Read CHAPTER XXXIII of Polly and the Princess, free online book, by Emma C. Dowd, on


Juanita Sterling moved restlessly about her room, doing this and that which had no need of being done. It was a mild day for late September, and she thought of a walk. No, it was nearly time for the afternoon mail, she would wait. If she could only get a note from Polly or from David! One of Polly’s notes had never reached the third-floor comer room! Since that, notes had been conceded to be dangerous. How she missed Polly’s visits! She wondered now if Polly’s interview with Mr. Randolph were really over. That report could not be entrusted to paper. She wished that her windows were on the front. She might go into Mrs. Albright’s room no, she had better remain at home, somebody might come. She took a book and sat down in the easiest chair; but her thoughts were not on the printed page. She slammed it back in its place with a mutter of scorn scorn for herself.

“Shall I ever stop thinking of him!”

Meantime, downstairs, the front doorbell had rung. Miss Sniffen answered it. She usually answered the bell nowadays.

Nelson Randolph stood waiting.

“Good afternoon!” he smiled. “I want to run up to those corner rooms and see how the light is, now that the windows are shut up. I think we may have to put in other windows on the side.”

“Oh, no, Mr. Randolph, the light is very good, indeed! I don’t think more windows will be necessary.”

“Well, maybe not, then; but I’ll just take a look at it, seeing I’m here.”

She moved back slowly. “I think Miss Sterling is out; but you can see the first-floor room.”

They went in together, but as the man turned to speak he found that he was alone. With a smile he cast a leisurely eye around, and then strode along the hall to the upper staircase.

The superintendent was coming down.

“No use your going up,” she said in an unnecessarily low tone. “One of the ladies says she is out, so we shan’t be able to get in.”

“Oh, that won’t matter!” he replied carelessly. “I’m a good deal of burglar; I always carry a skeleton key in my pocket it will unlock almost anything. You ought to have one.”

“We have never needed it,” she responded coldly, quickly preceding him.

She tapped softly on the door.

“Oh, you’re in, after all!” she exclaimed in a voice of sweet surprise. “They said you had gone out.”

“I have been here since dinner. How do you do, Mr. Randolph! Are you quite well again?”

“Shouldn’t know I had ever been sick except for the doctor’s bill!” he replied. “Now, how about this light, Miss Sterling? Do you find the addition in the way?”

“Why, of course, it isn’t quite so pleasant,” she admitted; “but I don’t mind it very much.”

“I think it would make things a little better to put a window in, say about here.”

“Oh, that would be lovely!” she cried.

“I will suggest it, at any rate. I never like to spoil one room for the sake of another.” He ran his eyes over the wall. “We might make it one broad window, here and in the room below, to match the one on the first floor it wouldn’t be a bad plan. We’ll see.” He turned to go, then halted and looked at his watch.

“I’m afraid you stay in too much. Miss Sterling,” he said carelessly. “Suppose you put on your things and come for a ride. It is very mild out.”

“Oh, thank you!” The red rushed to her cheeks. “I’ll be ready in a minute.”

Left alone, Juanita Sterling hastily brought out hat and coat. Her heart was pounding with excitement and yes, joy! She chided herself in no uncertain words.

“Little fool!” she muttered. “He wishes to ask questions about the Home, questions that I am better able to answer than Polly that is all! He is engaged to Blanche Puddicombe remember that, and don’t be a dear, dear, where are those gray gloves! Oh!” as the needed articles were brought to sight.

She ran downstairs and directly out of the big door, meeting no one.

As the car rolled up the avenue she felt a delicious sense of freedom. She remarked upon the changing foliage and the unusual warmth of the day, the man at her side making only brief assents.

“That Dragon,” he finally broke out, “didn’t mean to let the Princess be seen to-day!”

Miss Sterling met his whimsical look with puzzled eyes. Then, as the meaning dawned, “Oh!” she cried, a little blushing laugh keeping the word company.

“Do you always lock your door when you go away?”

“Never,” she answered, “then or at any time; we are not allowed to lock our rooms.”

“She told me you were out, and that your door would be locked; but I said I had a skeleton key in my pocket, and went on.”

“You quite outwitted her,” she laughed. “I don’t understand why she should lie about it.”

“I have been there several times and inquired for you,” he resumed; “and was always told that you were not in.”

A flush of surprise pinked her face. “I never heard anything of it,” she said regretfully.

“So Polly Dudley told me. I saw her this morning.”

“Oh, did you!” she cried eagerly.

“She was in my office for an hour or two. We have been blind as moles, the whole gang of us!” he added in a disgusted tone. “We have trusted that woman with everything to your sorrow and ours! I hope the officers will see it as I do, but I don’t know. Miss Sterling,” he turned to her with a brighter tone in his voice, “do you remember when I used to come to your house to consult your father and you would entertain me while I was waiting for him?”

“Oh, yes!” she answered, “I remember perfectly; but I didn’t suppose you recollected it is so long ago.”

“I don’t forget easily. You were a school-girl then, weren’t you?”

“I was just through the high school.”

“It was the winter before I was married,” he said reminiscently. “It seems a lifetime since then. Yet it is only some twenty or more years ago. Your father was a very wise man, and I was pretty green in those days. I remember I wanted to sue somebody that had cheated me in a small way, and your father advised me strongly against it. I chafed a good deal at his decision; but I have thought of it a good many times since, how much better things turned out for me than if I had had my own way. Too bad he had to go so young! We need such men. I wish we had a few like him on the Home Board.” He turned toward his companion with a rueful smile. “I am rather glad that happened down at the Home to-day. It has given me a little personal experience with the Dragon that may be convenient to have.” He smiled again at her, that kindly, whimsical little smile that so well became him.

She smiled, too, and then, when he had turned back, she frowned. She wished he wouldn’t smile that way to her. He should keep such smiles for his fiancee.

“By the way,” she began, “how is Miss Puddicombe? I haven’t seen her lately.”

“She is very well, much better than she was during the summer. She is in New York at present, visiting her aunt for a fortnight.”

Ah, that was why he was able to take her to ride! She wondered if she ought to offer her congratulations, but finally decided to keep silent. S he was not supposed to know of his engagement.

The road wound up through a maze of yellow. Tall trees on either side sifted their gold down upon the travelers. Juanita Sterling caught a leaf in her hand and held it.

“How beautiful it is!” she said, and drew a deep breath.

The man turned to look at her trophy. “Oh, no! I mean the way,” she explained. “It is strange, but it makes me think of heaven.”

“The streets of gold?” he smiled.

“M no,” she replied doubtfully. “I can’t quite tell myself; but I think it is the peace and the glory of it the spirit of the place.”

His eyes were on her face, and the car bumped over a stone.

“There! That’s because I was looking at you!” he laughed. “A motorman shouldn’t gaze at a princess.”

She gave a little gurgling laugh; then she grew grave again.

“What do you say,” he asked abruptly, “to keeping on over the mountain to Bryston and have dinner?”

Her heart gave a joyful leap, yet she answered quietly, “I am afraid I’d better not.”

“Oh, yes,” he urged, “let’s keep on! I am selfish, I know; but I’d rather eat dinner with you than to eat it at home alone, and I’m sure that Squirrel Inn will give you a more appetizing meal than the Dragon will furnish.”

“I dare say,” she responded. “What a bewitching name for an inn! Is it as captivating as it sounds?”

“More,” he smiled. “It is the inn that has made Belgian hare famous.”

She laughed softly, and he speeded the car.

“I took Mrs. Puddicombe up there one day, and she has raved about it ever since. The house itself is very old, with little windows and a gambrel roof, and a well-sweep in the rear. They say, half of the garret is given over to the squirrels.”

“What a delightful place! I shall love it, I know!” Inwardly, however, she amended, “Maybe I shan’t!” thinking of Mrs. Puddicombe.

But once seated at the quaint little table, in the old high-backed chair, eating what tasted better than the best chicken that ever went into an oven, Juanita Sterling forgot Mrs. Puddicombe and her daughter Blanche, and smiled upon everything.

“I am having more dinners to-day than my share,” she observed over the pumpkin pie and cheese. “We have ours at twelve, you know.”

“What did you have?”

“Codfish balls and pickles and stale bread and butter.”

“No dessert?”

“No,” she laughed; “that was cut out months ago.”

He shook his head gravely. “I didn’t suppose it was as bad as that.”

“This makes up,” she said gayly.

It was a leisurely meal; and when it had come to an end the memory of it was not the least of its delights.

The air had cooled decidedly, and meeting the stiff breeze Juanita Sterling shivered. She turned up her coat collar about her neck.

“Are you cold?” he questioned.

“Not much. I shall get used to it in a minute. It was pretty warm in there.”

He stopped the car and jumped out. “There are some light-weight robes somewhere,” he said.

“Don’t bother!” she protested. “I rarely take cold.”

But he continued his search.

“There!” he said, putting it around her shoulders, “isn’t that better?”

“Delightful! Thank you!” It was cozily warm and comfortable.

She drew a deep, happy breath. The car skimmed along as if on wings. She could meet the wind with pleasure now. The stars twinkled down their glad greeting. Probably she would never see the like of this again. But to-night it was hers! It should not be spoiled by Blanche Puddicombe! She let her enjoyment have its way and talked and laughed freely.

“How can you keep so cheerful in the Dragon’s prison?” Nelson Randolph asked at length. “I should think all of you would have been dead from gloom before this time.”

“Polly Dudley has done a great deal toward keeping us up, and we have several very bright ladies there. Mrs. Albright and Miss Crilly would make a dungeon sunshiny.”

“Happy companionship is everything,” he assented. “That is what I am denied. My home is about the most desolate place on earth!”

“It looks delightful from the outside.”

“Oh, the house is well enough! But what is the good of a house with nobody to speak to! I stay at the club evening after evening, because I dread to go back to that lonely place I call home.” He spoke drearily. After a moment he went on. “I started out this afternoon with a good deal of hope; but you have thrown most of it to the winds!”

“I? Why, Mr. Randolph!” She gazed at him in surprise.

“Impolite,” he nodded, with an apologetic smile. “But, Miss Sterling, you know that I love you! You must have known it all summer! And you try to be friendly that’s all! You didn’t want to go to Bryston, and I was selfish enough to keep on! I suppose it is too much to expect, that you will care for an old fellow like me; but oh, Miss Sterling! can’t you?”

For a moment memory was swept away in the flood of astonishment and joy that overwhelmed her. Then, like a menace, the haughty girl of the sheep pasture loomed before her.

Oh! no! no! she gasped. Why do you say such things to me? you engaged to Blanche Puddicombe!”

“O-h!” It held a note of exultation. “Has that absurd story reached you? Miss Sterling, there is not an atom of truth in it!” The words tumbled from his lips. “Mrs. Puddicombe’s grandmother and my grandfather were sister and brother. The families have always been friendly. Last summer Blanche was in such wretched health that her mother wanted me to take her to ride as often as I could. So whenever I went off on business I would carry Blanche along. That is all there is to it!”

They were moving slowly now. A great car came honking up behind, roared past, and became a red star in the distance. Another flashed out ahead, glared down upon them, and whizzed by. Nelson Randolph spoke again.

“Have you no hope for me?”

“Oh, yes!” It barely rose through the purring of the car.

His right hand left the wheel and closed over the two little gray-gloved ones folded so quietly.

“You shall never regret it!” he promised. “I will try to make you forget this year of misery.”

The talk ran on. As they passed through th6 outskirts of Fair Harbor, he said:

“I expect to go to New York to-morrow morning on the 6.30 train. If I can get through my business in time I shall come back in the evening; but I am afraid it will be too late for a ride. That will have to wait until Thursday. I don’t know how I am going to communicate with you. I cannot bear to leave you without any means of letting me know if you are in trouble.”

“I don’t think there will be any trouble,” she said contentedly.

“There might be. How would it do for me to tell the Dragon that you belong to me and that you are to be free to go and come as you please or to use the telephone whenever you like?”

“Oh, don’t!” A note of fear was in her voice.

“You had better lock your door at night, then. There is a key?”

“Yes, but it is subject to rules.”

“Ignore rules and lock the door! Dragons are not to be trusted. And remember, if there should be any trouble whatever, call me at once, in some way, and I will drop everything and come.”

“Thank you! You are so good!”

He laughed softly. “Good to myself!”

They sped along Edgewood Avenue, and the car stopped in the shadow of a great maple. Miss Sterling threw off her borrowed wrap.

He stepped to the ground and put out his arms. What could she do but walk into them!

“I will go in with you,” he said, as he set her gently down.

Her face was still aflame with his kisses when they entered the big door together.

Miss Sniffen met them in the hall.

“You are late,” she said with a half smile. “Have you had an accident?”

“Oh, no!” Nelson Randolph answered. “We went up to Bryston to dinner, that is all. Miss Sterling thought she had better return home early, but I coaxed her to keep on and find out how Belgian hare tasted.” He laughed lightly and said good-night.

Miss Sterling’s foot was on the stair when the superintendent arrested her.

“You are too late for chapel,” she said severely.

“I was afraid I would be,” was the reply.

“This must not occur again. Do you know that Mr. Randolph is to marry Miss Puddicombe?”

“I heard so,” she smiled.

“The wedding-day is set!”

“So I was told.”

“Did he tell you?”

“Oh, no! I heard it a good while ago.”

Miss Sniffen looked a little disappointed and turned down the hall.

Juanita Sterling closed the door of her room, struck a light, and threw her hat and coat across a chair.

On a small table a twin frame held photographs of a man and a woman.

She took it in both hands.

“Father, mother, dears! do you know that your ‘little girl’ is happy? happier than she has been since you went away?”

The last words broke in a sob; but the eyes that looked up into hers were smiling.