He seemed about to speak but with an effort checked himself and looked down. “I beg your pardon.” His face was half-turned; for a moment he did not go on. “I beg your pardon.” He again raised his head; his face was steady, very steady now; his words too. “Your mentioning Lord Ronsdale reminded me of a social obligation; which I have neglected, or forgotten; the pleasure,” with a slight laugh, “of congratulating you—is that the word? Or Lord Ronsdale,—he, I believe, is the one to be congratulated!”
“Congratulated?” Her face had changed, grown colder. His hand grasped the stone balustrade, but he forced a smile to his lips. “I can not imagine who has started—why you speak thus. Lord Ronsdale is an old friend of my uncle, and—mine, too. But that is all; I am not—have not been. You are mistaken.”
“Mistaken?” The word broke from him quickly; the strained expression of his face gave way to another he could ill conceal. Before the light in his gaze, the fire, the ardency, her own slowly fell; she turned slightly as if to go. But he made no effort to stop her, spoke no word. She took a step, hesitated; John Steele moved.
“Good-by,” he said slowly. “I am leaving rather early in the morning; I shall not see you again.”
“Good-by.” She raised her head with outward assurance. “At least until we meet in London,” she ended lightly.
“That may not be—”
“Why, you are not thinking of leaving London?” with gaiety perhaps a trifle forced, “of deserting your dingy metropolis?”
He did not answer; she looked at him quickly; something in his face held her; a little of the lightness went from hers.
“Once more, good-by, Miss—Jocelyn.”
His look was now resolute; but his voice lingered on her name. He extended his hand in the matter-of-fact manner of one who knew very well what he had to do; the girl’s eyes widened on him. Did she realize he was saying “Good-by” to her for all time? She held her head higher, pressed her lips slightly closer. Then she sought to withdraw her hand but he, as hardly knowing what he did, or yielding to sudden, irresistible temptation, clasped for an instant the slim fingers closer; they seemed to quiver in his. The girl’s figure moved somewhat from him; she stood almost amid the roses, dark spots that nodded around her. The bush was a mass of bloom; did she tremble ever so slightly? Or was it but the fine, sensitive petals behind her that stirred when kissed by the sweet-scented breeze?
John Steele breathed deeply; he continued to regard her, so fair, so beautiful! A leaf fell; she made a movement; it seemed to awaken him to realization. He started and threw back his head; the dark, glowing eyes became once more resolute. An instant, and he bent; a breath, or his lips, swept the delicate, white fingers; then he dropped them. Her hand swung back against the cold stone; on her breast, something bright—an ornament—fluttered, became still. Behind, a bird chirped; her glance turned toward the ball-room.