MoboReader > Literature > The Camp Fire Girls Solve a Mystery; Or, The Christmas Adventure at Carver House

   Chapter 2 THE PRINCESS SYLVIA

The Camp Fire Girls Solve a Mystery; Or, The Christmas Adventure at Carver House By Hildegard G. Frey Characters: 18949

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Katherine did not know whether she was more astonished or relieved at the sudden flight of the man on the stairs. "I suppose I do look pretty wild," she reflected, "but I didn't suppose my appearance was enough to make a man run on sight. Well anyhow, he isn't going to trouble me, and that's some comfort. Now to find the singer."

There was an open transom over the door before which Katherine stood and she perceived that the voice came through this. With hand raised to knock on the door panel she paused in admiration. The song that floated through the transom had such a gay swing, such an irresistible lilt, that it set her head awhirl and her blood racing madly through her veins in a wild May dance. It was as though Spring herself, intoxicated with May dew and brimming over with all the joy of all the world, were singing. Like golden drops from a sunlit fountain the gay, glad notes showered down on her:

"Hark, hark, the lark at heaven's gate sings,

And Phoebus 'gins arise

His steeds to water at those springs

On chaliced flower that lies;

And winking Mary buds begin

To ope their golden eyes,

With everything that pretty been,

My lady sweet arise!"

The voice fell silent, and Katherine came back to herself and knocked on the door.

"Come in, my dear Duchess," called a merry voice from behind the door. There was no mistaking the note of glad welcome.

Katherine turned the knob and opened the door. Only darkness greeted her eyes.

"Where are you?" she asked.

From somewhere in the room came a sudden exclamation of surprise.

"Who is it?" demanded the voice which had bidden her enter. "You are not my lady-in-waiting, the Duchess."

"I'm afraid I'm not," said Katherine, considerably puzzled at the salutation she had received. She stood still inside the door trying to locate her mysterious hostess in the darkness. Her flashlight lay in her hand, useless, its battery burned out.

"I'm looking for another house on another hill," she began hurriedly, speaking into the darkness and feeling as though she had slipped into the Arabian Nights, "and I got the wrong hill and and now I'm so mixed up I don't know where to go. I heard you singing and came in to ask if you could tell me where the other hill is. I knocked before I came in," she added hastily, "but you didn't come to the door, so I took the liberty of walking in. I beg your pardon for coming right in that way, but I was so cold--"

"You are welcome in our lodge," interrupted the invisible voice with lofty graciousness. "Do you not know where you have come?" it continued, in a tone which indicated there was a delicious surprise in store. "This is the royal hunting lodge, and I am the Princess Sylvia!"

"Oh-h-h!" said Katherine, too much astonished to say another word. She did not know how to act when introduced to a princess.

"Is there anything I can do for your majesty?" she asked politely, remembering that the other had mentioned a lady-in-waiting that she seemed to be expecting.

"Light the lights!" commanded the voice imperiously.

Katherine took a step forward uncertainly. "Where-" she began.

"On the table beside you!" continued the voice.

Katherine put out her hand and came in contact with the edge of a table, and after groping for a moment found a box of matches. She struck one and by its flare saw an oil lamp standing on the table beside the matches. She lit it and looked around the room curiously. She could not see the owner of the voice at first. The room was large and shadowy and contained very little furniture. A bare pine table on which the lamp stood; a couple of kitchen chairs; a cot bed next to the wall; a small stove; a rocking chair and a sewing machine; these were the objects which the lamp illuminated. The other end of the room lay in deep shadow. It was from this shadow that the voice now issued again.

"Bring the lamp and come here," it commanded.

Katherine picked up the lamp from the table and advanced toward the shadowy corner of the room. The darkness fled before her as she advanced and the corner sprang into light. She saw that the corner was a bay, with three long windows, in which stood a couch. On the couch was a mountain whose slopes consisted of vari-colored piecework, and from whose peak there issued, like an eruption of golden lava, a tangle of bright yellow curls which framed about a pair of big, shining eyes. The eyes were set in a face, of course-they had to be-but the face was so white and emaciated as to be entirely inconspicuous, so Katherine's first impression consisted entirely of hair and eyes. The eyes were dark brown, a strange combination with the fair hair, and sparkled with a hundred little dancing lights, as the girl on the couch-for it was a girl apparently about fourteen years old-looked up at Katherine with a roguish smile.

"You must be Her Grace, the Marchioness St. Denis," she said with an air of stately courtesy, "of whose presence in our realm we have been informed. I trust Your Grace is not over fatigued. You will pardon the informality of our life here," she continued, her brown eyes traveling around the room and resting somewhat regretfully on the shabby furnishings. "We take up our residence in the Winter Palace for state occasions," she went on, "but for our daily life we prefer the simplicity of our Hunting Lodge. We are less hampered by formal etiquette here."

Katherine stared in perplexity. Winter Palace? Hunting Lodge? Her Grace the Marchioness? What was this strange child talking about? Her feeling of having wakened in the midst of a fairy tale deepened.

"You can see the Winter Palace from the window here, when there isn't any frost on it," proceeded the "princess," setting up a volcanic disturbance inside the patchwork mountain by turning herself inside of it, and she pointed toward one of the bay windows with a thin white hand. "It's on top of a high hill and at night it twinkles."

It came over Katherine in a flash that possibly it was Nyoda's house that this queer child meant by the "Winter Palace." A big house set on a high hill--

A rippling laugh caused her to look down hastily, and there was the girl on the couch fairy convulsed with laughter.

"It's been such fun!" she exclaimed, demolishing the mountain by throwing the quilt aside with a sudden movement of her arms and disclosing a slender little body wrapped in a grayish woolen dressing gown. "I never had anybody from outside to play it with before. I get tired playing it alone so much, and Aunt Aggie is mostly always too busy to play it with me. Besides," she said with a regretful sigh, "she has no imagination, and she forgets most of the really important things. Oh, it was wonderful when you said, 'Is there anything I can do for you, Your Majesty?' It was just as real as real!" She laughed with delight at the remembrance.

Katherine, as much startled by the swift change in her little hostess as she had been at her strange manner of speech in the beginning, was still uncertain what to say. "Is it a game?" she asked finally.

The girl nodded and began to explain, talking as though to an old friend.

"You see," she began, "not being able to walk, it's so hard to find anything really thrilling to do."

"You are lame?" asked Katherine with quick sympathy. It had just come over her that while the slender arms had been waving incessantly in animated gestures as the voice chattered gaily on, the limbs under the dressing gown had not moved.

The girl nodded in reply to Katherine's question. "Crippled," she explained. "I was following a horse down the middle of the street trying to figure out which leg came after which when I slipped and fell and hurt my spine, and I have never walked since."

"Oh-h!" said Katherine with a shudder of distress.

"And so," continued the girl, "to pass away the time while Aunt Aggie was working I began to pretend that I was a princess and lived in a palace with my indulgent father, the king, and had a grand court and a great train of attendants-all dukes and duchesses and counts and things, and a royal grand duchess for my lady-in-waiting. That one is Aunt Aggie, of course, and it's great fun to pretend she's the duchess."

"'My dear Duchess,'" she cried, giving an animated sample of her make believe, "'what do you say to having our cousin, the Crown Prince, in to tea!' Then Aunt Aggie always forgets and says, 'Let's see, which one is the Crown Prince, now?' It's very disconcerting, the way the Grand Duchess forgets her royal relations!" She giggled infectiously and Katherine smiled too.

"What is your real name, Princess Sylvia?" she asked.

"Sylvia Deane," replied the girl. "Only the princess part is made up. My name is S-s-ylvia-a."

Her teeth began to chatter on the last words and she drew the quilt up around her tightly. Katherine suddenly felt cold, too. Then she became conscious for the first time that there was no heat in the room. In the first contrast to the biting wind outside the place had seemed warm, and with her heavy fur-collared winter coat she had not felt chilly. She glanced at the stove. It was black and lifeless.

"The f-f-fire's g-g-gone o-u-t," chattered Sylvia, huddling under the quilt as a fierce blast rattled the panes in the bay windows. Katherine felt hot with indignation at the thought of the invalid left all alone in the cold room.

"Where is your-lady-in-waiting?" she as

ked, a trifle sharply.

"Aunt Aggie's gone to the city," replied Sylvia. "She went at six o'clock this morning and she was going to back at noon. She hasn't come yet, and I'm so cold and--"

She checked herself suddenly and held her head up very stiffly.

Katherine turned abruptly and made for the stove. It was a small old-fashioned cook stove, the kind that Katherine had been familiar with in her childhood on the farm. Beside it in a box were several lumps of coal and some kindling. She stripped off her gloves and set to work building a fire. When the stove had begun to radiate heat she lifted Sylvia, quilt and all, into the rocking chair and drew it up in front of the fire.

"And now, if you'll tell me where things are I'll prepare your Majesty's supper," she said playfully.

"Thank you, but I'm not hungry," replied Sylvia.

"I don't see how you can help being," said Katherine wonderingly. "Or have you had something to eat since your aunt went away?" she added.

"No," replied Sylvia.

"Then you must be famished," said Katherine decidedly, "and I'm going to get you something."

She moved toward a cupboard on the wall over in a corner of the room where she conjectured the supplies must be kept. The cupboard had leaded glass doors, she noticed, and the framework was of mahogany to match the woodwork of the room. It had probably been designed as a curio cabinet by the builder of the house.

"Never mind, I don't want anything to eat," said Sylvia again, in a tone which was both commanding and pleading.

"You must," said Katherine firmly, with her hand on the cut glass knob of the cupboard door. "You're cold because you're hungry."

She opened the door and investigated the inside. There were some cheap china dishes and some pots and pans, but no sign of food. She glanced swiftly around the room, but nowhere else were there any supplies. Then Katherine understood. Her intuition was slow, but finally it came to her why Sylvia did not want to admit that she was hungry. There was nothing to eat in the house. There was a pinched, blue look about Sylvia's face that Katherine had seen before, in the settlement where she had worked with Miss Fairlee. She recognized the hunger look.

Sylvia met her eye with an attempt at lofty unconcern. "Our royal larder," she remarked, valiantly struggling to maintain her royal dignity, "is exhausted at present. I must speak to my steward about it."

Then her air of lofty composure forsook her all at once, and with a little wailing cry of "Aunt Aggie!" she put her head down on the arm of the chair and wept, pulling the quilt over her face so that Katherine could not see her cry.

Katherine was beside her in an instant, seeking to comfort her, and struggling with an unwonted desire to cry herself. The thought of the brave little spirit, shut up alone here in the dark and cold, hungry and anxious, singing like a lark to keep down her loneliness and anxiety, and welcoming her chance guest with the gracious air of a princess, moved Katherine as nothing had ever done before.

"Tell me all about it," she said, cuddling the golden head close.

Sylvia struggled manfully to regain her composure, and sat up and dashed the tears away with an impatient hand. "How dare you cry, and you a princess?" she said aloud to herself scornfully, with a flash of her brown eyes, and Katherine caught a glimpse of an indomitable spirit that no hardship could bow down.

"'Twas but a momentary weakness," she said to Katherine, with a return of her royal manner. Katherine felt like saluting.

"We've been having a hard time since Uncle Joe died," began Sylvia. "He was sick a long time and it took all the money he had saved. Then Aunt Aggie got sick after he died and isn't strong enough yet to do hard work. She makes shirts. There's a shop here that lets her take work home. You see, she can't leave me." Here Sylvia gave an impatient poke at her useless limbs. "We came here from Millvale, where we used to live, a month ago. We couldn't find any place to live, so Aunt Aggie got permission from the town to come and live in here until we could find a place. Nobody seems to own this house, that is, nobody knows who owns it, it's been empty so long. Aunt Aggie sold all her furniture to pay her debts except her sewing machine and the few things we have here. Aunt Aggie makes shirts, but her eyes gave out this week and she couldn't do anything, so there wasn't any pay. Aunt Aggie got credit for a while at the store, but yesterday they refused her, so we played that we would keep a fast to-day in honor of our pious grandfather, the king, who always used to fast for three days before Christmas. Aunt Aggie only had enough money to go to the city and get glasses from somebody there that would make them for nothing for her, so she could go on sewing. She went on the earliest train this morning and expected to get back by noon. I can't think what's keeping her so late."

Katherine looked at her watch. It was half past seven. She wondered if the shops were still open so that she could go out and buy groceries. She began to draw on her gloves.

"Don't go away," pleaded Sylvia, catching hold of her hand in alarm. "Stay here till she comes. Oh, why doesn't she come? I know something's happened to her. She's never left me alone so long before. Oh, what will I do if she doesn't come back?"

Fear seized her with icy hands and her face worked pitifully. "Aunt Aggie! Aunt Aggie!" she cried aloud in terror.

Katherine soothed her as best she could, mentioning all the possible things that could have occurred to delay her in the rush of holiday travel. Sylvia looked reassured after a bit and Katherine was just on the point of running out to get some supper for her when there was a sound of feet on the creaking steps outside.

"Here she comes now," said Sylvia with a great sigh of relief.

The footsteps crossed the porch and then stopped. Instead of the sound of the front door opening as they expected there came a heavy knock.

"How queer," said Sylvia, "she never knocks. There's no one to let her in."

Katherine hastened out to the hall door. A man stood outside. "Does Mrs. Deane live in this house?" he asked.

"Yes," said Katherine.

"I'm Mr. Grossman, the man she works for," he said. Katherine admitted him. "The girl, is she here?" he asked. Katherine brought him into the room. Sylvia looked up inquiringly.

Without greeting or preamble he blurted out, "Your aunty, she's been hurt. Somebody just telephoned me from such a hospital in the city. She was run over by a taxicab and her collarbone broke and her head hurt. She's now by the hospital. She tells them to tell me and I should let you know."

He stopped talking and whirled his hat around in his hand as though ill at ease.

Sylvia sank back in her chair, dead white, her eyes staring at him with a curiously intent gaze, as though trying to comprehend the size of the calamity which had befallen her.

Tingling with pity, Katherine looked into Sylvia's anguished eyes, and in the stress of emotion she suddenly remembered Nyoda's name. Sheridan. Sheridan. Mrs. Andrew Sheridan. Carver House. 241 Oak Street. How could she ever have forgotten it?

"What's going to become of me?" cried Sylvia in a terrified voice.

Mr. Grossman shifted his weight from one foot to the other and scratched his head reflectively. Then he shrugged his shoulders helplessly. He was a Russian Jew, living with his numerous family in a few small rooms over his shop, and what to do with this lame girl who knew not a soul in town was too much of a problem for him. To his evident relief Katherine came to the rescue. "I will take care of her," she said briefly. She opened her handbag and fished for pencil and paper. "Go out and telephone this person," she directed, after scribbling for a minute, "and give her the message written down there."

Mr. Grossman departed, much relieved at being freed from all responsibility regarding Sylvia, and Katherine sat down beside her little princess and endeavored to soothe her distress of mind regarding her aunt. Finally the warmth of the stove made her drowsy and she fell into a doze with her head on Katherine's shoulder.

Half an hour later the long blast of an automobile horn woke the echoes in front of the house. Sylvia half-awakened and murmured sleepily, "Here come the king's huntsmen."

Katherine slipped out through the front door and flung herself upon a fur-coated figure that was coming up the walk, followed by a man.

"Nyoda!"

"Katherine! What in the world are you doing here?"

Katherine explained briefly how she came there.

"But I never received your letter!" cried Nyoda in astonishment. "I thought you were coming to-morrow with the other girls. Poor Katherine, to come all alone and then not find anybody to meet you! I'm so sorry! But it wouldn't be you, Katherine," she finished with a laugh, "if everything went smoothly. Now tell me the important thing your message said you wanted to tell me."

Katherine spoke earnestly for a few minutes, at the end of which Nyoda nodded emphatically. "Certainly!" she said heartily.

A minute later Katherine gently roused the sleeping princess. "What is it, my dear Duchess?" asked Sylvia drowsily.

"Come, Your Majesty," said Katherine, beginning to wrap the quilt around her, "make ready for your journey. We leave at once for the Winter Palace!"

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