TWO WEEKS later Grace Evans left for Hollywood and fame. She would permit no one to accompany her, saying that she wanted to feel that the moment she left home she had made her own way, unassisted, toward her goal.
Hers was the selfish egotism that is often to be found in otherwise generous natures. She had never learned the sweetness and beauty of sharing—of sharing her ambitions, her successes, and her failures, too, with those who loved her. If she won to fame, the glory would be hers; nor did it once occur to her that she might have shared that pride and pleasure with others by accepting their help and advice. If she failed, they would not have even the sad sweetness of sharing her disappointment.
Over two homes there hovered that evening a pall of gloom that no effort seemed able to dispel. In the ranch house on Ganado they made a brave effort at cheerfulness on Custer Pennington’s account. They did not dance that evening, as was their custom, nor could they find pleasure in the printed page which they tried to read. Bridge proved equally impossible.
Finally Custer rose, announcing that he was going to bed. Kissing them all good night, as had been the custom since childhood, he went to his room, and tears came to the mother’s eyes as she noted the droop in the broad shoulders as he walked from the room.
The girl came then and knelt beside her, taking the older woman’s hand in hers and caressing it.
“I feel so sorry for Cus,” she said. “I believe that none of us realize how hard he is taking this. He told me yesterday that it was going to be just the same as if Grace was dead, for he knew she would never be satisfied here again, whether she succeeded or failed. I think he has definitely given up all hope of their being married.”
“Oh, no, dear, I am sure he is wrong,” said her mother. “The engagement has not been broken. In fact Grace told me only a few days ago that she hoped her success would come quickly, so that she and Custer might be married the sooner. The dear girl wants us to be proud of our new daughter.”
“My God!” ejaculated the colonel, throwing his book down and rising to pace the floor. “Proud of her! Weren’t we already proud of her? Will being an actress make her any dearer to us? Of all the damn fool ideas!”
“Custer! Custer! You mustn’t swear so before Eva,” reproved Mrs. Pennington.
“Swear?” he demanded. “Who in the hell is swearing?”
A merry peal of laughter broke from the girl, nor could her mother refrain from smiling.
“It isn’t swearing when popsy says it,” cried the girl. “My gracious, I’ve heard it all my life, and you always say the same thing to him, as if I’d never heard a single little cuss word. Anyway, I’m going to bed now, popsy, so that you won’t contaminate me. According to momsy’s theory she should curse like a pirate by this time, after twenty-five years of it!”
She kissed them, leaving them alone in the little family sitting room.
“I hope the boy won’t take it too hard,” said the colonel after a silence.
“I am afraid he has been drinking a little too much lately,” said the mother. “I only hope his loneliness for Grace won’t encourage it.”
“I hadn’t noticed it,” said the colonel.
“He never shows it much,” she replied. “An outsider would not know that he had been drinking at all when I can see that he has had more than he should.”
“Don’t worry about that, dear,” said the colonel. “A Pennington never drinks more than a gentleman should. His father and his grandsires, on both sides, always drank, but there has never been a drunkard in either family. I wouldn’t give two cents for him if he couldn’t take a man’s drink like a man; but he’ll never go too far. My boy couldn’t.”
The pride and affection in the words brought the tears to the mother’s eyes. She wondered if there had ever been father and son like these before—each with such implicit confidence in the honour, the integrity, and the manly strength of the other. His boy couldn’t go wrong!
Custer Pennington entered his room, lighted a reading lamp beside a deep, wide-armed chair, selected a book from a rack, and settled himself comfortably for an hour of pleasure and inspiration. But he did not open the book. Instead, he sat staring blindly at the opposite wall.
She would never come back and why should she? In the city, in that new life, she would meet men of the world—men of broader culture than his, men of wealth—and she would be sought after. They would have more to offer her than he, and sooner or later she would realize it. He could not expect to hold her.
Custer laid aside his book.
“What’s the use?” he asked himself.
Rising, he went to the closet and brought out a bottle. He had not intended drinking. On the contrary, he had determined very definitely not to drink that night; but again he asked himself the old question which, under certain circumstances of life and certain conditions of seeming hopelessness, appears unanswerable:
“What is the use?”
It is a foolish question, a meaningless question, a dangerous question. What is the use of what? Of combating fate—of declining to do the thing we ought not to do—of doing the thing we should do? It is not even a satisfactory means of self-justification; but amid the ruins of his dreams it was sufficient excuse for Custer Pennington’s surrender to the craving of an appetite which was daily becoming stronger.
The next morning he did not ride before breakfast with the other members of the family nor in fact, did he breakfast until long after they.
On the evening of the day of Grace’s departure Mrs. Evans retired early, complaining of a headache. Guy Evans sought to interest himself in various magazines, but he was restless and too ill at ease to remain long absorbed. At frequent intervals he consulted his watch, and as the evening wore on he made numerous trips to his room, where he had recourse to a bottle like the one with which Custer Pennington was similarly engaged.
It was Friday—the second Friday since Guy had entered into an agreement with Allen; and as midnight approached his nervousness increased.
Time and again, during that long evening, he mentally reiterated his determination that once this venture was concluded, he would never embark upon another of a similar nature. The several thousand dollars which it would net him would make it possible for him to marry Eva and settle down to a serious and uninterrupted effort at writing—the one vocation for which he believed himself best fitted by inclination and preparation; but never again, he assured himself repeatedly, would he allow himself to be cajoled or threatened into such an agreement.
As he sat waiting for the arrival of the second consignment, he pictured the little cavalcade winding downward along hidden trails through the chaparral of dark, mountain ravines. His nervousness increased as he realized the risk of discovery some time during the six months that it would take to move the contraband to the edge of the valley in this way—thirty-six cases at a time, packed out on six burros.
He had little fear of the failure of his plan for hiding the liquor in the old hay barn and moving it out again the following day. For three years there had been stored in one end of the barn some fifty tons of baled melilotus. It had been sown as a cover crop by a former foreman, and allowed to grow to such proportions as to render the ploughing of it under a practical impossibility. As hay it was in little or no demand, but there was a possibility of a hay shortage that year. It was against this possibility that Evans had had it baled and stored away in the barn, where it had lain ever since, awaiting an offer that would at least cover the cost of growing, harvesting, and baling. A hard day’s work had so re-arranged the bales as to form a hidden chamber in the centre of the pile, ingress to which could readily be had by removing a couple of bales near the floor.
A little after eleven o’clock Guy left the house and made his way to the barn, where he paced nervously to and fro in the dark interior. He hoped that the men would come early and get the thing over, for it was this part of the operation that seemed most fraught with danger.
The whisky was in Guy’s possession for less than twelve hours a week; but during those twelve hours he earned the commission of a dollar a bottle that Allen allowed him, for his great fear was that sooner or later some one would discover and follow the six burros as they came down to the barn. There were often campers in the hills. During the deer season, if they did not have it all removed by that time, they would be almost certain of discovery, since every courageous ribbon-counter clerk in Los Angeles hied valiantly to the mountains with a high-powered rifle, to track the ferocious deer to its lair.
At a quarter past twelve Evans heard the sounds for which he had been so expectantly waiting. He opened a small door in the end of the hay barn, through which there filed in silence six burdened burros, led by one swarthy Mexican and followed by another. Quietly the men unpacked the burros and stored the thirty-six cases in the chamber beneath the hay. Inside this same chamber, by the light of a flash lamp, Evans counted out to one of them the proceeds from the sale of the previous week. The whole transaction consumed less than half an hour, and was carried on with the exchange of less than a dozen words. As silently as they had come the men departed, with their burros, into the darkness toward the hills, and young Evans made his way to his room and to bed.