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Produced by David Edwards, Woodie4 and the Online
HELEN JACKSON (H. H.),
AUTHOR OF “RAMONA,” “NELLY’S SILVER MINE,” “BITS OF TALK,” ETC.
Letters from a Cat.
Mammy Tittleback and her
The Hunter Cats of Connorloa.
THE HUNTER CATS
By HELEN JACKSON
AUTHOR OF “LETTERS FROM A CAT,” “MAMMY TITTLEBACK AND HER
By Roberts Brothers.
Once on a time, there lived in California a gentleman whose name was Connor,—Mr. George Connor. He was an orphan, and had no brothers and only one sister. This sister was married to an Italian gentleman, one of the chamberlains to the King of Italy. She might almost as well have been dead, so far as her brother George’s seeing her was concerned; for he, poor gentleman, was much too ill to cross the ocean to visit her; and her husband could not be spared from his duties as chamberlain to the King, to come with her to America, and she would not leave him and come alone. So at the time my story begins, it had been many years since the brother and sister had met, and Mr. Connor had quite made up his mind that he should never see her again in this world. He had had a sorry time of it for a good many years. He had wandered all over the world, trying to find a climate which would make him well. He had lived in Egypt, in Ceylon, in Italy, in Japan, in the Sandwich Islands, in the West India Islands. Every place that had ever been heard of as being good for sick people, he had tried; for he had plenty of money, and there was nothing to prevent his journeying wherever he liked. He had a faithful black servant Jim, who went with him everywhere, and took the best of care of him; but neither the money, nor the good nursing, nor the sea air, nor the mountain air, nor the north, south, east or west air, did him any good. He only tired himself out for nothing, roaming from place to place; and was all the time lonely, and sad too, not having any home. So at last he made up his mind that he would roam no longer; that he would settle down, build himself a house, and if he could not be well and strong and do all the things he liked to, he would at least have a home, and have his books about him, and have a good bed to sleep in, and good food to eat, and be comfortable in all those ways in which no human being ever can be comfortable outside of his own house.
He happened to be in California when he took this resolution. He had been there for a winter; and on the whole had felt better there than he had felt anywhere else. The California sunshine did him more good than medicine: it is wonderful how the sun shines there! Then it was never either very hot or very cold in the part of California where he was; and that was a great advantage. He was in the southern part of the State, only thirty miles from the sea-shore, in San Gabriel. You can find this name “San Gabriel” on your atlas, if you look very carefully. It is in small print, and on the Atlas it is not more than the width of a pin from the water’s edge; but it really is thirty miles,—a good day’s ride, and a beautiful day’s ride too, from the sea. San Gabriel is a little village, only a dozen or two houses in it, and an old, half-ruined church,—a Catholic church, that was built there a hundred years ago, when the country was first settled by the Spaniards. They named all the places they settled, after saints; and the first thing they did in every place was to build a church, and get the Indians to come and be baptized, and learn to pray. They did not call their settlements towns at first, only Missions; and they had at one time twenty-one of these Missions on the California coast, all the way up from San Diego to Monterey; and there were more than thirty thousand Indians in them, all being taught to pray and to work, and some of them to read and write. They were very good men, those first Spanish missionaries in California. There are still alive some Indians who recollect these times. They are very old, over a hundred years old; but they remember well about these things.
Most of the principal California towns of which you have read in your geographies were begun in this way. San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Rafael, San Francisco, Monterey, Los Angeles,—all of these were first settled by the missionaries, and by the soldiers and officers of the army who came to protect the missionaries against the savages. Los Angeles was named by them after the Virgin Mary. The Spanish name was very long, “Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Angeles,”—that means, “Our Lady the Queen of the Angels.” Of course this was quite too long to use every day; so it soon got cut down to simply “Los Angeles,” or “The Angels,”—a name which often amuses travellers in Los Angeles to-day, because the people who live there are not a bit more like angels than other people; and that, as we all know, is very unlike indeed. Near Los Angeles is San Gabriel, only about fifteen miles away. In the olden time, fifteen miles was not thought any distance at all; people were neighbors who lived only fifteen miles apart.
There are a great many interesting stories about the first settlement of San Gabriel, and the habits and customs of the Indians there. They were a very polite people to each other, and used to train their children in some respects very carefully. If a child were sent to bring water to an older person, and he tasted it on the way, he was made to throw the water out and go and bring fresh water; when two grown-up persons were talking together, if a child ran between them he was told that he had done an uncivil thing, and would be punished if he did it again. These are only specimens of their rules for polite behavior. They seem to me as good as ours. These Indians were very fond of flowers, of which the whole country is in the spring so full, it looks in places like a garden bed; of these flowers they used to make long garlands and wreaths, not only to wear on their heads, but to reach way down to their feet. These they wore at festivals and celebrations; and sometimes at these festivals they used to have what they called “song contests.” Two of the best singers, or poets, would be matched together, to see which could sing the better, or make the better verses. That seems to me a more interesting kind of match than the spelling matches we have in our villages. But there is nothing of this sort to be seen in San Gabriel now, or indeed anywhere in California. The Indians, most of them, have been driven away by the white people who wanted their lands; year by year more and more white people have come, and the Indians have been robbed of more and more of their lands, and have died off by hundreds, until there are not many left.
Mr. Connor was much interested in learning all he could about them, and collecting all he could of the curious stone bowls and pestles they used to make, and of their baskets and lace work. He spent much of his time riding about the country; and whenever he came to an Indian hut he would stop and talk with them, and ask if they had any stone bowls or baskets they would like to sell. The bowls especially were a great curiosity. Nobody knew how long ago they had been made. When the missionaries first came to the country, they found the Indians using them; they had them of all sizes, from those so large that they are almost more than a man can lift, down to tiny ones no bigger than a tea-cup. But big and little, they were all made in the same way out of solid stone, scooped out in the middle, by rubbing another stone round and round on them. You would think it would have taken a lifetime to make one; but they seem to have been plenty in the olden time. Even yet, people who are searching for such curiosities sometimes find big grave-mounds in which dozens of them are buried,—buried side by side with the people who used to eat out of them. There is nothing left of the people but their skulls and a few bones; but the bowls will last as long as the world stands.
Now I suppose you are beginning to wonder when I am coming to the Hunter Cats! I am coming to them just the way Mr. Connor did,—by degrees. I want you to know about the place he lived in, and how he used to amuse himself, before he decided to build his house; and then I must tell you about the house, and then about the children that came to live with him in it, and then about the Chinamen that came to do his work, and about his orange-trees, and the gophers that gnawed the bark off them, and the rabbits that burrowed under his vines. Oh! it will be a good many pages yet before I can possibly get to the time when the Hunter Cats come in. But I will tell it as fast as I can, for I dislike long stories myself.
The village of San Gabriel is in a beautiful broad valley, running east and west. The north wall of the valley is made by a range of mountains, called the Sierra Madre; that is Spanish and means “Mother Mountains.” They are grand mountains; their tops are almost solid stone, all sharp and jagged, with more peaks and ridges, crowded in together, than you could possibly count. At the bottom, they reach out into the valley by long slopes, which in the olden time were covered thick with trees and shrubs; but now, the greater part of these have been cut down and cleared off, and the ground planted full of orange-trees and grapevines. If you want to see how it looks to have solid miles upon miles of orange orchards and vineyards together, you must go to this San Gabriel Valley. There is no other such place in the world.
As Mr. Connor rode about, day after day, and looked at these orchards and vineyards, he began to think he should like to have some too. So he went up and down along the base of the mountains, looking for a good place. At last he found one. It was strange nobody had picked it out before. One reason was that it was so wild, and lay so high up, that it would be a world of trouble, and cost a deal of money, to make a road up to it and to clear the ground. But Mr. Connor did not care for that. It was a sort of ridge of the mountains, and it was all grown over thick with what is called in California “chapparal.” That is not the name of any one particular shrub or tree; it means a mixture of every sort and kind. You all know what mixed candy is! Well, “chapparal” is mixed bushes and shrubs; mixed thick too! From a little way off, it looks as smooth as moss; it is so tangled, and the bushes have such strong and tough stems, you can’t possibly get through it, unless you cut a path before you with a hatchet; it is a solid thicket all the way.
As Mr. Connor rode to and fro, in front of this green ridge, he thought how well a house would look up there, with the splendid mountain wall rising straight up behind it. And from the windows of such a house, one could look off, not only over the whole valley, but past the hills of its southern wall, clear and straight thirty miles to the sea. In a clear day, the line of the water flashed and shone there like a silver thread.
Mr. Connor used to sit on his horse by the half hour at a time gazing at this hillside, and picturing the home he would like to make there,—a big square house with plenty of room in it, wide verandas on all sides, and the slope in front of it one solid green orange orchard. The longer he looked the surer he felt that this was the thing he wanted to do.
The very day he decided, he bought the land; and in two days more he had a big force of men hacking away at the chapparal, burning it, digging up the tough, tangled roots; oh, what slow work it was! Just as soon as a big enough place was cleared, he built a little house of rough boards,—only two rooms in it; and there he went to live, with Jim.
Now that he had once begun the making of his house, he could hardly wait for it to be done; and he was never happy except when he was overseeing the men, hurrying them and working himself. Many a tough old bush he chopped down with his own hands, and tugged the root up; and he grew stronger every day. This was a kind of medicine he had not tried before.
A great part of the bushes were “manzanita.” The roots and lower stems of this shrub are bright red, and twisted almost into knots. They make capital firewood; so Mr. Connor had them all piled up in a pile to keep to burn in his big fireplaces; and you would have laughed to see such a woodpile. It was almost as high as the house; and no two sticks alike,—all prongs and horns, and crooks and twists; they looked like monster’s back teeth.
At last the house was done. It was a big, old-fashioned, square house, with a wide hall running through the middle; on the east side were the library and dining-room; on the west, the parlor and a big billiard-room; upstairs were four large bedrooms; at the back of the house, a kitchen. No servants were to sleep in the house. Mr. Connor would have only Chinamen for servants; and they would sleep, with the rest of his Chinamen laborers, in what he called the Chinese quarter,—a long, low wooden building still farther up on the hill. Only Jim was to sleep in the house with Mr. Connor.
The Chinese quarter was a very comfortable house; and was presided over by a fat old Chinaman, who had such a long queue that Jim called him “Long Tail.” His name was See Whong Choo, which, Jim said, was entirely too long to pronounce. There were twenty Chinamen on the place; and a funny sight it was to see them all file out of a morning to their work, every one with what looked like a great dinner-plate upside down on his head for a hat, and his long, black hair braided in a queue, not much bigger than a rat tail, hanging down his back.
People in California are so used to seeing Chinamen, that they do not realize how droll they look to persons not accustomed to the sight.
Their yellow skins, their funny little black eyes, set so slanting in their heads that you can’t tell half the time whether they are looking straight at you or not, their shiny shaved heads and pig-tails, are all very queer. And when you first hear them talking together in their own tongue, you think it must be cats trying to learn English; it is a mixture of caterwaul and parrot, more disagreeable in sound than any language I ever heard.
About a year after Mr. Connor had moved into his new house, he got a letter, one night, which made him very unhappy. It told him that his sister and her husband were dead; they had died, both of them in one week, of a dreadful fever. Their two children had had the fever at the same time, but they were getting well; and now, as there was nobody in Italy to take care of them, the letter asked what should be done with them. Would Mr. Connor come out himself, or would he send some one? The Count and his wife had been only a few days ill, and the fever had made them delirious from the first, so that no directions had been given to any one about the children; and there the two poor little things were, all alone with their nurse in their apartment in the King’s palace. They had had to live in the palace always, so that the Count could be ready to attend on the King whenever he was wanted.
Giuseppe and Maria (those were their names) never liked living there. The palace was much too grand, with its marble staircases, and marble floored rooms, so huge and cold; and armed soldiers for sentinels, standing at the corners and doors, to keep people from going into rooms without permission, and to keep watch also, lest somebody should get in and kill the King. The King was always afraid of being killed; there were so many unhappy and discontented persons in Italy, who did not want him to be King. Just think how frightful it must be to know every day,—morning, noon, and night,—that there was danger of somebody’s coming stealthily into your room to kill you! Who would be a king? It used to make the children afraid whenever they passed these tall soldiers in armor, in the halls. They would hold tight to each other’s hands, and run as fast as they could, past them; and when they got out in the open air, they were glad; most of all when their nurse took them into the country, where they could run on the grass and pick flowers. There they used often to see poor little hovels of houses, with gardens, and a donkey and chickens in the yard, and children playing; and they used to say they wished their father and mother were poor, and lived in a house like that, and kept a donkey. And then the nurse would tell them they were silly children; that it was a fine thing to live in a palace, and have their father one of the King’s officers, and their mother one of the most beautiful of the Queen’s ladies; but you couldn’t have made the children believe it. They hated the palace, and everything about it, more and more every day of their lives.
Giuseppe was ten, and Maria was seven. They were never called by their real names: Giuseppe was called Jusy, and Maria was called Rea; Jusy and Rea, nobody would ever have guessed from that, what their real names were. Maria is pronounced Mahrea in Italy; so that was the way she came to be called Rea for shortness. Jusy gave himself his nickname when he was a baby, and it had always stuck to him ever since.
It was enough to make anybody’s heart ache to see these two poor little things, when they first got strong enough to totter about after this fever; so weak they felt, they could hardly stand; and they cried more than half the time, thinking about their papa and mamma, dead and buried without their even being able to kiss them once for good-by. The King himself felt so sorry for the little orphans, he came to speak to them; and the kind Queen came almost every day, and sent them beautiful toys, and good things to eat; but nothing comforted the children.
“What do you suppose will become of us, Jusy?” Rea often said; and Jusy would reply,—
“I don’t know, Rea. As soon as I’m a man, I can take care of you and myself too, easy enough; and that won’t be a great while. I shall ask the King to let me be one of his officers like papa.”
“Oh, no! no! Jusy,” Rea would reply. “Don’t! Don’t let’s live in this horrid palace. Ask him to give you a little house in the country, with a donkey; and I will cook the dinner. Caterina will teach me how.”
Caterina was their nurse.