“I don’t see why in the name of common sense,” I can remember saying testily, “no Californian can give you directions that can be followed. That fellow at Capistrano said it was a straight road and we couldn’t possibly get off it, and now look at this!”
All the sunny afternoon we had driven cheerfully, along a grassy highway that wound due south mile after mile across a great cattle-ranch, and was guaranteed by the last white man we had seen, some fifteen miles back, to lead without fork or deviation to Oceanside, where we had designed to pass the night. It was now six in the evening, and on a lonely mesa bounded on one side by the distant sea and on the other by a line of bare, monotonous hills without sign of human habitation in any direction, we found ourselves at a dividing of the road, where a weather-worn guide-post stated dimly on one finger that San Diego was fifty-six miles distant, while the legend upon the other finger was illegible entirely.
We anxiously scanned the country in every direction for sight of some one who, might direct us, but in vain. It was exactly the situation where the old-time writer of romance would have set “a solitary horseman” jogging along, but though we waited for a bad quarter of an hour for one to turn up, none appeared. The sun was rapidly descending to the horizon, and a decision could no longer be postponed. The speculative possibilities of the unknown seemed preferable to the certainty of fifty-six miles to San Diego, and we turned our tired horse into the unmarked fork which led into the foothills. Our hope was that it might take us to some hamlet where we could secure a lodging for the night and where in the morning we might be started right for Oceanside.
The road, after ascending gradually through the chaparral for a mile or so, turned sharply around the base of a knoll where suddenly there opened be-fore our eyes a view which made us pinch each other to assure ourselves that we were not in a dream. At our feet stretched a long green valley glorified with the last warm rays of the setting sun, and down its length of emerald meadow-lands a -little silver river flowed, with red cattle feeding on the banks or standing knee-deep in the quiet waters. And far away at the upper end of this secluded vale there gleamed in the sun a cluster of red roofs and white walls, like some castle of old romance, rising from the midst of tree-tops. A wonderful stillness was over all, and of humanity there was no sign. The scene seemed more a pictured page from an ancient tale than a bit of our noisy, practical America, and we half expected to see at any minute some “gentle knight pricking across the plain,” or a band of squire-attended damosels on dappled palfreys issuing from the castle gates.
But at any rate, if the romance of our souls was not to be indulged, here was surely an opportunity to have our physical requirements for the night sup-plied; and so, shaking out the reins, we started Gypsy Johnson down the road that led into this valley of peace. That the red roofs were of some ham-let of the hills, we did not doubt; yet it was a most foreign-looking village for the United Stateseven for Southern California.
As we descended to the floor of the valley, the red roofs and white walls became lost to sight; but a road led in their direction, and we took it. By and by we came to a gate closed across the road.
“A most inhospitable village,” observed Sylvia.
Opening the gate, we passed through, and shortly caught the gleam of white again through an enveloping olive orchard. The bright walls were now seen to be of one building, low and rambling, its roof of old-fashioned red tiles. There were vine-covered verandas and deep cool windows about which roses climbed, and a white-walled garden with pomegranates and olive trees and grape vines visible within. The fragrance of honeysuckle was in the air, and a mocking-bird hidden somewhere was singing its vesper song.
A short distance from the great house was a long adobe barn, also glistening white, and beyond it a row of laborers’ cottages each with its bit of garden in front and rear. A Mexican stableman leading a horse gave us the first chance we had in twenty miles to ask questions, and we learned that our supposititious village was no village at all, but the Rancho San Fulano, over part of whose two hundred and fifty thousand acres we had been driving since noon.
So the problem of the night’s lodging was still unsolved, and our hearts sank.
“How far is it to Oceanside?” we inquired. The Mexican scratched his head.
“Quien sabe? Long way.”
We looked at Gypsy Johnson, whose tired head hung low. Perhaps we could get a room at the ranch overnight, we suggested-we had provisions enough to tide us over, if the horse could be cared for, too.
The Mexican shrugged his shoulders.
“Quien sabe,” he observed, “you have to see Meester MacCleenchy up at the big house,” and he nodded his head towards the red-tiled mansion.
“Who is Mr. MacClinchy7” we asked.
“Meester MacCleenchy, he own these ranchhe own all what you see,”with a comprehensive wave of his hand over Southern California’ Meester MacCleenchyhe ver-r-ry reech gentleman.”
We then dimly remembered having once been told by somebody that the largest existing Spanish ranch in Southern California was now owned by an American, who had bought it from the heirs of the original Spanish ownera crony of the last of the Mexican governors of California. Under ordinary circumstances we should have jumped at the chance of seeing so interesting a survival of the old days of Spanish dominion in California, for it had been scrupulously kept up and the aristocratic Old-World look which it had from its Spanish architect, had been preserved in all essential particulars. To be forced, however, to knock at its gates as suppliants for a night’s lodging was not exactly the ideal condition of visiting it, and we were a somewhat nervous couple as we drew up at the garden-wicket.
I made fast the horse to a post, and, leaving Sylvia arranging her hair and removing as well as she might the more evident stains of travel from her dress, I walked along the great front veranda, past the conventional big five-gallon Mexican olla of drinking water swathed in its damp burlap, and entered an open door. A long passageway led through the house to an inner quadrangle where trees cast their shade and flowers bloomedthe regulation patio of Spanish architectureand there an olive-skinned lady with dark hair and a rose caught in it, directed me to a doorway across the courtyard where, she said, Mr. MacClinchy would be found.
There he was found standing before the agreeable warmth of a wood-fire that crackled on a cavernous hearth the width of the room’s enda stocky gentle-man with a bald head, bushy brows, a bristling gray mustache, and a ruddy countenance terminating in a square jaw that betokened small liking for opposition. He frowned fiercely as the situation was explained, and as soon as he learned there was a woman in the case he cut the unfinished narrative short and roared :
“Bring your lady in, sir!”
Then striding ahead he led the way back to the carriage.
“Madam,” he said with a bow, and a tone as gentle as Bottom’s when that versatile character would simulate the sucking dove, “let me assist you to alight. My house is yours. Let your husband drive the team to the barn, the men will care for it. Come to the fire, you are cold, I am sure. And now tell me, how did you happen to lose your road?”
And so we came to taste the proverbial hospitality of an old-time Spanish ranch, for though this latter-day host of San Fulano made no claim to Castilian blood, the tradition of Spanish-Californian large-handedness was thoroughly maintained in him. Strangers as we were, his son’s room was vacated for us, and we were given seats at the great table in the dining-hall, where he presided like a medieval baron over a dozen or more guestsfor a house-party of young people was in progress at the time, the olive-skinned lady of the dark hair and the rose evidently being the chaperon.
The eatables were provided on a scale that con-firmed the medieval atmosphere, being hearty rather than dainty, and bountiful to a fault. A huge plat-ter of ribs of beef newly from the grassy ranges which we had that afternoon traversed, a couple of side platters of stewed rabbit shot the day before by some Nimrod of the party, enormous dishes of white potatoes hot from the kitchen and smoking to the raftered ceiling, chicken-tamales and enchiladas out of compliment perhaps to the guests of Spanish blood, mounds of red frijoles, of courseand to crown all, endless relays of steaming batter cakes. A sad-eyed Chinese “boy” in chintz blouse and pigtail transported the dishes at lightning speed on the palms of his upturned hands from the kitchen across the patio, and when not otherwise employed circled about the table with monumental pots of tea and coffee, serving meanwhile as an ever-ready target for vociferous denunciation from the master of the house, when the latter thought he detected any remissness of service. Indeed to see that the bottom of his guest’s plate never showed was this hospitable host’s great delight, and especially toward the ladies were his attentions unrelaxing. A pretty Spanish girl who sat at his left, pausing in her meal, was discovered to be waiting for the molasses jug, from which one of the young men opposite to her, was helping himself. So unknightly an action as to keep a lady waiting was intolerable, and in an instant a roar sounded down the table.
“Pass the lady the syrup ! Are you all a pack of ruffians?”
“And now, my dear,” he remarked with fatherly tenderness, as he laid back the lid of the jug for her, “is there anything else I can help you to?”
We would have left in the morning before break-fast, but it would not be permitted, and so the sun was well up in the heavens when our little mare, jaunty and fresh after her night’s rest and good fare, was brought to the garden wicket by a stable-man.
Our host was walking up and down the veranda puffing fiercely at a cigar, as we approached to bid him good-bye. It was an awkward moment, for we greatly desired to pay for the accommodation, and we stammered out something to that effect.
“Pay!” he shouted; “pay? Not one cent, sir, not one cent;” and in the vigor of his feeling he tossed his half-smoked cigar quite across the garden.
“But you will at least let us thank you” began Sylvia, when he gently interrupted her.
“Madam,” said he, “I pray you do not mention so small a matter. I wish you a pleasant journey.”
As we passed out the gates, we paused for a last look at the kindly old place. It was but one story, the conventional height of the Spanish-California ranch-house, and the adobe walls were of prison-like thickness pierced at rather distant intervals with small iron-grated windows, recalling the wild days of old when every ranch had to be a fortress as well as a home. The shadows of the trees trembled in cool patches across the white expanse of wall and a couple of pigeons were cooing on the ridge of the red-tiled roof. Through an open door we could see the oleanders within the sunny patio, and outlined in the doorway stood our host of San Fulano, his face grimly smiling while one of the pretty Spanish girls fastened a red blossom in his buttonhole.