Aunt Jane's Nieces on the Ranch eBook: Page2

L. Frank Baum (2011)


  CHAPTER II--EL CAJON RANCH

  Uncle John always traveled comfortably and even luxuriously, but withoutostentation. Such conveniences as were offered the general public heindulged in, but no one would suspect him of being a multi-millionairewho might have ordered a special train of private cars had theinclination seized him. A modest little man, who had made an enormousfortune in the far Northwest--almost before he realized it--John Merrickhad never allowed the possession of money to deprive him of his simpletastes or to alter his kindly nature. He loved to be of the people andto mingle with his fellows on an equal footing, and nothing distressedhim more than to be recognized by some one as the great New Yorkfinancier. It is true that he had practically retired from business, buthis huge fortune was invested in so many channels that his name remainedprominent among men of affairs and this notoriety he was unable whollyto escape.

  The trip to California was a delight because none of his fellowpassengers knew his identity. During the three days' jaunt from Chicagoto Los Angeles he was recognized only as an engaging little man who wasconducting a party of three charming girls, as well as a sedate,soldierly old gentleman, into the sunny Southland for a winter'srecreation.

  Of these three girls we already know Patsy Doyle and Beth DeGraf, butMildred Travers remains to be introduced. The trained nurse whom Bethhad secured was tall and slight, with a sweet face, a gentle expressionand eyes so calm and deep that a stranger found it disconcerting to gazewithin them. Beth herself had similar eyes--big and fathomless--yet theywere so expressive as to allure and bewitch the beholder, while MildredTravers' eyes repelled one as being masked--as concealing some wellguarded secret. Both the major and Uncle John had felt this and it madethe latter somewhat uneasy when he reflected that he was taking thisgirl to be the trusted nurse of Louise's precious baby. He questionedBeth closely concerning Mildred and his niece declared that no kindlier,more sympathetic or more skillful nurse was ever granted a diploma. OfMildred's history she was ignorant, except that the girl had confided toher the story of her struggles to obtain recognition and to getremunerative work after graduating from the training school.

  "Once, you know," explained Beth, "trained nurses were in such demandthat none were ever idle; but the training schools have been turningthem out in such vast numbers that only those with family influence arenow sure of work. Mildred is by instinct helpful and sympathetic--anatural born nurse, Uncle John--but because she was practically astranger in New York she was forced to do charity and hospital work, andthat is how I became acquainted with her."

  "She seems to bear out your endorsement, except for her eyes," saidUncle John. "I--I don't like--her eyes. They're hard. At times they seemvengeful and cruel, like tigers' eyes."

  "Oh, you wrong Mildred, I'm sure!" exclaimed Beth, and Uncle Johnreluctantly accepted her verdict. On the journey Miss Travers appearedwell bred and cultured, conversing easily and intelligently on a varietyof subjects, yet always exhibiting a reserve, as if she held herself tobe one apart from the others. Indeed, the girl proved so agreeable acompanion that Mr. Merrick's misgivings gradually subsided. Even themajor, still suspicious and doubtful, admitted that Mildred was "quite asuperior person."

  Louise had been notified by telegraph of the coming of her relatives,but they had withheld from her the fact that they were bringing a"proper" nurse to care for the Weldon baby. The party rested a day inLos Angeles and then journeyed on to Escondido, near which town theWeldon ranch was located.

  Louise and Arthur were both at the station with their bigseven-passenger touring car. The young mother was promptly smothered inembraces by Patsy and Beth, but when she emerged from this ordeal to behugged and kissed by Uncle John, that observing little gentleman decidedthat she looked exactly as girlish and lovely as on her wedding day.

  This eldest niece was, in fact, only twenty years of age--quite tooyoung to be a wife and mother. She was of that feminine type whichmatures slowly and seems to bear the mark of perpetual youth. Mrs.Weldon's slight, willowy form was still almost childlike in its lines,and the sunny, happy smile upon her face seemed that of a school-maid.

  That tall, boyish figure beside her, now heartily welcoming the guests,would scarcely be recognized as belonging to a husband and father. Thesetwo were more like children playing at "keeping house" than sedatemarried people. Mildred Travers observed the couple with evidentsurprise; but the others, familiar with the love story of Arthur andLouise, were merely glad to find them unchanged and enjoying theirformer health and good spirits.

  "The baby!"

  That was naturally the first inquiry, voiced in concert by the latearrivals; and Louise, blushing prettily and with a delightful air ofproprietorship, laughingly assured them that "Toodlums" was very well.

  "This is such a glorious country," she added as the big car started offwith its load, to be followed by a wagon with the baggage, "that everyliving thing flourishes here like the green bay trees--and baby is noexception. Oh, you'll love our quaint old home, Uncle John! And, Patsy,we've got such a flock of white chickens! And there's a new baby calf,Beth! And the major shall sleep in the Haunted Room, and--"

  "Haunted?" asked the major, his eyes twinkling.

  "I'm sure they're rats," said the little wife, "but the Mexicans claimit's the old miser himself. And the oranges are just in their prime andthe roses are simply magnificent!"

  So she rambled on, enthusiastic over her ranch home one moment and thenext asking eager questions about New York and her old friends there.Louise had a mother, who was just now living in Paris, much to ArthurWeldon's satisfaction. Even Louise did not miss the worldly-minded,self-centered mother with whom she had so little in common, and perhapsUncle John and his nieces would never have ventured on this visit hadMrs. Merrick been at the ranch.

  The California country roads are all "boulevards," although they arenothing more than native earth, rolled smooth and saturated with heavyoil until they resemble asphalt. The automobile was a fast one and itswept through the beautiful country, all fresh and green in spite of thefact that it was December, and fragrant with the scent of roses andcarnations, which bloomed on every side, until a twenty-minute runbrought them to an avenue of gigantic palms which led from the road upto the ranch house of El Cajon.

  Originally El Cajon had been a Spanish grant of several thousand acres,and three generations of Spanish dons had resided there. The last ofthese Cristovals had erected the present mansion--a splendid, ramblingdwelling built around an open court where a fountain splashed and tallpalms shot their swaying crowns far above the housetop. The South Wingwas the old dwelling which the builder had incorporated into the presentscheme, but the newer part was the more imposing.

  The walls were of great thickness and composed of adobe blocks of hugesize. These were not sun-baked, as is usual in adobe dwellings, but hadbeen burned like brick in a furnace constructed for the purpose by thefirst proprietor, and were therefore much stronger and harder thanordinary brick. In this climate there is no dampness clinging to such astructure and the rooms were extraordinarily cool in summer and warm inthe chill winter season. Surrounding the house were many magnificenttrees of tropical and semi-tropical nature, all of which had nowattained their full prime. On the south and east sides were extensiverose gardens and beds of flowers in wonderful variety.

  It was here that the last Senor Cristoval had brought his young bride, alady of Madrid who was reputed to have possessed great beauty; butseclusion in this retired spot, then much isolated, rendered her sounhappy that she became mentally unbalanced and in a fit of depressiontook her own life. Cristoval, until then a generous and noble man, wascompletely changed by this catastrophe. During the remainder of his lifehe was noted for parsimony and greed for money, not unmixed withcruelty. He worked his ignorant Indian and Mexican servants mercilessly,denying them proper food or wage, and his death was a relief to all.Afterward the big estate was cut up and passed into various hands. Threehundred acres of fine orange and olive groves, including the spaciousmans
ion, were finally sold to young Arthur Weldon.

  "It's an awfully big place," said Louise, as the party alighted andstood upon the broad stone veranda, "but it is so quaint and charmingthat I love every stick and stone of it."

  "The baby!" shrieked Patsy.

  "Where's that blessed baby?" cried Beth.

  Then came from the house a dusky maid bearing in her arms a soft, fluffybundle that was instantly pounced upon by the two girls, to Uncle John'shorror and dismay.

  "Be careful, there!" he called. "You'll smother the poor thing." ButLouise laughed and regarded the scene delightedly. And little Janeseemed to appreciate the importance of the occasion, for she waved hertiny hands and cooed a welcome to her two new aunties.