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The opening bars of a waltz sounded through the house above the irregular murmur of conversation, bearing their promise and summons along festal corridors and into garlanded nooks and alcoves. Paul Middleton drew a breath of relief as the girl to whom he had been talking was carried off to dance, for she had bored him intolerably. The refreshment room, crowded a moment ago, was thinning down, and, glad of the respite, he took another sandwich and slowly sipped the remainder of his coffee. His humour was of the worst. If his hostess had not been his mother's oldest friend, he would never have allowed himself to be persuaded to accept her invitation after he had once decided to decline it. Why had his mother so persisted, when she knew very well he was looking forward to playing in an important chess match? Certainly the evening so far had not compensated him for the pleasure he had thus missed.
He had been chafing the whole time, and intermittently he had played with the idea of slipping out and taking a hansom down to the chess club. But he had ticked off five dances on Celia's programme—Celia was of course Celia—and he was to take her to supper. Moreover, on his arrival at the small-and-early, Mrs. Saxon had led him round—he feeling that his amiable expression made him a hypocrite—and, mechanically repeating his request for the pleasure of a dance, he had scrawled his name on several programmes with scarcely a glance at their owners. It was, however, more particularly his engagements with Celia, and one or two other girls he knew well, that had made him stay on. Once more he glanced at his watch. It was getting well on towards midnight now, and the issue of the chess match must already have been decided. After some speculation as to the winning side, he resigned himself to finishing the evening where he was.
At the best of times Paul Middleton's interest in the ballroom was only lukewarm. He frankly professed not to care about it at all, and, though he was in the habit of dancing every dance, he looked upon himself more as a spectator than a participator on such rare occasions as he accepted cards for. He had no favourite partners. Into the inner and intimate life of that circle of light made for human pleasure he could never enter; he had always shrunk from exploring its labyrinth of flirtation, coquetry, and petty manœuvring, the very thought of the intricacies of which affrighted his plain-sailing temperament. To him one girl in a ballroom was much the same as another—a green, white, or pink gown with sometimes an eye-glass attached. He knew very well, though—if only from his mother having instilled it into him—that no such indifference attached to him, a young man of twenty-three, who was absolute master of at least eleven thousand pounds a year, and not without claim to other merits.
Becoming aware that the music was in full swing upstairs, he began to think it was high time to look for his partner. But the name "Brooke" on his programme, which he made out with some difficulty, called up no picture, no living personality. He could not even recollect the moment when he had written it, and it did not appear he had made any note to help him identify the girl. His last partner had had to be pointed out to him by Mrs. Saxon, and he did not care to trouble her again. "Besides," he reflected, "this Miss Brooke, whoever she is, will most likely be hidden away in some nook or other and will be only too glad not to be hunted up."