For the Strength of the Hills
By Mabel Harmer
Synopsis: Camilla Fenton, an orphan from California, is the new schoolteacher in Crandall, Idaho. She becomes interested in Stanley Rodgers, a young farmer. During the first big snowstorm Camilla walks home with one of her students and is caught in a blizzard. Stanley rescues her. That night he tells her that they always keep the red-headed schoolteachers in Crandall.
Camilla had written blithely to her aunt that she was marrying Stan as soon as school was out, and that, because of his work, they would have to wait until winter to come down to California. Then they would come down for a nice, long visit. She ended by saying, “You’ll be simply crazy about Stan. Everyone is.” She really believed that it was so. Not even Aunt Lillian, she thought, could be proof against his charm.
Her aunt replied with a note of congratulations and wishes for her happiness, which Camilla was sure she had tried very hard to write sincerely, even if she had failed. She also sent a set of sterling silver, which Stan remarked might come in handy to pawn if the crops failed.
“Indeed we won’t pawn it,” she retorted. “We’re going to have things as nice in our home as if it were located on Malibu Beach, and there’ll be much nicer people living in it,” she ended, smiling.
After their marriage they spent a week at Sun Valley, where it was rather quiet because of being in between seasons, and where they rode horseback, swam in the lovely pool, took long hikes over the hills, and learned with new surprise each day how completely in love they were.
“It’s been a wonderful week,” said Camilla, with a sigh, as she sat back in the car to begin the ride home. “Imagine! my one and only honeymoon, and it’s ended.”
“Well, I should hope so,” replied her new husband. “I mean your one and only honeymoon. You don’t really think it’s ended, do you?”
“Of course not,” she agreed snuggling down against his shoulder. “Our marriage is really going to be different. I know that a million other girls have said that, but not one of them married you.”
When, at the end of the ride, they drove up to the farm that Stan had bought – “or rather made a down payment on the chicken coops,” as he put it, she looked at the big, ugly house that she had never been inside of, and thanked her stars that she was indeed very much in love.
“Gay old castle, isn’t it?” asked Stan lightly, as if reading her thoughts. “But we can do something with it. How about painting it pink? Don’t they do that in California?”
“Sometimes, but this house isn’t quite the type,” grinned Camilla. “But it would look rather nice painted white, with red roof and shutters.”
“Okay, Mrs. Rodgers. We’ll start in the morning. Right now we’d best see where Mom has put our doodads and if Mickey has let the stock starve to death.”
The “doodads” were their wedding gifts, which his folks had promised to bring over and place in the house. Camilla hoped wildly that the inside would be better than the out but, as she stood in the front room after Stan had gallantly carried her in, she had all she could do to keep back her dismay.
The ceilings were high, the woodwork plentiful and old-fashioned. The paper on the walls a nondescript brown. The only redeeming feature was a huge fireplace, with really good, simple lines.
“Did anyone ever live here – with walls looking like this?” she asked.
“Sure. Lived, loved, and probably liked them this way,” he answered airily. “How about making the inside pink, if you won’t consider it for the outside?”
He went back to the car for their bags, and Camilla slumped down onto the bumpy gray sofa that had come with the place.
“Patience, my girl,” she said against her rising dismay. “You can change all this. You can even have big windows cut to open up a view of the mountains.”
She got up and walked over to the east window. “There is nothing wrong here that I can’t change,” she said to the distant peaks. “I can be strong, too.”
Having thrown out her challenge, she turned and went into the bedroom to change to a house dress. She supposed that Stan was out looking over the place to see how things had fared under his young brother, so she went on into the kitchen to prepare supper.
Here was a fresh shock. Against one wall was a great black cooking range, such as she had imagined existed only in books written about the so-called gay nineties. Beneath the window was a sink. “At least there’s running water in the house,” she said, somewhat in surprise. On the table was a box of groceries, thoughtfully provided by Stan’s mother, several bottles of fruit and jam, and two loaves of freshly baked bread.
She put the things away in the cupboards and set the table with one of her pretty luncheon cloths. Then she ran outside and gathered a few sprigs of the larkspur that was growing by the side of the house. I’ll have lots of flowers, too, she thought happily, pansies, roses – everything.
She was grateful that she didn’t have to tackle cooking anything in the big black stove tonight, since Mrs. Rodgers had left plenty of food for their supper. But she couldn’t resist the feeling that it lay in waiting, a dragon ready to do battle for supremacy.
Stan was late coming in from his chores, and her hunger, along with her weariness and dismay at the ugliness of the house, came close to disheartening her. She managed to smile when he finally came in, however, and greeted him with, “I hope you don’t mind dining in the kitchen?”
“Not so long as I’m dining with royalty,” he answered, picking her up and swinging her high in the air. Then he added seriously, “Just keep smiling, ladybird. I’ll have everything the way you want it some day. I promise.”
The next morning she found it much harder to keep smiling, for the time had come when she could no longer delay battle with the black range. Stan had built the fire and gone outside to his work when she came into the kitchen. She managed bacon and eggs without too much difficulty, but found it impossible to toast the bread with anything approaching evenness. “They talk about a bride’s burned biscuits,” she moaned, “and I can’t even toast bread.”
She had used up half a loaf trying to get four slices that would suit her, when she was struck by a still grimmer thought. Where was more bread coming from when this was gone? Not from a bakery or corner store. Farm women made their own bread, and she was a farm woman now.
Later in the day she began telling Stan her plans for the house. “We’ll begin in that east window,” she said. “It can easily be cut two or three times its present size. Then we’ll paint all the walls and woodwork. I want them light. Pale blue would be pretty. Then we’ll cover this old furniture with some bright flowered chintzes. I’d like a Mexican kitchen – bright blue, yellow, and red. Doesn’t it sound gay?”
“It sounds terrific,” Stan agreed, “and if I didn’t need such a lot of farm machinery we’d start tomorrow. But the crops have to come first or there’ll never be any money for the rest of it. Right now I could sink every last dime into a tractor.”
“Can’t we even do the window?” she pleaded. “We have to get that cut out before we can touch the walls anyway.”
“Sorry, dear, but we really can’t. Cutting out windows is a rather expensive proposition. I can manage paint for the kitchen. We’ll go into town tomorrow and stock up on red, yellow, and purple paint.”
“Blue – not purple,” she corrected, and managed to smile in spite of her disappointment.
They bought the paint, and she found that doing the inside of her kitchen cupboards was all she could manage that summer anyway. Her entire time seemed to be taken up with putting things into cans – berries, peas, string beans, cherries, and apricots. The season for canning one crop would barely be over before the next started.
Mrs. Rodgers came over with her pressure cooker and the two of them worked in the hot kitchen, with a roaring fire in the coal range until the perspiration streamed from their faces. More than once Camilla thought that it would be far pleasanter and more comfortable to go hungry.
“I don’t see why you come over here and slave,” Camilla remarked to her mother-in-law one day. “You have all of your own work to do, and then you come over here and help do mine, too.”
“Work is never half as hard for two as it is for one,” replied the older woman, and then added with a faint smile, “I was a bride, too, once, you know.”
“What kind of a home did you come to?” asked Camilla curiously.
“One that would have made this house look like a palace. It had two rooms – or rather, a room and a ‘lean-to,’ and we homesteaded the land, which meant that not a furrow had been turned. I had a funny little cookstove with only two lids. Steven made all the rest of our furniture. But we were very happy. Happiness is never a matter of worldly goods. At least, I’ve never found it so.”
“At the moment I can’t help thinking that a deep freeze would make me extremely happy,” said Camilla, pushing back her hair with her sleeve, “and save both of us a lot of work and discomfort.”
“You’re quite right,” agreed Mrs. Rodgers, “and I hope that you get one before too many years.”
“After an electric range, a refrigerator, and a big east window,” recited Camilla.
The summer, with all its heat, work, and discomfort, finally passed away, and she viewed the rows of bottles on her cupboard shelves with considerable pride. With canning and gardening done for the season, she decided that she could take time to go on with her plans for painting the interior of the house – especially now that the potato crop was sold and there was money for at least a part of the necessary materials.
We’ll go to town Saturday, she thought complacently, but on Friday evening Stan came in and said, “The bank roll is busting out all over. Want to take that jaunt to California?”
“Oh, Stan, of course!” she cried in delight. “It will be wonderful to show you off to all my friends.”
“Well, that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” he returned dryly, “but I don’t want your Aunt Lillian to think that you’ve gone back to the good earth for good. When shall we leave?”
“Um – next week. Will the bank roll allow for a new suit? I’d hate to have my friends say ‘My goodness – the same duds she was wearing here a year and a half ago.’”
“The bank roll is yours, dear, as far as it will go,” he agreed, “just leave enough for potato seed next spring, a chicken coop, and a harrow.”
“I thought so,” she laughed. “Also, the paint for these rooms, that I’ve been dying to get at all summer. But I’m going to have a new suit just the same. It will be fun to shop at Bullocks and Mays again. Another thing I’m going to have is a manicure,” she added, looking ruefully at her work-roughened hands. “And I’ll wear mitts with cold cream from now until the time I leave.”
“Are you trying to scare me out?” asked Stan. “I’m afraid that I have just a touch of dishpan hands, too.”
“Of course not,” said Camilla quickly, but she didn’t wear the mitts, and she didn’t have a manicure, even after she had arrived in California.
From the Los Angeles station they took a bus out to Santa Monica and then a taxi up to the white stucco house.
“Whew!” said Stan with a low whistle as they went up the walk. “Do I bow to the butler or does he bow to me?”
“Don’t be a goose,” she retorted. “There isn’t a butler, or even a maid. Just a cleaning woman a couple of times a week, unless Aunt Lillian has changed mightily. She can’t get along with help in the house. Nobody ever does anything to suit her.”
“Including choosing a husband, I expect.”
To which Camilla merely shrugged and opened the door.
The front of the house was empty, and she looked around with delight at the lovely rooms that had been home for so many years. As her eyes traveled over the soft blue carpeting, the inviting arm chairs, and the charming pictures, she realized that she had missed them more than she had ever admitted to herself.
As she met Stan’s glance she gave him a bright smile, slipped her hand in his, and led him out to the patio in the rear which she knew to be the most likely place to find her aunt.
She was sitting in a garden chair, reading a book and, as Stan would have said, “Dressed to the hilt.”
She greeted Camilla with somewhat restrained affection, then offered her hand to Stan, saying, “And this is your wonderful husband?”
“This is the husband,” amended Stan.
“This is the wonderful husband,” repeated Camilla, with emphasis.
“Now you must sit down and tell me all about Idaho and your farm,” her aunt went on in her “grand dame” manner.
“It’s simply marvelous!” exclaimed Camilla. “You never saw such mountains! And the colors in the autumn are unbelievable. The hills are simply covered with gold and crimson.”
“And your house?”
“It’s a big old place,” she went on, with the same enthusiasm as if she were describing a French villa. “I’m going to have a circus doing it over. You know how I love to dabble with interior decorating? Well, this really gives me a challenge. Next summer you’ll have to come up and see it.”
“How nice,” was the noncommital reply. Then she added casually, “I’ve invited a few friends in for tonight. They’re all so eager to see you again.”
“Tonight!” gasped Camilla. She was about to add, “But we’re barely off the train.” Instead she said, “That was thoughtful of you. It will be fun to see everyone again. How many are coming?”
“Oh, maybe thirty or forty. I’m having a caterer serve light refreshments out here in the garden.”
After lunch, when they were unpacking, Camilla said, “We’ve got to dash into town and buy you a white jacket. There’s probably more to this affair than she lets on and I won’t have you looking out of place.”
“You mean I have to dress up in a movie star outfit?” he demanded. “I’d feel and look like a chump.”
“You’ll look like Sterling Hayden, or better. You’ve a much better sun tan and your eyebrows are stunning.”
“Okay, ladybug, if you say so,” he agreed. “This is your party and we’ll go down fighting.”
“Your metaphors are mixed, but your attitude is beautiful,” she said, picking up her bag and hat. “Come on, let’s go.”
They bought the white jacket, and Camilla was immensely proud of her husband as she presented him to her old friends that evening. Aunt Lillian insisted upon introducing him as the owner of a huge ranch in Idaho, and he was equally insistent upon correcting her, until she finally gave up and allowed him to be a plain, ordinary potato farmer.
When it was over, Stan asked, “Now, do we get to enjoy ourselves the rest of the time?”
“We do,” she answered firmly. “We’ll do all the fun things there are to do in this part of the country.”
They did have fun – in a way. If they could have gone off by themselves they would have had a delightful time, but most of their days were spent with Aunt Lillian, and she was never anything but coolly polite to Stan.
At the end of two weeks Stan asked Camilla, “You wouldn’t be getting a trifle homesick for the sagebrush and wide-open spaces, would you?”
She thought of the big, ugly house and the coal range, and for an instant was tempted to echo, “I wouldn’t.” Instead, she smiled and said, “That’s the wrong approach, and you’ve no business making a sale, but you did. I’m ready to go back whenever you are.”