DURING the hour following breakfast that morning, while Shannon was alone in her rooms, the craving returned. The thought of it turned her sick when she felt it coming. She had been occupying herself making her bed and tidying the room, as she had done each morning since her arrival; but when that was done, her thoughts reverted by habit to the desire that had so fatally mastered her.
There crept into her mind a thought that had found its way there more than once during the past two years—the thought of self-destruction. She put it away from her; but in the depth of her soul she knew that never before had it taken so strong a hold upon her. Her mother, her only tie, was gone, and no one would care. She had looked into heaven and found that it was not for her. She had no future except to return to the hideous existence of the Hollywood bungalow and her lonely boarding house, and to the hated Crumb.
It was then that Eva Pennington called her.
She was descending the stairs toward Eva, who stood at the foot, holding open the door that led into the patio. She welcomed the interruption that had broken in upon her morbid thoughts. The sight of the winsome figure smiling up at her dispelled them as the light of the sun sweeps away miasmatic vapours.
They walked down the hill, past the saddle horse barn, and along the gravelled road that led to the upper end of the ranch. The summer sun beat hotly upon them, making each old sycamore and oak and walnut a delightful oasis of refreshing shade. In a field at their left two mowers were clicking merrily through lush alfalfa. At their right, beyond the pasture fence, gentle Guernseys lay in the shade of a wide-spreading sycamore, a part of the pastoral allegory of content that was the Rancho del Ganado; and over all were the blue California sky and the glorious sun.
They swung up then through the orange grove, and along the upper road back toward the house. It was noon and lunch time when they arrived. Shannon was hot and tired and dusty and delighted as she opened the door at the foot of the stairs that led to her rooms above.
Then she paused. The old, gripping desire had seized her. She had not once felt it since she had passed through that door more than two hours before. For a moment she hesitated, and then, fearfully, she turned toward Eva.
“May I clean up in your room?” she asked.
There was a strange note of appeal in Shannon’s voice that the other girl did not understand.
“Why, certainly,” she said; “but is there anything the matter? You are not ill?”
“Just a little tired.”
“There! I should never have walked you so far. I’m so sorry!”
“I want to be tired. I want to do it again this afternoon—all afternoon. I don’t want to stop until I am ready to drop!” Then, seeing the surprise in Eva’s expression, she added: “You see, I shall be here such a short time that I want to crowd every single moment full of pleasant memories.”
Shannon thought that she had never eaten so much before as she had that morning at breakfast; but at luncheon she more than duplicated her past performance.
“My!” Shannon exclaimed at last. “I have seen the pigs and I have become one.”
“And I see something, dear,” said Mrs. Pennington, smiling.
“Some colour in your cheeks.”
“Not really . . . ?” she cried, delighted.
“And it’s mighty becoming,” offered the colonel. “Nothing like a brown skin and rosy cheeks for beauty. That’s the way God meant girls to be, or He wouldn’t have given ’em delicate skins and hung the sun up there to beautify ’em.
“What a dapper little thought!” exclaimed Eva. “Popsy should have been a poet.”
“Or an ad writer for a cosmetic manufacturer,” suggested Custer. “Oh, by the way, not changing the subject or anything, but did you hear about Slick Allen?”
No, they had not. Shannon pricked up her ears, metaphorically. What did these people know of Slick Allen?
“He’s just been sent up in L. A. for having narcotics in his possession. Got a year in the county jail.”
“I guess he was a bad one,” commented the colonel; “but he never struck me as being a drug addict.”
“Nor me; but I guess you can’t always tell them,” said Custer.
“It must be a terrible habit,” said Mrs. Pennington.
“It’s about as low as any one can sink,” said Custer.
“I hear that there’s been a great increase in it since prohibition,” remarked the colonel. “Personally, I’d have more respect for a whisky drunkard than for a drug addict; or perhaps I should better say that I’d feel less disrespect. A police official told me not long ago, at a dinner in town, that if drug-taking continues to increase as it has recently, it will constitute a national menace by comparison with which the whisky evil will seem paltry.”
Shannon Burke was glad when they rose from the table, putting an end to the conversation. She had plumbed the uttermost depths of humiliation. She had felt herself go hot and cold in shame and fear. At first her one thought had been to get away—to find some excuse for leaving the Penningtons at once.
She was hastening to her room to pack. She knew there was an evening train for the city, and while she packed she could be framing some plausible excuse for leaving thus abruptly.
Custer Pennington called to her.
“Miss Burke!” She turned, her hand upon the knob of the door to the upstairs suite.
“I’m going to ride over the back ranch this afternoon. Eva showed you the Berkshires this morning; now I want to show you the Herefords. I told the stableman to saddle Baldy for you. Will half an hour be too soon?”
For a long time they rode in silence, the girl taking in every beauty of meadow, ravine, and hill, that she might store them all away for the days when they would be only memories. The sun beat down upon them fiercely, for it was an early August day, and there was no relieving breeze; but she enjoyed it. It was all so different from any day in her past, and so much happier than anything in the last two years, or anything she could expect in the future.
The riders had entered the hills and were winding up Jackknife Canyon before either spoke.
“If you tire,” he said, “or if it gets too hot, we’ll turn back. Please don’t hesitate to tell me.”
“It’s heavenly!” she said.
“Possibly a few degrees too hot for heaven,” he suggested; “but it’s always cool under the live oaks. Any time you want to rest we’ll stop for a bit.”
“Which are the live oaks?” she asked.
He pointed to one.
“Why are they called live oaks?”
“They’re evergreen—I suppose that’s the reason. Here’s a big old fellow—shall we stop?”
“And get off?”
“If you wish.”
“Do you think I could get on again?”
After a while they started on again, and the girl surprised the man by mounting easily from the ground. She was very much pleased with her achievement, laughing happily at his word of approval.
They rode on until they found the Herefords. They counted them as they searched through the large pasture that ran back into the hills; and when the full number had been accounted for, they turned toward home. As he had told her about the trees, Custer told her also about the beautiful white-faced cattle, of their origin in the English county whose name they bear, and of their unequalled value as beef animals. He pointed out various prize winners as they passed them.
“There you are, smiling again,” she said accusingly, as they followed the trail homeward. “What have I done now?”
“You haven’t done anything but be very patient all afternoon. I was smiling at the idea of how thrilling the afternoon must have been for a city girl, accustomed, I suppose, to a constant round of pleasure and excitement!”
“I have never known a happier afternoon,” she said.
“I wonder if you really mean that?”
“I am glad,” he said: “for sometimes I get terribly tired of it here, and I think it always does me good to have an outsider enthuse a little. It brings me a realization of the things we have here that city people can’t have, and makes me a little more contented.”
“You couldn’t be discontented! Why, there are just thousands and thousands of people in the city who would give everything to change places with you! We don’t all live in the city because we want to. You are fortunate that you don’t have to.”
“Do you think so?”
“I know it.”
“But it seems such a narrow life here! I ought to be doing a man’s work among men, where it will count.”
“You are doing a man’s work here and living a man’s life, and what you do here does count. Suppose you were making stoves, or selling automobiles or bonds, in the city. Would any such work count for more than all this—the wonderful swine and cattle and horses that you are raising? Your father has built a great business, and you are helping him to make it greater. Could you do anything in the city of which you could be half so proud? No, but in the city you might find a thousand things to do of which you might be terribly ashamed. If I were a man, I’d like your chance!”
“You’re not consistent. You have the same chance, but you tell us that you are going back to the city. You have your grove here, and a home and good living, and yet you want to return to the city you inveigh against.”
“I do not want to,” she declared.
“I hope you don’t, then,” Custer said simply.
They reached the house in time for a swim before dinner; but after dinner, when they started for the ballroom to dance, Shannon threw up her hands in surrender.
“I give up!” she cried laughingly. “I tried to be game to the finish, and I want ever so much to come and dance; but I don’t believe I could even walk as far as the ballroom, much less dance after I got there. Why, I doubt whether I’ll be able to get upstairs without crawling!”
“You poor child!” exclaimed Mrs. Pennington. “We’ve nearly killed you, I know. We are all so used to the long rides and walking and swimming and dancing that we don’t realize how they tire unaccustomed muscles. You go right to bed, my dear, and don’t think of getting up for breakfast.”
“Oh, but I want to get up and ride, if I may, and if Eva will wake me.”
“She’s got the real stuff in her;” commented the colonel, after Shannon had bid them good night and gone to her rooms.
“I’ll say she has,” agreed Custer. “She’s a peach of girl!”
“She’s simply divine,” added Eva.
In her room, Shannon could barely get into bed before she was asleep.