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puppies, who apparently bitterly regret being born outside of Pekin. She
puts them in baskets on the roof in the sun and lets them cry it out, in
that hard-hearted modern method applied to babies.

A sight-seeing car had paused while the gentleman with the megaphone
explained to a few late tourists the Arroyo Seco, that great river-bed
with only a trickle of water at the bottom, on whose brink our house
perches. At home two plumbers were playfully tossing bricks about our
courtyard in a half-hearted endeavor to find out why our cellar was
flooded. Hence the back bedroom. No amount of cotton wool in one's ears,
however, could camouflage a telephone bell.

"The Red Cross Executive Committee will meet at ten on Wednesday."

A short interval followed. "Will Mr. S - - make a 'four-minute' speech
on Friday at the Strand Theatre for the Liberty Bond Campaign?"

Another interval during which I began to feel drowsy. "Will Mr. S - -
say a few words of appreciation and present a wrist watch to the Chapter
Secretary just starting for France?" etc. Just here I made a resolve.
Escape I would, for one week, to my lovely hill-top by the sea, and
leave J - - , the two boys, the two dogs, the two white mice, the Red
Cross, the Red Star, Food Conservation and Liberty Bonds to manage
beautifully without me. I even had the reckless idea of trying to forget
that there was a war going on! I was furnished with a perfectly good
excuse; we had rented "The Smiling Hill-Top" for two months, and it must
be put in order. Hence my "Adventure in Solitude."

Everything is called an adventure nowadays, and to me it was a most
exciting one, as I had not gone forth independently for many years. One
chauffeur, one smiling Helen to clean house for the tenants and cook for
me, my worst clothes and my best picnic lunch went into the motor, and I
followed. I think my family expected me back next day, when I bade them
a loving farewell. Not I! My spirit was craving silence. I wanted not to
curl my hair or be neat or polite or a good mother, or any of the things
I usually try to be, for just one week. Longer, and I would be lonely
and homesick.

It was a lovely day. The coast road to San Diego runs through orange
groves for miles, and the perfume of the blossoms hung about us till we
came to the sea, where a salt breeze blew away the heavy sweetness. I
lunched on the sand and watched the waves for an hour. There, at least,
are endless re-enforcements! As fast as the front ranks break more come
always to fill their places.

I felt no hurry, as the Smiling Hill-Top is some fifteen miles nearer
Pasadena than San Diego - an easy day's run - and I had no engagements,
but at last my impatience to see how much our garden had grown started
me once more on my way, and we arrived at our wicket gate in the late
afternoon. There were twenty-seven keys on the ring the real-estate
agent gave me - twenty more than caused so much trouble at Baldpate - but
none fitted, so I had the chauffeur lift the gate bodily from its hinges
and I was at home!

In California things grow riotously. Grandparents who haven't seen their
grandsons for years, and find that they have shot up from toddling
babies to tall youths, must feel as I did when I saw the vines and
shrubs, especially the banana trees planted only six months before! The
lawn over which I had positively wept lay innocent and green - almost
English in its freshness. The patio was entrancing with blooming vines.
The streptasolen, which has no "little name," as the French say, was
like a cascade of flame over one end of the wall. The place was ablaze
with it. The three goldfish in the fountain seemed as calm as ever, and
apparently have solved the present problem of the high cost of living,
for they don't have to be fed at all. The three had picked up what they
needed without human aid. I really felt like patting them on the head,
but that being out of the question, I was moved to rhyme:

"I wish I were a goldfish,
All in a little bowl;
I wouldn't worry whether
I really had a soul.
I'd glide about through sun and shade
And snatch up little gnats,
My heaven would be summer
My hell - well, call it cats!"

All this time the chauffeur had been wrestling with the key ring, and
finally had our bare necessities in the way of doors open. I had
telegraphed our agent that I was coming only long enough before for
the house to have what is vulgarly known as "a lick and a promise,"
but it looked just as comfortable and pleasant as I knew that it
would, and the terrace - no need to bother about that. The south
wind does the housework there.

That night I went to sleep between sheets fragrant with lavender from my
own garden, while the ocean boomed gently on the beach below the hill.
In the week that followed I abolished a number of things. First of all,
meal hours. I had my meals when I felt like it; in fact, I didn't wind
the clock till I was leaving. I only did it then on account of the
tenants, as some people find the ticking of a clock and the chirping of
a cricket pleasant and cosy sounds. I don't. Then I cut out the usual
items from my bill of fare, and lived on young peas, asparagus, eggs,
milk, and fruit, with just a little bread and butter - not enough to
agitate Mr. Hoover. I never had had as much asparagus as I really wanted
before. I wore an old smock and a disreputable hat, and I pruned and dug
in my garden till I was tired, and then I lay on the terrace and watched
the waves endlessly gather and glide and spread. Counting sheep jumping
over a wall is nothing to compare with waves for soothing rasped nerves.

My first solitary day was so clear that the Pasadena Mountains, as we
call that part of the Sierra Madre, rose soft over the water on the far
horizon, so that I couldn't feel lonely with home in sight. Long unused
muscles expostulated with me, but smoothed-out nerves more than balanced
their twinges. Of course I couldn't forget the war. Who could,
especially with flocks of aeroplanes flying over me as I lay on a chaise
longue on the terrace, listening to the big guns of Camp Kearny roaring
behind the hills; but it no longer gave me the sensation of sand-paper
in my feelings. I thought about it all more calmly and realized a little
of what it is doing to us Americans - to our souls! - that is worth the
price; and in addition, how much it is teaching us of economy,
conservation, and efficiency, as well as more spiritual things.

It has also brought home to me the beauty of throwing away. In a fever
of enthusiasm to make every outgrown union suit and superfluous berry
spoon tell, I have ransacked my house from garret to cellar, and I bless
the Belgians, Servians, and Armenians, the Poles and the French orphans
for ridding me of a suffocating mass of things that I didn't use, and
yet felt obliged to keep.

My wardrobe is now the irreducible minimum, the French Relief has the
rest, and at last I have more than enough hangers in my closet to
support my frocks. The shoes that pinched but looked so smart that they
kept tempting me into one more trial have gone to the Red Cross Shop. No
more concerts will be ruined by them. The hat that made me look ten
years older than I like to think I do, accompanied them. It was a good
hat, almost new, and it cost - more than I pay for hats nowadays. I do
not need to wear it out. My large silver tea-pot given me by my maid of
honor did good work for the Belgians - I hope if she ever finds out about
its fate that she will be glad that it is now warm stockings for many
thin little Belgian legs. Nora, from Ireland, viewed its departure with
satisfaction - it made one less thing to polish. Many odds and ends of
silver followed, and were put into the melting-pot, being too homely to
survive - I'm saving enough for heirlooms for my grandchildren, of
course. One must not allow sentiment to go by the board; we need it
especially now that we have lost such quantities of it out of the world.
So much was "made in Germany," that old Germany of the fairy tales and
Christmas trees which seems to be gone forever.

I need not go on enumerating my activities. Every one has been doing the
same thing, and in all probability is now enjoying the same sense of
orderliness and freedom that I feel. Even the children have caught the
spirit. I was just leaving my house the other day when a palatial
automobile stopped at the gate and a very perfect chauffeur alighted and
touched his cap. "Madam," he said, "I have come for a case of empty
bottles that Master John says your little boy promised him for the Red
Cross." There was a trace of embarrassment in his manner, but there was
none in mine as I led him to the cellar and watched with satisfaction
while he clasped a cobwebby box of - dare I whisper it? - empty beer
bottles to his immaculate chest and eventually stowed it in the
exquisite interior of the limousine. How wonderful of the Red Cross to
want my bottles, and how intelligent of my "little boy" to arrange the
matter so pleasantly!

To do away with the needless accumulations of life, or better still, not
to let them accumulate, what a comfort that would be! Letters? The fire
as rapidly as possible! No one ought to have a good time reading over
old letters - there's always a tinge of sadness about them, and it's
morbid to conserve sadness, added to which, in the remote contingency of
one's becoming famous, some vandalish relative always publishes the ones
that are most sacred.

J - - has the pigeon-hole habit. He hates to see anything sink into the
abyss of the waste-basket, but I am training him to throw away something
every morning before breakfast. After a while he'll get so that he can
dispose of several things at once, and the time may come when I'll have
to look over the rubbish to be sure that nothing valuable has gone,
because throwing away is just as insidious a habit as any other.

If only one could pile old bills on top of the old letters, what a
glorious bonfire that would make! But that will have to wait until
the millennium; as things are now, it would mean paying twice for
the motor fender of last year, and never feeling sure of your
relations with the butcher.

It isn't only things that I am disposing of. I've rid myself of a lot
of useless ideas. We don't have to live in any special way. It isn't
necessary to have meat twice a day, and there is no law about chicken
for Sunday dinner. Butter does not come like the air we breathe.
Numerous courses aren't necessary even for guests. New clothes aren't
essential unless your old ones are worn out - and so on.

And so I'm stepping forth on a road leading, even the graybeards can't
say where, with surprises behind every hedge and round every corner.
There hasn't been so thrillingly interesting an age to be alive since
that remote time when the Creation was going on. Except for moments of
tired nerves, like this, it is very stimulating, and I find myself
stepping out much more briskly since I threw my extra wraps and bundles
beside the road. Here on my hill-top I have even enjoyed a little of
that charm of unencumberedness that all vagabonds know - and later if I
come to some steep stretches I shall be more likely to make the top, for
I'm resolved to "travel light."

There is usually one serpent in Eden, if it is only a garter snake. Ours
was a frog in the fountain. He had a volume of sound equal to Edouard de
Reske in his prime. I set the chauffeur the task of catching him, but
after emptying out all the water one little half-inch frog skipped off,
and John assured me that he could never be the offender. But he was
"Edouard" in spite of appearances, for he returned at dusk and took up
the refrain just where he had left off. I decided to hunt him myself. It
was like the game of "magic music" that we used to play as children:
loud and you are "warm"; soft and you are far away. I never caught him.
He was ready to greet the tenants instead of the cosy cricket, and may
have been the reason why they suddenly departed after only a three
weeks' stay, but as it was a foggy May, as it sometimes is on this
coast, that is an open question. J - - tersely put it, "Frog or fog?"

The smiling Helen smiled more beamingly every day, but the chauffeur
hated it. He was a city product and looked as much at home on that
hill-top as a dancing-master in a hay-field. He smoked cigarettes and
read the sporting page of the paper in the garage, where gasoline rather
deadened the country smells of flowers and hay, and tried to forget his
degrading surroundings, but he was overjoyed when the day to start for
home arrived. I did not share his feelings, and yet I was ready to go.
It had been a great success, and the only time I had felt lonely was in
a crowded restaurant in San Diego, where J - - and I had had many jolly
times in past summers. On the Smiling Hill-Top who could be lonely with
the ever-changing sea and sky and sunsets. I dare not describe the
picture, as I don't wish to be put down as mad or a cubist. Scent of the
honeysuckle, the flutter of the breeze, the song of pink-breasted
linnets and their tiny splashings in the birds' pool outside my
sleeping-porch, the velvet of the sky at night, with its stars and the
motor lights on the highway like more stars below - how I love it all! I
was taking enough of it home with me, I hoped, to last through some
strenuous weeks in Pasadena, until I could come back for the summer,
bringing my family.

Much bustling about on the part of the smiling Helen and me, much
locking of gates and doors by the bored chauffeur, and we were off for
home! After all is said and done, "home is where the heart is,"
irrespective of the view.

The first part of the way we made good time, but just out of one of the
small seaside towns something vital snapped in the motor's insides. It
happened on a bridge at the foot of a hill, and we were very lucky to
escape an accident. I will say for the chauffeur that while, as a
farmer, he would never get far, as a driver he knew his business. One
slight skid and we stopped short, "never to go again," like
grandfather's clock. It resulted in our having to be towed backwards to
the nearest garage, while the chauffeur jumped on a passing motor bound
for Pasadena, and was snatched from my sight like Elijah in the
chariot - he was off to get a new driving shaft. The smiling Helen
followed in a Ford full of old ladies. I elected to travel by train and
sat for hours in a small station waiting for the so-called "express." In
a hasty division of the lunch I got all the hard-boiled eggs, and of
course one can eat only a limited number of them, though I will say that
a few quite deaden one's appetite.

I had an amazing collection of bags, coats, and packages, and was
dreading embarking on the train. However, I have a private motto, "There
is a way." There was. The only occupant of the waiting-room besides
myself was a very dapper gentleman of what I should call lively middle
age, with very upstanding gray mustaches. I took him to be a marooned
motorist, also. He was well-dressed, with the added touch of an orange
blossom in his button-hole, and he had a slightly roving eye. His
hand-baggage was most "refined." I had noticed him looking my way at
intervals, and wondered if he craved a hard-boiled egg; I could easily
have spared him one! While I am certainly not in the habit of seeking
conversation with strange gentlemen, there are always exceptions to
everything, and I concluded that this was one. I smiled! We chatted on
the subject of the flora and fauna of California in a perfectly
blameless way till my train whistled, when he said, "I am going to carry
those bags for you, if you will allow me!" I thanked him aloud and
inwardly remarked, "I have known that for a long time!"

What made it especially pleasant was that I was going north and he was
going south. So ended my Adventure - not all Solitude, if you like, but
as near it as one can achieve with comfort. The amazing thing about it
was how well I got on with myself, for I don't think I'm particularly
easy to live with. I must ask J - - . Probably it was the novelty.




[Illustration]

A SABINE FARM


I once remarked that I thought New York City a most friendly and
neighborly place, and was greeted with howls of derision. I suppose I
said it because that morning a dear old lady in an oculist's office had
patted me, saying, "My dear, it would be a pity to put glasses on you,"
and an imposing blonde in a smart Fifth Avenue shop had sold me a hat
that I couldn't afford either to miss or to buy, for half price, because
she said I'd talked to her like a human being, the year before - all of
which had warmed my heart. I think perhaps my statement was too
sweeping. Since we have changed oceans I notice that the atmosphere
of the West has altered my old standards somewhat. There is an
easy-going fellowship all through every part of life on this side
of the Rocky Mountains.

Take banks, for instance. Can you picture a dignified New York Trust
Company with bowls of wild flowers placed about the desks and a general
air of hospitality? In one bank I have often had a pleasant half-hour
very like an afternoon tea, where all the officers, from the president
down, came to shake hands and ask after the children. Of course, that is
a rather unusually pleasant and friendly bank, even for California.
Always I am carefully, tenderly almost, escorted to my motor. At first
this flattered me greatly, till I discovered that there is a law in
California that if you slip and hurt yourself on any one's premises,
they pay the doctor's bill. Hence the solicitude. I was not to be
allowed to strain my ankle, even if I wanted to.

Probably the same geniality existed in the East fifty years ago. I have
been told that it did. It is a very delightful stage of civilization
where people's shells are still soft, if they have shells at all. There
is an accessibility, a breeziness and camaraderie about even the
prominent men - the bulwarks of business and public life. We are accused
of bragging and "boosting" in the West. I am afraid it is true. They are
the least pleasant attributes of adolescence.

Banking isn't the only genial profession. There is real estate. Of
course about half the men in California are in real estate for reasons
too obvious to mention. Providence was kind in putting us into the hands
of an honest man, better still, one with imagination, when we came to
look for a winter bungalow. He saw that we had to have something with
charm, even if the furniture was scarce, and took as much pains over
realizing our dream as if we had been hunting for a palace. It was he
who found our "Sabine Farm," which brought us three of the best gifts of
the gods - health, happiness, and a friend. We had almost decided to take
a picturesque cot that I named "The Jungle," from its tangle of trees
and flowers, even though the cook could reach her abode only by an
outside staircase. The boys had volunteered to hold an umbrella over her
during the rainy season, but I wasn't quite satisfied with this
arrangement. Just then we saw an enchanting bungalow set in a garden of
bamboos, roses and bananas, and looked no further! It belonged to an
English woman who raised Toggenburg goats, which made it all the more
desirable for us as the goats were to stay at the back of the garden,
and provide not only milk but interest for the boys.

J - - dubbed it "El rancho goato" at once. Our friends in the East were
delighted with the idea, and many were their gibes. One in particular
always added something to the address of his letters for the guide or
diversion of the R. F. D. postman: "Route 2, Box so-and-so, you can tell
the place by the goats"; or during the spring floods this appeared in
one corner of the envelope: "Were the goats above high water?"

It wasn't just an ordinary farm. There was a certain something - I think
the names of the goats had a lot to do with it - Corella, Coila, Babette,
Elfa, Viva, Lorine, and so on, or perhaps it was the devotion of their
mistress, who expended the love and care of a very large heart on a
family that I think appreciated it as far as goats are capable of
appreciation. If she was a little late coming home (she had a tiny shack
on one corner of the place) they would be waiting at the gate calling
plaintively. There is a plaintive tone about everything a goat has to
say. In his cot on the porch J - - composed some verses one morning
early - I forget them except for two lines:

"The plaintive note of a querulous goat
Over my senses seems to float."

Of course that was the difficulty - creatures of one kind or another
do not lie abed late. Our Sabine Farm was surrounded by others and
there was a neighborhood hymn to the dawn that it took us some time
to really enjoy - if we ever did. Sopranos - roosters; altos - pigeons,
and ducks; tenors - goats; bassos - cows, and one donkey. There was
nothing missing to make a full, rich volume of sound. Of course
there is no place where it is so difficult to get a long, refreshing
night's sleep as the country.

One rarely comes through any new experience with all one's preconceived
ideas intact. Our first season on the Sabine Farm shattered a number of
mine. I had always supposed that a mocking-bird, like a garden, was "a
lovesome thing, God wot." Romantic - just one step below a nightingale!

There was a thicket of bamboos close to my window, and every night all
the young mocking-birds gathered there to try out their voices. It was
partly elocutionary and partly vocal, but almost entirely
exercises - rarely did they favor me with a real song. This would go on
for some time, then just as I dared to hope that lessons were over,
another burst of ill-assorted trills and shrills would rouse me to fury.
I kept three pairs of boots in a convenient place, and hurled them into
the bamboos, paying the boys a small reward for retrieving them each
morning. Sometimes, if my aim was good, a kind of wondering silence
lasted long enough for me to fall asleep. There is an old song - we all
know it - that runs:

"She's sleeping in the valley, etc., etc.,
And the mocking-bird is singing where she lies."

That, of course, would be impossible if the poor little thing hadn't
been dead.

By day I really enjoyed them. To sit in the garden, which smelled
like a perpetual wedding, reading Lafcadio Hearn and listening to
mocking-birds and linnets, would have undermined my New England
upbringing very quickly, had I had time to indulge often in such
a lotus-eating existence.

Then there was "Boost." He was a small bantam rooster, beloved of our
landlady, which really proves nothing because she was such a
tender-hearted person that she loved every dumb creature that wandered
to her door. Had Boost been dumb I might have loved him too. He had a
voice like the noise a small boy can make with a tin can and a resined
string. He had a malevolent eye and knew that I detested him, so that he
took especial pains to crow under my windows, generally about an hour
after the mocking-birds stopped. I think living with a lot of big hens
and roosters told on his nervous system, and he took it out on me. Great
self-restraint did I exercise in not wringing his neck, when help came
from an unexpected quarter. Boost had spirit - I grant him that - and one
day he evidently forgot that he wasn't a full-sized bird, and was
reproved by the Sultan of the poultry-yard in such a way that he was
found almost dead of his wounds. Dear Miss W - - 's heart was quite
broken. She fed him brandy and anointed him with healing lotions, but
to no avail. He died. I had felt much torn and rather doublefaced in
my inquiries for the sufferer, because I was so terribly afraid he
might get well, so it was a great relief when he was safely buried
in the back lot.

Though I love animals I have had bloodthirsty moments of feeling that
the only possible way to enjoy pets was to have them like those wooden
Japanese eggs which fit into each other. If you have white mice or a
canary, have a cat to contain the canary, and a dog to reckon with the
cat. Further up in the scale the matter is more difficult, of course.
One of our "best seller" manufacturers, in his early original days,
wrote a delightful tale. In it he said: "A Cheetah is a yellow streak
full of people's pet dogs," so perhaps that is the answer. The ultimate
cheetah would, of course, have to be shot and stuffed, as it would
hardly be possible to have a wild-cat lounging about the place. I think
the idea has possibilities. So many of our plans are determined by pets.


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Online LibraryJulia M. SloaneThe Smiling Hill-Top And Other California Sketches → online text (page 4 of 7)