"Well?" she said scornfully, "why don't you go on?"
A bolder man might still have maintained the audacious position which he had assumed. Mirabel's faint heart shrank from it. He was eager to shelter himself under the first excuse that he could find. His ingenuity, paralyzed by his fears, was unable to invent anything new. He feebly availed himself of the commonplace trick of evasion which he had read of in novels, and seen in action on the stage.
"Is it possible," he asked, with an overacted assumption of surprise, "that you think I am in earnest?"
In the case of any other person, Francine would have instantly seen through that flimsy pretense. But the love which accepts the meanest crumbs of comfort that can be thrown to it--which fawns and grovels and deliberately deceives itself, in its own intensely selfish interests--was the love that burned in Francine's breast. The wretched girl believed Mirabel with such an ecstatic sense of belief that she trembled in every limb, and dropped into the nearest chair.
"_I_ was in earnest," she said faintly. "Didn't you see it?"
He was perfectly shameless; he denied that he had seen it, in the most positive manner. "Upon my honor, I thought you were mystifying me, and I humored the joke."
She sighed, and looking at him with an expression of tender reproach. "I wonder whether I can believe you," she said softly.
"Indeed you may believe me!" he assured her.