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- Winding Paths - 60/78 -

upon the darkness coming.

Yet - for life is oversad to dwell upon rayless darkness even in books - bright, enduring, beautiful sunshine was wrapped up in those black clouds to flood the little world with joy at the appointed hour.

It was Lorraine's life that events moved first. After Hal left her, she spent a wretched, restless, brain-racking afternoon, and was only just able to struggle through her part at night.

And afterwards she became suddenly sickened with the need to struggle. She was not extravagant by nature, and had saved enough money from her enormous salaries to liver very comfortably if she chose.

A nausea of the theatrical world and its incessant demands began to obsess her. She felt that from the first day she stood in a manager's office, seeking the chance to start, it had given her everything except happiness.

Money, success, position, jewels, fine clothes, admirers, friends, adventures, gaieties - all these had come, if by slow degrees, but not one single gift had contained the kernel of happiness.

Perhaps it was her own fault. Perhaps the trouble lay in the wrong start she had made and never been able to retrieve. But at least there was time to try another plan yet.

Finally, feeling the nerve strain of recent events was seriously affecting her health, she decided to arrange a week's holiday to think the matter out.

But then what of Alymer?

Nothing had changed her mood since his uncle paid his ill-chosen visit. She did not actually intend to try to influence Alymer against his people, but she did intend that he should not change to her, nor pass out of her life, if she could help it.

Because she, and she alone, had started him off on his promising career, she meant to be there to watch it for some time to come. Her influence might not any longer be actually needed. The devine fire to achieve had already lit into a steady flame in his soul, and her presence would make very little difference in future. He had tasted the sweets of success, and ambition would not let him reject all that the future might hold.

But she must be there to see. In her lonely life he meant everything now. There was no need for him to think of marriage for years yet; and in the meantime she felt her claim upon him was as strong as any mother's fears.

So she waited for his next visit, wondering much what would transpire if he had heard of his uncle's call.

As it happened, he had. In the interview he had sought with his aunt, to request her not to interfere in his affairs, the indignant lady hurled at him the story of the visit; or such garbled account of it as she had received from the participator himself.

That was quite enough for Alymer - that and Hal's account of Lorraine in tears. He felt that his benefactress, his great friend, had been abominably insulted, and he hastened in all the warmth of his ardour to her side.

Lorraine was waiting for him in her low, favourite chair, and when he first saw her he could not suppress an exclamation to see how frail she seemed suddenly to have grown.

Her skin of ivory whiteness, enhanced by the tinge of colour in her cheeks, and there were shadows round her eyes placed there by no cosmetic art.

All that was most chivalrous, most protective, most affectionate in his nature rose uppermost, and shone in his face as he said:

"Lorraine, it is too feeble just to say I am sorry. I heve been cursing the blunder with all my heart ever since I knew."

"Thas was dear of you," she said; "but of course I knew that you would."

"I hoped so. I told myself over and over, you must know it had all happened without my knowledge."

Lorraine had no mind to make light of the matter. She felt she would hold him better by simply leaving it alone, and letting his own feelings work on her side.

She knew of course that his uncle had probably tried to injure her case; but then, Alymer was a man of the world, and she trusted him, knowing what he must about his uncle, to judge her kindly.

But all this seemed to fade into nothingness when she saw the distress and the affection in his eyes - the anger that any one had dared to hurt her, and the eager wish to make amends. It made all her smouldering love leap up into flame, and the strength of the suddenly roused passion almost frightened her. She felt there was desperation in it, the desperation of the drowning man who catches at a straw, of the condemned man who seizes a last joy.

Quite unexpectedly a reckless, surging desire began to take possession of her soul. She had lost so much already; been hit so many times; missed so many things.

A picture came back to her, with a new allurement. The picture of herself with a little one of her own, floating down the peacefully flowing river to some quiet haven, far removed from the glare of the footlights. Should she make a bold bid to win that much from the years that were left?

She sat quiet, looking into the heart of the fire while the thoughts coursed through her brain, and her long lashes hid from the man above her the glowing dreamlights in her eyes.

Then he too pulled up a low chair and sat down, so that his head was more nearly on a level with hers, and still his eyes looked at her with that regretful, protecting expression.

"You must go away, Lorry," he said, using Hal's pet name; "you are beginning to look thoroughly ill."

"I don't feel well, but I haven't the heart to go alone. I should only get melancholia."

"Hal seemed to think I ought to offer you a little companionship." He said it with a slightly bashful air.

"Hal?..." in a sharp, questioning voice. "What has Hal been saying to you?"

"Not much. She was in great form at the Bruces' last night. She rubbed it into me finely on various subjects, and finally went off with her head in the air to find some one refreshingly ugly who could talk sense."

They both laughed, but Lorraine's eyes were thoughtful.

"And what did she say about your companionship?"

"Oh, that it was only some one to talk to and be company you wanted if you went away, and that I seemed to fill the post better than any one just now." He paused, then added: "Do I?"

She felt him looking hard into her face, and kept her eyes lowered. She did not want him to know that the thought of his companionship in the country was like the straw to the drowning man - the last joy to the condemned one.

"You always make me forget the years, and feel young," she said slowly and thoughtfully, "and I dare say that is a very good tonic in itself."

"You oughtn't to need help from any one for that"; and she knew there was genuine admiration in his voice. "You never look anything but young. I suppose it is temperament."

"Temperatment doesn't erase lines," with a little sad smile.

"Perhaps not, but it makes them, in some way, suit you; and they add to the character in a face."

"It is sweet of you to say so, Alymer, but it sounds a fairy tale. I don't so very much mind growing old, if only it were not so... empty-handed."

"But surely you have so much!"

"Not very much that counts. Anyhow, I hope some day you will have a great deal more."

"You are depressed. You must really get away somewhere at once."

He was grandfatherly now, the mood she always loved and laughed at, and her pulses quickened to it. He placed one of his large, strong-looking hand over hers - it covered them both out of sight - and he leanded a little nearer as he said:

"I can see I shall have to take the ordering of it all. You have done worlds for me. Now I shall have to take you in hand."

A harsh expression crossed her face for a moment, thiking of what his mother had written her.

"And go straight to perdition!" she said bitterly.

He winced a little.

"I'm sure you wouldn't want me to make excuses for my own mother," he remarked, with the quiet dignity that was aldready winning his name in the Law Courts, side by side with his gift for light satire. "You cannot but know in your heart just how far removed her outlook on the world is from ours."

She wanted to ask him if any outlook gave one woman the right to insult another at her pleasure, but she remembered Mrs. Hermon probably dit not realise that she would have the fineness to see the insult, and was not even aware that she had been insulting.

"I should like you to know my father," he went on. "He is a very understanding man."

"But surely he..."

Winding Paths - 60/78

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