Authors: Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Tags: #Historical, #Classic, #Young Adult, #Mystery, #Children
The Velvet Room
by ZILPHA KEATLEY SNYDER
Digitized by the Internet Archive in 2010
HEN THE TIRE WENT FLAT
for the third time that day, it went with a bang. The car swerved sharply to the left and then to the right and came to a sudden stop. Robin’s chin hit something, perhaps her own knee, and she bit her tongue. Shirley was screaming, and for a minute Robin’s eyes were blinded with tears. But she blinked them away and stuck her head out of the window. Cary was pushing and tromping, trying to get his head out of the window in front of Robin’s.
Robin gasped when she saw what the car had hit. For the first time she was thankful that the poor old Model T couldn’t go very fast any more.
What if they’d hit all those stones at fifty miles an hour?
The car doors spilled open, and they all poured out: Dad from the driver’s seat, and Cary and Theda and Rudy from the back. Mama was slower because Shirley was still hanging around her neck and yelling as if she were being killed.
But Robin just sat. She tucked her legs up on the seat and rubbed her bare toes where Cary had just about smashed them as he climbed out over her.
Dad was standing in front of the car, shaking his head slowly from side to side. “Well, that does it,” he said. “That just about does it.” He didn’t look angry or even worried any more — just tired.
But Cary looked positively delighted, “Lookit the wheel, Dad. Gee! Lookit the fender!” He jerked at Dad’s sleeve and jumped up and down as if he were looking at a clown in a circus. It seemed to Robin that even an eight-year-old ought to know better.
Mama finally managed to unfasten Shirley from around her neck long enough to climb out of the front seat; but when Shirley saw how the fender and wheel were smashed flat against the pillar of stones, she began to scream all over again. She buried her face in Mama’s skirt and wailed.
“There, there, Shirley honey,” Mama said. “Don’t cry. You know it’s bad for you to cry so hard.”
Robin smiled with tight lips. It wasn’t that Shirley was old enough to realize just how bad a fix they were in; it was only that she never missed an opportunity to howl no matter what happened. And even though it was bad for her asthma, no one ever made her shut up.
“There, there, Shirley,” Mama was still saying. “There’s no need to take on so. Rudy can fix it. Just look, Shirley honey. Rudy’s getting ready to fix it right now.”
Shirley took her face out of Mama’s skirt for a second to glance at Rudy. It didn’t take her long to decide that Rudy wasn’t doing anything that would make watching more fun than yelling, so she went right back to yelling.
Robin sighed. Rudy didn’t seem to be doing anything except squatting beside the squashed wheel, touching it lightly with his fingers as if he were trying to take its pulse. Of course, if anybody could fix it Rudy could, even though he was only fifteen. Rudy might not be very good at some things, but, as Dad said, a sick machine seemed to be able to tell Rudy where it hurt.
But this might be too much even for Rudy. What could a boy of fifteen, with only a few tools, do for a wheel that looked like that? No, it was ruined. The car was ruined, and it was over a hundred miles to where Dad was supposed to get a job.
Robin pulled her legs up against her chest and wrapped her faded print skirt and thin brown arms tightly around them. She rested her chin on her knees and rocked herself to and fro.
She was beginning to have a strange feeling. It wasn’t the first time she had felt this way. Everything seemed to be moving backward away from her, getting smaller and smaller, less and less real. It was as if she were watching everything from a long way off. There beyond the cracked windshield was her family, gathered noisily around the broken wheel, and closer yet was the back of the front seat, with the patches of gunny sacking sewn on over the torn upholstery. Closest of all were her own bare toes, a little bit dirty, sticking out from under the cotton skirt. But all of it — even the dirty toes — seemed quite unreal.
Robin opened the car door and jumped out. She looked quickly around. Directly in front of her was a high gate of twisted-looking black metal. The gate hung from two huge stone pillars. It was against one of these pillars that the old car had met its fate. From the tops of the tall columns of stone more black metal, in an elaborate pattern of leaves and flowers, formed an arch above the gate. In the midst of this arch the metal had been shaped into fancy letters forming the words “Las Palmeras.” Through the bars of the gate Robin could see a curving road, weed-grown and pot-holed, but lined on both sides by a wonderful procession of gigantic palm trees.
The gate was too high to climb over, but beyond the pillars the stone fence was lower. Robin easily found places to fit her bare toes. Just as she was on her stomach on top of the wall, ready to drop down on the other side, Mama saw her.
“Robin,” she called. “What are you doing up there?” She started toward the wall, but because Shirley was still crying into her skirt she couldn’t move very quickly.
“I’m just climbing over, Mama, to look around.”
“If that’s somebody’s yard over there, you’re going to be trespassing,” Mama said in her sternest voice.
“Oh, it’s not, Mama.” Robin was getting breathless from hanging over the stone wall on her stomach. “It’s just an orchard and an old deserted road.” Without waiting for an answer, she shoved off and dropped to the ground.
Mama’s voice came over the wall. “Don’t you go wandering off again, Robin. You stay within shouting distance. You hear?”
“Yes, Mama,” Robin shouted back as she started off through the knee-deep weeds of the old road.
LTHOUGH THE SUMMER FOG
of coastal California had been thick all morning as they drove, the skies were now clear. Slanting rays of afternoon sun threw the long shadows of the palms far to the east. Across the old road lay only the narrow shadows of the trunks, making a striped pattern of sun and shade. Beyond the palms, on each side of the road, were rows and rows of orange trees, their waxy leaves like green glass in the sunshine and almost black in the shade.
As Robin walked slowly up the center of the road, a sudden contentment replaced the feeling that had sent her scrambling over the wall a few minutes before. It was quiet here, away from the noise of the highway and all the rush and roar of people. The air smelled of sun-warmed earth and orange blossoms. But it was the palms, more than anything else, that brought a strange feeling of peace.
They were very old trees. Their heads, shaggy with untrimmed fronds, reached far into the air, and their huge trunks were scarred with age. Bordering the abandoned road like the ancient pillars of some ruined temple, they marked the way far into the distance. Robin thought they were probably the oldest trees she had ever seen.
A little farther on, the road curved over a gentle rise. From the top Robin could see a thick grove of trees at the base of the hills. She looked back uneasily. It was a lot more than shouting distance back to the highway. She really ought to go back. But she knew that nothing could make her return until she had seen what was hidden behind that grove of trees.
As she approached, she could see that these trees, too, were very old and very large. They were mostly oak and peppers, with here and there some others she didn’t recognize. The road, even more weed-choked, curved now through almost twilight shade. It curved some more and suddenly came to — a house.
It was about the largest house that Robin had ever seen. It was built of pale gray stone, and at one end it had a high round tower. A long portico supported by stone arches ran all around the front and one side.
It was a wonderful house, almost like a castle — but after a moment Robin realized that something was terribly wrong. On the bottom floor there were no windows. Every place a window should have been there were only rough planks. The house looked wounded, like a beautiful face with bandages for eyes.
Robin was standing at the edge of a large clearing that once must have been a lawn. In the center of the clearing was a stone-lined pool in which three bronze sea horses stood on a pedestal. The dry pool was littered with dead leaves, and the round mouths of the sea horses were full of dust.
How different it all must have looked when the windows sparkled with sunlight, when the fountain splashed and the lawn was green, when the porches weren’t cluttered with dirt and branches, and the curving road that swept before the door was white with fresh gravel.
It made Robin angry. How could the people it belonged to treat it that way? To let it sit there dead and lonely with its windows blinded! If it were hers, she would never have done that to it. If it were her house, she would look out of every window every day and just be happy to be there. Just be happy to live in a house that seemed to have grown up out of the hills behind it.
“Robin!” Even though Theda was still a long way off, her voice was plainly exasperated. She must have been calling for a long time.
“Coming!” Robin shouted, and with a quick backward look at the old house she started toward the highway. She ran fast, hoping to stop Theda before she reached the grove of trees that hid the house. She didn’t know whv it was so important to keep Theda from seeing the house, but it was.
She needn’t have worried. Theda, plainly, hadn’t come any farther after she had heard Robin’s answering call. Breathless from running, Robin topped the rise in the road and saw her sitting on an irrigation weir at the edge of the orchard. She had one shoe off and was rubbing her foot.
“Where have you been?” Theda demanded crossly, slipping her shoe back on. “Didn’t you hear Mama tell you not to wander off?”
“I didn’t wander off,” Robin gasped. “I was just walking, and I didn’t notice how far I had gone.”
“Well, we just ought to go off and leave you sometime,” Theda grumbled. “Serve you right. Always wandering around with your head in the clouds.”
Robin glanced quickly at Theda. It wasn’t like her to be so cross. You couldn’t count on Theda for a lot of important things, but you could usually count on her to be cheerful — even when there wasn’t a thing in the world to be cheerful about. They walked on silently for a while before it occurred to Robin that Theda’s grouchiness was probably because of sore feet.
Just before they left the camp in Salinas, a woman had given Theda a pair of high-heeled pumps. Mama said that fourteen was too young for high heels, but Theda had finally talked her into changing her mind. Theda had been wearing the pumps for the last two days; but since they’d been in the car almost constantly, she still hadn’t had much walking practice. Now, as she made her way carefully over the rough surface of the old road, her ankles wobbled and her freckled face looked pained.
“Why don’t you take them off till we get back near the highway?” Robin suggested. “Nobody’s going to see you out here in the orchard, anyway.”
Theda’s lips tightened, and she shook her head. She could be surprisingly determined sometimes, particularly if it had anything to do with clothes. If there was anything that really mattered to Theda, besides boys of course, it was what she was or wasn’t going to wear.
The iron gates were in sight now, and for the first time since she had fallen under the spell of the ancient palms Robin thought about the mess they were in. “What are they going to do?” she asked. “About the car, I mean.”
Theda shrugged. “Rudy got the wheel clear off, and he and Dad went off to look for a service station. Rudy said they’d have to buy a whole new wheel, but Dad thought they might get it straightened out.”
Robin’s brow furrowed. Rudy was probably right — he usually was when it came to machinery — and Robin knew that Dad had only about twelve dollars left to last them until they got to San Bernardino. He’d said so last night when Mama wanted to take the kids to the movies to see the Shirley Temple picture. Could you get a whole new wheel and tire for twelve dollars? And even if you could, what about gas and food all the rest of the way there?