Patsy Carroll Under Southern Skies
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Each girl had found some one particular object on which to fix her special admiration. Eleanor went into ecstasies over a huge, carved-leather chest that stood in the sitting-room. Beatrice was enthusiastic over a heavy mahogany book-case filled with old Spanish volumes, bound in boards and parchment. She loudly deplored her inability to read Spanish and announced her intention of tackling the fascinating volumes with the aid of a Spanish-English dictionary which Mabel had brought along. Mabel was vastly impressed by a high, frowning old desk with many drawers and pigeon-holes. She was perfectly sure, she declared, that it must contain a secret drawer, and in consequence spent the great part of an afternoon in an unavailing hunt for it.
Patsy found unending delight in the portrait section of the picture gallery. The dark-eyed, tight-lipped men and women who stared down at her from the wall filled her with an intense curiosity regarding who they were and how long it had been since they had lived and played their parts in the history of the Feredas.
Undoubtedly they were all Feredas. Of unmistakably Spanish cast of countenance, they bore a decided family resemblance to one another. The difference in the style of dress worn by the pictured folk proclaimed them to be of many generations. How far removed from the present day, she did not know. She was of the opinion that some of them must have lived at least two hundred years ago. She was very sure that one portrait, that of a man, must have been painted even earlier than that.
It was this portrait in particular which most fascinated her. Hung in the center of the section and framed in tarnished gilt, it depicted the full length figure of a Spanish cavalier. Patsy thought he might easily have been one of the intrepid, Latin adventurers who accompanied Ponce de Leon on his unsuccessful quest into Florida for the fabled Fountain of Youth.
As a gallant of long ago, the man in the picture instantly arrested her attention. The thin, sinister face above the high Spanish ruff repelled her, however. The bright, bird-like eyes, the long, aquiline nose and the narrow lips, touched with a mocking smile, combined to make a countenance of such intense cruelty as filled her with a curious sense of terror. It was as if the sharp, black eyes followed her, as she moved along from picture to picture. There was a peculiar, life-like quality about the painting which gave her the uncomfortable feeling that the sinister cavalier might step down from the canvas at any moment.
Nevertheless she could not refrain from stopping to look at him every time she passed through the corridor. She was convinced that he must have been the first Fereda who landed in the New World and that he had a record which might well match his malevolently smiling face. It piqued her not a little to reflect, that, who he was and what he had been would in all probability ever remain a mystery to her.
Strolling into the corridor that morning to study again the provoking object of her curiosity, Patsy wondered how the granddaughter of old Manuel de Fereda could ever have been content to turn over the contents of Las Golondrinas to strangers.She wondered what had become of her. She was undoubtedly the only one who knew the identity of the painted cavalier. Patsy decided that she would ask her father to write Mr. Haynes, the agent, from whom he had purchased the property, asking him for Eulalie Fereda’s address. Once she had obtained it, Patsy fully intended to write to the Spanish girl for information concerning the painted cavalier.
Wrapped in meditation, she did not hear Beatrice’s light approaching footsteps until her friend had traversed half of the corridor.
“Oh, Bee!” she hailed, as the latter paused beside her. “I’m going to try to get Eulalie Fereda’s address from Mr. Haynes, and then write her about this picture. It seems queer that she allowed all these portraits of her family to be sold with the house, now doesn’t it? I certainly shouldn’t care to see the pictures of my respected ancestors pass into the hands of strangers.”
“Perhaps she’d lived here so long with her grandfather that she’d grown tired of him and all the rest of the Fereda tribe,” hazarded Bee. “Imagine how lonely it would be for a young girl in this gloomy old house. It is gloomy, you know. We don’t mind it because there are a crowd of us. It all seems just quaint and romantic to us.”
“All except Auntie,” reminded Patsy, smiling. “She says that the whole house ought to be done over from top to bottom and that she intends to come down here next fall and see to it herself. I think she only half means it, though. She likes it the way it is, just as much as we do, but she won’t admit it. Aunt Martha has a real love for the romantic, but she tries hard not to let any one know it.”
“The furniture in this house must be really valuable,” Bee said seriously. “Most of it is antique. Goodness knows how old that desk in the sitting-room is; and that carved-leather chest and the book-case. Why, those books alone must be worth a good deal. A book collector would rave over them. I wish I knew something about rare volumes and first editions. If I were your father I’d send for an expert and have the collection valued.”
“I’ll tell him about it,” nodded Patsy. “Only he won’t bother to do it while we’re here. He’s more interested in having the grounds put in order than anything else. He says the orange groves are not worth much because they’ve been neglected for so long. With care, he thinks they’ll do better next year. We’ve come down here too late for the real fruit season, you know. We should have been here in January or February for that. Anyway, he didn’t buy this place as a money-making venture. He thought it would be a nice winter home for us.”
“I’m lucky to have the chance to see it,” congratulated Beatrice. “If ever I become a writer, I shall put Las Golondrinas into a story. That’s a pretty name; Las Golondrinas.”
“Isn’t it, though. I suppose it was named on account of the tree swallows,” mused Patsy. “Dad says there are flocks of them here. They have blue backs and white breasts. I’m sure I saw some this morning. Oh, dear! I wish the girls would hurry. I want to start out and see the sights. Come on. Let’s remind them that time is flying.”
Catching Bee by the hand, Patsy pulled her, a willing captive, toward the sitting-room.
“Time’s up and more than up!” she announced, poking her auburn head into the big room.
“I’m ready,” responded Eleanor, rising from her chair.
“So am I – in another minute.”
Hastily addressing an envelope to her mother, Mabel tucked her letter into it, sealed and stamped it.
“There!” she ejaculated as she laid it on the little pile of letters which represented the fruits of the morning’s labor. “That’s off my mind.”
“What about you, Auntie?” questioned Patsy, noting that her dignified relative was still engaged in letter-writing. “Don’t you want to join the explorers?”
“You girls can get along very well without me,” placidly returned Miss Carroll. “I am not through with my writing. Besides, I don’t feel inclined to go exploring this morning. I warn all of you to be careful where you set foot. This old place may be infested with snakes.”
“Oh, we’ll be careful. We’ll each carry a good stout stick,” assured Beatrice. “That’s the way tourists do in the tropics, you know. On some of the South Sea Islands, I’ve read that tourists always carry what they call ‘snake sticks’ when they go calling. At night the coolies go ahead of a calling party and beat the long grass aside.”
“Very fine, Bee. I hereby appoint you chief grass-beater of the realm,” teased Mabel.
“I decline the high office,” retorted Bee. “Every Wayfarer will have to do her own bit of trail beating. As I am very brave, I don’t mind walking ahead, though.”
“I will walk with you, Bee,” graciously offered Patsy. “Woe be to the wriggly, jiggly sarpint that crosses our path.”
In this light strain the four girls left Miss Martha to her writing and sallied forth from the coolness of the old house into the bright sunlight.
“Where shall we go first?” queried Patsy, as they paused on the drive in front of the house. “Shall we get acquainted with our numerous acres of front yard, or shall we make a bee-line for the orange groves?”
“Let’s do the groves first,” suggested Eleanor. “I’m awfully anxious to get close to real orange trees with real oranges growing on them.”
“Come on, then.”
Seizing Beatrice by the arm, Patsy piloted her around a corner of the house, Mabel and Eleanor following.
Crossing a comparatively smooth bit of lawn, at the rear of the house, the Wayfarers halted by common consent before proceeding further. Between them and the orange groves lay a wide stretch of ground, fairly overrun with tangled bush and vine. Magnificent live oak, cedar and palmetto trees, spread their noble branches over thickets of bright bloom and living green. It was extremely picturesque, but “very snaky,” as Mabel declared with a little shudder.
“There’s a darkie over yonder, clipping away that thicket!” Eleanor pointed to where an ancient, bare-footed, overalled African, wearing a huge, tattered straw hat, was industriously cutting away at a thick patch of sprawling green growth.
“Hey, there, Uncle!” called out undignified Patsy. “Come here a minute, please.”
The old man straightened up at the hail and looked rather blankly about him. Catching sight of the group of white-clad girls, he ambled slowly toward them through the long grass.
“Mornin’, young ladies,” he saluted, pulling off his ragged headgear and disclosing a thick crop of snow-white wool. “Ah reckin mebbe yoh wants Uncle Jemmy t’ tell yoh suthin’?”
“Yes, we do, Uncle,” beamed Patsy. “We wish you’d show us a path to the orange groves, if there is one. We’d like to have some good, stout sticks, too, in case we see any snakes. Aren’t you afraid to walk around in that jungle in your bare feet?”
“Laws, Missie, I’se used toh it, I is. Th’ ain’t no snaikes round heah what mounts toh much. I done see a big black snaike this mohnin’, but that fella ain’t out toh do me no damage. He am a useful snaike, he am.”
“We’ll be just as well satisfied not to meet his snakeship, even if he is so useful,” muttered Eleanor in Patsy’s ear.
“Ef yoh all young ladies’ll come along now, I’se gwine toh show yoh the way toh git toh the orange groves,” continued Uncle Jemmy. “There am a path ovah heah.”
So saying, the old man took the lead and trotted along the clipped lawn where it skirted the high grass for a distance of perhaps twenty yards. The girls followed him, single file, every pair of bright eyes intent on trying to catch a glimpse of the path.
Pausing at last, Uncle Jemmy proceeded to lop off several low-growing branches from a nearby tree. These he deftly stripped clear of twigs and foliage and, trimming them smooth with a huge, sharp-bladed pocket knife, presented one to each of the four explorers.
“Heah am yoh snaike sticks, young ladies,” he declared, showing a vast expanse of white teeth in a genial grin. “Now I’se gwine to take yoh a little furder an’ yoh’ll see de path.”
A few steps and they came abreast of a giant oak tree and here the path began, a narrow trail, but beaten hard by the passing of countless feet.
“Yoh jes’ follow de path whereber he goes and yoh-all gwine come af’er while toh de groves,” he directed.
“Thank you, Uncle Jemmy.” Patsy nodded radiant thanks. Seized by a sudden thought she asked: “Do you live around here?”
“No, Missie. I comes from Tampa, I does. Soon’s I git through this job foh Massa Carroll I gwine toh git right back toh Tampa again. It am de bes’ place fo’ Uncle Jemmy.”
“Oh!” Patsy’s face fell. Then she tried again. “Do any of these boys working with you live around here?”
“No, Missie. They done come from Miami. We am all strangahs heah.”
“I see. Thank you ever so much for helping us.”
With a kindly nod to the old man, Patsy turned to her chums who had stood listening in silence to the questions she had asked.
“Are you ready for the great adventure?” she queried. “Come along, then. One, two, three and away we go, Indian fashion!”
Bidding a smiling good-bye to Uncle Jemmy, who had now turned to go, the three girls filed into the trail behind their energetic leader. And thus the Wayfarers started off on what really was the beginning of a greater adventure than they dreamed.