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- Winding Paths - 40/78 -
without Mrs. Carr now. I should never be properly dressed, for one thing, and I should always be forgetting important engagements." She changed the subject quickly, seeing he was about to remonstrate. "Have you seen Ethel and Basil since - since - "
"No; I'm going to see Basil this afternoon, after taking Doris to Wimbledon to see Langfier fly, and I shall stay to dinner. Will you come up this evening?"
"No; I'm going out. Perhaps to-morrow - " she hesitated, as if swallowing a lump in her throat. "You might give my love to Doris, and say I'll come soon." She saw Dudley glance at her inquiringly, and recklessly dashed into another subject, talking at random until she left.
In the afternoon she hurried straight off to Lorraine's flat, arriving a few minutes after Lorraine had come in from a walk in the Park. She was standing by the window, drawing off some long gloves, and even Hal was struck by a sort of newness about her - a bloom and a quiet radiance that was like a renewal of youth.
She was beautifully dressed as ever, buth with a far simpler note than usual - something which suggested she wished to look charming, without attracting attention; something which suppressed the actress in favour of the woman.
It was as if, surrounded with success and attention night after night, and for several years, she had wearied of the rôle, and put it aside voluntarily whenever opportunity offered. She had been wont to be verry fashionable and striking in her dress and general appearance, but now Hal noticed vaguely a simpler note all through.
Her face and expression seemed to have changed also. A certain hardness and callousness had gone. Her smile was more genuine, and her eyes kinder. In some mysterious way, it was as though Lorraine had won from the past some gleaming of the woman she might have been under happier circumstances, and without certain harsh experiences.
And it was all owing to her feeling for Alymer Hermon and his youthful pride in her.
They met continually now. Her flat was open to him whenever he liked. He came to her when he had anything interesting to relate - when he was depressed and when he was hopeful. With the inconsequent acceptance of youth, he took from her what an older man would have regarded a little shyly, and perhaps feared to take.
She was his pal, his excellent friend, who gave him such sympathy and interest and encouragement as she could find nowhere else. Because he was young, he drank deep and asked no questions.
He did not imagine for a moment that she was in love with him. True, other women were; but then they told him so, and alarmed him with their attentions. Lorraine was more inclined to laugh at him and make fun of him, in a jolly, pally sort of way, which made him feel perfectly at home with her, and successfully banish any questions.
She was more like a man friend, only better, because a man would have wanted an equal share of interest, whereas Lorraine seemed content to be interested in him. She never encouraged him to talk about her triumphs and her other friends. She rather implied they were so public and apparent already she did not want to hear any more of them.
But she was always ready to talk of his hopes and aspirations, and help him to build foundations to his aircastles. And already, under her tuition and help, he had made immense strides. His work and his objects had become real to him, ambition had taken root and begun to push out little upward shoots. He saw himself one of the leading lights at the Bar, and instead of lazily scoffing, he liked the picture. He wanted to get there, and if Lorraine was ready to help him, why should she not? Why bother to ask questions?
Of course she must be fond of him, or she would not do it; but then he was fond of her too - very fond - and why not? The mere suggestion of danger did not occur to him. She was so many years his senior, and so celebrated, it never crossed his mind to suppose she could have any feeling for him beyond the jolly palliness that seemed to have sprung up naturally between them.
So he came and went between the Temple and her flat and his own quarters, and life began to assume a bigness of possibility that drowned all else, and kept him eager and harworking and safe from the hurtful influences and actions that attend idle hours.
And Lorraine, for the present, walked in her fool's paradise and was content. She watched him slowly and surely fill out both physically and mentally into the promise of his splendid manhood.
She saw his youthful beauty solidifying into the beauty of a man, and carefully watered and tended those budding shoots of ambition that were to help him attain his best promise.
For the time being the thwarted mother-love that is in every woman satisfied her with the evidence of his progress, and she lulled any other into quiescence, hugging to herself the knowledge that it was she alone to whom he would owe greatness, if he won it, and that even his own doting mother had not done, and never could do, the half that she was doing to start him on a steadfast way that should lead to fame and usefulness.
She made it her excuse for ignoring the questions which her wider knowledge could not entirely banish. To what other results the friendship might lead she turned a deaf ear. The other results must take care of themselves, was her thought; it was enough for her that she could help to make him great.
She smiled a little at the thought of the women she had won him from. He talked to her now freely and openly, though always with that unassuming modesty which was so attractive. She knew what he had already had to combat. What a life of self-pleasing and gay-living lay open to him if he chose to take it. She knew that, if he chose it, though he might still win a certain amount of fame, it would never be the well-grounded, staunch, reliable success that she could spur him to.
And so she drew a curtain over the dangers her course might hold, and, in a light and airy way, threw over him the glow and the warm attractiveness of her many fascinations and allurements, that she might keep him free from any foolish engagement or low entanglement, to concentrate all his mind and his heart upon his work and her.
How long such an aim was likely to satisfy her, or how natural or unnatural her course, she left with all the other questions, to be faced, if necessary, later on, or to pass with the swift joy into oblivion.
At least it was not the first time a woman, scarcely young, and having her full measure of success, had turned unaccountably to a man very much her junior, for something she apparently sought in vain from men of her own age. It might be strange, but it was not unique; and for the rest, were not the ways of the little god Love like the ways of many events - "stranger than fiction"?
His magnificent physique, his extraordinarily beautiful head, and his no less extraordinary, unassuming modesty, attracted and held her with links that grew stronger and stronger, and her happiest hours now were those in which he made himself delightfully at home in her flat, and added to his charm by talking to her with the old-fashioned, grandfatherly air she had enjoyed from the first.
And so Hal found a younger and softer Lorraine than she had known for a long time, waiting to hear the burden of her tale of woe.
They talked it over in every aspect, Hal sitting in her favourite attitude on a stool at Lorraine's feet; but very little light could be won through the clouds. All the consolation Lorraine could suggest was a possibility that to be engaged and married to a man like Dudley might change Doris altogether for the better; but Hal, beyond feeling brighter for having spoken out her dismay, felt there was little indeed hope of that.
"Have you seen Sir Edwin Crathie again?" Lorraine asked presently, and she was surprised to see a spot of colour instantly flame into Hal's cheeks.
"I've had a long motor ride with him," she said, speaking as if it were a mere detail.
"_Have you_?" was Lorraine's very expressive rejoinder.
"Why do you say it like that?" Hal laughed with seeming lightness. "He just took me for a treat. He's rather sorry for me, being boxed up in an office, as he calls it."
"I see. Well, don't forget he has the reputation for being rather a dangerous man, old girl."
Hal laughed again.
"I'll tell him so, and go armed with a revolver next time." She noticed an inquiring look in Lorraine's eyes, and added: "Don't look so serious, Lorry; he is old enough to be my father. He likes a little amusement, the same as you and Baby Hermon."
She turned away as she spoke, and did not see the swift deepening of the look of inquiry, nor a certain strange expression that flitted across Lorraine's face; and almost immediately the door opened, and Alymer Hermon walked in unannounced.
"Hullo, Hal!" he exclaimed - "it's quite a long time since I ran into you here."
"Hullo, Baby!" she retorted. "Why, I declare, you are beginning to look quite a man."
"If you don't mind I'll pick you up and carry you all the way down the stairs to the street; then you'll see if I'm a man or not."
"Tut; any big creature could do that! Got any briefs yet?"
Lorraine looked up instantly with an eager, questioning glance - while Hal asked gaily:
"What is it?... I suppose the original holder is sick, or dead, or something, and you are a stop-gap."
"You are wrong, Miss Sharp-tongue. I hold the brief entirely on my own. It hasn't even anything to do with any one in Waltham's Chambers."
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