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- Winding Paths - 50/78 -


lines, a future day might have witnessed Lorraine quite naturally outgrowing her infatuation, and happily satisfied with the result of her unwearying interest and effort; while Hermon, from his proud pinnacle of success, would still have felt her his best friend.

But at the critical moment the blundering, disturbing hand was permitted to jar the harmony of the strings and spoil the melody. To what end?... who knows?... Perhaps to some unseen, mysterious widening, and deepening, and learning necessary to the onward march of Humanity towards its goal of Perfection.

CHAPTER XXVII

Alymer knew directly he entered the house, and saw his mother, that something had upset her, but he did not associate it with Lorraine, and kissed her with his usual warm affection.

It was not until after dinner, when they were alone in the drawing-room, that the subject was broached, and then, with very little preliminary, Mrs. Hermon - bending Divine Guidance to her own will - made a merciless attack on "the painted woman."

It was no doubt the most unwise course of action conceivable; but Mrs. Hermon, with her quiet and philosophical husband, and her only son, had led a sheltered, smoothly flowing married life, after a yet more sheltered girlhood, far removed from the passionate upheavals of society, and she had neither practical worldly knowledge nor experience to aid her.

She told him the story that had reached her ears through the jealousy of a sister, whose only son was very plain, and a scapegrace, and who had been fiendishly glad to have an opportunity to cast a slur upon the doings of the successful, handsome, steady young barrister.

"Douglas says he is always with her," had been her sister's conclusion - "and that every one is talking about it, and there is a dreadful lot of scandal. I thought it was only kind to tell you, as if he goes on in the same way he will certainly ruin his career."

Then had come the parting shot.

"We all think so much of Alymer, that I would not believe such a story of him without proof. Douglas said he usualy went to her flat in Chelsea about five, when he leaves Chambers, and I went twice to see if he came; and on each occasion he strode along, and swung into the building almost as if he lived there."

Mrs. Hermon did not at first tell her son the source of her information, and he did not ask her. Neither, somewhat to her surprise, did he attempt to exculpate himself, nor to make any denial.

He stood up on the hearth with that straight, strong look he had, when all his faculties were acute, and heard her through to the end. Then she said in a hurt voice: " You don't deny it, Alymer. I have been hoping you went to the flat on business, and there was some mistake."

"I deny everything that you have implied against Miss Vivian. The story of the friendship is true."

His quiet self-possession seemed to disconcert her a little. She was prepared for indignant denial, or angry remonstrance even; but this calm self-possession was something almost new to her. True, he had always been calm and philosophical, like his father; but this was something deeper and stronger than she had yet known in him.

"The fact is, mother," he went on after a pause, "you have run away with a totally wrong idea of Miss Vivian. If she were the sort of actress you picture, you might perhaps be anxious; but all the same I think you might have given me credit for rather better taste."

"My dear, an actress is an actress - and every one knows what that is; and the mere fact of her calling, or whatever you like to name it, is sufficient to seriously hurt your position."

He smiled a little.

"I dispute the dictum that every one knows whant an actress is, in the sweeping sense you mean. I do not think you know, for one. I shall have to try and persuade Miss Vivian to come and see you."

"Indeed I hope you will do no such thing."

Again he smiled.

"In any case I should not succeed. She is very proud, and would resent patronage even more than you."

Mrs. Hermon gave a significant sniff of incredulity, but she only said:

"Well, Alymer dear, you will give me a promise not to see her any more - won't you?"

"I can't do that, mother."

"Why not?"

"It is out of the question. For one thing, I owe too much to Miss Vivian; and for another, I am too fond of her."

"All the more reason you should try to break off the friendship at once, before she has succeeded in any of her schemes to entangle you."

"She has no schemes to entangle me, as you put it. She has been a splendid friend. I owe my first brief to her, and a good deal else beside."

"Well, and no doubt you have already given her a good deal in return. Quite as much as she deserves. There is no necessity for you to truin your whole career, just because she happens to like being seen out with you."

There was a silence, in which Alymer seemed to be cogitating how best to disarm his mother's fears; and also to be reminding himself of her natural ignorance on theatrical matters, and his own need to be patient therefore. At last he said quietly:

"Miss Vivian only wants to help me in my profession; and I can only tell you again she has been a splendid friend to me. Aunt Edith has told you a great deal of nonsense. She has always been glad to pick holes in me if she could. Most of it is lies, and you must take my word for it. It is useless to discus the matter. I am sorry you have been so worried, but I don't know how to make you understand."

"I understand far better than you think; and I know you ought to end the friendship at once. I want you to do so."

"It is out of the question. But you need not worry. You must just forget. No..." as she attempted further remonstrance; "don't go on. I cannot listen to any more against Miss Vivian. I think I will go and smoke a pipe with the pater. Shall you come and sit with us?" And a certain expression in his eyes that reminded her of his father in his most decisive moods told her he meant to say no more. She rose at once.

She had failed, and she knew it, but she had not the smallest intention of giving in. She had started on the wrong tack, that was all. Of course the boy was too chivalrous to go back on a friend, particularly as he believed he was under some obligation to her. Her plan of mercilessly tearing the lady to pieces had not been a good one, but she would think of something else, and save him in spite of himself.

And comforting herself with this reflection, she allowed the subject to drop, and went with him to the library. Her next plan should be a more sure one. She would work in secret with an agent to help her, who could see the enormity of the danger, and appreciate more thoroughly than his father the urgent need to interfere. She had already a vague plan in her head that she believed an excellent one, and which she could put into execution immediately.

It was an old-fashioned, time-worn plan, but Mrs. Hermon was a woman of old-fashioned ideas, and she did not know but that she was the originator. She had not the least idea that quite the commonplace course of action in these questions was to send a secret emissary to the lady, to reason with her, or plead with her, or bribe her, according to her status, on behalf of the innocent young victim of her charms. The great thing, she imagined, was to find a suitable agent.

Now, besides the sister who was jealous, she had a bachelor brother of a certain well-known stamp. A good-looking, aristocratic, well-preserved man of independent means; and though over sixty years of age, still a gallant, with not much in his handsome head beyond a pathetic desire to continue to captivate, and a belief that he was as invincible as ever.

Very shady stories had more than once been written down to his account, but he had the wit always to rise above them and sail serenely on to do more mischief.

His sister rightly surmised that he would have considerable knowledge concerning actressess and the theatrical world, and without troubling to consult her husband, she took him into her confidence and unburdened all her trouble.

"Phew!" murmured the elderly beau, "so the young scamp has got entangled with an actress, has he? Shocking!... shocking!... But don't worry, Ailsa; we'll soon square the lady one way or another. Do you - er - happen to know if she is of the nature one can offer money to?"

"I think not. Alymer insists she is a lady in the real sense; though, if so, why did she go on the stage?"

"Love of excitement, I dare say. Is she, by any chance, a chorus girl?"

"No, not exactly; though really I fail to see any difference in degree between one actress and another. They are all on the stage; and no doubt they all paint their faces and snare good-looking young men."

"No doubt," agreed the man, who had more than once made it his business to snare an unsuspecting, trusting girl.

"And you will go to see her, and persuade her to drop him; won't you, Percy? It is no use talking to his father; he does not see the matter in a serious enough light. He believes Alymer will soon tire of her. So he may, but in the meantime she may irredeemably injure his career. Of course, if it is a question of money we will find it all right; but


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