Chapter 31 The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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. Her pitiful end could not seriously interrupt the tenor of their lives, which had long since grown over the wound of her departure, as a tree’s growth rolls over the hurt of a severed limb, leaving only a scar as a reminder of its loss.

Mrs. Evans, Guy and Custer suffered more than the others—Mrs. Evans because of the natural instincts of motherhood, and Custer from a sense of loss that seemed to have uprooted and torn away a part of his being, even though he realized that his love for Grace had been of a different sort from his hopeless passion for Shannon Burke. 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.

Locked in his desk was the silver frame and the picture of the man whose identity he had been unable to discover. The bungalow had been leased in Grace’s name. The Japanese servant had disappeared, and Guy had been unable to obtain any trace of him. The dead girl had had no friends in the neighborhood, and there was no one who could tell him anything that might lead to the discovery of the man he sought.

He did not, however, give up his search. He went often to Hollywood, where he haunted public places and the entrances 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.

Custer avoided Shannon when he could do so without seeming unfriendly. Quite unreasonably, he felt that his love for Shannon was an indication of disloyalty to Grace. The latter’s dismissal of him he had never taken as a serious avowal of her heart. He had realized that the woman who had spoken so bitterly had not been the girl he had loved, and whose avowals of love he had listened to. Nor had she been the girl upon whose sad, tired face he had looked for the last time in the darkened living room of the Evans home, for then death had softened the hard lines of dissipation, revealing again, in chastened melancholy, the soul that sin had disguised but not destroyed.

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 she 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 fall—an activity which gave him a plausible excuse for foregoing his rides with Shannon. The previous year they had been compelled to cancel their entries because of Custer’s imprisonment, since the colonel would not make the circuit of the shows himself, and did not care to trust the herds to any one but his son. Now the Morgans, the Percherons, the Herefords, and the Berkshires that were to uphold the fame of Ganado were the center of arduous and painstaking fitting and grooming, as the time approached when the finishing touches were to be put upon glossy coat and polished horn and hoof.

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 heat of summer had brought the swimming pool into renewed demand, and the cool evenings saved the ballroom from desertion. The youth of the foothills and valley, reënforced by weekend 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!”

“With five thousand acres to pick from, I suppose you can’t find a cow pasture anywhere but on the best bungalow site in southern California! You radiant brother! You wouldn’t have your little sister living in the hog pasture, now would you?”

“Heavens, no! Those nine children you aspire to would annoy the brood sows.”

“You’re hideous!”

“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.”

“I’ll say they can’t,” agreed Custer. “Was that how she lured you to your undoing, Guy?”

“What a dapper little idea!” exclaimed Eva.

Guy danced that dance with Mrs. Pennington, and the colonel took out Shannon. As they moved over the smooth floor with the easy dignity that good dancers can impart to the fox trot, the girl’s eyes were often on the brother and sister dancing and laughing together.

“How wonderful they are!” she said.

“Who?” inquired the colonel.

“Custer and Eva. Theirs is such a wonderful relationship between brother and sister—the way it ought to be, but very seldom is.”

“Oh, I don’t know that it’s unique,” replied the colonel. “Guy and Grace were that way, and so were my father’s children. Possibly it’s because we were all raised in the country, where children are more dependent upon their sisters and brothers for companionship than children of the city. We all get better acquainted in the country, and we have to learn to find the best that is in each of us, for we haven’t the choice of companions here that a city, with its thousands, affords.”

“I don’t know,” said Shannon. “Perhaps that is it; but anyway it is lovely—really lovely, for they are almost like two lovers. At first, when I heard them teasing each other, I used to think there might be some bitterness in their thrusts; but when I came to know you all better, I realized that your affection was so perfect that there could never be any misunderstanding among you.”

“That attitude is not peculiar to the Penningtons,” replied the colonel. “I know, for instance, of one who so perfectly harmonized with their lives and ideals that in less than a year she became practically one of them.”

He was smiling down into Shannon’s upturned face.

“I know—you mean me,” she said. “It is awfully nice of you, and it makes me very proud to hear you say so, for I have really tried to be like you. If I have succeeded the least bit, I am so happy!”

“I don’t know that you have succeeded in being like us,” he laughed; “but you have certainly succeeded in being liked by us. Why, do you know, Shannon, I believe Mrs. Pennington and I discuss you and plan for you fully as much as we do the children. It is almost as if you were our other daughter.”

The tears came to her eyes.

“I am so happy!” she said again.

It was later in the evening, after a dance, that she 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 the 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 eons, 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 loved her! He had loved her for months! Oh, the horror of it! Her little dream of happiness was shattered. No longer could they go on as they had. There would always be this between them—the knowledge of his love; and he would learn of her love for him, for she would not lie to him if he asked her. Then she would either have to explain or to go away—to explain those hideous months with Crumb. Custer would not believe the truth—no man would believe the truth—that she had come through them undefiled. She herself would not believe it of another woman, and she was too sophisticated to hope that the man who loved her would believe it of her.

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!”

Angry! She wished to God that he would crush her to him again and kiss her—kiss her—kiss like that now and forever. Why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t she let him? What had she done to deserve eternal punishment? There were countless wives less virtuous than she. Ah, if she could but have the happiness of his love!

She closed her eyes and turned away her head, and for just an instant she dreamed her beautiful dream. Why not? 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 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. There they sat and asked each other the same questions that lovers have asked since prehistoric man first invented speech, and that lovers will continue to ask so long as speech exists upon earth; very important questions—by far the most important questions in the world.

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?”

“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.”

“You never thought so before,” said Eva suspiciously. “Do you know, I believe you two have been off spooning! How perfectly gorgeristic!”

“How perfectly nothing,” replied Custer. “Old people, like Shannon and me, don’t spoon. That’s for you kids.”

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. Did you ever hear of anything so outrageous? And now half the folks have gone home, and I can’t tell ’em. Oh, it’s too spiffy for words! I’ve been longing and longing for it for months and months and months, and now it’s going to happen—really going to happen—actually going to happen on Monday!”

“For Heaven’s sake, little one, unwind, and get to the end of your harrowing story. What’s going to happen?”

“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.”

“You had better go in the house and lie down,” he suggested.

“No, I think I’ll go home, if you’ll drive me down, Custer. You know ten o’clock is pretty late for us.”

“It’s Saturday night,” said Eva.

“But I don’t want to miss my ride in the morning. You’re all going, aren’t you?”

“I am,” said Custer.

He noticed that she was very quiet as they drove down to her place, and when they parted she clung to him as if she could not bear to let him go.

It was very wonderful—the miracle of this great love. As he drove back home, he could not think of anything else. He was not egotistical, and it seemed strange that from all the men she must have known Shannon had kept her love for him. With Grace it had been different. Their love had grown up with them from childhood. It had seemed no more remarkable that Grace should love him than that Eva should love him, or that he should love Grace; but Shannon had come to him out of a strange world—a world full of men—where, with her beauty and her charm, she must have been an object of admiration to many. Yet she had brought her heart to him intact; for she had told him that she had never loved another—and she had told him the truth.