AS Shannon Burke alighted from the Southern Pacific train at Ganado, the following morning, a large middle-aged man in riding clothes approached her.
“Is this Miss Burke?” he asked. “I am Colonel Pennington.” She noted that his face was grave, and it frightened her. “Tell me about my mother,” she said. “How is she?”
He put an arm about the girl’s shoulders.
“Come,” he said. “Mrs. Pennington is waiting over at the car.” Her question was answered.
“Tell me about it,” she said at length in a low voice.
“It was very sudden,” said the Colonel. “It was a heart attack. Everything that possibly could be done in so short a time was done. Nothing would have changed the outcome, however. We had Dr. Jones of Los Angeles down—he motored down and arrived here about half an hour before the end. He told us that he could have done nothing.”
They were silent for a while as the fast car rolled over the smooth road toward the hills ahead. Presently it slowed down, turned in between orange trees, and stopped before a tiny bungalow a hundred yards from the highway.
“We thought you would want to come here first of all, dear,” said Mrs. Pennington. “Afterward we are going to take you home with us.”
They accompanied her to the tiny living room, where they introduced her to the housekeeper, and to the nurse, who had remained at Colonel Pennington’s request. Then they opened the door of a sunny bedroom, and, closing it after her as she entered left her alone with her dead.
Beyond the thin panels they could hear her sobbing; but when she emerged fifteen minutes later, though her eyes were red, she was not crying.
They led her back to the car, where she sat with wide eyes staring straight ahead. She wanted to scream, to tear her clothing, to do anything but sit there quiet and rigid. The short drive to Ganado seemed to the half mad girl to occupy hours. She saw nothing, not even the quiet, restful ranch house as the car swung up the hill and stopped at the north entrance. In her mind’s eye was nothing but the face of her dead mother and the little black case in her traveling bag.
The colonel helped her from the car and a sweet-faced young girl came and put her arms about her and kissed her, as Mrs. Pennington had done at the station. In a dazed sort of way Shannon understood that they were telling her the girl’s name—that she was a daughter of the Penningtons. The girl accompanied the visitor to the rooms she was to occupy.
Shannon wished to be alone—she wanted to get at the black case in the travelling bag. Why didn’t the girl go away? She wanted to take her by the shoulders and throw her out of the room; yet outwardly she was calm and self-possessed.
Very carefully she turned toward the girl. It required a supreme effort not to tremble, and to keep her voice from rising to a scream.
“Please,” she said, “I should like to be alone.”
“I understand,” said the girl, and left the room, closing the door behind her.
Shannon crept stealthily to the door and turned the key in the lock. Then she wheeled and almost fell upon the travelling bag in her eagerness to get the small black case within it. She was trembling from head to foot, her eyes were wide and staring, and she mumbled to herself as she prepared the white powder and drew the liquid into the syringe.
Momentarily, however, she gathered herself together. For a few seconds she stood looking at the glass and metal instrument in her fingers—beyond it she saw her mother’s face.
“I don’t want to do it,” she sobbed. “I don’t want to do it, mother!” Her lower lip quivered, and tears came. “My God, I can’t help it!” Almost viciously she plunged the needle beneath her skin. “I didn’t want to do it to-day, of all days, with you lying over there all alone—dead!”
She threw herself across the bed and broke into uncontrolled sobbing; but her nerves were relaxed, and the expression of her grief was normal. Finally she sobbed herself to sleep, for she had not slept at all the night before.
It was afternoon when she awoke, and again she felt the craving for a narcotic. This time she did not fight it. She had lost the battle—why renew it? She bathed and dressed and took another shot before leaving her rooms—a guest suite on the second floor. She descended the stairs, which opened directly into the patio, and almost ran against a tall, broadshouldered young man in flannel shirt and riding breeches, with boots and spurs. He stepped quickly back.
“Miss Burke, I believe?” he inquired. “I am Custer Pennington.”
“Oh, it was you who wired me,” she said.
“No—that was my father.”
“I am afraid I did not thank him for all his kindness. I must have seemed very ungrateful.”
She followed him through the living room and the library to the dining room, beyond which a small breakfast room looked out toward the peaceful hills. Young Pennington opened a door leading from the dining room to the butler’s pantry, and called to his mother.
“Miss Burke is down,” he said.
The girl turned immediately from the breakfast room and entered the butler’s pantry.
“Can’t I help, Mrs. Pennington? I don’t want to go to any trouble for me. You have all been so good already!”
They seemed to take it for granted that Shannon was going to stay with them, instead of going to the little bungalow that had been her mother’s—the truest type of hospitality, because, requiring no oral acceptance, it suggested no obligation.
Shannon could not have refused if she had wished to, but she did not wish to. In the quiet ranch house, surrounded by these strong, kindly people, she found a restfulness and a feeling of security that she had not believed she was ever to experience again. She had these thoughts when, under the influence of morphine, her nerves were quieted and her brain clear. After the effects had worn off, she became restless and irritable. She thought of Crumb then, and of the bungalow on the Vista del Paso, with its purple monkeys stencilled over the patio gate. She wanted to be back where she could be free to do as she pleased—free to sink again into the most degrading and abject slavery that human vice has ever devised.
On the first night, after she had gone to her rooms, the Penningtons, gathered in the little family living room, discussed her, as people are wont to discuss a stranger beneath their roof.
“I sized her up over there in the kitchen to-day,” said Custer. “She’s the real article. I can always tell by the way people treat a servant whether they are real people or only counterfeit. She was as sweet and natural to Hannah as she is to mother.”
“I noticed that,” said his mother. “It is one of the hall marks of good breeding; but we could scarcely expect anything else of Mrs. Burke’s daughter. I know she must be a fine character.”
In the room above them Shannon Burke, with trembling hands and staring eyes, was inserting a slender needle beneath the skin above her hip. In the movies one does not disfigure one’s arms or legs.