Lady Ethelrida never spoke of herself as a rule. She was not in the habit of getting into those—abstract to begin with, and personal to go on with—thrilling conversations with men, which most of the modern young women delight in, and which were the peculiar joy of Lily Opie.
It was because for some unacknowledged reason the financier personally pleased her that she now drifted where he wished.
“Mine are very simple, I fear, nothing for you to investigate,” she said gently.
“So I should have thought—” and he again as he had done at dinner permitted himself to look into her eyes, and going on after an imperceptible pause he said softly, “simple, and pure, and sweet ...I always think of you, Lady Ethelrida, as the embodiment of sane things, balanced things—perfection.” And his last word was almost a caress.
“I am most ordinary,” she said; and she wondered why she was not angry with him, which she quite well could have been.
“It is only perfect balance in all things, if we but know it, which appeals to the sane eye,” he went on, pulling himself up. “All weariness and satiety are caused in emotion; in pleasure in persons, places, or things; by the want of proportion in them somewhere which, like all simple things, is the hardest to find.”
“Do you make theories about everything, Mr. Markrute?” she asked, and there was a smile in her eye.
“It is a wise thing to do sometimes; it keeps one from losing one’s head.”
Lady Ethelrida did not answer. She felt deliciously moved. She had often said to her friend, Anne Anningford, when they had been talking, that she did not like elderly men; she disliked to see their hair getting thin, and their chins getting fat, and their little habits and mannerisms growing pronounced. But here she found herself tremendously interested in one who, from all accounts, must be quite forty-five if not older, though it was true his brown colorless hair was excessively thick, and he was slight of build everywhere.
Now she felt she must turn the conversation to less personal things, so:
“Zara looks very lovely to-night,” she said.
“Yes,” replied the financier, with an air of detaching himself unwillingly from a thrilling topic, which was, indeed, what he felt. “Yes, and I hope some day they will be exceedingly happy.”
“Why do you say some day?” Lady Ethelrida asked quickly. “I hoped they were happy now.”
“Not very, I am afraid,” he said. “But you remember our compact at dinner? They will be ideally so if they are left alone,” and he glanced casually at Tristram and Laura.
Ethelrida looked, too, following his eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “I wish I had not asked her—” and then she stopped abruptly, and grew a deep pink. She realized what the inference in her speech was, and if Mr. Markrute had never heard anything about the silly affair between her cousin and Lady Highford what would he think! What might she not have done!