For the Strength of the Hills
By Mabel Harmer
Synopsis: Camilla Fenton, an orphan from Santa Monica, California, who comes to Crandall, Idaho to teach, marries Stanley Rodgers, a farmer, and goes to live in his large old-fashioned house. At the end of their first summer together, Camilla and Stan pay a short visit to her Aunt Lillian in California. In the fall Camilla finds that she is to have a child, and Stan paints the kitchen and nursery. In July a red-headed son is born.
Camilla stayed with her mother-in-law for two weeks, and then, in spite of all protests, insisted that she was ready to go home.
“I feel as good as new,” she declared. “I’s really quite amazing. And the baby sleeps almost all the time. I’m sure that we shall get along famously.”
“Well, if you’re sure that you can manage,” said Mrs. Rodgers reluctantly. “But don’t overdo. I’ll run over and bathe him for a few days, until you get used to it.”
Camilla couldn’t say no to such kindness, although one of her chief reasons for wanting to get home was to have the baby to herself, and do all the little things for him that she had been longing to do.
They went home in the middle of the afternoon. Stan put the baby in the bassinet, ordered Camilla to bed, and cooked their dinner. When he came in with tenderloin steaks, a tomato salad, and peaches with thick cream, she said, “You’ve missed your calling. You should have been a cook.”
“I only turn out superior stuff with the right inspiration, and I couldn’t very well spend all of my time cooking just for you – and the champ, of course,” nodding towards the bassinet.
“We’re a gorgeous family, aren’t we?” asked Camilla complacently, as she cut into the tender steak.
“We’re perfect,” Stan agreed.
When she had finished, she pushed away her tray and ordered, “Give me the baby. I’ve been longing to have us all alone.”
“Come here, Rusty,” he said, picking up the child awkwardly. “Your Mom wants to see if you’re good-looking enough to keep.” He walked over to the window where the golden light of the setting sun was making a picture of pastoral beauty. “Look, Punkin,” he went on, “here are your ancestral acres – if your dad can meet the mortgage for the next ten years and the spud crop doesn’t fail.” He brought the baby over and laid him down on the bed. Then he said, a trifle shyly, “I suppose you’d rather have him be a doctor or a lawyer or something high-toned, wouldn’t you?”
“I want him to be good and fine,” she replied, touching the baby’s hair gently, “whether lawyer, doctor, or farmer. A farmer was my choice, wasn’t it?” she smiled, reaching for his hand.
“You’re sweet,” he whispered, bending to kiss her.
Camilla thought that she had never known such perfect happiness, and she had a fleeting moment of deep pity for all the people who were not part of this magic circle.
Later, she wondered seriously if she would ever recapture such happiness again. The baby awakened at midnight, but Stan slept on peacefully in spite of lusty screams. Finally she got up, put on a robe and slippers, and sat down in the old rocking chair. The clock hands crept around to one, two, and three, and still the baby refused to go to sleep. At half past three he dropped off, and she crept into bed utterly exhausted.
The next thing she knew Stan was shaking her shoulder and saying, “Wake up, Mom. You’ve practically slept the clock around, and Junior is madder than a wet chick on account of meals being delayed.”
She roused herself to take the baby, but said nothing about having been up half the night.
A few minutes later Stan stuck his head in the door again and announced, “Breakfast is ready as soon as you are. Shall I bring it to you, or do you want to come out?”
“I’ll come out,” she replied, wishing that she didn’t have to make another move all day long.
She was so weak she could hardly stand, but there was nothing to do but take over. She had been looking forward to bathing the baby by herself, but now that the time had come she was scared to death.
She put all the bath things out – the oil, baby soap, powder, sterilized cotton – in seemingly endless array. She wished that Stan would leave. She was nervous enough without having him stand and watch. But, apparently, he had no intention of missing out on anything as novel and exciting as this. To crown it all, the baby, who had been sleeping soundly all morning, began to yell at the top of his voice.
“Boy! Will you listen to that lung power,” said Stan proudly. “I’ll bet that he’ll be a trumpet player when he grows up, or maybe a hog caller.”
How can he wisecrack at a time like this, thought Camilla bitterly, forgetting that he flung wisecracks at any and all times, and also that he couldn’t possibly realize how terribly weak and scared she felt.
She undressed the baby with trembling fingers, managed to get him bathed, after a fashion, although he seemed to scream louder every second. She had barely finished feeding him when Mrs. Rodgers came in.
“Oh, you’re all through.” She spoke regretfully. “I was hoping to get here in time to help. How did you get along?”
“Swell! there’s nothing to it,” answered Stan brightly, going out to do his chores.
“Yes, I know,” answered his mother, with a knowing glance at Camilla. “You go lie down,” she ordered. “I’ll do the washing and go over the house.”
Camilla obeyed with a sigh of deep gratitude, thinking that she had a twenty-four hour period of grace before she had to bathe the baby again.
She quickly grew stronger and the care of the baby turned from a nightmare to the joy she had first imagined it would be. The only trouble was that it took all of her time.
“Between bath, laundry, feedings, and doing what absolutely has to be done around the house, I don’t have a minute,” she wailed to her mother-in-law one day. “What in the world do you do when you have two – or five?”
“Just the same,” she answered in a matter-of-fact voice. “One takes all your time, and five take all your time. It doesn’t make much difference as long as there are only twenty-four hours a day.”
“But I thought that surely now I would be able to start doing something to the house,” Camilla went on, looking with distaste at the ancient wallpaper. “I’ve been trying for more than a year to get at it, and something always comes up.”
“Don’t worry, the time will come,” she answered reassuringly.
But it didn’t seem to come. Summer drifted into autumn with her every minute still being taken up with routine tasks, and Stan so busy that he wouldn’t even take time to discuss remodeling, let alone do any of the work.
“Wait until the potatoes are dug and out of the way,” he said. “I’ll have most of the winter to loaf in, and then I can do something about it. Maybe we’ll send the Champ to school so that you can do something besides wash squares.”
It was only the next evening that he came in and said, “Would you be terribly disappointed, Honey, if we didn’t do anything to the house this winter? Maxfield will discount the mortgage quite a hunk, if I can double my payment. He wants to buy a big cattle ranch up in Montana. It would be a big savings to us in the long run.”
“Go ahead,” she answered wearily. “I’m too tired by night to know what color the walls are anyway and, goodness knows, I don’t have any time to look at them during the day.”
“You need a vacation,” he declared. “Want to bundle up Richard Fenton and go down to California?”
“And have all the fun of washing squares and preparing foods in a strange place? No, thank you,” she declined, with a slight shudder.
“Well, I didn’t consider your aunt’s place as being exactly strange to you.” There was an awkward pause as they both remembered how strange it had been to him.
“Maybe some other time, when the baby isn’t so much work,” she finished lamely. “I really would like to have aunt Lillian get acquainted with him.”
The winter passed, rather quickly on the whole, as did the next summer. Camilla was completely absorbed in her baby, and more than once she remembered what Mother Rodgers had told her, “A baby is the one thing that you never get tired of.”
She was able to do more in her garden now and really enjoyed even the vegetable plot to some extent. Her flowers were nothing to what she had planned, but the lilacs and other shrubbery did well; in the early spring the forsythia had rewarded her by making the brown weather-beaten house look almost picturesque.
She took a fierce joy in her husband and child. More than once when they were together she would look at them and say to herself, “I have a family,” thinking back to the days when her parents had first died and she had gone to live with her aunt – who had never in any way taken the place of her family.
Sometimes she wondered if she were growing too used to accepting things as they were. Her hands were roughened with work, her permanents far apart, and she bought very few new clothes because she had had an ample supply when she was married.
Even the ugliness of the house no longer bothered her as it had at first. She didn’t seem to have time to do anything about it herself, and there was never any money for hiring it done. it was always needed for machinery or a new building, or something else for the farm.
It was the summer Dickie was three that a telegram came from her aunt saying that she had broken her leg and needed Camilla’s help.
“I’ll have to go,” she said to Stan. “She never could get along with hired help. And, anyway, she’ll think that I owe it to her – and I suppose I do.”
“You need to get away anyhow – although it doesn’t sound like such a bang-up vacation,” he commented. “Perhaps you can get some help in the kitchen as long as she isn’t there to do the bossing.”
Camilla decided to go down by plane. “I suppose that I ought to get there as quickly as possible, and this way we can make it in about six hours. Besides, people say it’s the best possible way to travel with youngsters.”
Stan drove her over to the nearest airport, and she had a moment of panic when it came time to say goodbye. “We’ve never been separated for more than a day since we were married,” she remembered. “I don’t suppose I’ll like it.”
“You’d better not like it,” he threatened. “I’ll take you across my checkered apron if you do.” He held on to Dickie until the very last moment, and, as the plane took off, she saw him standing below looking very lonesome and wistful.
The ride was smooth and uneventful, with the baby sleeping most of the way and the reset of the time content to sit in the seat and play.
From the airport they took a cab into town and then a bus out to Santa Monica. By the time they arrived Dickie was tired and inclined to be a little bit cross. But it had been an exciting adventure on the whole and, as she came up the walk to the white house with its brilliant flowers and air of gracious living, she was really glad that she had come.
A housekeeper opened the door, saying, “Oh, you must be Mrs. Fenton’s niece. I’m so glad you’re here. Your own room is ready.”
Camilla had no difficulty in detecting the note of relief in the woman’s tone, and she began to wonder if her own gladness had been a trifle premature.
She took the baby upstairs and freshened them both up before going to her aunt’s room. She found her lying on the bed with one leg in a cast and looking rather fit, on the whole.
“I’m glad you’ve come,” she said, turning her cheek for Camilla’s kiss. “I felt that I couldn’t put up with strangers at a time like this. I’ve had three different housekeepers in less than a week and they’ve probably run off with most of the silver. And this is the baby,” she added, finally getting around to Dickie.
“This is the baby,” said Camilla proudly, “although he’s really quite grown up now. I suppose I should have brought him down before, but it’s hard to travel with a youngster, and his daddy didn’t ever seem to be able to spare him.”
“Oh, yes. How is Stan?” she asked in a perfunctory tone of voice.
“Fine! Simply splendid!” Camilla replied. “He’s up to his ears in potatoes at the present. We have a big crop this year.”
“Potatoes seem such a homely crop.”
“Very homely,” agreed Camilla, “but also very substantial and quite as essential as oranges or avocados, I imagine. Do you mind if I put Dickie to bed? He’s tired from the trip. Then we can visit as long as you like.”
“Go ahead,” she agreed quickly. “My favorite radio program is on now, anyway.”
Camilla gave Dickie a bath and tucked him in bed, then went back to her aunt’s room. The radio was still on, so she paused just a moment at the door and then went outside to enjoy once more the scented night air of Southern California.
It’s really good to be back, she thought, settling down in a comfortable porch chair. I’ll get some new clothes and look up some of my friends. I’ve been slipping into a dreadful rut. She sat there until almost midnight, watching the cars and the people go by. Then she glanced in at her aunt and went to her own room. As she threw open a window she imagined that she could feel a breeze from the ocean, only a few blocks away. Yes, it was good to be back.
She found that the heaviest part of her duties lay in keeping peace between her aunt and the help. A nurse came in each day to give the patient a bath, and the current housekeeper was quite willing to stay on, providing she didn’t have to go near Mrs. Fenton and “take her sass.”
She soon learned that even her own presence in the sickroom was not particularly desired or necessary. If Dickie was with her his prattling and running about seemed to cause too much annoyance, and even without him her aunt didn’t want to have a radio program interrupted. Camilla was pleasantly surprised to find that, on the whole, her days were much less strenuous than they had been for the past three years.
It was the second week after her arrival that she ran into Veronica Wilding, an old school friend.
“Not yours!” gasped Veronica, pointing to Dickie.
“Half mine,” replied Camilla smiling. “The other half belongs to his daddy up in Idaho.”
“Come in here and tell me all about it,” demanded Veronica, taking her by the arm and leading her into a nearby ice-cream shop.
Over lime floats Camilla gave the highlights of her romance and marriage, including her reasons for coming back at this particular time. “And now, what about you?” she asked.
“Nothing romantic like being swept off your feet by a land baron and producing red-headed cherubs,” said Veronica, “but I am having fun. I’m an interior decorator – no less. And right now I’m doing the most luscious job. Do you remember the Cartwright place on Hampton avenue? I’m doing the whole thing over, with money no object. Do you want to see it?”
“Oh, I’d love to. I’ve always been crazy about doing over places – or doing them the first time. I’ve been planning to let loose on our house ever since we moved in, but something has always interfered, like having a baby or buying a new tractor.”
“Can you come out right now?” asked Veronica, standing up. “I have my car.”
“I think so. Aunt Lillian is probably deep in the sorrows of her two o’clock radio serial, so I’ll never be missed.”
The house was vacant, so Veronica unlocked the front door and they went in. There was a large reception hall with an artistic, curved stairway. Beyond was the living room, with french doors and windows. It was so much a dream house that Camilla couldn’t resist a little gasp of delight.
“I’m just starting to gather ideas on it,” said Veronica. “What would yours be?”
“I’d have delft blue walls with white woodwork –the stairway, mantel and all,” said Camilla promptly, “then a soft floral pattern in the carpeting and chairs to match the tones in the carpet. There’d be a rose chair, maybe, a rose-beige, and two in blue striped satin.”
“Here, wait a minute. Leave me a little bit to do,” begged Veronica in mock seriousness.
They went through the rest of the house, Camilla exclaiming and spilling ideas all over the place. In fact, she was so much intrigued that when Veronica asked if she’d like to help “just for the fun of it,” she accepted with alacrity.
For a week she spent all the time she could possibly spare away from her aunt’s house helping to choose color schemes and furnishings. Later, she was convinced that good luck had been holding her hand, for Veronica called one morning to say that she had received a flattering offer of a job in Hawaii and could take it if Camilla would finish doing the Cartwright house.
“How about it, Sweet? It’s a wonderful chance for me if you’ll just take over. The Cartwrights are willing.”
“I’d love to do it – if I can,” answered Camilla breathlessly. “In fact, I don’t think I could bear to let anyone else do it now.”
She hung up and almost at once began to think she would call back and say that the whole idea was ridiculous. She had plenty to do at her aunt’s home. Anyway, this wasn’t what she had come to California for. And if she could be spared from aunt Lillian at all she ought to go back to Idaho. But again – it was such an opportunity. A way to earn money, and fun besides. She didn’t call back.