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   Chapter 7 SYLVIA’S STORY

The Camp Fire Girls Solve a Mystery; Or, The Christmas Adventure at Carver House By Hildegard G. Frey Characters: 19006

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Katherine Adams, whatever has happened to you?" asked Gladys suddenly, meeting her under the bright light in the hall that evening after dinner.

"Why?" asked Katherine, looking startled. "Is there any soot on my face?"

"No," replied Gladys with a peal of laughter, "I didn't mean anything like that. I meant that you look different from the way you used to look, that's all. You've changed since the days when I first knew you. What have you done to yourself in the last year? You're the same old Katherine, of course, but you're different, somehow. I noticed it when you first came to Brownell last fall, but I've been too busy to give it much thought. But since we've been here I've been watching you and I can't help noticing the difference. Now stand right there under that light and let me look at you."

Katherine laughed good humoredly and stood still dutifully while Gladys inspected her with appraising eyes that took in all the little improvements in Katherine's appearance. She was heavier than she used to be; some of her angles were softened into curves. She now stood erect, with her head up and her shoulders thrown back, which made her look several inches taller. Her hair no longer hung about her face in stringy wisps; the loose ends were curled becomingly around her temples and ears and held in place with invisible hairpins. She wore a trim worsted dress of an odd shade of blue, which was just the right shade to go with her dull blonde hair and with the dark brown of her neat shoes. Her knuckles were no longer red and rough; her fingernails were manicured; the sagging spectacles of the old days had given way to intellectual looking nose glasses with narrow tortoise shell rims.

"Well, what's the verdict?" asked Katherine, smiling broadly at Gladys.

"You're wonderful!" said Gladys enthusiastically. "You're actually stunning! Whoever told you to get that particular shade of blue to bring out the color of your hair?"

"Nobody told me," answered Katherine. "I bought it because it was a bargain." But there was a knowing twinkle in her eyes which gave her dead away, and Gladys, seeing it, knew that Katherine had at last achieved that pride of appearance which she had struggled so long to instill into her.

"However did you do it?" she murmured.

"It was your eleven Rules of Neatness that did it," replied Katherine, laughing, "or was it seven? I forget. But I did do just the things you told me to do, and it worked. There is no longer any danger of my coming apart in public! What a trial I used to be to you, though!" she said, flushing a little at the recollection. "How you ever put up with me I don't know. How did you stand it, anyway?"

"Because we loved you, sweet child," replied Gladys fondly, "and because we all believed the motto, 'While there's life, there's hope.' We knew you would be a paragon of neatness some day as soon as you got around to it. You never could think of more than one thing at a time, Katherine dear!"

"O my, O my, look at them hugging each other!" exclaimed a teasing voice from above. Looking up they saw Justice Dalrymple leaning over the banisters at the head of the stairs. "You never do that to me," he continued in a plaintive tone.

Katherine and Gladys merely laughed at him and walked on, arm in arm, and Justice came down the stairs wringing mock tears out of his handkerchief and singing mournfully,

"Forsaken, forsa-ken,

Forsa-a-a-ken a-m I,

Like the bones at a banquet

All men pass me-e-e by!"

"Do behave yourself, Justice," said Katherine with mock severity. "If you disgrace me I'll never get you invited anywhere again. Why can't you be good like the other two boys?"

"'Cause I'm a Junebug," warbled Justice, to the tune of "I'm a Pilgrim,"

"'Cause I'm a Junebug,

And I'm a beetul,

And I can't be no

Rhinoscerairus,

'Cause I'm a Junebug,

And I'm a beetul,

I can't be no,

Rhinoscerairus!"

He advanced into the drawing room, where Katherine now stood alone, and drew out the last syllable of his absurd song into a long bleating wail that sent her into convulsions of laughter till the tears rolled down her cheeks.

"Tears, idle tears--"

began Justice, picking up a vase from the table and holding it under her eyes, and then he stopped, as if struck by a sudden recollection. "I said that to you once before," he said, "don't you remember? The first time we really got acquainted with each other. You were standing by the stove, weeping into the apple sauce."

"It was pudding," Katherine corrected him, with a little shamefaced laugh at the remembrance, "huckleberry pudding. And I streaked it all over my face and you nearly died laughing."

"Well, you laughed too," Justice defended himself, "and that's how we got to be friends."

"That seems ages ago," said Katherine, "and yet it's only a little over a year. What a year that was!"

Both stopped their bantering and looked at each other with sober eyes, each thinking of what the trying year at Spencer had been to them. Justice's eyes traveled over Katherine, and he, too, noticed that she was much better looking than when he first knew her. Katherine noticed the admiration dawning in his eyes and divined his thoughts. After Gladys's spontaneous outburst of approval she knew beyond any doubt that her appearance no longer offended the artistic eye. The knowledge gave her a new confidence in herself, and a thrill of pleasure that she had never experienced before went through her like an electric shock. At last people had ceased to look upon her as a cross between a circus and a lunatic asylum, she told herself exultingly.

"Well, what are you thinking about?" she asked finally, as Justice continued silent.

"I was just thinking," replied Justice gravely, "about the difference in plumage that different climates bring about."

"Whatever made you think about birds?" asked Katherine wonderingly. "You jump from one subject to another like a flea. I don't see how you can keep your mind on your work long enough to invent anything. By the way, how is that thingummy of yours going? You're as mum as an oyster about it."

"Pretty well," replied Justice. "I'm hampered though, by not having the right kind of help, and not being able to get some of the things I need."

Katherine looked at him scrutinizingly. He looked tired and rather worn. The nonsensical boy had vanished and a man stood in his place, a man with a heavy responsibility on his shoulders. Justice had that way of changing all in an instant from a boy to a man. At times he would go frolicking about the house till you would have sworn he was not a day older than Slim and the Captain; an instant later he was all gravity, and looked every day of his twenty-six years.

Katherine always stood in awe of him whenever that change took place. He seemed so old and wise and experienced then that she felt hopelessly ignorant and childish beside him. She liked him best when he seemed like the other boys.

"What do you think of my Winnebagos?" she asked him, leading him away from the subject of his work. He always got old looking when he talked about it.

"Greatest bunch of girls I ever saw," he replied heartily. "Never came across such an accomplished lot in all my life. Each one's more fun than the next. Hinpoha's a beauty, and Gladys is a dainty fairy, and Sahwah looks like a brown thrush, and Migwan's a regular Madonna. And, say-would you mind telling me how you do it, anyway?"

"Do what?"

"Stick together like that. I thought girls always squabbled among themselves. I never thought they could do things together the way you girls do."

"Camp Fire Girls can do things together!" Katherine informed him with emphasis. "You boys think you're the only ones that know anything about teamwork. Teamwork is our first motto."

"I guess it must be," admitted Justice. "You certainly are a team."

The rest of the "team" came in then, Sahwah and Gladys and Hinpoha, all three arm in arm, and Migwan behind them, pushing Sylvia in her rolling chair. They settled in a circle before the fireplace, and the talk soon drifted around to Uncle Jasper and his blighted romance. Indeed, Hinpoha had done nothing but talk about it all during dinner. Sylvia, too, was completely taken up with it.

"I love Sylvia Warrington!" she exclaimed fervently. "I am going to have her for my Beloved. I'm glad she had black hair. I adore black hair. And I'm so glad my name is Sylvia, too. I've been pretending that she was my aunt, and that I was named after her. I've been pretending, too, that she taught me to sing, 'Hark, hark, the lark!' Now, when I sing it I always think of her. Wasn't it beautiful, what Uncle Jasper said about her? 'She is like a lark, singing in the desert at dawning!' Oh, I can see it all, the desert, and the sun coming up, and the lark soaring up and singing. I just can't breathe, it's so beautiful. And my Beloved is like that!"

A radiant dream light came into her eyes, and she seemed suddenly to have traveled far away from the group by the fire and to be wandering in some far-off land.

"Sylvia is a beautiful name," said Katherine. "For whom are you called? Was your mother's name Sylvia?" It was the first time any of them had spoken of Sylvia's mother, who they knew must be dead.

Sylvia's eyes lost their dreaminess and she looked up with a merry smile.

"I made it up myself," she said. "I don't know what my first real name was, but wh

en Aunt Aggie got me she named me Aggie, after herself. But Aggie is such a hopelessly unimaginative sort of name. It doesn't make you think of a thing when you say it. You might just as well be named 'Empty' as 'Aggie.' Then once we lived in the same house with a lady who sang, and she used to sing, 'Who is Sylvia?' It was the most tuneful name I'd ever heard, and I wondered and wondered who Sylvia was. But I guess the lady never found out, because she kept right on singing, 'Who is Sylvia?' So one day I said to myself, 'I'll be Sylvia!' Don't you think it's a fragrant name? When I say it I can see festoons of pink rosebuds tied with baby ribbon. I made people call me Sylvia, and that's been my name ever since."

"Oh, you funny child!" said Nyoda, joining in the general laugh at Sylvia's tale of her name.

"But Sylvia," said Sahwah wonderingly, "you said you didn't know what your first real name was before you came to live with your aunt. Didn't your aunt know it?"

"No," replied Sylvia. "You see," she continued, "Aunt Aggie isn't my real aunt. She adopted me when I was a baby."

"Oh-h!" said the Winnebagos in surprise.

"But why do you call her 'aunt'?" asked Sahwah. "Why don't you call her 'mother'?"

"She never would have it," replied Sylvia. "She always taught me to call her Aunt Aggie. I don't know why."

Sylvia moved restlessly in her chair, and from the folds of the loose dressing gown which she wore a picture tumbled out. Katherine picked it up and laid it back on her lap. It was a small colored poster sketch of a red haired girl in a golf cape, which had evidently been the cover design of a magazine some years ago.

"Why are you so fond of that poster, Sylvia?" asked Katherine curiously. "You brought it along with you when you came here, and you keep it with you all the time."

Sylvia's tone when she answered was half humorous and half wistful. "That's my mother," she said.

"Your mother!" exclaimed Katherine, incredulously.

"Oh, not my really real mother," Sylvia continued quickly. "I never saw a picture of her. But Aunt Aggie said my mother had red hair and was most uncommonly good looking, so I found a picture of a beautiful lady with red hair and called it my mother. It's better than nothing." The Winnebagos nodded silently and no one spoke for a moment.

Then Katherine asked gently, "What else do you know about mother?"

Sylvia sat up and related the tale told her hundreds of times by Aunt Aggie, in answer to her eager questioning about her mother. Unconsciously she used Aunt Aggie's expressions and gestures as she told it.

"'Me an' Joe was coming on the steam cars from Butler to Philadelphy, and in back of us sat a young couple with a baby about a month old. The girl-she wasn't nothing but a girl even though she was a married woman-was most uncommon good looking. She had bright red hair and big grey eyes, and she wore a golf cape. Her husband was a big, red faced feller, homely but real honest lookin'. They weren't either of them twenty years old. Farmers, I could tell from their talk, and as well as I could make out, the name on their bag was Mitchell. Well, well, along between Waterloo and Poland there suddenly come a terrible bump, and then a smash and a crash, and the next thing I was layin' under the seat and Joe was trying to pull me out. When I did finally get out the car was a-layin' over on its side all smashed to bits. Somehow or other when Joe dug me out from under the seat I had ahold of the little baby that had been in the seat in back of me. The young man and woman were under the wreck. They were both killed, but the baby never had a scratch.

"'Nobody ever found out who the red headed woman and the man were, because they were all burned up in the wreck, and all their luggage.

"'I had taken care of the baby, thinkin' I'd keep her until her people were found, but they were never heard from, so I decided to keep her for my own. That baby was you, Sylvia.'

"So that's all I know about my mother and father," finished Sylvia with a sigh. "But I can think up the most dazzling things about them!"

"Sylvia," said Katherine, "who was the man I saw on the stairs of your house the night I came in and found you?"

Sylvia looked at her in wonder. "What man?"

"When I came into the hall there was a man leaning over the banisters about half way up the stairs. When I came in he ran down the stairs and out of the front door."

"I can't imagine," said Sylvia. "No man ever came to the house to see us. I didn't hear anybody come in that day."

"But the front door stood open when I came up on the porch," said Katherine. "That hadn't been standing open all day, had it?"

"No," replied Sylvia, "for Aunt Aggie was always careful about closing it when she went out."

"Then he must have opened it," said Katherine.

"How queer!" said Sylvia. "What do you suppose he could have been doing there? He never knocked on the inside door."

"Possibly he thought the house was empty, and went in to get out of the cold," concluded Katherine. "Then he heard you singing, and it scared him. He looked frightened out of his wits when I saw him. When I came in he just ran for his life." Katherine laughed as she remembered her own dismay at seeing the man and thinking that he was the owner of the house, when he was only a stray visitor himself and worse frightened than she. Here she had prepared such an elaborate apology in her mind, and he was nothing but a tramp! The humor of it struck her forcibly, now that it was all in the past, and she laughed over it most of the evening.

About nine o'clock Hercules came shuffling in, suffering from a bad cold, and asked Nyoda to give him something for it. While Nyoda went upstairs to the medicine chest Sahwah craftily asked the old man, "Hercules, did you ever hear of there being a secret passage in this house?"

Hercules gave a visible start. "Whyfor you ask dat?" he demanded.

"Oh, for no special reason," said Sahwah casually. "I just thought maybe there was one and that you might know about it. There always is one in these old houses, you know."

"Well, dere ain't in dis!" answered the old man vehemently, and at the same time looking relieved. "Marse Jasper he always useter say to me, 'Herc'les,' he useter say, 'dere's one good thing about dis house, and dat is it ain't cluttered up wif no secrut passidges.' Secrut passidges am powerful unlucky, Mis' Sahwah. Onct I knew a man dat lived in a house dat had a secrut passidge an' one night de ole debbil got in th'u dat secrut passidge an' run off wif him! Don' you go huntin' no secrut passidges, Mis' Sahwah, if you knows what's good fer you. Dey suttinly am powerful unlucky!"

Nyoda came down stairs and bore Hercules off to the kitchen, and the Winnebagos and the boys had their laugh out behind his back. "How can he tell such fibs in such a truthful sounding way!" remarked Justice. "If I didn't know about that passage from Uncle Jasper's diary I'd be inclined to believe every word he said. But I bet the old sinner knows all about it, just as Uncle Jasper did. Even if he doesn't, how can he invent such convincing speeches on the part of Uncle Jasper out of the empty air? He's the most engaging old fibber I ever came across."

Nyoda came back and bore Sylvia off to bed and then she returned to the library. "Sherry," she said thoughtfully, leaning her chin in her hand, "Dr. Crosby was here this morning to return those binoculars he borrowed the other day, and I talked to him about Sylvia. He said he had once been called in to treat her for tonsilitis when she lived in Millvale, and had examined her spine at the time. He said it was a splintered vertebra and it could be fixed by grafting in a piece of bone. They're doing wonders now that way. He said Dr. Gilbert, the famous specialist, could perform an operation that would cure her. He hadn't had a chance to talk it over with Sylvia's aunt because he had been called away suddenly and when he returned to town the Deane's were gone. He had no idea what had become of them. He only made a hasty examination, but he is positive she can be cured. I know the Deane's can't afford to pay for such an operation, but Dr. Crosby said he was sure he could persuade Dr. Gilbert to perform it free, in his clinic. I told Dr. Crosby to bring Dr. Gilbert to Oakwood as soon as he could. He said he thought it would be possible soon. I thought as long as we are going to keep Sylvia in our care until her aunt is well again we might as well have her fixed up in the meantime. I would like to have the operation over before her aunt knows anything about it, say the first week of the new year. What do you think?"

"Whew!" whistled Sherry, looking at his wife in astonishment. The rapidity with which Nyoda got a project under way was a nine days' wonder to Sherry, who usually spent more time in deliberating a course of action than she did in carrying it out. "Go ahead!" was all he could say.

The Winnebagos gave long exclamations of joy. It had never occurred to them that anything could be done for Sylvia.

"Does she know it?" asked Hinpoha.

"Not yet," replied Nyoda. "I thought we would keep it for a birthday surprise. Her birthday is the twenty-ninth. I'll have Dr. Gilbert come that day and let him tell her himself. Don't anybody mention it to her until then."

"We won't," promised the Winnebagos, and trooped off to bed, heavy with their delicious secret.

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