Chapter IV. Veronica
 

Dinner over, the Winnebagos fell upon the dishes like a swarm of bees and had them cleared up and washed in a twinkling. Then they gathered in the long parlor where the harp stood, and to please them Nyoda turned off the electric lights and lit the candles in their old-fashioned holders. The little twinkling lights multiplied themselves in the mirrors until it seemed as if there were myriads of them; grotesque six-fold shadows danced on the walls as the girls moved about; the gilded harp gleamed softly in the mellow light and an atmosphere of by-gone days hovered over the room. It was an ideal moment for confidences, for heart-to-heart talks, and they spoke of many things which were sacred to one another, little intimate echoes of the days when they first learned to work and play together.

"Don't you remember, Veronica," said Migwan, "when you became a Winnebago you took the gull for your symbol, because it flew over the ocean and you wanted to follow it home?"

A memory of that day came back to the girls, of Veronica's bitter homesickness, and how desperately sorry they had been for her, and yet how helpless they had felt before her aristocratic mien. There was a great difference in her now, all the more noticeable because they had not seen her for a year. She was thinner and her eyes were larger and more pansylike than ever, but she was much more talkative and animated than she used to be. Very little of the old superior bearing remained, and the looks that she bent upon Nyoda were those of an humble and adoring slave. Proof positive of the change that had taken place in her was the prank she had played upon them that night in masquerading as the cook--she who had once refused to help prepare one of the famous suppers in the House of the Open Door, disdainfully remarking that cooking was work for servants, not for ladies.

At Migwan's remark Veronica stirred restlessly and made an emphatic gesture with her hand as she replied firmly, "That was all nonsense. I gave up the gull as a symbol long ago. It had such a screaming, ugly cry instead of a song. If I am to be one of the Song Friends I must have a song bird for a symbol. I have changed to the red winged blackbird, because that was the first American bird I learned to know by his song, outside of the robin. His voice always sounded so gay and free, singing over the open fields, that he seemed to be a symbol of the freedom and happiness which one finds in America. When he sings 'O-ka-lee! O-ka-lee! O-ka-lee!' I always think he is singing 'Liberty! Liberty! Liberty!'"

The four Winnebagos exchanged glances as Veronica uttered this sentiment, recalling their discussion of her in the train.

"Would you like to go back to Hungary?" asked Hinpoha.

Veronica shook her head vehemently. "I would not go back to my old home now if I could. I know now that I could never be happy there after having tasted the freedom of America."

"But you were not one of the oppressed poor," said Hinpoha. "You belonged to the upper class, didn't you?"

"It is true, we were not poor," answered Veronica, "we were not oppressed like the peasants. We did the oppressing ourselves, and because people in our station had done the same thing for hundreds of years we never stopped to think that it was wrong. The people in the village used to bow and scrape when they met us on the street, but how much they really cared for us I'd hate to say. It wasn't the way people greet each other in the streets here. Just imagine Sahwah, for instance, going down the street and meeting Hinpoha and having to bow humbly and wait until Hinpoha spoke to her first before she could say anything!"

The Winnebagos shrieked with laughter at the picture thus conjured up.

"Over here it seems too funny for anything," went on Veronica, "but that's the sort of thing I've been used to all my life. Now I see how ridiculous it all was and how wicked, and it seems almost like a judgment that our estate was destroyed in the very first month of the war and we had to suffer such great hardships. There was no bowing and scraping to us in that flight into the mountains, I can tell you. It was everyone for himself then, and we were all in the same boat." Veronica closed her eyes for a moment and shuddered involuntarily as the horror of that remembered flight overcame her; she threw it off with an effort and presently proceeded in an entirely composed tone. The Winnebagos, looking on with sympathetic understanding, marveled at her perfect poise and great power of self-control.

"It may seem strange to you girls," went on Veronica, "you who are so patriotic about this American land of yours, that I should talk this way about the land of my birth, and maybe you will despise me. But since I have been in America and have learned that people can live together in a much sweeter, fairer, truer way than I ever dreamed of, I could never go back to the old way. I want to become an American and never wish to leave this country. I don't want to be called a Hungarian. I want to be an American girl like the rest of you. Oh, I think you are the most wonderful girls in the world!"

She paused to squeeze Sahwah's hand, which rested on the arm of her chair.

"My uncle feels the same way about it as I do," continued Sahwah. "He became an American citizen ten years ago and is much more proud of his American citizenship than he ever was of his title."

"Did your uncle have a title?" asked Hinpoha breathlessly.

"It was a sort of courtesy title," answered Veronica, "because he was the youngest son of the baron, my grandfather, but, of course, he belonged in the family, which put him in the same class with the nobility."

"Was your grandfather a baron?" asked Hinpoha incredulously.

Veronica nodded casually and went on talking about her uncle.

"My uncle ran away at the time he became of military age rather than go into the army. All he cared for was music. Of course there was quite a stir about it and he changed his name and took his grandmother's maiden name, which was Lehar. He has now adopted that name legally in this country, and is plain 'Mr. Lehar.'"

"Then isn't your name Lehar either?" asked Hinpoha, while a rustle of surprise went through the group.

"No," replied Veronica in a perfectly matter-of-fact voice, "I simply assumed that name at his suggestion. You see, as long as I intended to be an American, I wouldn't have any further use for my title either----"

"Oh-h-h-h!" exclaimed the Winnebagos in a long breath of astonishment. "Your title! Have you got one, too?"

Veronica looked around with a little look of wonder at the sensation she had created. "I did have," she corrected gently. "I haven't it any more. I left it behind me in Hungary. I'm just plain Veronica Lehar now."

She looked into the girls' faces with a half-questioning, half-pleading expression as if fearful that this confession of her possession of a title would raise a barrier between them.

"What was your title?" asked Hinpoha, leaning forward in her chair and immensely impressed.

"My father was the Baron Szathmar-Vasarhely," replied Veronica. "I was what would be called in English Lady Veronica Szathmar-Vasarhely."

"Lady--what?" asked Hinpoha in comical bewilderment.

Veronica laughed.

"Do you wonder why I changed my name when I came to America and took the simple, sensible name of Lehar? Imagine going to school here under the name of Veronica Szathmar-Vasarhely! You can just hear the teachers pronouncing it, can't you? Why, I'd never have any friends at all, because people would rather avoid me than attempt to introduce me to anybody! Besides, it's extravagant to have such a name, it takes so much ink to sign it! Lehar is ever so much more convenient. You can't tell how light and airy I feel since I threw away that long name!"

"But Veronica, why didn't you tell us before about this?" asked Hinpoha. "We never dreamed your name had ever been anything else but Lehar!"

"Because I was afraid you wouldn't take me into your group and treat me as one of yourselves," said Veronica simply. "I did so want to be an American like the rest of you. I was afraid you might object to having a title in your midst. But now you really love me and won't let it make any difference?" she pleaded wistfully.

"Of course not, you goose," said Sahwah emphatically. "We love you for yourself and it wouldn't make any difference to us if you had a title as long as a kite tail! Now do you believe it?" and she bestowed a convincing hug on Veronica that nearly took her breath away.

"But Veronica," said Nyoda, both amused and perplexed, "is it possible to throw away a title like that? If you were born Lady Veronica Szathmar-Vasarhely can you deliberately say you 'won't be it'? I thought titles either had to be kept or formally transferred to someone else. Until this is done you are still the rightful owner of the title under the law of your country and no one else can claim it."

"They can't make me go back, can they?" cried Veronica, starting up in alarm.

"Why, no," replied Nyoda reassuringly, "and I suppose if you want to give up your claim to the title nobody will stop you. I was simply amused at the way you announced that you had 'thrown away' your title and proposed to have nothing further to do with it."

"I won't go back!" declared Veronica with kindling eyes, springing to her feet and clenching her little fists. "I won't! I won't! I'm going to be an American, so there! I won't be a baroness!" Her great black eyes flashed lightnings at the girls, who looked at her in consternation. Veronica, in a passion, was something to strike awe into the breast of the beholder.

"There aren't any estates left, thank goodness!" she declared. "They were all destroyed in the shelling of the town. For all they know over there, I'm dead, too, killed along with dozens of others. How do they know that I escaped on horseback to the Carpathian Mountains and with other refugees traveled across Roumania to the Black Sea and finally found friends who sent me to my uncle in America? Nobody will ever know where all the people of our village went to. Many of them perished in the mountains, many are in other countries. How do they know but what I perished, too? How will they ever know that I am here in America when I go by the name of Lehar? Besides, who would ever take the trouble to look for me when our estates have been swept away by the Russians? I will be an American!" she finished stormily, and stood looking defiantly at the girls, her head thrown back, her breast heaving, her whole body quivering with passion.

Hinpoha broke up the tension with her usual chatter. "Tell us about some of the people you knew in Hungary, I mean important ones," she asked curiously. Her romantic imagination saw Veronica hob-nobbing with royalty and surrounded by splendors. "Did you ever see a real prince?" she asked in a hushed tone.

"Lots of times," replied Veronica in a matter-of-fact way. "I have often seen royalty riding through the streets in Budapest and Debreczin. Everybody bows while the royal carriage is passing, but I don't believe many people fall in love with princes at first sight! They're hardly ever handsome, not at all like the princes in the fairy tales. They're generally fat and stupid looking.

"I have met and talked to two princes, both occasions being when I had played at a private musicale at the home of Countess Mariska Esterhazy in Budapest, where I studied in the Conservatory."

There was a curious silence among the Winnebagos at these words, which fell so lightly, so conversationally from Veronica's lips. It suddenly seemed to them that although they had known her two years they really did not know her at all! How carelessly she spoke of playing in the home of a countess! And of meeting royalty!

"Did you really play before the king?" asked Hinpoha in an awestricken whisper.

Veronica laughed, a jolly, chummy laugh that swept away their momentary feeling of constraint and made her one of themselves again. "Gracious, no!" she replied, highly amused. "I never could play well enough for that! The Countess Mariska was quite a democratic person, and had a great many pupils from the Conservatory as her proteges. Anybody who could play at all stood a good chance of playing at one of her musicales; you didn't need to be a genius at all."

Sahwah's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. Although she could play no musical instrument herself and knew less about music than any of the others, she realized, probably better than all the rest, the quality of Veronica's performance on the violin. Sahwah had a mysterious inner perception which made her sense things without knowing why or how. So she knew, although Veronica modestly laid no claim to distinction, that she must have won fame and favor by her playing to a much greater extent than she had ever divulged.

"Tell us about the princes you met," said Hinpoha eagerly, and the Winnebagos leaned forward in an expectant circle.

Veronica's eyes danced as though at some amusing recollection.

"The first prince I ever met," she began, dropping down on the floor beside the spinning wheel in the corner and leaning her head against it, "was Prince Ferdinand of Negol, which is one of the small Eastern provinces of Hungary. He was an old man, seventy years of age, and he had both the gout and the asthma. He sat with one foot on a cushion on a footstool and when it hurt him he made the awfullest faces. Not a bit like a story book prince, Hinpoha. He was at the Countess Mariska's one afternoon when I played and when I was through he requested that I be presented to him."

"Oh-h-h-h-h!" exclaimed Hinpoha under her breath in a thrilled tone.

"The Countess presented me," went on Veronica, "and the prince conversed with me for a few minutes in a wheezy voice. He didn't say anything wonderful, just remarked that I was a good child and had played well and should make the most of my opportunities, and so on. Then his foot gave him a twinge and he made a dreadful face, and the Countess took me by the arm and marched me away."

Veronica laughed at the recollection, and the Winnebagos laughed, too, at the picture of the gouty old prince wheezing out paternal advice to the lively Veronica.

"Go on, tell us about the other one," said Hinpoha, plainly disappointed that royalty had turned out to be so ordinary.

"The other one was a German prince," said Veronica, and then laughingly added, "I don't suppose you care to hear about him?"

"Oh, come on, tell us about him," coaxed the Winnebagos.

"He was Prince Karl Augustus of Hohenburg," replied Veronica. "He was traveling in Hungary for his health, or rather, for his wife's, and he came to one of the Countess's musicales. He wasn't an ideal prince, either, although he was quite young. He was fat and red-faced and had little beady eyes that made you nervous when he looked at you. After the musicale was over Countess Mariska came to me in a great state of satisfaction and informed me that the prince had enjoyed one piece that I had played so much that he desired me to play it for his wife, who was ill in the hotel. The Countess packed me into her carriage and drove over to the hotel where the prince was staying informally, giving me minute instructions all the way over as to my conduct while there. I played for the princess, who was a thin, melancholy looking woman, and she seemed to enjoy it and thanked me quite graciously. A day or two afterward I received a package by messenger, and it was this little finger ring, a present from the prince and princess. I didn't like the prince, but the ring was very pretty and I have kept it, because the princess probably picked it out and it gave her pleasure to do so. His wife was a Hungarian."

She stretched out her hand to the Winnebagos, who crowded eagerly around to examine the small but brilliantly glowing ruby set in a dainty gold band. They had seen it hundreds of times before, but had never guessed it was the gift of a prince. Truly, Veronica was full of surprises!

"It seems to me, Veronica," said Nyoda, "that you were quite an honored little person in your country, and must have been greatly envied by your friends. How does it come that you are willing to throw away the precedence which you formerly enjoyed on account of your rank and station to become a plain citizen of another country where you have to carve out your place single handed? Don't you really ever have any regrets over it?"

Veronica shook her head resolutely. "Not at all," she replied in a firm voice. "After once living in America I could never long to go back to the old life. Since I have become a Camp Fire Girl I have learned that the true nobility is not of birth but of worth, and there should be no other in any country. I promised, you know, when I became a Fire Maker, to tend

  'The fire that is called the love of man for man,'

and one cannot do that and live luxuriously on money that one has wrung from the poor instead of earning honestly. No, thank you, I would rather be a democratic American girl and call everyone friend! It's lots more fun, even than being the protege of a countess! I'd rather be a Torch Bearer than a princess!"

Veronica's eyes shone with sincerity and fervor, and the Winnebagos were tremendously impressed.

"Of course you're going to be an American," said Sahwah, drawing Veronica to her feet and encircling her with her arm, "and you're going to be just as honored and distinguished here as you were over there, because you're so wonderful that people can't help making a fuss over you. You're going to become the most wonderful violinist in the country, and people are going to go just wild over you!"

Sahwah would have poured out more brilliant prophecies, but she was cut short by the sound of a great disturbance without. There was a violent clatter on the brick walk outside, followed by a crashing thump, which was accompanied by the sound of splintering wood.

The Winnebagos started and looked at each other apprehensively. Nyoda sprang to her feet and ran for the door.

"The Kaiser is out!" she exclaimed, and seizing an umbrella from the rack in the hall, she disappeared into outer darkness.