"We're so seldom together," he pursued.
"I don't know what you mean — — "
"Sometimes I've thought — I've been afraid that you avoided me."
"Yes! Tried not to be alone with me."
She might have told him that there was no reason why she should be alone with him, and that it was very strange he should make this complaint of her. But she did not. She kept looking down at the fan, and then she lifted her burning face and looked at the clock again. "Mother and Irene will be sorry to miss you," she gasped.
He instantly rose and came towards her. She rose too, and mechanically put out her hand. He took it as if to say good-night. "I didn't mean to send you away," she besought him.
"Oh, I'm not going," he answered simply. "I wanted to say — to say that it's I who make her talk about you. To say I — — There is something I want to say to you; I've said it so often to myself that I feel as if you must know it." She stood quite still, letting him keep her hand, and questioning his face with a bewildered gaze. "You MUST know — she must have told you — she must have guessed — — " Penelope turned white, but outwardly quelled the panic that sent the blood to her heart. "I — I didn't expect — I hoped to have seen your father — but I must speak now, whatever — — I love you!"
She freed her hand from both of those he had closed upon it, and went back from him across the room with a sinuous spring. "ME!" Whatever potential complicity had lurked in her heart, his words brought her only immeasurable dismay.
He came towards her again. "Yes, you. Who else?"
She fended him off with an imploring gesture. "I thought — I — it was — — "
She shut her lips tight, and stood looking at him where he remained in silent amaze. Then her words came again, shudderingly. "Oh, what have you done?"
"Upon my soul," he said, with a vague smile, "I don't know. I hope no harm?"
"Oh, don't laugh!" she cried, laughing hysterically herself. "Unless you want me to think you the greatest wretch in the world!"
"I?" he responded. "For heaven's sake tell me what you mean!"
"You know I can't tell you. Can you say — can you put your hand on your heart and say that — you — say you never meant — that you meant me — all along?"
"Yes! — yes! Who else? I came here to see your father, and to tell him that I wished to tell you this — to ask him — — But what does it matter? You must have known it — you must have seen — and it's for you to answer me. I've been abrupt, I know, and I've startled you; but if you love me, you can forgive that to my loving you so long before I spoke."
She gazed at him with parted lips.
"Oh, mercy! What shall I do? If it's true — what you say — you must go!" she said. "And you must never come any more. Do you promise that?"
"Certainly not," said the young man. "Why should I promise such a thing — so abominably wrong? I could obey if you didn't love me — — "
"Oh, I don't! Indeed I don't! Now will you obey."
"No. I don't believe you." "Oh!"
He possessed himself of her hand again.
"My love — my dearest! What is this trouble, that you can't tell it? It can't be anything about yourself. If it is anything about any one else, it wouldn't make the least difference in the world, no matter what it was. I would be only too glad to show by any act or deed I could that nothing could change me towards you."
"Oh, you don't understand!"
"No, I don't. You must tell me."
"I will never do that."
"Then I will stay here till your mother comes, and ask her what it is."
"Yes! Do you think I will give you up till I know why I must?"
"You force me to it! Will you go if I tell you, and never let any human creature know what you have said to me?"
"Not unless you give me leave."
"That will be never. Well, then — — " She stopped, and made two or three ineffectual efforts to begin again. "No, no! I can't. You must go!"
"I will not go!"