Story type: Essay
It seems somehow more nearly an irreparable loss to us than to “H. H.” that she did not live to taste her very substantial fame in Southern California. We should have had such delight in her unaffected pleasure in it, and it would have been one of those satisfactions somewhat adequate to our sense of fitness that are so seldom experienced. It was my good fortune to see Mrs. Jackson frequently in the days in New York when she was writing “Ramona,” which was begun and perhaps finished in the Berkeley House. The theme had complete possession of her, and chapter after chapter flowed from her pen as easily as one would write a letter to a friend; and she had an ever fresh and vigorous delight in it. I have often thought that no one enjoyed the sensation of living more than Mrs. Jackson, or was more alive to all the influences of nature and the contact of mind with mind, more responsive to all that was exquisite and noble either in nature or in society, or more sensitive to the disagreeable. This is merely saying that she was a poet; but when she became interested in the Indians, and especially in the harsh fate of the Mission Indians in California, all her nature was fused for the time in a lofty enthusiasm of pity and indignation, and all her powers seemed to be consecrated to one purpose. Enthusiasm and sympathy will not make a novel, but all the same they are necessary to the production of a work that has in it real vital quality, and in this case all previous experience and artistic training became the unconscious servants of Mrs. Jackson’s heart. I know she had very little conceit about her performance, but she had a simple consciousness that she was doing her best work, and that if the world should care much for anything she had done, after she was gone, it would be for “Ramona.” She had put herself into it.
And yet I am certain that she could have had no idea what the novel would be to the people of Southern California, or how it would identify her name with all that region, and make so many scenes in it places of pilgrimage and romantic interest for her sake. I do not mean to say that the people in California knew personally Ramona and Alessandro, or altogether believe in them, but that in their idealizations they recognize a verity and the ultimate truth of human nature, while in the scenery, in the fading sentiment of the old Spanish life, and the romance and faith of the Missions, the author has done for the region very much what Scott did for the Highlands. I hope she knows now, I presume she does, that more than one Indian school in the Territories is called the Ramona School; that at least two villages in California are contending for the priority of using the name Ramona; that all the travelers and tourists (at least in the time they can spare from real-estate speculations) go about under her guidance, are pilgrims to the shrines she has described, and eager searchers for the scenes she has made famous in her novel; that more than one city and more than one town claims the honor of connection with the story; that the tourist has pointed out to him in more than one village the very house where Ramona lived, where she was married–indeed, that a little crop of legends has already grown up about the story itself. I was myself shown the house in Los Angeles where the story was written, and so strong is the local impression that I confess to looking at the rose-embowered cottage with a good deal of interest, though I had seen the romance growing day by day in the Berkeley in New York.
The undoubted scene of the loves of Ramona and Alessandro is the Comulos rancho, on the railway from Newhall to Santa Paula, the route that one takes now (unless he wants to have a lifelong remembrance of the ground swells of the Pacific in an uneasy little steamer) to go from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. It is almost the only one remaining of the old-fashioned Spanish haciendas, where the old administration prevails. The new railway passes it now, and the hospitable owners have been obliged to yield to the public curiosity and provide entertainment for a continual stream of visitors. The place is so perfectly described in “Ramona” that I do not need to draw it over again, and I violate no confidence and only certify to the extraordinary powers of delineation of the novelist, when I say that she only spent a few hours there,–not a quarter of the time we spent in identifying her picture. We knew the situation before the train stopped by the crosses erected on the conspicuous peaks of the serrated ashy–or shall I say purple–hills that enfold the fertile valley. It is a great domain, watered by a swift river, and sheltered by wonderfully picturesque mountains. The house is strictly in the old Spanish style, of one story about a large court, with flowers and a fountain, in which are the most noisy if not musical frogs in the world, and all the interior rooms opening upon a gallery. The real front is towards the garden, and here at the end of the gallery is the elevated room where Father Salvierderra slept when he passed a night at the hacienda,–a pretty room which has a case of Spanish books, mostly religious and legal, and some quaint and cheap holy pictures. We had a letter to Signora Del Valle, the mistress, and were welcomed with a sort of formal extension of hospitality that put us back into the courtly manners of a hundred years ago. The Signora, who is in no sense the original of the mistress whom “H. H.” describes, is a widow now for seven years, and is the vigilant administrator of all her large domain, of the stock, the grazing lands, the vineyard, the sheep ranch, and all the people. Rising very early in the morning, she visits every department, and no detail is too minute to escape her inspection, and no one in the great household but feels her authority.
It was a very lovely day on the 17th of March (indeed, I suppose it had been preceded by 364 days exactly like it) as we sat upon the gallery looking on the garden, a garden of oranges, roses, citrons, lemons, peaches–what fruit and flower was not growing there?–acres and acres of vineyard beyond, with the tall cane and willows by the stream, and the purple mountains against the sapphire sky. Was there ever anything more exquisite than the peach-blossoms against that blue sky! Such a place of peace. A soft south wind was blowing, and all the air was drowsy with the hum of bees. In the garden is a vine-covered arbor, with seats and tables, and at the end of it is the opening into a little chapel, a domestic chapel, carpeted like a parlor, and bearing all the emblems of a loving devotion. By the garden gate hang three small bells, from some old mission, all cracked, but serving (each has its office) to summon the workmen or to call to prayer.
Perfect system reigns in Signora Del Valle’s establishment, and even the least child in it has its duty. At sundown a little slip of a girl went out to the gate and struck one of the bells. “What is that for?” I asked as she returned. “It is the Angelus,” she said simply. I do not know what would happen to her if she should neglect to strike it at the hour. At eight o’clock the largest bell was struck, and the Signora and all her household, including the house servants, went out to the little chapel in the garden, which was suddenly lighted with candles, gleaming brilliantly through the orange groves. The Signora read the service, the household responding–a twenty minutes’ service, which is as much a part of the administration of the establishment as visiting the granaries and presses, and the bringing home of the goats. The Signora’s apartments, which she permitted us to see, were quite in the nature of an oratory, with shrines and sacred pictures and relics of the faith. By the shrine at the head of her bed hung the rosary carried by Father Junipero,–a priceless possession. From her presses and armoires, the Signora, seeing we had a taste for such things, brought out the feminine treasures of three generations, the silk and embroidered dresses of last century, the ribosas, the jewelry, the brilliant stuffs of China and Mexico, each article with a memory and a flavor.
But I must not be betrayed into writing about Ramona’s house. How charming indeed it was the next morning,–though the birds in the garden were astir a little too early,–with the thermometer set to the exact degree of warmth without languor, the sky blue, the wind soft, the air scented with orange and jessamine. The Signora had already visited all her premises before we were up. We had seen the evening before an enclosure near the house full of cashmere goats and kids, whose antics were sufficiently amusing–most of them had now gone afield; workmen were coming for their orders, plowing was going on in the barley fields, traders were driving to the plantation store, the fierce eagle in a big cage by the olive press was raging at his detention. Within the house enclosure are an olive mill and press, a wine-press and a great storehouse of wine, containing now little but empty casks,–a dusky, interesting place, with pomegranates and dried bunches of grapes and oranges and pieces of jerked meat hanging from the rafters. Near by is a cornhouse and a small distillery, and the corrals for sheep shearing are not far off. The ranches for cattle and sheep are on the other side of the mountain.
Peace be with Comulos. It must please the author of “Ramona” to know that it continues in the old ways; and I trust she is undisturbed by the knowledge that the rage for change will not long let it be what it now is.