THE DAY of the funeral had come and gone. It had been a very hard one for Shannon. She had determined that on this day, at least, she would not touch the little hypodermic syringe.
She tried to shut the idea from her mind. She tried to concentrate her thoughts upon the real anguish of her heart. She tried to keep before her a vision of her mother; but her hideous, resistless vice crowded all else from her brain, and the result was that on the way back from the cemetery she collapsed into screaming, incoherent hysteria.
They carried her to her room—Custer Pennington carried her, his father and mother following. When the men had left, Mrs. Pennington and Eva undressed her and comforted her and put her to bed; but she still screamed and sobbed—frightful, racking sobs, without tears. She was trying to tell them to go away. How she hated them! If they would only go away and leave her! But she could not voice the words she sought to scream at them, and so they stayed and ministered to her as best they could. After a while she lost consciousness, and they thought that she was asleep and left her.
Perhaps she did sleep, for later, when she opened her eyes, she lay very quiet, and felt rested and almost normal. She knew, though, that she was not entirely awake—that when full wakefulness came the terror would return unless she quickly had recourse to the little needle.
In that brief moment of restfulness she thought quickly and clearly and very fully of what had just happened. She had never had such an experience before. Perhaps she had never fully realized the frightful hold the drug had upon her. She had known that she could not stop—or, at least, she had said that she knew; but whether she had any conception of the pitiful state to which enforced abstinence would reduce her is to be doubted. Now she knew, and she was terribly frightened.
“I must cut it down,” she said to herself. “I must have been hitting it up a little too strong. When I get home, I’ll let up gradually until I can manage with three or four shots a day.”
When she came down to dinner that night, they were all surprised to see her, for they had thought her still asleep. Particularly were they surprised to see no indications of her recent breakdown. How could they know that she had just taken enough morphine to have killed any one of them? She seemed normal and composed, and she tried to infuse a little gaiety into her conversation, for she realized that her grief was not theirs. She knew that their kind hearts shared something of her sorrow, but it was selfish to impose her own sadness upon them.
She had been thinking very seriously, had Shannon Burke. The attack of hysteria had jarred her loose, temporarily at least, from the selfish rut that her habit and her hateful life with Crumb had worn for her. She recalled every emotion of the ordeal through which she has passed, even to the thoughts of hate that she had held for those two sweet women at the table with her. How could she have hated them? She hated herself for the thought.
She compared herself with them, and a dull flush mounted to her cheek. She was not fit to remain under the same roof with them, and here she was sitting at their table, a respected guest! What if they should learn of the thing she was? The thought terrified her; and yet she talked on, oftentimes gaily, joining with them in the laughter that was part of every meal.
She really saw them, that night, as they were. It was the first time that her grief and her selfish vice, had permitted her to study them. It was her first understanding glimpse of a family life that was as beautiful as her own life was ugly.
As she compared herself with the women, she compared Crumb with these two men. They might have vices—they were strong men, and few strong men are without vices, she knew—but she was sure they were vices of strong men, which, by comparison with those of Wilson Crumb, would become virtues. What a pitiful creature Crumb seemed beside these two, with his insignificant mentality and his petty egotism!
Suddenly it came to her, almost as a shock, that she had to leave this beautiful place and go back to the sordid life that she shared with Crumb. Her spirit revolted but she knew that it must be. She did not belong here—her vice must ever bar her from such men and women as these. The memory of them would haunt her always, making her punishment the more poignant to the day of her death.
That evening she and Colonel Pennington discussed her plans for the future. She had asked him about disposing of the orchard—how she should proceed, and what she might ask for it.
“I should advise you to hold it,” he said. “It is going to increase in value tremendously in the next few years. You can easily get some one to work it for you on shares. If you don’t want to live on it, Custer and I will be glad to keep an eye on it and see that it is properly cared for; but why don’t you stay here? You could really make a very excellent living from it. Besides, Miss Burke, here in the country you can really live. You city people don’t know what life is.”
“There!” said Eva. “Popsy has started. If he had his way, we’d all have to move to the city to escape the maddening crowd. He’d move the maddening crowd into the country!”
“It may be that Shannon doesn’t care for the country,” suggested Mrs. Pennington. “There are such foolish people,” she added laughing.
“Oh, I would love the country!” exclaimed Shannon.
“Then why don’t you stay?” urged the colonel.
“I had never thought of it,” she said hesitatingly.
It was indeed a new idea. Of course it was an absolute impossibility, but it was a very pleasant thing to contemplate.
“Possibly Miss Burke has ties in the city that she would not care to break,” suggested Custer, noting her hesitation.
Ties in the city! Shackles of iron, rather, she thought bitterly; but, oh, it was such a nice thought! To live here, to see these people daily, perhaps be one of them, to be like them—ah, that would be heaven!
“Yes,” she said, “I have ties in the city. I could not remain here, I am afraid, much as I should like to. I—I think I better sell.”
“Rubbish!” exclaimed the colonel. “You’ll not sell. You are going to stay here with us until you are thoroughly rested and then you won’t want to sell.”
“I wish that I might,” she said; “but—”
“All right,” said the colonel. “It’s decided—you stay. Now run off to bed, for you’re going to ride with us in the morning, and that means that you’ll have to be up at half past five.”
“But I can’t ride,” she said. “I don’t know how, and I have nothing to wear.”
“Eva’ll fit you out, and as for not knowing how to ride, you can’t learn any younger. Why, I’ve taught half the children in the foot-hills to ride a horse, and a lot of the grown-ups. What I can’t teach you Cus and Eva can. You’re going to start in to-morrow, my little girl, and learn how to live. Nobody who has simply survived the counterfeit life of the city knows anything about living. You wait—we’ll show you!”
At a quarter before six she was awakened by a knock on her door. It was already light, and she awoke with mingled surprise that she had slept so well and vague forebodings of the next hour or two, for she was unaccustomed to horses and a little afraid of them.
“Who is it?” she asked, as the knock was repeated.
“Eva. I’ve brought your riding things.”
Shannon rose and opened the door. She was going to take the things from the girl, but the latter bounced into the room, fresh and laughing.
“Come on!” she cried. “I’ll help you. Just pile your hair up anyhow—it doesn’t matter—this hat’ll cover it. I think these breeches will fit you—we are just about the same size; but I don’t know about the boots—they may be a little large. I didn’t bring any spurs—papa won’t let any one wear spurs until they ride fairly well. You’ll have to win your spurs, you see! It’s a beautiful morning just spiffy! Run in and wash up a bit. I’ll arrange everything, and you’ll be in ’em in a jiffy.”
She seized Shannon around the waist and danced off toward the bathroom. “Don’t be long,” she admonished.
Shannon washed quickly. She was excited at the prospect of the ride. That and the laughing, talking girl in the adjoining room gave her no time to think. Her mind was fully occupied and her nerves were stimulated. For the moment she forgot about morphine, and then it was too late, for Eva had her by the hand and she was being led, almost at a run down the stairs, through the patio, and out over the edge of the hill down toward the stable.
“Fine!” cried the colonel, as he saw her coming. “Really never thought you’d do it! I’ll wager this is the earliest you have been up in many a day. ‘Barbarous hour’—that’s what you’re saying. Why, when my cousin was on here from New York, he was really shocked—said it wasn’t decent. Come along—we’re late this morning. You’ll ride Baldy—Custer’ll help you up.”
She stepped to the mounting block as the young man led the dancing Baldy close beside it.
“Ever ridden much?” he asked.
“Never in my life.”
Suddenly it dawned upon her that she had neither fallen off nor come near falling off. She had not even lost a stirrup. As a matter of fact, the motion was not even uncomfortable. It was enjoyable, and she was in about as much danger of being thrown as she would have been from a rocking chair as violently self-agitated. She laughed then, and in the instant all fear left her.
That first morning ride with the Penningtons and their friends was an event in the life of Shannon Burke that assumed the proportions of adventure. The novelty, the thrill, the excitement, filled her every moment. The dancing horse beneath her seemed to impart to her a full measure of its buoyant life. The gay laughter of her companions, the easy fellowship of young and old, the generous sympathy made her one of them, gave her but another glimpse of the possibilities for happiness that requires no artificial stimulus.
That ride ended in a rushing gallop along a quarter mile of straight road leading to the stables, where they dismounted, flushed, breathless, and laughing. As they walked up the winding concrete walk toward the house, Shannon Burke was tired, lame and happy. She had adventured into a new world and found it good.
“Come into my room and wash,” said Eva, as they entered the patio. “We’re late for breakfast now, and we all like to sit down together.”
For just an instant, and for the first time that morning, Shannon thought of the hypodermic needle in its black case upstairs. She hesitated, and then resolutely turned into Eva’s room.