He had spent the whole evening in his consulting rooms, totally forgetting his promise to escort his fiancee and her mother to the theatre.
Well, he would see them both on the morrow and make his peace, and then—he dropped his head on his hands and fairly groaned. It was useless to argue with himself, to bring commonsense to bear upon the point, to count up the advantages to be derived from this union with Lady Ethel; look at it which way he would, the fact remained the same, that he had no longer the remotest desire to marry again.
The knowledge had certainly come tardily, but not the less surely.
He did not, he told himself, love Lady Ethel as a man should love the wife of his bosom. Middle-aged, worn, and unemotional though he might be, he knew that he was yet capable of a much deeper feeling than she had evoked and he had wakened to a realisation of this since he had again seen Bella.
He was no fool; he was, on the contrary, a shrewd, clever, quick-witted man of the world and it was impossible to shut his eyes to the trouble. He thought of Bella as she was when he had first married her; he recalled their courtship, her pretty half shy, half tender ways—the girlish prettiness which time had turned into shame.
She had left a scrap of lace on his table for her throat or her veil—Heaven knew what—and his eyes grew blurred and dim as he gazed at it. He repeated mentally phrases which had fallen from her, piecing them together and trying to weave the pattern of her life out of the fragments.
She had changed pathetically. She had acquired the manner that her sister used to have, and which he had so strenuously objected to—the slangy, devil-may-care tone, the total absence of which in the old days had made his little sweetheart so conspicuously different from her environment. She wore now the impress of evil, from her Regent Street hat to her Paris gown. Manifestly she had risen in her vocation, but he knew that her salary alone had never supplied the costume or the rings, and his heart ached.
That night he sat at the Duchess of Huddersfield’s table facing his fiancee, and for the first time he wondered if sang-froid or perfect equanimity were all that a man such as himself might desire. She was, as Bella had put it, “One of his own class—a lady,” which she had never been, poor Bella! but he did wonder just a little how much of real heart beat under the dainty laces that shrouded Lady Ethel’s bosom. He had reflected once and not so long ago that that portion of a woman’s anatomy was superfluous, but he wavered in his belief now. He could stake his professional honour, his hopes of eternity—of—everything—on the absolute purity of this girl; nothing would ever tempt Lady Ethel to swerve ever so little from the path of rectitude and decorum. The cold, proud patrician face spoke for itself, and yet—he was in a brown study when the voice of his prospective mother-in-law brought him out of the clouds.