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   Chapter 2 EL CAJON RANCH

Aunt Jane's Nieces on the Ranch By L. Frank Baum Characters: 9467

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Uncle John always traveled comfortably and even luxuriously, but without ostentation. Such conveniences as were offered the general public he indulged in, but no one would suspect him of being a multi-millionaire who might have ordered a special train of private cars had the inclination seized him. A modest little man, who had made an enormous fortune in the far Northwest-almost before he realized it-John Merrick had never allowed the possession of money to deprive him of his simple tastes or to alter his kindly nature. He loved to be of the people and to mingle with his fellows on an equal footing, and nothing distressed him more than to be recognized by some one as the great New York financier. It is true that he had practically retired from business, but his huge fortune was invested in so many channels that his name remained prominent among men of affairs and this notoriety he was unable wholly to escape.

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

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

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

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

"Oh, you wrong Mildred, I'm sure!" exclaimed Beth, and Uncle John reluctantly accepted her verdict. On the journey Miss Travers appeared well bred and cultured, conversing easily and intelligently on a variety of subjects, yet always exhibiting a reserve, as if she held herself to be one apart from the others. Indeed, the girl proved so agreeable a companion that Mr. Merrick's misgivings gradually subsided. Even the major, still suspicious and doubtful, admitted that Mildred was "quite a superior 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 in Los Angeles and then journeyed on to Escondido, near which town the Weldon ranch was located.

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

This eldest niece was, in fact, only twenty years of age-quite too young to be a wife and mother. She was of that feminine type which matures 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. These two were more like children playing at "keeping house" than sedate married people. Mildred Travers observ

ed the couple with evident surprise; but the others, familiar with the love story of Arthur and Louise, were merely glad to find them unchanged and enjoying their former health and good spirits.

"The baby!"

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

"This is such a glorious country," she added as the big car started off with its load, to be followed by a wagon with the baggage, "that every living thing flourishes here like the green bay trees-and baby is no exception. 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 claim it's the old miser himself. And the oranges are just in their prime and the roses are simply magnificent!"

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

The California country roads are all "boulevards," although they are nothing more than native earth, rolled smooth and saturated with heavy oil until they resemble asphalt. The automobile was a fast one and it swept through the beautiful country, all fresh and green in spite of the fact that it was December, and fragrant with the scent of roses and carnations, which bloomed on every side, until a twenty-minute run brought them to an avenue of gigantic palms which led from the road up to 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 of these Cristovals had erected the present mansion-a splendid, rambling dwelling built around an open court where a fountain splashed and tall palms shot their swaying crowns far above the housetop. The South Wing was the old dwelling which the builder had incorporated into the present scheme, but the newer part was the more imposing.

The walls were of great thickness and composed of adobe blocks of huge size. These were not sun-baked, as is usual in adobe dwellings, but had been burned like brick in a furnace constructed for the purpose by the first proprietor, and were therefore much stronger and harder than ordinary brick. In this climate there is no dampness clinging to such a structure and the rooms were extraordinarily cool in summer and warm in the chill winter season. Surrounding the house were many magnificent trees of tropical and semi-tropical nature, all of which had now attained their full prime. On the south and east sides were extensive rose gardens and beds of flowers in wonderful variety.

It was here that the last Se?or Cristoval had brought his young bride, a lady of Madrid who was reputed to have possessed great beauty; but seclusion in this retired spot, then much isolated, rendered her so unhappy that she became mentally unbalanced and in a fit of depression took her own life. Cristoval, until then a generous and noble man, was completely changed by this catastrophe. During the remainder of his life he was noted for parsimony and greed for money, not unmixed with cruelty. 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. Three hundred acres of fine orange and olive groves, including the spacious mansion, were finally sold to young Arthur Weldon.

"It's an awfully big place," said Louise, as the party alighted and stood upon the broad stone veranda, "but it is so quaint and charming that 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, fluffy bundle that was instantly pounced upon by the two girls, to Uncle John's horror and dismay.

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

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