For the Strength of the Hills
By Mabel Harmer
Synopsis: Camilla Fenton, an orphan from Santa Monica, California, comes to Crandall, Idaho, to teach, marries Stanley Rodgers, a farmer, and tries to remodel and refurnish their big, old-fashioned farmhouse, but does not have the money to do it. Three years after the birth of their son Richard, Camilla takes him to California with her to help her Aunt Lillian, who has broken her leg. Camilla renews her acquaintance with Veronica Wilding, an interior decorator, and delays her return to Idaho to finish work on a house.
It was fortunate for Camilla that her aunt required nothing more of her than to keep a check on the household help, for she soon became completely engrossed in her interior decorating project. She put Dickie in a nearby nursery school, where he reveled in the association of other children, and she spent hours every day looking over upholstery, draperies, and floor coverings.
It was likewise fortunate that her aunt gave wide approval to the whole thing. “Imagine you doing over the Cartwright house!” she gloated. “I can’t wait to see it. I hope that I’ll be on both my feet as soon as you’ve finished. I shouldn’t be surprised but that this will lead to some other jobs. Everyone knows the Cartwright house.”
“Oh, no,” Camilla protested, “I’ll do well to finish this one.”
It was absurd to think that she would take on another job. By the time she had finished her aunt would be “on both her feet,” and she would be free to go back to the farm and to Stan. He had been a complete darling about letting her stay. She certainly wouldn’t impose on his good nature any longer.
She was another three weeks finishing the Cartwright house and came to the end of her work with genuine pangs of regret. It had been a labor of love, even though she was paid handsomely for the work. It was the first time in years that she had been able to give full vent to her creative powers, and it seemed as if they had been pent up within her and burst into full bloom at this opportunity. She was indeed proud of the results, and the owners were more than pleased. In fact, one of their admiring friends took Camilla aside, when the house was being shown, and insisted, “I wish you’d come out and see my place. It’s entirely different from this – quite modern, in fact. But I’d love to have your ideas on it.”
Camilla went. It wouldn’t hurt, she reasoned, to spend an hour looking the place over. It would be fun to see what it was like.
She found, as the owner had said, a strictly modernistic house in a magnificent setting upon a hill. There were enormous glass windows facing the ocean and a living room with one wall of sand-blasted pine.
“You can really go all the way out on this one, can’t you?” she exclaimed. “I saw a figured wallpaper the other day that would be perfect on that end wall. It was so brilliant that one wall would be all that any room could take, but with glass on that side and pine on that one, it could be handled here with the greatest of ease. And wouldn’t you love American Beauty carpeting and a couple of chairs done in just the right shade of green?”
“Your ideas sound exactly like the ones that have been spinning around in my own head – only I couldn’t get them to jell,” said Mrs. Maitland, with an approving nod. “And listen,” she went on with the air of a conspirator, “would you think I was out of my mind if I had an all-white bedroom?”
“Not at all,” smiled Camilla, “anyway, not if you had a rich color in carpeting to set it off, say a vivid blue or rose and one or two color prints on the wall.”
“Yes, that’s it,” she agreed enthusiastically. “Come and see my kitchen. You’ll never believe it.”
Camilla looked with something akin to awe at the sparkling kitchen with its automatic dishwasher, automatic clothes washer, and automatic everything else that could go in a kitchen. The picture of another one flashed through her mind. It had a monstrous black coal range, a wooden sink, with the walls bravely painted in Mexican colors. She half smiled.
“This is our patio,” said Mrs. Maitland, walking out through the door. “We’ll eat out here much of the time. I’m delighted that you’re going to do the house for me. I love your technique.
Camilla caught her breath. “But I can’t,” she protested, “I’m only here because of my aunt. The minute I can leave her I must go home again.”
“Nonsense, what’s another couple of weeks? You’re a genius. You shouldn’t waste such talent any more than if you were a musician or an artist. You really are an artist, you know.”
It was all very flattering – and the money would go so far towards doing some of the things she wanted to do on her own home. “I’ll think it over,” she promised. “I’d really love to do it.”
She was still undecided the following day when Mrs. Maitland called on the phone and said, “I have an appointment at Stauffers to look at floor coverings. May I pick you up at half past one?”
“Why, yes – yes, of course,” answered Camilla, feeling more than a little guilty. I don’t know why I should feel guilty, she reasoned, as long as I’m down here anyway, and Aunt Lillian doesn’t need much of my time. Further reasoning told her that she could be going back home, since her aunt didn’t need her at all, and Stan undoubtedly did. And yet – it was such an opportunity. She really did have talent, as Mrs. Maitland said, and she could surely use the money. There would be no great harm done in taking just this one more job.
She ran upstairs to get a hat and to look in on her aunt. “I’m going with Mrs. Maitland to look at floor coverings for her new house. I’m not sure yet that I’ll take it, however.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” her aunt snapped, “of course you’ll take it. Do you think that jobs like this are handed around every day in the week? Some people work for years to get an assignment like that.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Camilla answered noncommitally.
She was immensely interested in the new patterns and colors in carpeting and threw herself whole-heartedly into the fascinating project of their selection. “You are wise to start with the floor coverings,” said the salesman. “They should always set the tone for the rest of the furnishings.”
She had thanked her lucky stars a dozen times for the nursery school. It was so convenient, and Dickie so enjoyed playing with the other children. I really don’t deserve to have everything working out so easily, she thought one morning, as she waved goodby to him inside the white-fenced play yard. This was the day she was selecting the draperies and it was an exciting as seeing a new play or taking a first airplane ride.
She usually came home for lunch, largely to do her duty by her aunt, and if she had time she also stopped in at the nursery to get Dickie’s moist kiss.
Today she was tempted not to stop. The draperies were proving a bigger job than she had anticipated because of the exotic colors used in the walls and carpeting. Anything that would just “get by” was not to be thought of. The draperies had to be exactly right if she had to go through every shop in metropolitan Los Angeles.
It was five minutes to one when she left the house. I’ll just take one peek at Dickie, she told herself, I’m entitled to that and so is he.
Mrs. Jackson met her at the door, and Camilla knew at once that something was wrong. “What is it?” she asked anxiously.
“Perhaps nothing serious. At least, I hope not. One of the little boys brought a truck and they took it to pieces. Dickie swallowed something. I don’t know what, and he says it hurts. If it had gone right into his stomach it shouldn’t hurt, and maybe it doesn’t. He may be just imagining.”
‘His imagination doesn’t go that far,” said Camilla, brushing past her. “Where is he?”
“In my living room. I’m keeping him quiet and I’ve called a doctor.”
Camilla went in and gathered him in her arms. “I swallowed a truck,” he announced, “and I don’t like it.”
“No, Mother doesn’t like it either,” she agreed. “Where does it hurt?”
He pointed to his chest, and she felt her anxiety deepen. if it was caught some place where it couldn’t pass on of its own accord there might be real trouble.
Dr. Malcolm, who arrived within the next few minutes, looked grave. “We’ll have to take an X-ray right away. But don’t worry too much. Sometimes these things can be removed without too much difficulty.”
No, she wouldn’t worry too much. But she wondered if she dared trust her legs to hold her up long enough to carry Dickie to the car.
The X-ray was taken, and the doctors told her the facts rather bluntly. The object had lodged in his left lung and must be removed as soon as possible. They would try to take it out here, but if they failed the child would have to be flown back East where there were still more specialized instruments for such work. Much would depend upon Dickie’s co-operation with them, because he couldn’t be given a general anesthetic.
“Can it wait until tomorrow?” she asked tensely.
“Yes. We would want to wait that long to study it from every angle.”
“I’ll telephone his father to come. He can do much more with the child than I can.”
She wished that she could handle it alone. It wasn’t quite fair to take Dickie away, be responsible for getting him into difficulties, and then have to call on Stan to get him out again. But this was no time for pride. The baby had to have every chance.
She phoned from the doctor’s office. “We need you,” she said simply, after telling him the bare facts. “I know that he’ll get along all right if you’re here to help.”
“I’ll get the first plane out, if I have to hang onto the tail,” he promised, and she hung up with a sigh of immense relief.
They took Dickie to a hospital and she insisted upon staying. “He might get frightened and cry and that would be harmful, wouldn’t it?”
“It might be,” the doctor admitted. “Anyway, you won’t sleep at home so you might as well stay awake here.”
She had phoned the housekeeper at her aunt’s house to send Stan on when he arrived, and it was early morning when she looked up to see him standing in the doorway, weary, sunburned, and unshaven.
“Oh, Stan, darling!” she cried softly, rushing towards him.
His strong arms closed about her and his lips were on her hair. It was a haven of refuge such as she had not fully realized. “It’s so good to have you here,” she murmured.
“It’s good to be here,” he replied. Then, as the child stirred, he went over and said, “Hi, Champ.”
Dickie sat up in his bed and asked accusingly, “Where have you been?”
“I’ve been home. You’re the guy who has been away. Want to go back with me?”
“Yes.” He started to get up.
“Just a minute, Rusty,” he said, laying strong gentle hands on the boy’s head. “Mummy tells me that you’ve been eating some spare parts. We’ve got to take them out and leave them here. Shall I ask the doctor to take them out?”
“Yes,” he nodded, and Camilla’s hopes rose at his smile of supreme trust. Stan’s administration and the power which radiated from him helped her to bear the suspense and found echo in Dickie’s calm demeanor.
Later in the morning she sat out in the corridor for what seemed interminable hours while three skilled specialists, her husband, and her son battled on the other side of the door. Prayer welled continually in her heart. If they were not successful they would leave for the East that evening. How could she bear this agonizing suspense for more days? How did mothers bear anything when their children were concerned? Some even had to bear their loss. What would she do without the gospel!
Nurses walked up and down the hall quickly and efficiently. She resented their apparent cheerfulness and unconcern, although reason told her that they couldn’t take on the grief and anxieties of every parent who came in.
She sprang up as the door opened, but it was only an interne coming out, and he said merely, “Can’t tell yet. We’ll soon know.”
Soon! What a word, when every minute dragged by on leaden feet.
Then the door opened again, and Stan came out. One look at his face and she gave a gasp of relief and fainted quietly away.
When she came to she was lying on a bed, and the doctor was grinning at her. “Is that any way to react from good news?” he demanded. “What would you have done if it had been the other way around?”
“Died, I think.”
“Incidentally, when did you eat last?” he went on.
“Yesterday morning, I think.”
“I think so, too, probably. I’ll send for a tray.”
During the remaining time that Dickie had to stay in the hospital they spent as much time with him as they were allowed, and the rest of the day they sat out on the lawn or strolled down the tree-lined avenues.
“I’m only half a person without you, Stan,” she said contentedly, “only I didn’t quite know it until now.”
She took him to see the Maitland place and described the plans she had had. “I was just in the middle of draperies when all this happened,” she said with a wry smile.
“You’ll want to finish it, of course?”
He said “of course,” but it was still very much a question.
“No.” She shook her head. “I’ll turn it over to Veronica. I finished another house for her when she wanted to go to Hawaii. She’s back now and can do the same for me.”
“You think that you can be contented to give up work like this and go back to the farm?” He walked over to the huge window and looked out upon the ocean.
“If I can get back home again with you and with Dickie safe and sound it will take a bomb to get me out again,” she replied decisively.
Aunt Lillian heard the news in amazement. “You don’t really mean that you will give up that job right in the middle?” she stormed, “an opportunity like that! it’s unthinkable.
“I can think of it with no trouble at all,” said Camilla calmly, “and the place won’t suffer in the least. Veronica and I have much the same ideas. If the worst came to the worst, Mrs. Maitland might even enjoy decorating her own house. It has been done.”
She went upstairs to pack, and Stan followed her. “I want you to think twice about this before making a final decision,” he urged. “You’ve evidently been making quite a bit of money and enjoying it. Remember, you’re going back to that ugly old farmhouse.”
“I know.” She picked up a pair of Dickie’s socks and stuffed them into the bag.
“And that awful old coal range.”
“Sure.” She folded a blouse carefully.
“But I’ve had the big window cut in the living room while you’ve been gone.”
“Oh, Stan!” she cried, throwing her arms around his neck, “you darling! Now I can go ahead with the rest of it. And think of all the practice I’ve had on these other houses.”
It was a late afternoon in September when they drove the final distance home past yellow fields.
“It reminds me of my first trip here, four years ago,” said Camilla. “Nothing has changed very much. The same purple sagebrush in the distance, the same purple mountains. They’ll always be the same.”
As she got out of the car, she stood for a moment and looked at the brown, weather-beaten house. It had a strange dignity, a look of belonging to the land.
She took Dickie by the hand, and they went inside while Stan gathered up their luggage.
Even her imagination had not prepared her for the magnificent view of the mountains through the great window. She walked over, almost with awe, and looked out. There was grandeur, everlasting beauty, and strength in the towering peaks. “The strength of the hills,” she said to herself, “that’s what I want – for myself – and for my children. It will be ours – here.”