behind, and so absorbed were the other girls that they never noticed the absence of Amanda Peabody and Eliza Dilks.
It may be that Rose noticed, for as she left the dormitory she looked over at them and smiled a little. She had guessed at the truth.
For Amanda and Eliza disliked Billie so bitterly that they would even go hungry for the chance of getting even with her. Miss Ada and Miss Cora would be very glad to know who had been the ring-leader in the rebellion!
In the meantime the girls, satisfied that every one was present, had started softly down the back stairs which led them by the shortest way to the kitchen.
As Billie had said, they did not care if they were discovered, except that if they were caught they would probably have a harder time getting what they wanted.
Billie was in the lead with Vi and Laura close behind her. They hardly made any noise at all, and before they knew it they were facing the closed door that led to the kitchen.
Billie swung it open cautiously and looked inside. The kitchen was dark, but she knew where the electric switch was, and the next minute the room was flooded with light.
The sudden glare rather frightened the girls, and they hesitated for a moment—but only a moment. They were terribly hungry, and just across the kitchen was the pantry, and back of that, the storeroom.
"Come on, girls," Billie whispered. "Here's where we get the best of 'The Pickles.'"
They found cold ham in the refrigerator, they found bread and butter and crackers and jam. In the twinkling of an eye all these dainties had disappeared, and they were looking around for more.
Next they raided the storeroom. They found tiers upon tiers of canned goods, and Billie, because she was the first to find a can-opener, was pronounced "official can-opener," and opened cans till her arm ached.
But how good that stolen food tasted! They ate ravenously. They ate with knives and forks and spoons, and when these ran short, they even ate with their hands. And by and by the brightness came back to their eyes, the color to their cheeks, and they chattered like joyful magpies.
When they could eat no more, they filled their pockets with biscuits and crackers and started back the way they had come.
But they only started, for as Billie opened the door that led to the stairs she found herself face to face with Miss Cora, Miss Ada, Miss Race and several of the junior teachers.
In the background—triumphant smiles upon their faces—lurked Amanda Peabody and Eliza Dilks.
The girls stood still, awaiting they did not know what, while Miss Ada and Miss Cora swept into the room followed by the other teachers, Amanda and the Shadow. The Misses Dill carried their noses high in the air, and there was a grim expression around their mouths. But as the girls glanced from them to Miss Race they saw that the latter looked troubled.
"Amanda and Eliza did it," Laura whispered fiercely in Billie's ear. "They waited behind and told on us—the sneaks! Oh, how I wish——"
"Silence!" cried Miss Cora Dill, glaring at Laura. "If there is any talking done in this place to-night, I expect to do it."
She paused a minute, sweeping the girls with an icy glance, then her eyes rested accusingly upon Billie.
"Three Towers," she said then, "has never before been the scene of such a disgraceful happening. It is preposterous, unthinkable! I shudder to think of what will happen when Miss Walters hears the truth.
"And of course," she added, her eyes still fixed upon Billie, "you girls would never have thought of such a thing if you hadn't been put up to it. Fortunately, I have been able to learn the name of the—person," the word held so much of contempt that Billie's face burned, "who started this disgraceful affair."
By one accord the girls turned accusing eyes upon Amanda and Eliza, but the latter only tossed their heads and looked defiant.
"Beatrice Bradley"—Miss Cora almost spit out the name—"step forward, if you please."
Poor Billie wanted desperately to run away somewhere and hide. But she held her head high, and her eyes met Miss Cora's squarely.
"I want you to tell the truth," said Miss Cora, angered by what she took to be the insolence of the girl. "Did you or did you not propose this outrageous affair?"
But this was more than the girls would stand for. Before Billie had a chance to answer there arose from different parts of the room a score of voices raised in protest.
"We all did it."
"Billie isn't any more to blame than the rest of us."
"It isn't fair."
"We were all in it together."
Billie had so many defenders that the noise they made completely drowned Miss Cora's voice and prevented her from speaking for several moments. This, of course, only served to make her angrier than before.
"I didn't ask you all to talk," she said, when at last she could make herself heard. "It seemed to me I was speaking to Beatrice Bradley. I will ask it once more," turning to Billie, who was rather white now. "Were you or were you not the ring-leader of this affair?"
There was absolute quiet in the room while the girls waited miserably for Billie's answer. They knew her well enough to know what it would be, even before she spoke.
Then Billie lifted her head and said quietly:
"Yes, Miss Dill, I was the one who started the trouble. I don't think any of the girls would have thought of it if it hadn't been for me."
A ripple of protest rose behind her, but Miss Dill waved it down angrily.
"Then by your own confession," she said, something of triumph gleaming in her eyes, "you have not only broken all the rules of Three Towers but you have incited the rest of the girls to do likewise. Have you anything to say for yourself?"
"No, Miss Dill." Billie's voice was so low it could hardly be heard.
"You are not even sorry?" Miss Cora went on relentlessly.
"No," said Billie, lifting her head and looking Miss Cora straight in the eyes. "We have been nearly starved since Miss Walters left, and some of the girls have been sick from hunger." Her voice rose a little and the color came back to her face as she flung out a challenge like a flag of war. "I'm sorry, Miss Dill, but if I had to, I would do it all over again."
Miss Cora looked as if she doubted the evidence of her ears, while a murmur of applause went up from the girls. Oh, but they were proud of Billie!
"You have heard what she said," Miss Cora Dill turned to the teachers behind her. "Such insolence can only result in expulsion. Beatrice Bradley, come with me. The rest of you," she turned fiercely upon the other girls, "will go up to your dormitories. To-morrow I will deal with you."
As Billie, dread in her heart at that awful word "expulsion," started toward Miss Cora Dill, Caroline Brant caught her hand and whispered reassuringly in her ear.
"Don't worry," she said. "They won't dare expel you. When Miss Walters hears all about it she will be more than likely to expel them!"
Billie gave her a wan little smile, squeezed her hand gratefully, and was promptly taken into custody by Miss Cora. Then the teachers stood aside while the rest of the girls filed past them upstairs.
In the dormitories all was confusion. Sleep was out of the question, and the girls gathered in excited groups discussing the terrible thing that had happened to them, half wishing for Miss Walters, yet half afraid to have her come back. Suppose she should side with the "Dill Pickles"? Then all would indeed be lost.
But Billie was their chief worry.
"Why didn't she fib about it?" cried one girl, pacing up and down excitedly. "We would all have backed her up. She knew that."
"But Billie doesn't fib," said Vi proudly. "And besides, it wouldn't have done her any good. Amanda and the Shadow had already told, and they were right here in the dorm when we were planning the raid."
Fiercely the girls looked around for the sneaks; but they were nowhere to be seen.
"Probably 'The Pickles' are taking good care of the little darlings," sneered Laura. "Oh, how I'd like to get my hands on them!"
"What's the matter, Rose?" asked Caroline Brant suddenly. "Don't you feel good?"
For Rose was sitting on the edge of her bed, her head bowed on her clasped hands. At Caroline's question she raised her head and looked around her miserably.
"No, I don't feel good. I—I have a headache," she said.
The girls regarded her curiously for a minute, and then forgot all about her. They had worse things than headaches to worry about.
Rose did indeed have a headache, but the headache was mostly caused by a heartache. She herself did not quite understand it.
Billie had at last been singled out from all the other girls for punishment, would perhaps be expelled from Three Towers Hall, and where she, Rose, should have been happy about it, she was only miserable.
Of course she had really had no hand in Billie's disgrace—this time. But she had planned and schemed for it before, and that made her almost as bad in her own eyes as those two wretched sneaks whom all the girls hated and despised. If they could only know what had been in her mind they would hate and despise her, too!
Her head felt hot and her lips were feverish. It was a terrible thing to despise oneself. The only way she could ever put things straight again was to find some way of getting Billie out of her scrape. She must think of a plan!
Suddenly she jumped to her feet, and the girls turned startled eyes upon her.
"I have it!" she cried. "We must get word to Miss Walters. If she could know what an awful fix we're in, she'd come right back. I'm sure she would."
The girls stared for a minute—then seized eagerly on the plan.
"But how can we get word to her if we haven't her address?" Connie Danvers asked. But Rose answered her impatiently.
"I've thought of that," she said, then went on to explain while the girls listened eagerly how she had taken some letters to the mail box for Miss Race, and, happening to glance down, had seen that the top one was addressed to Miss Walters.
Luckily she remembered the address, and now when one of the girls handed her a slip of paper she wrote it down feverishly.
"But how are we going to get word to her?" asked one of the girls, and they looked at each other helplessly. "'The Pickles' won't let anybody outside the Hall, and they'll look over all the mail."
They were still trying to think of a plan when a step in the hall—a step that sounded very much like Miss Ada Dill's firm tread—sent them scattering.
A little later silence settled like a cloud over the dormitories, but few of the girls slept. They were thinking—thinking——
By and by Laura leaned across and whispered to Vi.
"Asleep?" she asked.
"No, I can't sleep," said Vi miserably. "I keep thinking of Billie and where they've put her and—and—everything."
"Well, I've thought of a real plan," whispered Laura mysteriously.
"You have?" cried Vi, sitting up in her turn. "What is it?"
But in the darkness Laura shook her head.
"Not now," she said. "I'll tell you in the morning."
A PRISONER OF WAR
It was a bad night for all the girls, but for Billie Bradley it was a nightmare. Miss Cora Dill had thrust her into a little room just big enough to contain a couch, a table, and one or two chairs.
When Billie had asked for a light the door had been slammed in her face and she had heard the key turn in the lock.
So she was a prisoner—and in disgrace. All her dreams had come to that. Miss Cora had said she would be expelled from Three Towers Hall when Miss Walters heard what she had done.
But in her heart Billie did not believe that. The hope that when Miss Walters was told everything she would side with the girls was the only thing that kept her from being absolutely miserable. For Miss Walters was always fair.
Billie had never been afraid of the dark. She was not really afraid of it now. But as the hours crept by and the place became still with the stillness of midnight, she began to feel uneasy and very, very lonesome.
The silence was so deep that she was afraid to move for fear of breaking it, but at last, because her limbs were cramping and she was beginning to feel chilled, she rose from the couch where she had been sitting and began moving cautiously about the room.
She stubbed her toe against one chair and almost fell over the other, making so much noise that her heart stood still and she looked fearfully over her shoulder. Finally she came over to the couch again and sank down upon it, feeling that she must cry or die.
But she did not do either, just sat there thinking and thinking what she could do next. She would have to sleep, she supposed, although Miss Cora had not given her any nightgown and there were no bedclothes.
Then a happy thought struck her, and she turned down the cover of the couch and found, as she had hoped, that the couch was made up as a bed. There were several rooms like this in Three Towers—rooms used only when there was an overflow of students. Billie remembered having heard the girls speak of them as "cubby holes."
But Billie was tired and unhappy, and all of a sudden her only wish was to get within the protection of those covers. Perhaps it would not then seem so lonesome and she was cold.
After that she knew no more till morning.
It was a dark, dreary morning with a bite in the air that felt like snow. There was no sign of sunshine anywhere, either outside or inside of Three Towers Hall.
The girls rose reluctantly, and there was rebellion in their eyes. They were on the verge of revolt, and it needed only one more unfair act on the part of Miss Cora or Miss Ada Dill to start the ball rolling.
"Are we going down to breakfast?" asked Laura, as the breakfast gong rang.
"I suppose we'd better," answered Caroline Brant, her eyes looking tired and red-rimmed under the spectacles. "We have to eat, anyway. After we get through we can come up here and decide what we're going to do."
"Well, I know one thing we're going to do," said Laura fiercely. "If the Dill Pickles don't let Billie come back to us, or at least tell us where she is, I'm going to set the place on fire, that's all."
"That wouldn't help Billie any," said Rose, as they turned from the room.
Breakfast was gloomier than ever that morning. The girls were heavy-eyed and sullen, and Miss Cora, presiding grimly at the head of the table, looked, as one of the older girls said, "like a death's head at the feast."
"But where was the feast?" another girl retorted.
In fact this meal was scantier than any that had gone before, and if it had not been for the night's raid the girls would have been in a pretty bad way.
Amanda and the "Shadow" were there, and if looks could kill, they would have both died on the spot. But there was no sign of Billie. The girls had hardly thought there would be, but they had hoped.
A little while later there was another mass meeting held in dormitory "C," and it was Rose Belser this time who took the floor.
"We simply can't stand it any longer, girls," she told them, her black eyes snapping. "Wasn't that a wonderful breakfast we had this morning? It makes you sick to think of it. And we don't even know whether Billie got as much as we did. We've got to do something right away. We can try to get word to Miss Walters. I have her address, but I don't know how we're ever going to——"
She was interrupted by a familiar whistle from somewhere outside, and the girls ran over to the window. Sure enough, there were Chet and Teddy, looking, to the girls, like a couple of heaven-sent messengers, standing underneath the window, skates flung over their shoulders, looking up toward them expectantly.
"Wait a minute," Laura called down, "Don't dare go away from there. You're angels, and have come just when we wanted you most."
She turned a radiant face to the girls and began to speak hurriedly.
"I had it all figured out last night, girls," she said, while they listened eagerly. "When you told me you knew Miss Walters' address, Rose, I thought of the boys right away. There was just a chance that they might come over this morning or this afternoon. And now they're here."
"Well?" they asked, puzzled.
"Oh, don't you see?" Laura clapped her hands impatiently. "The 'Dill Pickles' won't let any of us send word to Miss Walters, but the boys can do it for us."
Before she had finished a dozen girls were scrambling for pencil and paper, Laura was pushed into a chair by the table and was commanded to write and write quickly.
And Laura obeyed while the girls fairly hung over her, offering suggestions, and all talking at once until it was a wonder she could write anything at all.
She told the boys briefly what had happened and begged them to send word to Miss Walters at once. Then they tied the precious piece of paper around an inkwell—who cared for the wreck of a mere inkwell at a time like this?—and threw it out of the window.
Teddy picked it up wonderingly and unwound the paper, while Chet peered over his shoulder and the girls watched breathlessly from above. When Teddy came to the part about Billie's capture he was all for storming the castle, meeting the "Lions in their den, the Pickles in their hall," and rescuing the heroine without delay. But Chet held him back.
After that they had what seemed to be a rather heated argument, but Chet finally got the best of it, and after a wave to the girls, who were fairly hanging out of the dormitory windows, the two boys started off and disappeared around the corner of the building.
The girls watched them out of sight, then turned to each other with shining eyes.
"That ought to bring Miss Walters back in a hurry," said Vi. "Then everything will be all right."
"Yes, but we may starve before she gets here," said one of the girls gloomily.
"And Billie! Oh, girls, we've just got to get her out!" added Laura. "Nobody knows where she is or what they're doing to her."
Without warning, the door opened and Billie herself flew in upon them.
"Girls," she cried breathlessly, "can't you hide me somewhere? I've—I've—escaped!"
"Escaped!" they cried, crowding around her, all asking questions at once, feeling her, to be sure that it was really she, until Billie made frantic signs for them to be quiet.
"Girls," she cried, "please stop talking and listen to me. Miss Cora will find that I'm gone in a minute, and she's sure to come right here for me."
"Well, she won't get you, that's one sure thing," cried Laura staunchly.
"But tell us about it," urged another girl. "Did they have you locked up?"
"Yes," said Billie, adding with a shiver: "And I had a terrible night. But this morning Miss Cora herself brought me some breakfast—I wish you could have seen it—and she was just saying some nice mean things to me when Miss Race called her away for something, said it was important. Miss Cora went out without locking the door. So I didn't stop for anything, I just ran. I had something I wanted to tell you."
"Good old Miss Race," Connie interrupted, her eyes shining. "I bet she just did it on purpose."
"But listen," Billie broke in hurriedly. "I thought of something while I was locked up, and I want to tell you about it before they catch me again. It's about getting news to Miss Walters. The boys will probably be around this morning, and if you could let them know——"
"But we've already done that," interrupted a score of eager voices, and Billie clapped her hands delightedly.
"Good!" she cried. Then her face sobered again and she looked nervously toward the door. "I suppose Miss Cora will be along in a minute, and she'll want to lock me up again. And I suppose she'll be so mad at my getting away that she won't give me anything to eat now."
But suddenly Rose jumped to her feet, face flushed, eyes shining. This was her chance to square herself with Billie and all the rest.
"Tell me something, girls," she cried. "Are we going to let Miss Cora have Billie? Are we?"
"We are not!" they cried lustily; and Billie suddenly saw them through a mist of tears.
The girls expected trouble and they had not long to wait for it. They had left Billie inside the dormitory, had gone into the hall, closed the door after them firmly and had defiantly placed themselves before it.
They rather welcomed the sight of Miss Cora, stiff-backed and stern-lipped, bearing down upon them like a tug of war. They had learned in their history, that in "union there is strength," and now they were about to test the truth of it. If one of them felt her courage slipping, all she had to do was to think of the breakfast they had had that morning and, presto, it was all back again.
Miss Cora stopped as she came to the foremost girls, and her eyes swept them coldly.
"What is the meaning of this?" she asked, adding as the girls did not show any intention of moving: "Let me pass, at once."
Then Rose stepped forward a little and drawled, in the insolent tone that only Rose knew how to use.
"Where are you going, Miss Dill?"
Miss Cora looked as stunned as if she had been hit on the head with a hammer. That one of the girls should have the insolence—the absolute impertinence—to ask her, Miss Cora Dill, where she was going!
Then a hot wave of anger flowed over her, and she found her voice.
"Where I am going has nothing to do with it, whatever," she said, her voice icy. "I command you to stand away from that door."
Then it was Caroline Brant who spoke in her quiet, calm voice.
"We will be glad to do as you say, Miss Dill," she said, "if you will promise not to lock Billie Bradley up again."
"Promise—not to lock——?" gasped Miss Cora. Then she turned upon the girls with blazing eyes. "You are mad—all of you!" she said, her voice shaking with fury. "I will wire Miss Walters at once!" and she turned away down the hall, her hands so tightly clenched that her nails left little angry red marks where they had bit into the flesh.
The girls watched her go—then turned back into the dormitory with a sigh. They had won a victory, and yet they were not happy about it. Except that Billie was free, things were even worse than before.
"Now I don't know what we're going to do," said Vi, gazing drearily out of the window. The leaden sky had turned still darker and a flurry of snow had begun to fall.
The gong for classes rang out through the hall and the girls started and looked at each other questioningly. Several of them began to gather up their books, but Billie, who had been thinking deeply, suddenly sprang to her feet.
"Listen, girls," she said, and they looked at her questioningly. "It seems to me there's only one thing left for us to do. We can't go to classes, not after what we've just done, and we can't stay around here till Miss Walters comes. The Pickles will surely starve us to death."
She paused for a moment and they looked at her expectantly. Then she lowered her voice and spoke quickly.
"Let's go home," she said. "Or at least we can go to the hotel in town till Miss Walters gets back. What do you say?"
And not one of the girls but what hailed the idea joyfully. It would be rebellion, of course; and a few days before they would have hesitated. But not now.
They set about packing in feverish haste, fairly throwing their things into their suitcases. They were afraid of having their plans spoiled at the last minute. And in Molata they could get all they wanted to eat; that is, as long as their money held out.
At last they were ready. Hats and coats on, valises in hand, they gathered in the hall waiting for Billie to give the word to march.
Eyes were bright, color was high, for they had started on real adventure and they were beginning to enjoy it.
"Come on," said Billie, raising her hand smartly to the little brown hat in salute. "For-ward march!"
As they reached the lower hall they were met by Miss Ada Dill and Miss Cora, Miss Race and several of the other teachers. The latter had feared trouble when the girls failed to report at classes, and had started out to see what the matter was.
And now they saw! Before they could even gasp their amazement the girls swept past them, opened the front door, and ran down the steps to the drive. There were only about a hundred of them, but it seemed to the teachers who watched them go that there were easily twice that number.
"They've struck," said Miss Race, turning to the other teachers with consternation in her eyes, while they looked back at her soberly. "I wonder what Miss Walters will say."
"We'll very soon find out what she'll say," Miss Cora Dill spoke up grimly. "I sent a wire to Miss Walters this morning. She will surely be back in a day or two."
Meanwhile, out on the road, the girls were trudging gamely on toward town. The first thrill had gone from the adventure, and they were beginning to wonder what made their grips so heavy.
And the snow, which had begun in a light flurry, was coming down heavily now, covering the woods and the road before them with a white fleecy blanket.
The wind had risen, too, and they were forced to stop time and time again to straighten hats and shake the clinging snow from their skirts.
And because of the wind they did not hear the sound of voices. So that Chet and Teddy, coming back from their errand to town, were almost upon them before they knew it.
And then something happened that made the girls drop their bags and stare in stupid amazement.
Out from the bushes straight in front of them sprang the figure of a man. And at the same moment Chet and Teddy rounded the curve of the road.
The man straightened and looked wildly from one group to the other, and then made as though to double on his tracks and dive into the woods again.
"Stop that man!" shouted Teddy. "He robbed our Academy! That's right, girls—head him off!"
For Billie, with a gasp of astonishment, had recognized the Codfish, and seeing what he was about to do had darted forward straight in his path. A score of the other girls followed her example, and so quickly was the move made that the man found his escape cut off entirely.
Wildly he looked about him, started in the other direction, but found his path blocked there also.
With a snarl of rage he flung himself forward, resolved to break his way through by force, but Teddy and Chet were too quick for him.
Not for nothing had they won medals on the track team, and now, as the thief made his last attempt, his arms were caught in a strong grip and were twisted behind him so suddenly that he cried out with the pain of it.
It was Teddy who had caught him, and now as the man struggled to free himself he called out a sharp order to Chet.
"Give me your skate strap, quick," he cried. "This chap's as slippery as an eel. What are you doing?"
For Chet, seeing that the Codfish was struggling to get his imprisoned hands down to a suspicious bulge over his right hip, sprang forward and drew the hidden revolver from its holster.
"The game's up, old man," he crowed exultantly. Then, turning, he handed the pistol to Billie. "Keep him covered, old girl," he said, "till I get this strap loose and handcuff the gentleman. That's the girl! Steady, Mr. Codfish—we've got you now."
The Codfish made as though to spring upon Billie, revolver and all, but Billie kept her head. Several of the girls screamed, but she was not one of them.
She stepped back a few steps and waved the revolver threateningly. She was "horribly afraid of the old thing," but not for the world would she have let any one suspect it.
"If you don't stand still I'll shoot," she said, a quaver in her voice despite all her efforts to speak calmly. "I've got this thing aimed at just about where your heart is, I guess."
The Codfish glared at her wildly, hesitated just a minute, but that hesitation cost him his chance. Chet had at last got his skate strap loose, and had bound it tightly about the man's wrists, while Teddy still held his arms tight to prevent a sudden dash into the woods.
"Now I guess we've got you," cried Teddy jubilantly. "You will rob our Academy, will you, and expect to get away with it? Now I guess the next thing is to hand you over to the first policeman we meet. Come on now, forward march."
"But did he really rob your Academy?" asked Laura eagerly, as the girls picked up their grips where they had dropped them in the road and they all started on together.
"I'll say he did!" said Chet indignantly. "And he got away with a pretty haul, too. That's what we were going to tell you girls about this morning. But say——" he broke off and looked at them with a funny expression on his face, "we've been so busy catching the crook that we never thought! Say, where are you going with your suitcases and everything? And—and how did Billie get loose? The last we heard of her, she was locked up."
"Yes, what is it—a walkout?" asked Teddy, looking in bewilderment from Billie to the other girls. But suddenly Rose gave a sharp cry of warning.
"The Codfish," she cried. "Look out!"
For Teddy, in his bewilderment, had loosened his grip of the thief's arm, and the latter had taken this chance to make a dash for liberty.
With a kangaroo leap Teddy was upon him, and Chet, snatching the pistol from Billie's hand, pointed it threateningly.
"None of that, old chap!" he cried. "You'd better be a good little boy or you'll get a taste of something worse than prison. Now, then, forward march, and mind your Ps and Qs."
The Codfish shot a glance at Chet that made the girls shiver, but he went ahead, nevertheless.
"We ought to meet the sheriff and his hick policemen pretty soon," said Chet, keeping his eyes and his pistol fixed unwaveringly on the captive's back, while Teddy gripped his arm with both hands and the girls crowded close behind. "He pulled off this stunt last night, and Captain Shelling, the owner of our school, sent us to town to notify the police."
"Oh," said Billie thoughtfully. "So that was where you were going this morning when you stopped at the Hall. What's that?" she added as the sound of voices, somewhat muffled by the storm, reached them.
"I hope it's the sheriff," said Teddy, hurrying his captive forward through the snow. "Say, I'm glad we caught this fellow now before he had a chance to make off with what he stole. We may have a chance of getting it back."
They turned a curve in the road and saw a party of half a dozen men coming toward them on a run.
"The sheriff!" yelled Teddy. "Here's some more luck."
But the sheriff's party seemed almost more surprised at sight of the hundred-odd girls from Three Towers Hall than they were delighted to see the boys and their captive.
They were more interested in the Codfish, however, and promptly took him into custody, exchanging real handcuffs for the strap the boys had used.
The boys eagerly told the story of his capture, giving the girls more credit for their part of it than they deserved, or so the latter protested, and the sheriff and his party listened with delighted grins.
"Pretty good work," said one of them approvingly. "You couldn't have done any better if you'd planned it. Well, good day to you, and thanks. We'll soon put this rascal where he won't do more stealing of other people's goods. Get up there, will you?" and he gave the sullen Codfish a push that sent him staggering up the road in front of them.
Before the party disappeared the sheriff turned once more to look back curiously at the girls and boys who were still standing in the road, staring after them.
"Well, I'll be jiggered, but that is curious," he said, shaking his head doubtfully. "Looks as if all of Three Towers Hall had turned out for an outing."
"Humph, funny kind of weather for an outing," replied another one. "They didn't have a teacher with 'em, either. Pretty queer, I call it."
"Well," said another, philosophically chewing a huge cud of tobacco, "I call it lucky. If those girls hadn't happened along just when they did we wouldn't have got hold of this bird so slick. And who am I, to be quarreling with fate?"
"Gee, that was some slick work!" crowed Teddy Jordon exultantly. "Who'd ever think we would catch the old Codfish. But say——" he broke off, his face growing sober as he looked at the girls. "You haven't told us yet just why you're taking this tramp in the snow. What's the idea—a health cure or something?"
"No, it isn't a health cure," explained Billie, a trifle wearily, for now that the excitement of catching the Codfish was over the girls were beginning to feel cold and hungry and rather forlorn. "We're just leaving Three Towers, that's all."
"Leaving Three Towers!" the boys repeated incredulously. And Teddy added, seeing in a flash the real state of affairs: "Now I get the idea. You're striking, aren't you?"
"Say, that reminds me," said Chet. "We sent a telegram to Miss Walters asking her to come back at once. We sent it for you even before we told the police about the Codfish."
The girls brightened, and Billie darted forward eagerly and caught Chet by the sleeve.
"Oh, Chet, what did you tell her?" she cried. "Did you ask her to come back right away?"
Chet nodded importantly. "I told her enough to bring her back on the run, I guess," he said, adding with a grin: "I made up the telegram and Teddy paid for it."
"Oh, you darling!" cried Billie, hugging both the boys to the great delight of Teddy, who made the girls giggle by asking if there was not another telegram he could send.
"Come on, girls," cried Billie, forgetting, in the hope of seeing Miss Walters again before long, that she was tired and hungry. "If we hurry we can get to town before the snow gets too deep."
"But, say," cried Teddy, as the girls started on their way, "aren't you even going to say good-bye to us? That's gratitude for you!"
The girls stopped short and looked surprised.
"Aren't you going to the town with us?" asked Vi.
"You needn't think that because you're on strike that we are, too," said Chet reproachfully. "Captain Shelling didn't give us the whole day off, you know."
"You deserve it just the same," said Connie Danvers. "He'll probably give you a week off and a medal when he learns how you caught the thief."
"But we couldn't have caught him if you girls hadn't come along," protested Teddy modestly. "If we get a holiday we'll see that you get one, too."
"We're taking ours now," laughed Billie. "Good-bye, boys; and thanks awfully for sending the telegram."
Teddy and Chet stood watching the girls as they trudged through the clinging snow, and when they turned away their faces were unusually sober.
"That's a plucky thing to do," said Teddy admiringly. "But I bet they would never have had the nerve to do it if Billie hadn't set them up to it."
"Billie's some class, isn't she?" Chet took him up eagerly. "Just look how she jumped in front of the Codfish. She might have been shot, but she never even thought of it. Say," he added, his chest swelling visibly with pride, "I've always thought I'd like a brother; but Billie's as good as a brother, any day."
"She's a sight better," Teddy contradicted fervently.
Tired but hopeful, the girls trudged the remaining distance to town and started up the main street toward the one big hotel in Molata. They strung down the street in what seemed an endless line, and people passing stared wonderingly and turned around for another look when the girls had passed them.
People gathered at the windows and in the door-ways to look at the strange procession, but the girls were too tired and hungry to notice them.
When they filed into the big summer hotel lobby, how the clerk at the desk and the few men gathered about did stare! A hundred girls, all pretty and daintily dressed, but seeming, by their suitcases and their clothes which were powdered thick with clinging wet snow, to have walked a good distance, were sure to create a sensation.
The girls hung back, realizing for the first time how they must appear to strangers and not quite certain just what to do next. But, as usual, Billie took the lead.
She went toward the clerk with an uncertain, apologetic little smile that would have softened a much harder heart than his and said that she would like to engage rooms for herself and her friends.
Be it said to the credit of the clerk, who was rather a nice looking boy with sand colored hair and eyes to match, that he did not even smile.
Soberly he asked Billie how many rooms she would need, and Billie turned to the girls rather helplessly. Then it was Caroline Brant who came to her aid.
"We can sleep three in a room," she said, regarding the clerk gravely through her horn-rimmed spectacles. "So you can figure out just how many we'll need."
"If we could have cots put in the rooms," Billie ventured, "we could get more than three in one room."
"All right," the clerk answered, still unsmiling, while several people had gathered around and were looking on with interest. "If you don't mind cots I guess I can fix you up all right. It's lucky that it's winter," he added, a little twinkle creeping into his nice eyes, "and that the hotel isn't crowded, or we might have to turn somebody out."
He watched the girls go up the stairway to the rooms above—for they had decided they would rather walk than wait for the elevator—then turned to one of the men lounging near with a chuckle.
"Nice kids," he said, regarding the signatures in the big book before him written in unmistakably girlish hands. "If they weren't dressed so well, I'd say it was an orphan asylum out for an airing."
Meanwhile the girls had decided that they were more hungry than they were tired, and so merely stopped to drop their bags in their rooms and brush a little of the clinging snow from their clothing before setting forth in search of food.
They had decided to separate into groups and to eat in different places so as not to attract too much attention, and they were gathered on the sidewalk in front of the hotel wondering just what to do next when suddenly one of the girls gave a startled cry.
"Girls—no, it isn't—yes, it is!" she cried, clutching the girl beside her hysterically. "Look! There's Miss Walters!"
"Oh, it can't be!"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, there she is! There she is!"
And Miss Walters—for it was indeed she—attracted by the hubbub as were some other passersby, looked at the girls first curiously, then in astounded amazement. To her startled vision it seemed as if all the girls in the world were gathered there on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. And they were her girls—the girls of Three Towers Hall!
She hurried forward, feeling that the next moment she must wake up and find it all a dream, and the girls surged around her in an eager flood.
They were so wildly surprised and joyful at the unexpected meeting that they were almost ready to get down on their knees and thank the fates who had sent her to them just when they needed her most.
They all started to talk at once, but Miss Walters, having recovered a little from her first surprise and seeing that a curious crowd was beginning to gather, spoke to them authoritatively.
"Come inside," she said. "I can't imagine what has brought you here like this, but we certainly can't talk about it in the street."
She led the way through the doorway and into the hotel lobby, which was fortunately deserted. Then she sank down upon a couch and the girls gathered eagerly around her.
"Now suppose one of you tell me the meaning of all this," said Miss Walters, her blue eyes a little hard and accusing. She had no idea what had happened, but she knew that if the girls were responsible for this unheard of proceeding it would go hard with them. Miss Walters was fair and just, and because she was just she could be sternness itself where any disobedience on the part of the girls was concerned.
As for the girls themselves, all their old fears of expulsion came back at this attitude of their president, and they looked rather helplessly at each other.
Then Connie Danvers nudged Billie and whispered something in her ear. And Billie bravely did as she was asked, although, as she afterward said, her knees were trembling under her.
"Miss Walters," she began hesitatingly, as Miss Walters turned a steady gaze upon her, "I can explain why we are here and everything that has happened since you left—if you will let me," she finished rather timidly.
"That is just what I want you to do," said Miss Walters gravely.
As Billie told her story Miss Walters' expression changed, became less stern, and she leaned forward in amazement.
"You say that some of the girls were faint and sick from lack of food?" she asked once incredulously. "Why, it's—it's incredible. But go on," she interrupted herself impatiently. "What happened then?"
When Billie told of the raid, her imprisonment in the little room, her escape, and finally the decision of the girls to leave Three Towers and come to the hotel until Miss Walters' return, the latter jumped to her feet, her face flushing angrily.
"I'm glad I came just when I did," she said. "I was tempted to stay longer, but something told me that I might be needed, and that something was right. Come, girls, we'll hire all the taxis in town if we have to, and private automobiles, too, and get back to Three Towers immediately."
"We'll have to get our baggage," Billie suggested timidly.
"Your baggage?" queried Miss Walters absently, her mind on what she would do when she reached Three Towers.
"Yes, we left our bags in our rooms upstairs."
"Your rooms?" Miss Walters asked, then added with a compassionate smile that made her seem more beautiful than ever to the adoring girls: "Why, of course, you poor children! I forgot that you expected to stay over night. All right, run up and get your bags while I see the room clerk and about getting us back to Three Towers."
The girls never forgot that triumphant ride back to Three Towers through the snow. Nor did they forget what happened afterward.
Miss Ada and Miss Cora Dill and the other teachers saw them coming, and Miss Cora's lips tightened grimly. She was the first to greet Miss Walters at the door.
"Go up to your dormitories, girls," said Miss Walters, hardly glancing at the teachers. "We will have lunch in half an hour—a real lunch. Just a minute," she called, as the girls started jubilantly off. "I'd like to speak to Beatrice Bradley in my private office immediately."
Billie came back, wondering just what was going to happen next, while Laura picked up the suitcase she had dropped and hurriedly followed the other girls.
Then Miss Walters turned to the teachers.
"Will you all come with me into my office?" she asked. "There is a very important matter which I must attend to before I do anything else."
She walked down the corridor to her office and opened the door. Then she motioned them inside, stepped in after them and closed the door decidedly.
"Sit down, please," she said, and when they were all seated she sat down at her desk and regarded them gravely. "As you know," she said, "an unheard-of thing happened this morning, and I must have the testimony of every one before I can decide one way or the other."
Then very quietly she told of her meeting with the girls that morning and repeated almost word for word the story of what had happened during her absence as told by Billie and supported by the other girls.
The faces of Miss Ada and Miss Cora had been growing redder and redder, and now as Miss Walters finished and looked about her Miss Cora burst out angrily.
"I hardly expected that you would listen to the girls' account of it, Miss Walters," she said. "What they have said is not true."
"Pardon me, Miss Walters," Miss Race broke in, and they all turned to her, "but I can testify that everything that Beatrice Bradley has told you is absolute fact. I don't think that Miss Cora will deny," she turned to Miss Cora, who was white with fury, "that I have time and time again remonstrated with her and Miss Ada for their treatment of the girls."
"Is that so, Miss Cora—and Miss Ada?" asked Miss Walters, turning to the sisters, whose anger was slowly beginning to change to fear.
"Yes, Miss Walters," said Miss Cora at last, "it is true that Miss Race was continually interfering in our government of the girls during your absence. But," she added, while her mouth set in a grim line, "I still maintain that we did nothing during your absence that you yourself would not have done."
There was deep silence in the room for a minute while Miss Walters' eyes wandered from one intent face to another and then dropped to the blotter on her desk.
Billie's heart was beating so hard she was afraid it could be heard in the room.
Then Miss Walters' voice came to them, cool, incisive.
"I'm sorry," she was saying, looking from Miss Ada to Miss Cora and back again, "but I can't agree with you. Surely while I have had charge of Three Towers the girls have not gone hungry or become faint and sick from lack of nourishment. Neither have they raided pantries and storerooms and deserted Three Towers en masse, Miss Cora." She paused, and one could have heard a pin drop in the room. "I am very sorry, but I think that after Monday Three Towers will have no further need of your services, nor of those of Miss Ada. That is all, I think."
She rose by way of dismissal, and the other teachers rose also. Billie, who was nearest the door, slipped out quietly and ran swiftly up the stairs toward her dormitory. Her head was in a whirl, and all she wanted to do was to get with the girls again and tell them the marvelous thing that had happened.
The other girls were waiting for her, and as she burst in upon them they carried her off, seated her royally on top of a dresser, and gathered around eagerly, all talking at once and demanding to know what had happened.
Somehow, she made them see the scene in Miss Walters' office as if they had been there themselves, the scene in which the girls had won the great victory and the "Dill Pickles" had been dismissed.
They were just at the height of their rejoicing when the bell rang for lunch, and with one accord they stampeded for the dining room.
And it was a real lunch, as Miss Walters had promised—a lunch that disappeared as if by magic, and when it was over the students of Three Towers were really comfortable for the first time in over a week.
And everybody was happy, except Miss Ada Dill and Miss Cora; and Amanda Peabody and Eliza Dilks, perhaps. However, even though her attempt had failed this time, Amanda was by no means discouraged. There would be other chances—and then she would get even with Billie Bradley!
Rose Belser was happier than she had been since she had first become jealous of Billie. She was happy because she had done her best to set Billie right again, and could look at her pretty reflection in the glass once more without feeling ashamed.
It was some time later, and Billie, Vi and Laura were stretched out in comfortable attitudes on Billie's bed in dormitory "C"—for Miss Walters had declared it a half holiday. And, indeed, after lunch was over there was scarcely any of the day left, anyway.
"I feel almost sorry for Miss Ada and Miss Cora," Billie was saying, when suddenly the door opened and Connie Danvers flew in upon them.
"Girls," she cried, plumping herself down between Laura and Vi on the bed, narrowly missing the latter's feet, "I've just got a letter—there are some for you girls down in the box, too—and what do you think the folks are going to do this summer?"
The girls said they could not possibly guess, and before any of them would have had a chance to, anyway, she rattled on again:
"Mother and Dad are going to open our cottage at Lighthouse Island again—we haven't been there for several summers. My old Uncle Tom runs the lighthouse there, and he's a perfect darling. But this is the real thing," she paused and regarded them with sparkling eyes. "Mother says there will be plenty of room in the cottage for two or three of my school chums if I'd like to have them. Think of that—if I'd like to have them!"
The girls sat up and regarded Connie doubtfully. "What do you mean?" stammered Billie.
"What do I mean, you little goose?" said Connie impatiently. "Don't you know I'm asking you and Laura and Vi to go with me?"
"A summer on an island with a lighthouse!" Billie murmured, while Laura and Vi looked as if they could not believe their ears. "Now I know I'm going to just die of it."
"What?" asked Connie curiously.
"Joy," said Billie.
And whether she did actually die of joy or not—somehow one is rather certain that she did not—will be told in the next book of Billie's adventures, entitled, "Billie Bradley on Lighthouse Island; or, The Mystery of the Wreck."
Lighthouse Island was certainly a queer spot, and the girls had any number of unusual adventures there.
"We mustn't forget our own letters!" cried Billie suddenly, and then there was a rush to get the epistles. And here let us say good-bye to the girls of Three Towers Hall.
Other Books Published by GEORGE SULLY & COMPANY
BILLIE BRADLEY SERIES
BY JANET D. WHEELER
BILLIE BRADLEY AND HER INHERITANCE OR THE QUEER HOMESTEAD AT CHERRY CORNERS
BILLIE BRADLEY AT THREE TOWERS HALL OR LEADING A NEEDED REBELLION
BILLIE BRADLEY ON LIGHTHOUSE ISLAND OR THE MYSTERY OF THE WRECK
Four Little Blossoms Series
For children 5 to 9 years of age
By MABEL C. HAWLEY
Four Little Blossoms at Brookside Farm
Mother called them her Four Little Blossoms but Daddy Blossom called them Bobby, Meg and the twins. The twins, Twaddles and Dot, were a comical pair and always getting into mischief. The children had heaps of fun around the big farm, and had several real adventures in the bargain.
Four Little Blossoms at Oak Hill School
In the Fall, Bobby and Meg had to go to school. It was good fun for Miss Mason was a kind teacher. Then the twins insisted on going to school too, and their appearance quite upset the class. And in school something very odd happened and all the boys and girls wondered what it meant.
Four Little Blossoms and Their Winter Fun
Winter came and with it lots of ice and snow, and oh! what fun the Blossoms had skating and sledding. And once Bobby and Meg went on an errand and got lost in a sudden snowstorm. And once Twaddles slipped through a hole in the ice, but the others went quickly to the rescue.
The "Do Something" Series
By HELEN BEECHER LONG
A series of books for girls which have been uniformly successful. Janice Day, the "Do Something" girl, is a character that will live long in juvenile fiction. Every volume is full of inspiration. There are an abundance of humor, quaint situations, and worth-while effort, and likewise plenty of plot and mystery.
An ideal series for girls from nine to sixteen.
Janice Day, the Young Homemaker. Janice Day at Poketown. The Testing of Janice Day. How Janice Day Won. The Mission of Janice Day.
The Lucile Series
By ELIZABETH M. DUFFIELD
"These books should interest every girl who loves the open."—Chicago Evening Post.
Lucile, The Torch Bearer. Lucile Triumphant. Lucile, Bringer of Joy. Lucile on the Heights.
"Out of door" stories for girls, of vital interest and compelling charm. The wholesome spirit and beautiful aims of the "Campfire Girls" have never been more attractively described, and the fun and merriment of the outings will prove fascinating to every live girl. The heroine, Lucile, is a most spirited and striking character and one will not wonder at the almost adoring affection in which she is held by her companions.
The Nan Sherwood Series
By ANNIE ROE CARR
In Annie Roe Carr we have found a young woman of wide experience among girls—in schoolroom, in camp and while traveling. She knows girls of to-day thoroughly—their likes and dislikes—and knows that they demand almost as much action as do the boys. And she knows humor—good, clean fun and plenty of it.
Nan Sherwood at Pine Camp, or The Old Lumberman's Secret.
Nan Sherwood at Lake View Hall, or The Mystery of the Haunted Boathouse.
Nan Sherwood's Winter Holidays, or Rescuing the Runaways.
Nan Sherwood at Rose Ranch, or The Old Mexican's Treasure.
Nan Sherwood at Palm Beach, or Strange Adventures Among the Orange Groves.