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- Winding Paths - 30/78 -


"Ah, I can't pass that. You were never even remotely in sight of falling in love with me. And you know what Kipling says: 'Love's like line-work; you can't stand still, you must go backward or forward.' You don't propose to take my advice and run away from it?"

"Not before I am sure there is danger, anyhow."

They were silent some moments, then she asked him:

"Do men ever run away, Flip?... My experience has been that the average man always has a good try to get what he wants, without much consideration for outside things, or for youth, or for harm."

"That's because beautiful women necessarily come up against the worst in men. It is their fate: one of the balancing conditions perhaps to make things more even with the less-favoured women."

"I suppose great beauty generally undoes a woman. Is it the same with men too? It seems a pity when Nature produces anything beautiful she should not guard it better - beautiful flowers, beautiful birds, beautiful creatures all ravished the quickest; while the little, comfortable daisies, and sparrows, and homely people go serenely on unharmed."

He did not reply, and they sped along in the understanding silence they were both so fond of.

Denton was thinking, as a man may, of various pretty faces that had been the undoing of their owners, and wondering a little dimly and confusedly about the paradoxical contrariness of Nature, who gives a man his strongest desires nearly always towards forbidden ends. Why create a beautiful thing, and then create a longing for it, and then probably descend in wrath upon both heads which did but follow the bent she herself had given them?

Lorraine was wondering a little bitterly why a man may taste forbidden fruit again and again and go unpunished; and why a woman, so often set amid sterner temptations, was yet left so strangely unprotected: the one so quickly able to put an incident aside, and seek fresh fields for conquest; the other so terribly liable to be branded for life in that same incident.

It made a bitterness surge up in her soul for her own unprotected girlhood and struggling youth; and for all they had brought her to learn of the tree of knowledge. No doubt she had been callous enough about it at the time; eager only to dare, and triumph, and achieve; but how should it have been otherwise, since no kindly guiding hand had told her she was wasting her powers and her substance to achieve an end that would never satisfy her soul?

Did she even know she had a soul that would presently crave a satisfaction found only among the higher and better things, and turn away with infinite scorn from the petty triumphs of an hour or a day?

Well, she had fought her fight with the rest, and triumphed greatly in the world's eyes; and now she must abide by the path she had chosen, and glean the best satisfaction she could out of it.

And yet -

Later in the afternoon, when she sat drinking a lonely cup of tea by a lonely fireside, the questioning, probing mood returned again; the significant "and yet" still left the last conclusion without any finality. Looking backward, a sense of resentment seemed to creep over her; a combative desire to get even with Fate about many things while there was time nd opportunity.

She remembered particularly the first man who had tried to lead her astray. He had been considerably more than twice her age, a hardened sinner without any compunction, with a devilish cunning at breaking down defences without any seeming over-persuasion, and at whitewashing his actions into passionate devotion to youngn inexperienced years. She remembered how she had struggled to resist him. It was good to remember now that she had not been his victim.

And yet, what of it, while such men could triumph again and again and go seemingly unpunished, and young, eager, ambitious souls were often so pitifully stranded at the beginning of a career?

Men of his age and his character usually did triumph. How often had she seen it since! The first wrong step not a generous-hearted, hot-headed youth; but a hardened sinner who had wearied of other hardened sinners and turned his evil designs to youth and freshness, hoping perchance to be rejuvenated thereby.

And Nature stood by with folded hands, and saw her fairest creations soiled and ravished before they had reached maturity, without apparently the smallest compunction.

Her first wrong step had been her marriage, and though it had given her a good deal in the beginning, in the end how it had robbed her!... ah! how it had robbed her of those things that could never be won back.

And now, by an unlooked-for turn of events, she found herself among the world-wearied ones, asking for the divine freshness of youth. If she chose to make him love her she believed she could.

And yet? -

She stood beside the window and leaned her haid against the framework, gazing at the river. It was gliding smoothly along now, beautified and glorified by the reflected light of a setting sun. How light transfigured!

The murky, muddy, sullen Thames, so often going with its countless burdens, as one enslaved unwillingly to the needs of commerce, now flashing, shining, silver waters hastening joyfully out to sea. She felt that often and often her life had been as the shadowed, murky waters, enslaved unwillingly by bonds that circumstances had created.

She thought how his life, the life of this man who was beginning to fill her soul, was still like the joyous, shining, waters reflecting sunlight. Was it possible she wanted to bring the shadows and dim its silver radiance for her own gratifications?

And even so, was it in any case likely to go undimmed much longer? The shadows were certain enough to come, if not through her, perhaps through some one with less soul, and less fineness of aim, who would do him far greater harm. Her love for him was not, at least, entirely selfish.

She knew that she cared very much for his future. She cared very much that life should give him a chance to fulfill the best of his promise.

And if the chance came by shadows, well, across the river of a man's life they flitted lightly enough as a rule, chasing each other away, and leaving the waters still flowing joyfully. It was only for a woman, apparently, the shadows left a stain that even the sunlight could not chase away.

It would seem woman was made a helpmeet for man in many ways beside that of keeping his home and bearing his children. How often dit he owe his best development and best achievements to her, absorbing light from her in some mysterious ordering, and soaring away afterwards while she was left among the shadows.

Yet, by some equally mysterious compensation, a woman was often so fashioned that if she could feel the upward flight was won through her, she might rest statisfied even though him she loved had soared away. It was the mother-love blending strangely with the wife-love; the protecting, inspiring, unselfish, mothering instinct, lying in the soul of every true-hearted woman.

Standing gazing at the flashing river, Lorraine, in the midst of her probing, knew that it was his ultimate success and good she wanted, as well as his freshness to sweeten her own life.

And yet? -

What if she brought a shadow where there would otherwise have been no shadow, dimmed a brightness that, without her, had gone undimmed? She knew he was not weak naturally. He did not need any strengthening; only impetus, ambition, aim, and some safeguarding by the way.

She smiled a little drearily at the recollection that it was from her, herself, that probably his own people would think he needed safeguarding. She could foresee that they would likely enough hurl themselves between him and her, oblivious that by doing so they might very possibly be the cause of driving him to far worse. But that, of course, no one could help; as how should they know the fine shades between the women who lived outside the conventions?

But then again, they need not know that the great friendship existed - why should they? After all, few would credit the celebrated, beautiful actress with anything beyond a passing fancy for the youthful, briefless barrister.

And yet? -

Across every fresh pathway she turned her thoughts along, was still that arresting, intangible, "and yet".

The pity of it! At least he was strong, and true, and unspoilt now. Why not give life a chance to leave him so?

Why not give Fate a chance to endow him quickly with the rich, blessed love that kept a man walking straight and strong along his steadfast way?

But again the thought came back of what he would lose, what he must inevitably lose, if he missed the storm and stress and struggle that are as the mill and furnace through wich the gold is refined, and hardened, and separated from the dross.

She went back to the fireside feeling that her probing had brought her nowhither, and that she was only very tired and very depressed.

Then she went slowly away to dress, and chose, somewhat to Jean's surprise, one of the simplest evening frocks she possessed. Jean, knowing the tall, beautiful new friend was coming to dinner, had laid out an elaborate dinner-dress, and arranged the jewel cases for selection.

"Put them away at once," was all her mistress said, with one sweeping glance round. "I shall wear that little blue Liberty gown and a single row of pearls."

When Alymer came he found her already seated by the fire, engaged with some knitting.


Winding Paths - 30/78

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