Aunt Jane's Nieces on the Ranch
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“You seem to have purchased a lot of things with this ranch,” observed Uncle John. “A capital old mansion, a band of trained servants, and – a ghost.”
“Oh, yes!” exclaimed Louise. “Major, did the ghost bother you last night?”
“Not to my knowledge,” said the old soldier. “I was too tired to keep awake, you know; therefore his ghostship could not have disturbed me without being unusually energetic.”
“Have you ever seen the ghost, Louise?” inquired Patsy.
“No, dear, nor even heard it. But Arthur has. It’s in the blue room, you know, near Arthur’s study – one of the prettiest rooms in the house.”
“That’s why we gave it to the major,” added Arthur. “Once or twice, when I’ve been sitting in the study, at about midnight, reading and smoking my pipe, I’ve heard some queer noises coming from the blue room; but I attribute them to rats. These old houses are full of the pests and we can’t manage to get rid of them.”
“I imagine the walls are not all solid,” explained Louise, “for some of those on the outside are from six to eight feet in thickness, and it would be folly to make them of solid adobe.”
“As for that, adobe costs nothing,” said Arthur, “and it would be far cheaper to make a solid wall than a hollow one. But between the blocks are a lot of spaces favored as residences by our enemies the rats, and there they are safe from our reach.”
“But the ghost?” demanded Patsy.
“Oh, the ghost exists merely in the minds of the simple Mexicans, over there at the quarters. Most of them were here when that rascally old Cristoval died, and no money would hire one of them to sleep in the house. You see, they feared and hated the old fellow, who doubtless treated them cruelly. That is why we had to get our house servants from a distance, and even then we had some difficulty in quieting their fears when they heard the ghost tales. Little Inez,” added Louise, “is especially superstitious, and I’m sure if she were not so devoted to baby she would have left us weeks ago.”
“Inez told me this morning,” said Beth, “that the major must be a very brave man and possessed some charm that protected him from ghosts, or he would never dare sleep in the blue room.”
“I have a charm,” declared the major, gravely, “and it’s just common sense.”
But now they were among the graceful, broad-spreading olives, at this season barren of fruit but very attractive in their gray-green foliage. Arthur had to explain all about olive culture to the ignorant Easterners and he did this with much satisfaction because he had so recently acquired the knowledge himself.
“I can see,” said Uncle John, “that your ranch is to be a great gamble. In good years, you win; a crop failure will cost you a fortune.”
“True,” admitted the young man; “but an absolute crop failure is unknown in this section. Some years are better than others, but all are good years.”
It was quite a long tramp, but a very pleasant one, and by the time they returned to the house everyone was ready for luncheon, which awaited them in the shady court, beside the splashing fountain.Patsy and Beth demanded the baby, so presently Inez came with little Jane, and Mildred Travers followed after. The two nurses did not seem on very friendly terms, for the Mexican girl glared fiercely at her rival and Mildred returned a basilisk stare that would have confounded anyone less defiant.
This evident hostility amused Patsy, annoyed Beth and worried Louise; but the baby was impartial. From her seat on Inez’ lap little Jane stretched out her tiny hands to Mildred, smiling divinely, and the nurse took the child in spite of Inez’ weak resistance, fondling the little one lovingly. There was a sharp contrast between Mildred’s expert and adroit handling of the child and Inez’ tender awkwardness, and this was so evident that all present noticed it.
Perhaps Inez herself felt this difference as, sullen and jealous, she eyed the other intently. Then little Jane transferred her favors to her former nurse and held out her hands to Inez. With a cry that was half a sob the girl caught the baby in her arms and held it so closely that Patsy had hard work to make her give it up.
By the time Uncle John had finished his lunch both Patsy and Beth had taken turns holding the fascinating “Toodlums,” and now the latter plunged Jane into Mr. Merrick’s lap and warned him to be very careful.
Uncle John was embarrassed but greatly delighted. He cooed and clucked to the baby until it fairly laughed aloud with glee, and then he made faces until the infant became startled and regarded him with grave suspicion.
“If you’ve done making an old fool of yourself, sir,” said the major severely, “you’ll oblige me by handing over my niece.”
“Your niece!” was the indignant reply; “she’s nothing of the sort. Jane is my niece.”
“No more than mine,” insisted the major; “and you’re worrying her. Will you hand her over, you selfish man, or must I take her by force?”
Uncle John reluctantly submitted to the divorce and the major handled the baby as if she had been glass.
“Ye see,” he remarked, lapsing slightly into his Irish brogue, as he was apt to do when much interested, “I’ve raised a daughter meself, which John Merrick hasn’t, and I know the ways of the wee women. They know very well when a friend has ’em, and – Ouch! Leg-go, I say!”
Little Jane had his grizzly moustache fast in two chubby fists and the major’s howls aroused peals of laughter.
Uncle John nearly rolled from his chair in an ecstacy of delight and he could have shaken Mildred Travers for releasing the grip of the baby fingers and rescuing the major from torture.
“Laugh, ye satyr!” growled the major, wiping the tears from his own eyes. “It’s lucky you have no hair nor whiskers – any more than an egg – or you’d be writhing in agony before now.” He turned to look wonderingly at the crowing baby in Mildred’s arms. “It’s a female Sandow!” he averred. “The grip of her hands is something marvelous!”
CHAPTER V – INEZ THREATENS
“Yes,” said Louise, a week later, “we all make fools of ourselves over Toodlums, Really, girls, Jane is a very winning baby. I don’t say that because I’m her mother, understand. If she were anyone else’s baby, I’d say the same thing.”
“Of course,” agreed Patsy. “I don’t believe such a baby was ever before born. She’s so happy, and sweet, and – and – ”
“And comfortable,” said Beth. “Indeed, Jane is a born sorceress; she bewitches everyone who beholds her dear dimpled face. This is an impartial opinion, you know; I’d say the same thing if I were not her adoring auntie.”
“It’s true,” Patsy declared. “Even the Mexicans worship her. And Mildred Travers – the sphinx – whose blood I am sure is ice-water, displays a devotion for baby that is absolutely amazing. I don’t blame her, you know, for it must be a real delight to care for such a fairy. I’m surprised, Louise, that you can bear to have baby out of your sight so much of the time.”
Louise laughed lightly.
“I’m not such an unfeeling mother as you think,” she answered. “I know just where baby is every minute and she is never out of my thoughts. However, with two nurses, both very competent, to care for Toodlums, I do not think it necessary to hold her in my lap every moment.”
Here Uncle John and the major approached the palm, under which the three nieces were sitting, and Mr. Merrick exclaimed:
“I’ll bet a cookie you were talking of baby Jane.”
“You’d win, then,” replied Patsy. “There’s no other topic of conversation half so delightful.”
“Jane,” observed the major, musingly, as he seated himself in a rustic chair. “A queer name for a baby, Louise. Whatever possessed you to burden the poor infant with it?”
“Burden? Nonsense, Major! It’s a charming name,” cried Patsy.
“She is named after poor Aunt Jane,” said Louise.
A silence somewhat awkward followed.
“My sister Jane,” remarked Uncle John gravely, “was in some respects an admirable woman.”
“And in many others detestable,” said Beth in frank protest. “The only good thing I can remember about Aunt Jane,” she added, “is that she brought us three girls together, when we had previously been almost unaware of one anothers’ existence. And she made us acquainted with Uncle John.”
“Then she did us another favor,” added Patsy. “She died.”
“Poor Aunt Jane!” sighed Louise. “I wish I could say something to prove that I revere her memory. Had the baby been a boy, its name would have been John; but being a girl I named her for Uncle John’s sister – the highest compliment I could conceive.”
Uncle John nodded gratefully. “I wasn’t especially fond of Jane, myself,” said he, “but it’s a family name and I’m glad you gave it to baby.”
“Jane Merrick,” said the major, “was very cruel to Patsy and to me, and so I’m sorry you gave her name to baby.”
“Always contrary, eh?” returned Uncle John, with a tolerant smile, for he was in no wise disturbed by this adverse criticism of his defunct sister – a criticism that in fact admitted little argument. “But it occurs to me that the most peculiar thing about this name is that you three girls, who were once Aunt Jane’s nieces, are now Niece Jane’s aunts!”
“Except me,” smiled Louise. “I’m happy to claim a closer relationship. But returning to our discussion of Aunt Jane. She was really instrumental in making our fortunes as well as in promoting our happiness, so I have no regret because I made baby her namesake.”
“The name of Jane,” said Patsy, “is in itself beautiful, because it is simple and old-fashioned. Now that it is connected with my chubby niece it will derive a new and added luster.”
“Quite true,” declared Uncle John.
“Where is Arthur?” inquired the major.
“Writing his weekly batch of letters,” replied Arthur’s wife. “When they are ready he is to drive us all over to town in the big car, and we have planned to have lunch there and to return home in the cool of the evening. Will that program please our guests?”
All voiced their approval and presently Arthur appeared with his letters and bade them get ready for the ride, while he brought out the car. He always drove the machine himself, as no one on the place was competent to act as chauffeur; but he managed it admirably and enjoyed driving.
Louise went to the nursery to kiss little Jane. The baby lay in her crib, fast asleep. Near her sat Mildred Travers, reading a book. Crouched in the window-seat was Inez, hugging her knees and gazing moodily out into the garden.
The nursery was in the East Wing, facing the courtyard but also looking upon the rose garden, its one deep-set window being near a corner of the room. On one side it connected with a small chamber used by Inez, which occupied half the depth of the wing and faced the garden. The other half of the space was taken by a small sewing-room letting out upon the court.
At the opposite side of little Jane’s nursery was a roomy chamber which had been given up to Mildred, and still beyond this were the rooms occupied by Arthur and Louise, all upon the ground floor. By this arrangement the baby had a nurse on either side and was only one room removed from its parents.
This wing was said to be the oldest part of the mansion, a fact attested by the great thickness of the walls. Just above was the famous blue room occupied by the major, where ghosts were supposed at times to hold their revels. Yet, despite its clumsy construction, the East Wing was cheery and pleasant in all its rooms and sunlight flooded it the year round.
After the master and mistress had driven away to town with their guests, Inez sat for a time by the window, still motionless save for an occasional wicked glance over her shoulder at Mildred, who read placidly as she rocked to and fro in her chair. The presence of the American nurse seemed to oppress the girl, for not a semblance of friendship had yet developed between the two; so presently Inez rose and glided softly out into the court, leaving Mildred to watch the sleeping baby.
She took the path that led to the Mexican quarters and ten minutes later entered the hut where Bella, the skinny old hag who was the wife to Miguel Zaloa, was busy with her work.
“Ah, Inez. But where ees Mees Jane?” was the eager inquiry.
Inez glanced around to find several moustached faces in the doorway. Every dark, earnest eye repeated the old woman’s question. The girl shrugged her shoulders.
“She is care for by the new nurse, Meeldred. I left her sleeping.”
“Who sleeps, Inez?” demanded the aged Miguel. “Ees it the new nurse, or Mees Jane?”
“Both, perhap.” She laughed scornfully and went out to the shed that connected two of the adobe dwellings and served as a shady lounging place. Here a group quickly formed around her, including those who followed from the hut.
“I shall kill her, some day,” declared the girl, showing her gleaming teeth. “What right have she to come an’ take our baby?”
Miguel stroked his white moustache reflectively.
“Ees this Meeldred good to Mees Jane?” he asked.
“When anyone looks, yes,” replied Inez reluctantly. “She fool even baby, some time, who laugh at her. But poor baby do not know. I know. This Meeldred ees a devil!” she hissed.
The listening group displayed no emotion at this avowal. They eyed the girl attentively, as if expecting to hear more. But Inez, having vented her spite, now sulked.
“Where she came from?” asked Miguel, the recognized spokesman.
“Back there. New York,” tossing her head in an easterly direction.
“Why she come?” continued the old man.
“The little mans with no hair – Meest Merrick – he think I not know about babies. He think this girl who learns babies in school, an’ from books, know more than me who has care for many baby – but for none like our Mees Jane. Mees Jane ees angel!”
They all nodded in unison, approving her assertion.
“Eet ees not bad thought, that,” remarked old Bella. “Books an’ schools ees good to teach wisdom.”
“Pah! Not for babies,” objected her husband, shaking his head. “Book an’ school can not grow orange, either. To do a thing many time ees to know it better than a book can know.”
“Besides,” said Inez, “this Meeldred ees witch-woman.”
“I know it. She come from New York. But yesterday she say to me: ‘Let us wheel leetle Jane to the live oak at Burney’s.’ How can she know there is live oak at Burney’s? Then, the first day she come, she say: ‘Take baby’s milk into vault under your room an’ put on stone shelf to keep cool.’ I, who live here, do not know of such a vault. She show me some stone steps in one corner, an’ she push against stone wall. Then wall open like door, an’ I find vault. But how she know it, unless she is witch-woman?”
There was a murmur of astonishment. Old Miguel scratched his head as if puzzled.
“I, too, know about thees vault,” said he; “but then, eet ees I know all of the old house, as no one else know. Once I live there with Se?or Cristoval. But how can thees New York girl know?”
There was no answer. Merely puzzled looks.
“What name has she, Inez?” suddenly asked Miguel.
“Travers. Meeldred Travers.”
The old man thought deeply and then shook his head with a sigh.
“In seexty year there be no Travers near El Cajon,” he asserted. “I thought maybe she have been here before. But no. Even in old days there ees no Travers come here.”
“There ees a Travers Ranch over at the north,” asserted Bella.
“Eet ees a name; there be no Travers live there,” declared Miguel, still with that puzzled look upon his plump features.
Inez laughed at him.
“She is witch-woman, I tell you. I know it! Look in her eyes, an’ see.”
The group of Mexicans moved uneasily. Old Miguel deliberately rolled a cigarette and lighted it.
“Thees woman I have not yet see,” he announced, after due reflection. “But, if she ees witch-woman, eet ees bad for Mees Jane to be near her.”
“That is what I say!” cried Inez eagerly. She spoke better English than the others. “She will bewitch my baby; she will make it sickly, so it will die!” And she wrung her hands in piteous misery.
The Mexicans exchanged frightened looks. Old Bella alone seemed unaffected.
“Mees Weld own her baby – not us,” suggested Miguel’s wife. “If Mees Weld theenk thees girl is safe nurse, what have we to say – eh?”
“I say she shall not kill my baby!” cried Inez fiercely. “That is what I say, Bella. Before she do that, I kill thees Meeldred Travers.”
Miguel examined the girl’s face intently.
“You are fool, Inez,” he asserted. “It ees bad to keel anything – even thees New York witch-woman. Be compose an’ keep watch. Nothing harm Mees Jane if you watch. Where are your folks, girl?”
“Live in San Diego,” replied Inez, again sullen.
“Once I know your father. He ees good man, but drink too much. If you make quarrel about thees new nurse, you get sent home. Then you lose Mees Jane. So keep compose, an’ watch. If you see anything wrong, come to me an’ tell it. That ees best.”
Inez glanced around the group defiantly, but all nodded approval of old Miguel’s advice. She rose from the bench where she was seated, shrugged her shoulders disdainfully and walked away without a word.
CHAPTER VI – A DINNER WITH THE NEIGHBORS
Escondido, the nearest town and post office to El Cajon Ranch, is a quaint little place with a decided Mexican atmosphere. Those California inhabitants whom we call, for convenience, “Mexicans,” are not all natives of Mexico, by any means. Most of them are a mixed breed derived from the early Spanish settlers and the native Indian tribes – both alike practically extinct in this locality – and have never stepped foot in Mexican territory, although the boundary line is not far distant. Because the true Mexican is generally a similar admixture of Indian and Spaniard, it is customary to call these Californians by the same appellation. The early Spaniards left a strong impress upon this state, and even in the newly settled districts the Spanish architecture appropriately prevails, as typical of a semi-tropical country which owed its first civilizing influences to old Spain.
The houses of Escondido are a queer mingling of modern bungalows and antique adobe dwellings. Even the business street shows many adobe structures. A quiet, dreamy little town, with a comfortable hotel and excellent stores, it is much frequented by the wealthy ranchers in its neighborhood.
After stopping at the post office, Arthur drove down a little side street to a weather-beaten, unprepossessing building which bore the word “Restaurant” painted in dim white letters upon its one window. Here he halted the machine.
“Oh,” said Beth, drawing a long breath. “Is this one of your little jokes, Arthur?”
“A joke? Didn’t we come for luncheon, then?”
“We did, and I’m ravenous,” said Patsy. “But you informed us that there is a good hotel here, on the main street.”
“So there is,” admitted Arthur; “but it’s like all hotels. Now, this is – different. If you’re hungry; if you want a treat – something out of the ordinary – just follow me.”
Louise was laughing at their doubting expressions and this care-free levity led them to obey their host’s injunction. Then the dingy door opened and out stepped a young fellow whom the girls decided must be either a cowboy or a clever imitation of one.
He seemed very young – a mere boy – for all his stout little form. He was bareheaded and a shock of light, tow-colored hair was in picturesque disarray. A blue flannel shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, a pair of drab corduroy trousers and rough shoes completed his attire. Pausing awkwardly in the doorway, he first flushed red and then advanced boldly to shake Arthur’s hand.
“Why, Weldon, this is an unexpected pleasure,” he exclaimed in a pleasant voice that belied his rude costume, for its tones were well modulated and cultured. “I’ve been trying to call you up for three days, but something is wrong with the line. How’s baby?”
This last question was addressed to Louise, who shook the youth’s hand cordially.
“Baby is thriving finely,” she reported, and then introduced her friends to Mr. Rudolph Hahn, who, she explained, was one of their nearest neighbors.
“We almost crowd the Weldons,” he said, “for our house is only five miles distant from theirs; so we’ve been getting quite chummy since they moved to El Cajon. Helen – that’s my wife, you know – is an humble worshiper at the shrine of Miss Jane Weldon, as we all are, in fact.”
“Your wife!” cried Patsy in surprise.
“You think I’m an infant, only fit to play with Jane,” said he; “but I assure you I could vote, if I wanted to – which I don’t. I think, sir,” turning to Uncle John, “that my father knows you quite well.”
“Why, surely you’re not the son of Andy Hahn, the steel king?”
“I believe they do give him that royal title; but Dad is only a monarch in finance, and when he visits my ranch he’s as much a boy as his son.”
“It scarcely seems possible,” declared Mr. Merrick, eyeing the rough costume wonderingly but also with approval. “How long have you lived out here?”
“Six years, sir. I’m an old inhabitant. Weldon, here, has only been alive for six months.”
“Of course. One breathes, back east, but only lives in California.”
During the laughter that followed this enthusiastic epigram Arthur ushered the party into the quaint Spanish restaurant. The room was clean and neat, despite the fact that the floor was strewn with sawdust and the tables covered with white oilcloth. An anxious-eyed, dapper little man with a foreign face and manner greeted them effusively and asked in broken English their commands.
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