Chapter 15 The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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.

While she was riding, she had had no opportunity to think of anything but the thrill of the new adventure. At breakfast she had been very hungry, for the first time in many months; and this new appetite for food, and the gay conversation of the breakfast table, had given her nerves no chance to assert their craving. Now that she was alone and unoccupied, the terrible thing clutched at her again.

Once again she fought the fight that she had fought so many times of late—the fight that she knew she was ordained to lose before she started fighting. She longed to win it so earnestly that her defeat was the more pitiable. She was eager to prolong this new-found happiness to the uttermost limit. Though she knew that it must end when her supply of morphine was gone, she was determined to gain a few hours each day, in order that she might add at least another happy day to her life. Again she took but half her ordinary allowance; but with what anguished humiliation she performed the hated and repulsive act. Always had she loathed the habit, but never had it seemed nearly so disgusting as when performed amid these cleanly and beautiful surroundings, under the same roof with such people as the Penningtons.

There crept into her mind a thought that had found its way there more than once before 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.

“I am going to walk up to the Berkshires,” she said. “Come along with me!”

“The Berkshires!” exclaimed Shannon. “I thought they were in New England.”

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 vapors.

“In New England?” repeated Eva. Her brows puckered, and then suddenly she broke into a merry laugh. “I meant pigs, not hills!”

Shannon laughed, too. How many times she had laughed that day—and it was yet far from noon. Close as was the memory of her mother’s death, she could laugh here with no consciousness of irreverence—rather, perhaps, with the conviction that she was best serving the ideals that had been dear to that mother by giving and accepting happiness when opportunity offered it.

“I’m only sorry it’s not the hills,” she said; “for that would mean walking, walking, walking—doing something in the open, away from people who live in cities and who can find no pleasures outside four walls.”

Shannon’s manner was tense, her voice had suddenly become serious. The younger girl looked up at her with an expression of mild surprise.

“My gracious!” cried Eva. “You’re getting almost as bad as popsy, and you’ve been here only half a week; but how radiant, if you really love it!”

“I do love it, dear, though I didn’t mean to be quite so tragic; but the thought that I shall have to go away and can never enjoy it again is tragic.”

“I hope you won’t have to go,” said Eva simply, slipping an arm about the other’s waist. “We all hope that you won’t have to.”

They walked down the hill, past the saddle horse barn, and along the graveled 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.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” breathed Shannon, half to herself. “It makes one feel that there cannot be a care or sorrow in all the world!”

They soon reached the pens and houses where sleek, black Berkshires dozed in every shaded spot. Then they wandered farther up the cañon, into the pasture where the great brood sows sprawled beneath the sycamores, or wallowed in a concrete pool shaded by overhanging boughs. Eva stooped now and then to stroke a long, deep side.

“How clean they are!” exclaimed Shannon. “I thought pigs were dirty.”

“They are when they are kept in dirty places—the same as people.”

“They don’t smell badly; even the pens didn’t smell of pig. All I noticed was a heavy, sweet odor. What was it—something they feed them?”

Eva laughed.

“It was the pigs themselves. The more you know pigs, the better you love ’em. They’re radiant creatures!”

“You dear! You love everything, don’t you?”

“Pretty nearly everything, except prunes and washing dishes.”

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 up to her rooms above.

There 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. There was cold chicken—delicious Rhode Island Reds raised on the ranch; there was a salad of home-grown tomatoes—firm, deep red beauties—and lettuce from the garden; Hannah’s bread, with butter fresh from the churn, and tall, cool pitchers filled with rich Guernsey milk; and then a piece of Hannah’s famous apple pie, with cream so thick that it would scarce pour.

“My!” Shannon exclaimed at last. “I have seen the pigs and I have become one.”

“And I see something, dear,” said Mrs. Pennington, smiling.

“What?”

“Some color in your cheeks.”

“Not really?” she cried, delighted.

“Yes, really.”

“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. Here He’s gone to a lot of trouble to fit up the whole world as a beauty parlor, and what do women do? They go and find some stuffy little shop poked away where the sun never reaches it, and pay some other woman, who knows nothing about art, to paint a mean imitation of a complexion on their poor skins. They wouldn’t think of hanging a chromo in their living rooms; but they wear one on their faces, when the greatest Artist of them all is ready and willing to paint a masterpiece there for nothing!”

“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. If they knew the truth, what would they think of her? Not because of her habit alone, but because she had imposed upon their hospitality in the guise of decency, knowing that she was unclean, and practicing her horrid vice beneath their very roof; associating with their daughter and bringing them all in contact with her moral leprosy.

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?”

He was standing in the north arcade of the patio, a few yards from her, waiting for her reply. How fine and straight and clean he was! If fate had been less unkind, she might have been worthy of the friendship of such a man as he.

Worthy? Was she unworthy, then? She had been just as fine and clean as Custer Pennington until a beast had tricked her into shame. She had not knowingly embraced a vice. It had already claimed her before she knew it for what it was. Must she then forego all hope of happiness because of a wrong of which she herself was innocent?

She wanted to go with Custer. Another day would make no difference, for the Penningtons would never know. How could they? By what chance might they ever connect Shannon Burke with Gaza de Lure? She well knew that her screen days were over, and there was no slightest likelihood that any of these people would be introduced into the bungalow on the Vista del Paso. Who could begrudge her just this little afternoon of happiness before she went back to Crumb?

“Don’t tell me you don’t want to come,” cried Custer. “I won’t take no for an answer!”

“Oh, but I do want to come—ever so much! I’ll be down in just a minute. Why wait half an hour?”

She was in her room no more than five minutes, and during that time she sought bravely to efface all thought of the little black case; but with diabolic pertinacity it constantly obtruded itself, and with it came the gnawing hunger of nerves starving for a narcotic.

“I won’t!” she cried, stamping her foot. “I won’t! I won’t!”

If only she could get away from the room before she succumbed to the mounting temptation, she was sure that she could fight it off for the rest of the afternoon. She had gained that much, at least; but she must keep occupied, constantly occupied, where she could not have access to it or see the black case in which she kept the morphine.

She triumphed by running away from it. She almost hurled herself down the stairs and into the patio. Custer Pennington was not there. She must find him before the craving dragged her back to the rooms above. Already she could feel her will weakening. It was the old, old story that she knew so well.

“What’s the use?” the voice of the tempter asked. “Just a little one! It will make you feel so much better. What’s the use?”

She turned toward the door again; she had her hand upon the knob, and then she swung back and called him.

“Mr. Pennington!”

If he did not hear, she knew that she would go up into her rooms defeated.

“Coming!” he answered from beyond the arched entrance of the patio, and then he stepped into view.

She almost ran to him.

“Was I very long?” she asked. “Did I keep you waiting?”

“Why, you’ve scarcely been gone any time at all,” he replied.

“Let’s hurry,” she said breathlessly. “I don’t want to miss any of it!”

He wondered why she should be so much excited at the prospect of a ride into the hills, but it pleased him that she was, and it flattered him a little, too. He began to be a little enthusiastic over the trip, which he had planned only as part of the generous policy of the family to keep Shannon occupied, so that she might not brood too sorrowfully over her loss.

And Shannon was pleased because of her victory. She was too honest at heart to attempt to deceive herself into thinking that it was any great triumph; but even to have been strong enough to have run away from the enemy was something. She did not hope that it augured any permanent victory for the future, for she did not believe that such a thing was possible. She knew that scarce three in a hundred slaves of morphine definitely cast off their bonds this side of the grave, and she had gone too far to be one of the three. If she could keep going forever as she had that day, she might do it; but that, of course, was impossible. There must be hours when she would be alone with nothing to do but think, think, think, and what would she think about? Always the same things—the little white powder and the peace and rest that it would give her.

Custer watched her as she mounted, holding Baldy beside the block for her, and again he was pleased to note that she did not neglect a single detail of the instructions he had given her.

“Some girl, this!” the young man soliloquized mentally.

He knew she must be at least a little lame and sore after the morning ride, but though he watched her face he saw no sign of it registered there.

“Game!”

He was going to like her. Stirrup to stirrup, they rode slowly up the lane toward the cañon road. Her form was perfect. She seemed to recall everything his father had told her, and she sat easily, with no stiffness.

“Don’t you want to ride faster?” she asked. “You needn’t poke along on my account.”

“It’s too hot,” he replied; but the real reason was that he knew she was probably suffering, even at a walk.

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.

Custer Pennington, never a talkative man, was always glad of a companionship that could endure long silences. Grace had been like that with him. They could be together for hours with scarce a dozen words exchanged; and yet both could talk well when they had anything to say. It was the knowledge that conversation was not essential to perfect understanding and comradeship that had rendered their intimacy delightful.

The riders had entered the hills and were winding up Jackknife Cañon 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?”

Pennington laughed.

“I’ll get you up all right. Still feel a little lame?”

“Who said I was lame?” she demanded.

“I know you must be, but you’re mighty game!”

“I was when I started, but not any more. I seem to have limbered up. Let’s try it. I want to see if I can get on from the ground, as Eva does. What are you smiling at? That’s the second time in the last few seconds.”

“Was I smiling? I didn’t know it. I didn’t mean to.”

“What did I do?”

“You didn’t do anything—it was something you said. You won’t mind, will you, as long as you are learning to ride a horse, if I teach you the correct terminology at the same time?”

“Why, of course not! What did I say? Was it very awful?”

“Oh, no; but it always amuses me when I hear it. It’s about getting on and off. You get on or off a street car, but you mount or dismount if you’re riding a horse.”

“But I don’t!” she exclaimed, laughing. “Falling on and off would suit my method better.”

“No, you mount very nicely. Now watch, and I’ll show you how to dismount. Put your left hand on the horn; throw your right leg over the cantle, immediately grasping the cantle with the right hand; stand erect in the left stirrup, legs straight and heels together—you see, I’m facing right across the horse. Now support the weight of the body with your arms, like this; remove the left foot from the stirrup and drop to the ground, alighting evenly on both feet. That’s the correct form and a good plan to follow while you’re learning to ride. Afterward one gets to swing off almost any old way.”

“I thought one always dismounted,” she suggested, “from a horse!”

Her eyes twinkled. He laughed.

“I’ll have to be careful, won’t I? You scored that time!”

“Now watch me,” she said.

“Splendid!” he exclaimed, as she dropped lightly to the ground.

They led their horses beneath the spreading tree and sat down with their backs to the huge bole.

“How cool it is here!” remarked the girl. “I can feel a breeze, though I hadn’t noticed one before.”

“There always is a breeze beneath the oaks. I think they make their own. I read somewhere that an oak evaporates about one hundred and eighty gallons of water every day. That ought to make a considerable change of temperature beneath the tree on a hot day like this, and in that way it must start a circulation of air about it.”

“How interesting! How much there is to know in the world, and how little of it most of us know! A tree is a tree, a flower is a flower, and the hills are the hills—that much knowledge of them satisfies nearly all of us. The how and the why of them we never consider; but I should like to know more. We should know all about things that are so beautiful—don’t you think so?”

“Yes,” he said. “In ranching we do learn a lot that city people don’t need to know—about how things grow, and what some plants take out of the soil, and what others put into it. It’s part of our business to know these things, not only that we may judge the food value of certain crops, but also to keep our soil in condition to grow good crops every year.”

He told her how the tree beneath which they sat drew water and various salts from the soil, and how the leaves extracted carbon dioxide from the air, taking it in through myriads of minute mouths on the under sides of the leaves, and how the leaves manufactured starch and the sap carried it to every growing part of the tree, from deepest root to the tip of loftiest twig.

The girl listened, absorbed. As she listened she watched the man’s face, earnest and intelligent, and mentally she could not but compare him and his conversation with the men she had known in the city, and their conversation. They had talked to her as if she was a mental cipher, incapable of understanding or appreciating anything worth while—small talk, that subverter of the ancient art of conversation. In a brief half hour Custer Pennington had taught her things that would help to make the world a little more interesting and a little more beautiful; for she could never look upon a tree again as just a tree—it would be for her a living, breathing, almost a sentient creature.

She tried to recall what she had learned from two years’ association with Wilson Crumb, and the only thing she could think of was that Crumb had taught her to snuff cocaine.

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 unequaled 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?”

“Honestly!”

“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 a 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 a girl!”

“She’s simply divine,” added Eva.

In her room, Shannon could barely get into bed before she was asleep.