THE death of Grace had, of course, its naturally depressing effect upon the circle of relatives and friends at Ganado; but her absence of more than a year, the infrequency of her letters, and the fact that they had already come to feel that she was lost to them, mitigated to some degree the keenness of their grief and lessened its outward manifestations. It was Guy who suffered most, for hugged to his breast was the gnawing secret of the truth of his sister’s life and death. He had told them that Grace had died of pneumonia, and they had not gone behind his assertion to search the records for the truth.
He did not, however, give up his search. He went often to Hollywood, where he haunted public places and the entrance to studios, in the hope that some day he would find the man he sought; but as the passing months brought no success, and the duties of his ranch and his literary work demanded more and more of his time, he was gradually compelled to push the furtherance of his vengeance into the background, though without any lessening of his determination to compass it eventually.
To Custer, the direct effect of Grace’s death was to revive the habit of drinking more than was good for him—a habit from which he had drifted away during the past year. That it had ever been a habit he would, of course, have been the last to admit. He was one of those men who could drink, or leave it alone. The world is full of them, and so are the cemeteries.
Shannon recognized the change in Custer. She attributed it to his grief, and to his increased drinking, which she had sensed almost immediately, as love does sense the slightest change in its object, however little apparent to another. She did not realize that he was purposely avoiding her. She was more than ever with Eva now, for Guy, having settled down to the serious occupations of man’s estate, no longer had so much leisure to devote to play.
She still occasionally rode at night, for the daytime rides with Custer were less frequent now. Much of his time was occupied closer in around the ranch, with the conditioning of the show herds for the coming autumn—an activity which gave him a plausible excuse for foregoing his rides with Shannon.
May, June, and July had come and gone—it was August again. Guy’s futile visits to Los Angeles were now infrequent. The life of Ganado had again assumed the cheerfulness of the past. The youth of the foothills and valley, reinforced by week-end visitors from the city, filled the old house with laughter and happiness. Shannon was always of these parties, for they would not let her remain away.
It was upon the occasion of one of them, early in August, that Eva announced the date of her wedding to Guy.
“The 2nd of September,” she told them. “It comes on a Saturday. We’re going to motor to—.”
“Hold on!” cautioned Guy. “That’s a secret!”
“And when we come back we’re going to start building on Hill Thirteen.”
“That’s a cow pasture,”’ said Custer.
“Well, it won’t be one any more. You must find another cow pasture.”
“Certainly, little one,” replied her brother. “We’ll bring the cows up here in the ballroom. With five thousand acres to pick from, you can’t find a bungalow site anywhere except in the best dairy cow pasture on Ganado!”
“Put on a fox trot, some one,” cried Guy. “Dance with your sister, Cus, and you’ll let her build bungalows all over Ganado. No one can refuse her anything when they dance with her.”
It was later in the evening, after a dance, that Shannon and Custer walked out on the driveway along the north side of the ballroom, and stood looking out over the moon—enchanted valley—a vista of loveliness glimpsed between masses of feathery foliage in an opening through the trees on the hillside just below them. They looked out across the acacias and cedars of lower hill toward the lights of a little village twinkling between two dome-like hills at the upper end of the valley. It was an unusually warm evening, almost too warm to dance.
“I think we’d get a little of the ocean breeze,” said Custer, “if we were on the other side of the hill. Let’s walk over to the water gardens. There is usually a breeze there, but the building cuts us off from it here.”
Side by side, in silence, they walked around the front of the building and along the south drive to the steps leading down through the water gardens to the stables. The steps were narrow and Custer went ahead—which is always the custom of men in countries where there are rattlesnakes.
As Shannon stepped from the cement steps to the gravel walk above the first pool, her foot came down upon a round stone, turning her ankle and throwing her against Custer. For support she grasped his arm. Upon such insignificant trifles may the fate of lives depend. It might have been a lizard, a toad, a mouse, or even a rattlesnake that precipitated the moment which, for countless aeons, creation had been preparing; but it was none of these. It was just a little round pebble —and it threw Shannon Burke against Custer Pennington, causing her to seize his arm. He felt the contact of those fingers, and the warmth of her body, and her cheek near his shoulder. He threw an arm about her to support her. Almost instantly she had regained her footing. Laughingly she drew away. “I stepped on a stone,” she said in explanation; “but I didn’t hurt my ankle.”
But still he kept his arm about her. At first Shannon did not understand, and, supposing that he still thought her unable to stand alone, she again explained that she was unhurt.
He stood looking down into her face, which was turned up to his. The moon, almost full, revealed her features as clearly as sunlight—how beautiful they were, and how close. She had not yet fully realized the significance of his attitude when he suddenly threw his other arm about her and crushed her to him; and then before she could prevent, he had bent his lips to hers and kissed her full upon the mouth.
With a startled cry she pushed him away.
“Custer!” she said. “What have you done? This is not like you. I do not understand!”
She was really terrified—terrified at the thought that he might have kissed her without love—terrified that he might have kissed her with love. She did not know which would be the greater catastrophe.
“I couldn’t help it, Shannon,” he said. “Blame the pebble, blame the moonlight, blame me—it won’t make any difference. I couldn’t help it; that is all there is to it. I’ve fought against it for months. I knew you didn’t love me; but, oh, Shannon, I love you! I had to tell you.”
He had not let her go. They still stood there—his arms about her. “Please don’t be angry. Shannon,” he begged. “You may not want my love, but there’s no disgrace in it. Maybe I shouldn’t have kissed you, but I couldn’t help it, and I’m glad I did. I have that to remember as long as I live. Please don’t be angry!”
She closed her eyes and turned away her head, and for just an instant she dreamed her beautiful dream. Why not? Why not? There could be no better wife than she, for there could be no greater love than hers. He noticed that she no longer drew away. There had been no look of anger in her eyes—only startled questioning; and her face was still so near. Again his arms closed about her, and again his lips found hers.
This time she did not deny him. She was only human—only a woman—and her love, growing steadily in power for many months, had suddenly burst forth in a consuming fire beneath his burning kisses. He felt her lips move in a fluttering sob beneath his, and then then her dear arms stole up about his neck and pressed him closer in complete surrender.
“Shannon! You love me?”
“Ah, dear boy, always!” He drew her to the lower end of a pool, where a rustic seat stood half concealed by the foliage of a drooping umbrella tree.
They did not know how long they had sat there—to them it seemed but a moment—when they heard voices calling their names from above.
“Shannon! Custer! Where are you?” It was Eva calling.
“I suppose we’ll have to go,” he said. “Just one more kiss!”
He took a dozen; and then they rose and walked up the steps to the south drive.
“Shall I tell them?” he asked.
“Not yet, please.”
She was not sure that it would last. Such happiness was too sweet to endure.
Eva spied them.
“Where in the world have you two been?” she demanded. “We’ve been hunting all over for you, and shouting until I’m hoarse.”
“We’ve been right down there by the upper pool, trying to cool off,” replied Custer. “It’s too beastly hot to dance.”
Eva came closer. “Shannon, you’d better go and straighten your hair before any one else sees you.” She laughed and pinched the other’s arm. “I’d love it,” she whispered in Shannon’s ear, “if it were true! You’ll tell me, won’t you?”
“If it ever comes true, dear”—Shannon returned the whisper—“you shall be the first to know about it.”
“Scrumptious! But say, I’ve got the divinest news—what do you think? Popsy has known it all day and never mentioned it—forgot all about it, he said, until just before he and mother trotted off to bed. Why, the K.K.S. company is coming on Monday, and Wilson Crumb is coming with them!”
Shannon staggered almost as from the force of a physical blow. Wilson Crumb coming! Coming to Ganado! Short indeed had been her sweet happiness!
“What’s the matter, Shannon?” asked Custer solicitously. The girl steadied herself quickly.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said, with a nervous laugh. “I just felt a little dizzy for a moment.”