So she continued to talk agreeably to them, and Tristram made a great effort, and chaffed her, and became gay. And soon they went in to dinner. And Lady Tancred sat on Francis Markrute’s other side, and tried to overcome her prejudice against him. If Ethelrida loved him so much he must be really nice. And Zara sat on one side of the old Duke, and Lady Anningford on the other, and on her other side was Young Billy who was now in an idiotic state of calf love for her—to the amusement of every one. So, with much gayety and chaff the repast came to an end, and the ladies, who were all old friends—no strangers now among them—disposed themselves in happy groups about one of the drawing-rooms, while they sipped their coffee.
Ethelrida drew Zara aside to talk to her alone.
“Zara,” she said, taking her soft, white hand, “I am so awfully happy with my dear love that I want you to be so, too. Dearest Zara, won’t you be friends with me, now—real friends?”
And Zara, won by her gentleness, pressed Ethelrida’s hand with her other hand.
“I am so glad, nothing my uncle could have done would have given me so much pleasure,” she said, with a break in her voice. “Yes, indeed, I will be friends with you, dear Ethelrida. I am so glad—and touched—that you should care to have me as your friend.” Then Ethelrida bent forward and kissed her. “When one is as happy as I am,” she said, “it makes one feel good, as if one wanted to do all the kind things and take away all sorrow out of the world. I have thought sometimes, Zara dear, that you did not look as happy as—as—I would like you to look.”
Happy! the mockery of the word!
“Ethelrida,” Zara whispered hurriedly—“don’t—don’t ask me anything about it, please, dear. No one can help me. I must come through with it alone—but you of Tristram’s own family, and especially you whom he loves so much, I don’t want you ever to misjudge me. You think perhaps I have made him unhappy. Oh, if you only knew it all!—Yes, I have. And I did not know, nor understand. I would die for him now, if I could, but it is too late; we can only play the game!”
“Zara, do not say this!” said Ethelrida, much distressed. “What can it be that should come between such beautiful people as you? And Tristram adores you, Zara dear.”
“He did love me—once,” Zara answered sadly, “but not now. He would like never to have to see me again. Please do not let us talk of it; please—I can’t bear any more.”
And Ethelrida, watching her face anxiously, saw that it wore a hopeless, hunted look, as though some agonizing trouble and anxiety brooded over her. And poor Zara could say nothing of her other anxiety, for now that Ethelrida was engaged to her uncle her lips, about her own sorrow concerning her little brother, must be more than ever sealed. Perhaps—she did not know much of the English point of view yet—perhaps if the Duke knew that there was some disgrace in the background of the family he might forbid the marriage, and then she would be spoiling this sweet Ethelrida’s life.