Chapter 46 - Pretending
Miss de Sor began cautiously with an apology. "Excuse me, Mr. Mirabel, for reminding you of my presence."
Mr. Mirabel made no reply.
"I beg to say," Francine proceeded, "that I didn't intentionally see you kiss Emily's hand."
Mirabel stood, looking at the roses which Emily had left on her chair, as completely absorbed in his own thoughts as if he had been alone in the garden.
"Am I not even worth notice?" Francine asked. "Ah, I know to whom I am indebted for your neglect!" She took him familiarly by the arm, and burst into a harsh laugh. "Tell me now, in confidence--do you think Emily is fond of you?"
The impression left by Emily's kindness was still fresh in Mirabel's memory: he was in no humor to submit to the jealous resentment of a woman whom he regarded with perfect indifference. Through the varnish of politeness which overlaid his manner, there rose to the surface the underlying insolence, hidden, on all ordinary occasions, from all human eyes. He answered Francine--mercilessly answered her--at last.
"It is the dearest hope of my life that she may be fond of me," he said.
Francine dropped his arm "And fortune favors your hopes," she added, with an ironical assumption of interest in Mirabel's prospects. "When Mr. Morris leaves us to-morrow, he removes the only obstacle you have to fear. Am I right?"
"No; you are wrong."
"In what way, if you please?"
"In this way. I don't regard Mr. Morris as an obstacle. Emily is too delicate and too kind to hurt his feelings--she is not in love with him. There is no absorbing interest in her mind to divert her thoughts from me. She is idle and happy; she thoroughly enjoys her visit to this house, and I am associated with her enjoyment. There is my chance--!"
He suddenly stopped. Listening to him thus far, unnaturally calm and cold, Francine now showed that she felt the lash of his contempt. A hideous smile passed slowly over her white face. It threatened the vengeance which knows no fear, no pity, no remorse--the vengeance of a jealous woman. Hysterical anger, furious language, Mirabel was prepared for. The smile frightened him.
"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.
She hesitated--for the pleasure of hesitating. "I don't know. Emily is very much admired by some men. Why not by you?"
"For the best of reasons," he answered "She is poor, and I am poor. Those are facts which speak for themselves."
"Yes--but Emily is bent on attracting you. She would marry you to-morrow, if you asked her. Don't attempt to deny it! Besides, you kissed her hand."
"Oh, Miss de Sor!"
"Don't call me 'Miss de Sor'! Call me Francine. I want to know why you kissed her hand."
He humored her with inexhaustible servility. "Allow me to kiss _your_ hand, Francine!--and let me explain that kissing a lady's hand is only a form of thanking her for her kindness. You must own that Emily--"
She interrupted him for the third time. "Emily?" she repeated. "Are you as familiar as that already? Does she call you 'Miles,' when you are by yourselves? Is there any effort at fascination which this charming creature has left untried? She told you no doubt what a lonely life she leads in her poor little home?"
Even Mirabel felt that he must not permit this to pass.
"She has said nothing to me about herself," he answered. "What I know of her, I know from Mr. Wyvil."
"Oh, indeed! You asked Mr. Wyvil about her family, of course? What did he say?"
"He said she lost her mother when she was a child--and he told me her father had died suddenly, a few years since, of heart complaint."
"Well, and what else?--Never mind now! Here is somebody coming."
The person was only one of the servants. Mirabel felt grateful to the man for interrupting them. Animated by sentiments of a precisely opposite nature, Francine spoke to him sharply.
"What do you want here?"
"A message, miss."
"From Miss Brown."
"No, miss." He turned to Mirabel. "Miss Brown wishes to speak to you, sir, if you are not e ngaged."
Francine controlled herself until the man was out of hearing.
"Upon my word, this is too shameless!" she declared indignantly. "Emily can't leave you with me for five minutes, without wanting to see you again. If you go to her after all that you have said to me," she cried, threatening Mirabel with her outstretched hand, "you are the meanest of men!"
He _was_ the meanest of men--he carried out his cowardly submission to the last extremity.
"Only say what you wish me to do," he replied.
Even Francine expected some little resistance from a creature bearing the outward appearance of a man. "Oh, do you really mean it?" she asked "I want you to disappoint Emily. Will you stay here, and let me make your excuses?"
"I will do anything to please you."
Francine gave him a farewell look. Her admiration made a desperate effort to express itself appropriately in words. "You are not a man," she said, "you are an angel!"
Left by himself, Mirabel sat down to rest. He reviewed his own conduct with perfect complacency. "Not one man in a hundred could have managed that she-devil as I have done," he thought. "How shall I explain matters to Emily?"
Considering this question, he looked by chance at the unfinished crown of roses. "The very thing to help me!" he said--and took out his pocketbook, and wrote these lines on a blank page: "I have had a scene of jealousy with Miss de Sor, which is beyond all description. To spare _you_ a similar infliction, I have done violence to my own feelings. Instead of instantly obeying the message which you have so kindly sent to me, I remain here for a little while--entirely for your sake."
Having torn out the page, and twisted it up among the roses, so that only a corner of the paper appeared in view, Mirabel called to a lad who was at work in the garden, and gave him his directions, accompanied by a shilling. "Take those flowers to the servants' hall, and tell one of the maids to put them in Miss Brown's room. Stop! Which is the way to the fruit garden?"
The lad gave the necessary directions. Mirabel walked away slowly, with his hands in his pockets. His nerves had been shaken; he thought a little fruit might refresh him.