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- Winding Paths - 20/78 -
what she believed to be her most becoming gown, and she was unusually critical about the dressing of her hair.
All the same, at 7.45 she was ready, and her cavalier had not yet arrived. She waited five minutes until he came, and then it was necessary to wait another five minutes that he might not know she had been more up to time than he. Then she entered the drawing-room in a little bit of a hurry, and cut short his simple, direct apologies by regretting her own tardiness, and saying she had been out motoring until late.
But she had time to note quickly that he also had dressed himself with special care, plastering down resolutely the unruly determination of his fair hair to curl. That was good. Any suggestion of a curl must have produced an effect of effeminacy, whereas that neat, plastered wave showed the shapeliness of his head, and gave him a touch of manly decision. Her electric brougham was at the door, but she kept it waiting a few minutes, that they might be later than the majority of diners, and pass up a well-filled room.
In the end their arrival was equal to her best expectations. She led the way slowly, with a queenly grace that was one of her best attributes; but as she nodded casually to an acquaintance here and there, she had plenty of time to observe the curious eyes from all around, looking with undisguised admiration, not so much at her faultless appearance, which was more or less known, but at her striking cavalier.
She had engaged a small table at one of the top corners and arranged the seats sideways, so that both could look over the room if they wanted to, and at the same time be easily seen by others. She did this because it amused her to see people gazing at him, and to watch his quiet self-possession. She almost wondered if he even realised how much attention he attracted, but perceived that he could hardly help doing so, though he took it all with so simple and unabashed an air.
She watched also to see if, as most of the strikingly handsome men she had known, he courted tell-tale glances from other eyes, and sipped honey from any flower within reach, as well as from his own particular flower. And when she found that his absolute and undivided attention was given to her, and that all the power of entertaining he could muster was called into her service, she felt a glow of gratitude to him that he had not disappointed her, but proved himself the simple, high-bred gentleman she longed to find him.
It made her show herself to him at her very best. Not showily witty, nor callously gay, nor fashionably original, but just her own self of light humour and dainty speech and kindly sympathy, the true, best self that held Hal's unswerving devotion through good account and ill.
Unconsciously she left the time-worn paths of beauty and success, and became young, and fresh, and whole-hearted as he; tackling abstruse problems with a childlike, vigorous air; holding him spell-bound with her own charm of conversation one moment, and leading him on to talk with ease and frankness the next.
The other diners got up and retired to the lounge, and still they sat on; no hint of boredom, no note of disparity, no need of other companionship. As they were preparing to rise, she told him lightly that he talked amazingly well for his tender years.
"Only twenty-four," he answered; "it does seem a kiddish age, doesn't it!"
"Dreadfully kiddish. It makes me feel old enough to be your grandmother."
He glanced up, half-questioning, half-deprecating.
"That would be the oddest thing of all, unless I really appear to be about twenty years before my time."
For a reason she could not have fathomed, she looked into his eyes with a sudden seriousness and said:
"I was thirty-two last week."
She saw a quick look of surprise he did not attempt to hide, followed by a very charming smile, as he asserted:
"It is impossible. You could not sit there and look like that if you were thirty-two."
"The impossible is so often the true. I'm glad you don't think I seem old. It is nice to believe one can keep young at heart, in spite of the years. Shall we go to the lounge?"
Again they moved through the admiring crowd, but this time Lorraine felt less idle interest and more inward wonder; and without any misgiving she steered to a quiet alcove, where they could talk without again being the cynosure of many eyes.
Here, in a pleasant, friendly way, she led him once again to talk of the future, and was glad to find, in answering sincerity with sincerity, he was ready to admit that he was a little sorry about his own lack of ambition and want of application. He did not pretend now that it was of no moment. He told her he would like to achieve, only somehow he always found his attention wander to other things, and his desire grow slack after a week of rigid application.
She recognised that the motive-power was missing, and that unless something deeper than mere desire of achievement stirred him, he would probably never attain. He needed a goal that should make everything else in the world pale before it, and something that seemed almost as life and death to hang on his success. But how get it for him? If he loved, and was bidden wait until he had prospered, the end was all too sure and the love too easy.
It was something different that was needed; something that would bring him up with dead abruptness against a blank wall, and leave him with a taste of life that was dust and ashes unless he found a way through. Either that or some sweet, wild, unattainable desire, that might drive him to work and ambition by way of escape.
And there again, where should he encounter such a desire? One had only to look into his calm, fine face to feel that the unattainable in the form of love, barred by marriage vows as lightly made as broken, would never stir the depths of his heart, nor appeal to his real self in any way whatever.
He would not love such a woman, however for a time she might fascinate him; and afterwards there would only be the nausea and the memory that was like an unpleasant taste. Such a woman might teach him many things it is no harm for a man to know; but she would never call to the best in him, nor help him to realise himself.
"Have you seen your friend the duchess lately?" she asked, with a disarming smile, not wishing to appear merely curious.
"Yes; I saw her on Friday, at a ball. She was in great form."
"You danced with her?"
"Yes. She's not a good dancer."
"Then you only had one, I suppose?"
"No, three." He smiled a little. "We sat out two."
"You ought to have felt highly honoured."
"Oh, I don't know. She is very amusing. A very funny thing happened last week. Out of sheer devilry, she and a friend and two men went to the Covent Garden Fancy Dress Ball, disguised of course, and just for an hour or two. To their horror, after the procession, the friend was handed a large glass-and-silver salad bowl, as a prize for being the best 'twostep' dancer in the room. Of course she had to go off with the beastly thing; but she was so proud of winning it, she couldn't resist giving their escapade away, and it got round everywhere."
"I wonder if our escapade with Lady Bounce is out yet? I haven't seen Hal since Thursday."
"Oh yes, it is," eagerly; "the duchess had heard about it. She was pumping me to know who was in the joke. We are longing to see Quin and hear the latest, but he is down east."
"What an oddity he is!" thoughtfully. "I liked him so much: but it is difficult to reconcile him with slumming."
"He's one of the best. Every one loves him. And he does his slumming in quite a way of his own. I've been with him sometimes, and he just goes among the rough characters down there as if he hated being a swell and wanted to be one of them. He positively asks them for sympathy, and of course it takes their fancy and he is friends with them all."
"I think you are a remarkable trio altogether. Hal's cousin Dick is just as original in his way as St. Quintin. And you, of course, are somehow different to the majority. I wonder how you will each end? St. Quintin will perhaps become a bishop. Dick Bruce will write an astounding, weird novel, and bound into fame. And you? ..."
He flushed a little. "I shall be left far behind by both of them, futilely wishing to catch up."
"I hope not. Your chance is just as good as theirs, if you choose to make it so,"
"I fail to see that I have any chance at all."
"Most chances rest chiefly with ourselves. It's a great thing to be ready for them if they come. I hope you'll be that."
"I hope so too, but it would be easier if one were more sure they were coming," and he laughed with a lightness that jarred a little.
She rose to go, as it was getting late, feeling slightly disappointed in some vague way; and when they parted she noticed that his handshake was slightly limp, as of one who would not grasp life tightly enough to compel it to surrender its good things to him.
But in her own sanctum she rallied herself, and hardened her heart, asking what had it to do with her after all, and how could his success or non-success in any way concern her.
Doubtless in the end he would share the fate of the great majority and attain only mediocrity; having missed that one great blinding shaft of pain or joy that might have stabbed him into tense, pulsing life, and spurred him up the heights of fame and glory.
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