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(v) I recognise again, for the first of these three Tales, another instance of the growth of the "great oak" from the little acorn; since "What Maisie Knew" is at least a tree that spreads beyond any provision its small germ might on a first handling have appeared likely to make for it. The accidental mention had been made to me of the manner in which the situation of some luckless child of a divorced couple was affected, under my informant's eyes, by the remarriage of one of its parents--I forget which; so that, thanks to the limited desire for its company expressed by the step-parent, the law of its little life, its being entertained in rotation by its father and its mother, wouldn't easily prevail. Whereas each of these persons had at first vindictively desired to keep it from the other, so at present the re-married relative sought now rather to be rid of it--that is to leave it as much as possible, and beyond the appointed times and seasons, on the hands of the adversary; which malpractice, resented by the latter as bad faith, would of course be repaid and avenged by an equal treachery. The wretched infant was thus to find itself practically disowned, rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis-ball or a shuttlecock. This figure could but touch the fancy to the quick and strike one as the beginning of a story--a story commanding a great choice of developments. I recollect, however, promptly thinking that for a proper symmetry the second parent should marry too--which in the case named to me indeed would probably soon occur, and was in any case what the ideal of the situation required. The second step-parent would have but to be correspondingly incommoded by obligations to the offspring of a hated predecessor for the misfortune of the little victim to become altogether exemplary. The business would accordingly be (vi) sad enough, yet I am not sure its possibility of interest would so much have appealed to me had I not soon felt that the ugly facts, so stated or conceived, by no means constituted the whole appeal.
The light of an imagination touched by them couldn't help therefore projecting a further ray, thanks to which it became rather quaintly clear that, not less than the chance of misery and of a degraded state, the chance of happiness and of an improved state might be here involved for the child, round about whom the complexity of life would thus turn to fineness, to richness--and indeed would have but so to turn for the small creature to be steeped in security and ease. Sketchily clustered even, these elements gave out that vague pictorial glow which forms the first appeal of a living "subject" to the painter's consciousness; but the glimmer became intense as I proceeded to a further analysis. The further analysis is for that matter almost always the torch of rapture and victory, as the artist's firm hand grasps and plays it--I mean, naturally, of the smothered rapture and the obscure victory, enjoyed and celebrated not in the street but before some innermost shrine; the odds being a hundred to one, in almost any connexion, that it doesn't arrive by any easy first process at the BEST residuum of truth. That was the charm, sensibly, of the picture thus at first confusedly showing; the elements so couldn't but flush, to their very surface, with some deeper depth of irony than the mere obvious. It lurked in the crude postulate like a buried scent; the more the attention hovered the more aware it became of the fragrance. To which I may add that the more I scratched the surface and penetrated, the more potent, to the intellectual nostril, became this virtue. At last, accordingly, the residuum, as I have called it, reached, I was in presence of the red dramatic spark that glowed at the core of my vision and that, as I gently blew upon it, burned higher and clearer. This precious particle was the FULL ironic truth--the most interesting item to be read into the child's situation. For satisfaction of the mind, in other words, the small expanding consciousness would have to be (vii) saved, have to become presentable as a register of impressions; and saved by the experience of certain advantages, by some enjoyed profit and some achieved confidence, rather than coarsened, blurred, sterilised, by ignorance and pain. This better state, in the young life, would reside in the exercise of a function other than that of disconcerting the selfishness of its parents--which was all that had on the face of the matter seemed reserved to it in the way of criticism applied to their rupture. The early relation would be exchanged for a later; instead of simply submitting to the inherited tie and the imposed complication, of suffering from them, our little wonder-working agent would create, without design, quite fresh elements of this order--contribute, that is, to the formation of a fresh tie, from which it would then (and for all the world as if through a small demonic foresight) proceed to derive great profit.
This is but to say that the light in which the vision so readily grew to a wholeness was that of a second marriage on both sides; the father having, in the freedom of divorce, but to take another wife, as well as the mother, under a like licence, another husband, for the case to begin, at least, to stand beautifully on its feet. There would be thus a perfect logic for what might come--come even with the mere attribution of a certain sensibility (if but a mere relative fineness) to either of the new parties. Say the prime cause making for the ultimate attempt to shirk on one side or the other, and better still if on both, a due share of the decreed burden should have been, after all, in each progenitor, a constitutional inaptitude for ANY burden, and a base intolerance of it: we should thus get a motive not requiring, but happily dispensing with, too particular a perversity in the step-parents. The child seen as creating by the fact of its forlornness a relation between its step-parents, the more intimate the better, dramatically speaking; the child, by the mere appeal of neglectedness and the mere consciousness of relief, weaving about, with the best faith in the world, the close web of sophistication; the child becoming a centre and pretext for a fresh system of misbehaviour, a system moreover (viii) of a nature to spread and ramify: THERE would be the "full" irony, there the promising theme into which the hint I had originally picked up would logically flower. No themes are so human as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connexion of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us for ever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody's right and ease and the other somebody's pain and wrong. To live with all intensity and perplexity and felicity in its terribly mixed little world would thus be the part of my interesting small mortal; bringing people together who would be at least more correctly separate; keeping people separate who would be at least more correctly together; flourishing, to a degree, at the cost of many conventions and proprieties, even decencies; really keeping the torch of virtue alive in an air tending infinitely to smother it; really in short making confusion worse confounded by drawing some stray fragrance of an ideal across the scent of selfishness, by sowing on barren strands, through the mere fact of presence, the seed of the moral life.
All this would be to say, I at once recognised, that my light vessel of consciousness, swaying in such a draught, couldn't be with verisimilitude a rude little boy; since, beyond the fact that little boys are never so "present," the sensibility of the female young is indubitably, for early youth, the greater, and my plan would call, on the part of my protagonist, for "no end" of sensibility. I might impute that amount of it without extravagance to a slip of a girl whose faculties should have been well shaken up; but I should have so to depend on its action to keep my story clear that I must be able to show it in all assurance as naturally intense. To this end I should have of course to suppose for my heroine dispositions originally promising, but above all I should have to invest her with perceptions easily and almost infinitely quickened. So handsomely fitted out, yet not in a manner too grossly to affront probability, she might well see me through the whole course of my design; which design, more and more attractive as I turned it over, and dignified (ix) by the most delightful difficulty, would be to make and to keep her so limited consciousness the very field of my picture while at the same time guarding with care the integrity of the objects represented. With the charm of this possibility, therefore, the project for "Maisie" rounded itself and loomed large--any subject looming large, for that matter, I am bound to add, from the moment one is ridden by the law of entire expression. I have already elsewhere noted, I think, that the memory of my own work preserves for me no theme that, at some moment or other of its development, and always only waiting for the right connexion or chance, hasn't signally refused to remain humble, even (or perhaps all the more resentfully) when fondly selected for its conscious and hopeless humility. Once "out," like a house-dog of a temper above confinement, it defies the mere whistle, it roams, it hunts, it seeks out and "sees" life; it can be brought back but by hand and then only to take its futile thrashing. It wasn't at any rate for an idea seen in the light I here glance at not to have due warrant of its value--how could the value of a scheme so finely workable NOT be great? The one presented register of the whole complexity would be the play of the child's confused and obscure notation of it, and yet the whole, as I say, should be unmistakeably, should be honourably there, seen through the faint intelligence, or at the least attested by the imponderable presence, and still advertising its sense.
I recall that my first view of this neat possibility was as the attaching problem of the picture restricted (while yet achieving, as I say, completeness and coherency) to what the child might be conceived to have UNDERSTOOD--to have been able to interpret and appreciate. Further reflexion and experiment showed me my subject strangled in that extreme of rigour. The infant mind would at the best leave great gaps and voids; so that with a systematic surface possibly beyond reproach we should nevertheless fail of clearness of sense. I should have to stretch the matter to what my wondering witness materially and inevitably SAW; a great deal of which quantity she either wouldn't understand at all or (x) would quite misunderstand--and on those lines, only on those, my task would be prettily cut out. To that then I settled--to the question of giving it ALL, the whole situation surrounding her, but of giving it only through the occasions and connexions of her proximity and her attention; only as it might pass before her and appeal to her, as it might touch her and affect her, for better or worse, for perceptive gain or perceptive loss: so that we fellow witnesses, we not more invited but only more expert critics, should feel in strong possession of it. This would be, to begin with, a plan of absolutely definite and measurable application--that in itself always a mark of beauty; and I have been interested to find on re-perusal of the work that some such controlling grace successfully rules it. Nothing could be more "done," I think, in the light of its happiest intention; and this in spite of an appearance that at moments obscures my consistency. Small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them; their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger, than their prompt, their at all producible, vocabulary. Amusing therefore as it might at the first blush have seemed to restrict myself in this case to the terms as well as to the experience, it became at once plain that such an attempt would fail. Maisie's terms accordingly play their part--since her simpler conclusions quite depend on them; but our own commentary constantly attends and amplifies. This it is that on occasion, doubtless, seems to represent us as going so "behind" the facts of her spectacle as to exaggerate the activity of her relation to them. The difference here is but of a shade: it is her relation, her activity of spirit, that determines all our own concern--we simply take advantage of these things better than she herself. Only, even though it is her interest that mainly makes matters interesting for us, we inevitably note this in figures that are not yet at her command and that are nevertheless required whenever those aspects about her and those parts of her experience that she understands darken off into others that she rather tormentedly misses. All of which gave me a high (xi) firm logic to observe; supplied the force for which the straightener of almost any tangle is grateful while he labours, the sense of pulling at threads intrinsically worth it--strong enough and fine enough and entire enough.
Of course, beyond this, was another and well-nigh equal charm--equal in spite of its being almost independent of the acute constructional, the endless expressional question. This was the quite different question of the particular kind of truth of resistance I might be able to impute to my central figure--SOME intensity, some continuity of resistance being naturally of the essence of the subject. Successfully to resist (to resist, that is, the strain of observation and the assault of experience) what would that be, on the part of so young a person, but to remain fresh, and still fresh, and to have even a freshness to communicate?--the case being with Maisie to the end that she treats her friends to the rich little spectacle of objects embalmed in her wonder. She wonders, in other words, to the end, to the death--the death of her childhood, properly speaking; after which (with the inevitable shift, sooner or later, of her point of view) her situation will change and become another affair, subject to other measurements and with a new centre altogether. The particular reaction that will have led her to that point, and that it has been of an exquisite interest to study in her, will have spent itself; there will be another scale, another perspective, another horizon. Our business meanwhile therefore is to extract from her current reaction whatever it may be worth; and for that matter we recognise in it the highest exhibitional virtue. Truly, I reflect, if the theme had had no other beauty it would still have had this rare and distinguished one of its so expressing the variety of the child's values. She is not only the extraordinary "ironic centre" I have already noted; she has the wonderful importance of shedding a light far beyond any reach of her comprehension; of lending to poorer persons and things, by the mere fact of their being involved with her and by the special scale she creates for them, a precious element of dignity. I lose myself, truly, in appreciation (xii) of my theme on noting what she does by her "freshness" for appearances in themselves vulgar and empty enough. They become, as she deals with them, the stuff of poetry and tragedy and art; she has simply to wonder, as I say, about them, and they begin to have meanings, aspects, solidities, connexions--connexions with the "universal!"--that they could scarce have hoped for. Ida Farange alone, so to speak, or Beale alone, that is either of them otherwise connected--what intensity, what "objectivity" (the most developed degree of BEING anyhow thinkable for them) would they have? How would they repay at all the favour of our attention?
Maisie makes them portentous all by the play of her good faith, makes her mother above all, to my vision--unless I have wholly failed to render it--concrete, immense and awful; so that we get, for our profit, and get by an economy of process interesting in itself, the thoroughly pictured creature, the striking figured symbol. At two points in particular, I seem to recognise, we enjoy at its maximum this effect of associational magic. The passage in which her father's terms of intercourse with the insinuating but so strange and unattractive lady whom he has had the detestable levity to whisk her off to see late at night, is a signal example of the all but incalculable way in which interest may be constituted. The facts involved are that Beale Farange is ignoble, that the friend to whom he introduces his daughter is deplorable, and that from the commerce of the two, AS the two merely, we would fain avert our heads. Yet the thing has but to become a part of the child's bewilderment for these small sterilities to drop from it and for the SCENE to emerge and prevail--vivid, special, wrought hard, to the hardness of the unforgettable; the scene that is exactly what Beale and Ida and Mrs. Cuddon, and even Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale, would never for a moment have succeeded in making their scant unredeemed importances--namely APPRECIABLE. I find another instance in the episode of Maisie's unprepared encounter, while walking in the Park with Sir Claude, of her mother and that beguiled attendant of her mother, the encouraging, (xiii) the appealing "Captain," to whom this lady contrives to commit her for twenty minutes while she herself deals with the second husband. The human substance here would have seemed in advance well-nigh too poor for conversion, the three "mature" figures of too short a radiation, too stupid (SO stupid it was for Sir Claude to have married Ida!) too vain, too thin, for any clear application; but promptly, immediately, the child's own importance, spreading and contagiously acting, has determined the TOTAL value otherwise. Nothing of course, meanwhile, is an older story to the observer of manners and the painter of life than the grotesque finality with which such terms as "painful," "unpleasant" and "disgusting" are often applied to his results; to that degree, in truth, that the free use of them as weightily conclusive again and again re-enforces his estimate of the critical sense of circles in which they artlessly flourish. Of course under that superstition I was punctually to have had read to me the lesson that the "mixing-up" of a child with anything unpleasant confessed itself an aggravation of the unpleasantness, and that nothing could well be more disgusting than to attribute to Maisie so intimate an "acquaintance" with the gross immoralities surrounding her.
The only thing to say of such lucidities is that, however one may have "discounted" in advance, and as once for all, their general radiance, one is disappointed if the hour for them, in the particular connexion, doesn't strike--they so keep before us elements with which even the most sedate philosopher must always reckon. The painter of life has indeed work cut out for him when a considerable part of life offers itself in the guise of that sapience. The effort really to see and really to represent is no idle business in face of the CONSTANT force that makes for muddlement. The great thing is indeed that the muddled state too is one of the very sharpest of the realities, that it also has colour and form and character, has often in fact a broad and rich comicality, many of the signs and values of the appreciable. Thus it was to be, for example, I might gather, that the very principle of Maisie's appeal, her undestroyed freshness, in other words that vivacity (xiv) of intelligence by which she indeed does vibrate in the infected air, indeed does flourish in her immoral world, may pass for a barren and senseless thing, or at best a negligible one. For nobody to whom life at large is EASILY interesting do the finer, the shyer, the more anxious small vibrations, fine and shy and anxious with the passion that precedes knowledge, succeed in being negligible: which is doubtless one of many reasons why the passage between the child and the kindly, friendly, ugly gentleman who, seated with her in Kensington Gardens under a spreading tree, positively answers to her for her mother as no one has ever answered, and so stirs her, filially and morally, as she has never been stirred, throws into highest relief, to my sense at least, the side on which the subject is strong, and becomes the type-passage--other advantages certainly aiding, as I may say--for the expression of its beauty. The active, contributive close-circling wonder, as I have called it, in which the child's identity is guarded and preserved, and which makes her case remarkable exactly by the weight of the tax on it, provides distinction for her, provides vitality and variety, through the operation of the tax--which would have done comparatively little for us hadn't it been monstrous. A pity for us surely to have been deprived of this just reflexion. "Maisie" is of 1907.
I pass by, for the moment, the second of these compositions, finding in the third, which again deals with the experience of a very young person, a connexion more immediate; and this even at the risk of seeming to undermine my remark of a few pages back as to the comparative sensibility of the sexes. My urchin of "The Pupil" (1891) has sensibility in abundance, it would seem--and yet preserves in spite of it, I judge, his strong little male quality. But there are fifty things to say here; which indeed rush upon me within my present close limits in such a cloud as to demand much clearance. This is perhaps indeed but the aftersense of the assault made on my mind, as I perfectly recall, by every aspect of the original vision, which struck me as abounding in aspects. It lives again for me, this vision, as it first alighted; though the inimitable prime flutter, the air as of an ineffable sign (xv) made by the immediate beat of the wings of the poised figure of fancy that has just settled, is one of those guarantees of value that can never be re-captured. The sign has been made to the seer only--it is HIS queer affair; of which any report to others, not as yet involved, has but the same effect of flatness as attends, amid a group gathered under the canopy of night, any stray allusion to a shooting star. The miracle, since miracle it seems, is all for the candid exclaimer. The miracle for the author of "The Pupil," at any rate, was when, years ago, one summer day, in a very hot Italian railway-carriage, which stopped and dawdled everywhere, favouring conversation, a friend with whom I shared it, a doctor of medicine who had come from a far country to settle in Florence, happened to speak to me of a wonderful American family, an odd adventurous, extravagant band, of high but rather unauthenticated pretensions, the most interesting member of which was a small boy, acute and precocious, afflicted with a heart of weak action, but beautifully intelligent, who saw their prowling precarious life exactly as it was, and measured and judged it, and measured and judged THEM, all round, ever so quaintly; presenting himself in short as an extraordinary little person. Here was more than enough for a summer's day even in old Italy--here was a thumping windfall. No process and no steps intervened: I SAW, on the spot, little Morgan Moreen, I saw all the rest of the Moreens; I felt, to the last delicacy, the nature of my young friend's relation with them (he had become at once my young friend) and, by the same stroke, to its uttermost fine throb, the subjection to HIM of the beguiled, bewildered, defrauded, unremunerated, yet after all richly repaid youth who would to a certainty, under stress of compassion, embark with the tribe on tutorship, and whose edifying connexion with it would be my leading document.
This must serve as my account of the origin of "The Pupil": it will commend itself, I feel, to all imaginative and projective persons who have had--and what imaginative and projective person hasn't?--any like experience of the suddenly-determined ABSOLUTE of perception. The whole (xvi) cluster of items forming the image is on these occasions born at once; the parts are not pieced together, they conspire and interdepend; but what it really comes to, no doubt, is that at a simple touch an old latent and dormant impression, a buried germ, implanted by experience and then forgotten, flashes to the surface as a fish, with a single "squirm," rises to the baited hook, and there meets instantly the vivifying ray. I remember at all events having no doubt of anything or anyone here; the vision kept to the end its ease and its charm; it worked itself out with confidence. These are minor matters when the question is of minor results; yet almost any assured and downright imaginative act is--granted the sort of record in which I here indulge--worth fondly commemorating. One cherishes, after the fact, any proved case of the independent life of the imagination; above all if by that faculty one has been appointed mainly to live. We are then NEVER detached from the question of what it may out of simple charity do for us. Besides which, in relation to the poor Moreens, innumerable notes, as I have intimated, all equally urging their relevance, press here to the front. The general adventure of the little composition itself--for singular things were to happen to it, though among such importunities not the most worth noting now--would be, occasion favouring, a thing to live over; moving as one did, roundabout it, in I scarce know what thick and coloured air of slightly tarnished anecdote, of dim association, of casual confused romance; a compound defying analysis, but truly, for the social chronicler, any student in especial of the copious "cosmopolite" legend, a boundless and tangled, but highly explorable, garden. Why, somehow--these were the intensifying questions--did one see the Moreens, whom I place at Nice, at Venice, in Paris, as of the special essence of the little old miscellaneous cosmopolite Florence, the Florence of other, of irrecoverable years, the restless yet withal so convenient scene of a society that has passed away for ever with all its faded ghosts and fragile relics; immaterial presences that have quite ceased to revisit (trust an old romancer's, an old pious observer's fine sense (xvii) to have made sure of it!) walks and prospects once sacred and shaded, but now laid bare, gaping wide, despoiled of their past and unfriendly to any appreciation of it?--through which the unconscious Barbarians troop with the regularity and passivity of "supplies," or other promiscuous goods, prepaid and forwarded.
They had nothing to do, the dear Moreens, with this dreadful period, any more than I, as occupied and charmed with them, was humiliatingly subject to it; we were, all together, of a better romantic age and faith; we referred ourselves, with our highest complacency, to the classic years of the great Americano-European legend; the years of limited communication, of monstrous and unattenuated contrast, of prodigious and unrecorded adventure. The comparatively brief but infinitely rich "cycle" of romance embedded in the earlier, the very early American reactions and returns (mediaeval in the sense of being, at most, of the mid-century), what does it resemble to-day but a gold-mine overgrown and smothered, dislocated, and no longer workable?--all for want of the right indications for sounding, the right implements for digging, doubtless even of the right workmen, those with the right tradition and "feeling," for the job. The most extraordinary things appear to have happened, during that golden age, in the "old" countries--in Asia and Africa as well as in Europe--to the candid children of the West, things admirably incongruous and incredible; but no story of all the list was to find its just interpreter, and nothing is now more probable than that every key to interpretation has been lost. The modern reporter's big brushes, attached to broom-handles that match the height of his sky-scrapers, would sadly besmear the fine parchment of our missing record. We were to lose, clearly, at any rate, a vast body of precious anecdote, a long gallery of wonderful portraits, an array of the oddest possible figures in the oddest possible attitudes. The Moreens were of the family then of the great unstudied precursors--poor and shabby members, no doubt; dim and superseded types. I must add (xviii) indeed that, such as they were, or as they may at present incoherently appear, I don't pretend really to have "done" them; all I have given in "The Pupil" is little Morgan's troubled vision of them as reflected in the vision, also troubled enough, of his devoted friend. The manner of the thing may thus illustrate the author's incorrigible taste for gradations and superpositions of effect; his love, when it is a question of a picture, of anything that makes for proportion and perspective, that contributes to a view of ALL the dimensions. Addicted to seeing "through"--one thing through another, accordingly, and still other things through THAT--he takes, too greedily perhaps, on any errand, as many things as possible by the way. It is after this fashion that he incurs the stigma of labouring uncannily for a certain fulness of truth--truth diffused, distributed and, as it were, atmospheric.
The second in order of these fictions speaks for itself, I think, so frankly as scarce to suffer further expatiation. Its origin is written upon it large, and the idea it puts into play so abides in one of the commonest and most taken-for-granted of London impressions that some such experimentally-figured situation as that of "In the Cage" must again and again have flowered (granted the grain of observation) in generous minds. It had become for me, at any rate, an old story by the time (1898) I cast it into this particular form. The postal-telegraph office in general, and above all the small local office of one's immediate neighbourhood, scene of the transaction of so much of one's daily business, haunt of one's needs and one's duties, of one's labours and one's patiences, almost of one's rewards and one's disappointments, one's joys and one's sorrows, had ever had, to my sense, so much of London to give out, so much of its huge perpetual story to tell, that any momentary wait there seemed to take place in a strong social draught, the stiffest possible breeze of the human comedy. One had of course in these connexions one's especial resort, the office nearest one's own door, where one had come to enjoy in a manner the fruits of frequentation (xix) and the amenities of intercourse. So had grown up, for speculation--prone as one's mind had ever been to that form of waste--the question of what it might "mean," wherever the admirable service was installed, for confined and cramped and yet considerably tutored young officials of either sex to be made so free, intellectually, of a range of experience otherwise quite closed to them. This wonderment, once the spark was kindled, became an amusement, or an obsession, like another; though falling indeed, at the best, no doubt, but into that deepest abyss of all the wonderments that break out for the student of great cities. From the moment that he IS a student, this most beset of critics, his danger is inevitably of imputing to too many others, right and left, the critical impulse and the acuter vision--so very long may it take him to learn that the mass of mankind are banded, probably by the sanest of instincts, to defend themselves to the death against any such vitiation of their simplicity. To criticise is to appreciate, to appropriate, to take intellectual possession, to establish in fine a relation with the criticised thing and make it one's own. The large intellectual appetite projects itself thus on many things, while the small--not better advised, but unconscious of need for advice--projects itself on few.
Admirable thus its economic instinct; it is curious of nothing that it hasn't vital use for. You may starve in London, it is clear, without discovering a use for any theory of the more equal division of victuals--which is moreover exactly what it would appear that thousands of the non-speculative annually do. Their example is much to the point, in the light of all the barren trouble they are saved; but somehow, after all, it gives no pause to the "artist," to the morbid, imagination. That rash, that idle faculty continues to abound in questions, and to supply answers to as many of them as possible; all of which makes a great occupation for idleness. To the fantastic scale on which this last-named state may, in favoring [sic] conditions, organise itself, to the activities it may practise when the favouring conditions happen to crop up in Mayfair or in Kensington, our portrayal of the caged (xx) telegraphist may well appear a proper little monument. The composition before us tells in fact clearly enough, it seems to me, the story of its growth; and relevance will probably be found in any moral it may pluck--by which I mean any moral the impulse to have framed it may pluck--from the vice of reading rank subtleties into simple souls and reckless expenditure into thrifty ones. The matter comes back again, I fear, but to the author's irrepressible and insatiable, his extravagant and immoral, interest in personal character and in the "nature" of a mind, of almost any mind the heaving little sea of his subject may cast up--as to which these remarks have already, in other connexions, recorded his apology: all without prejudice to such shrines and stations of penance as still shall enliven our way. The range of wonderment attributed in our tale to the young woman employed at Cocker's differs little in essence from the speculative thread on which the pearls of Maisie's experience, in this same volume--pearls of so strange an iridescence--are mostly strung. She wonders, putting it simply, very much as Morgan Moreen wonders; and they all wonder, for that matter, very much after the fashion of our portentous little Hyacinth of "The Princess Casamassima," tainted to the core, as we have seen him, with the trick of mental reaction on the things about him and fairly staggering under the appropriations, as I have called them, that he owes to the critical spirit. He collapses, poor Hyacinth, like a thief at night, overcharged with treasures of reflexion and spoils of passion of which he can give, in his poverty and obscurity, no honest account.
It is much in this manner, we see on analysis, that Morgan Moreen breaks down--his burden indeed not so heavy, but his strength so much less formed. The two little spirits of maidens, in the group, bear up, oddly enough, beyond those of their brothers; but the just remark for each of these small exhibited lives is of course that, in the longer or the shorter piece, they are actively, are luxuriously, lived. The luxury is that of the number of their moral vibrations, well-nigh unrestricted--not that of (xxi) an account at the grocer's: whatever it be, at any rate, it makes them, as examples and "cases," rare. My brooding telegraphist may be in fact, on her ground of ingenuity, scarcely more thinkable than desirable; yet if I have made her but a libel, up and down the city, on an estimable class, I feel it still something to have admonished that class, even though obscurely enough, of neglected interests and undivined occasions. My central spirit, in the anecdote, is, for verisimilitude, I grant, too ardent a focus of divination; but without this excess the phenomena detailed would have lacked their principle of cohesion. The action of the drama is simply the girl's "subjective" adventure--that of her quite definitely winged intelligence; just as the catastrophe, just as the solution, depends on her winged wit. Why, however, should I explain further--for a case that, modestly as it would seem to present itself, has yet already whirled us so far? A course of incident complicated by the intervention of winged wit--which is here, as I say, confessed to--would be generally expected, I judge, to commit me to the explanation of everything. But from that undertaking I shrink, and take refuge instead, for an instant, in a much looser privilege.
If I speak, as just above, of the ACTION embodied, each time, in these so "quiet" recitals, it is under renewed recognition of the inveterate instinct with which they keep conforming to the "scenic" law. They demean themselves for all the world--they quite insist on it, that is, whenever they have a chance--as little constituted dramas, little exhibitions founded on the logic of the "scene," the unit of the scene, the general scenic consistency, and knowing little more than that. To read them over has been to find them on this ground never at fault. The process repeats and renews itself, moving in the light it has once for all adopted. These finer idiosyncracies [sic] of a literary form seem to be regarded as outside the scope of criticism--small reference to them do I remember ever to have met; such surprises of re-perusal, such recoveries of old fundamental intention, such moments of almost ruefully independent (xxii) discrimination, would doubtless in that case not have waylaid my steps. Going over the pages here placed together has been for me, at all events, quite to watch the scenic system at play. The treatment by "scene," regularly, quite rhythmically recurs; the intervals between, the massing of the elements to a different effect and by a quite other law, remain, in this fashion, all preparative, just as the scenic occasions in themselves become, at a given moment, illustrative, each of the agents, true to its function, taking up the theme from the other very much as the fiddles, in an orchestra, may take it up from the cornets and flutes, or the wind-instruments take it up from the violins. The point, however, is that the scenic passages are WHOLLY and logically scenic, having for their rule of beauty the principle of the "conduct," the organic development, of a scene--the entire succession of values that flower and bear fruit on ground solidly laid for them. The great advantage for the total effect is that we feel, with the definite alternation, how the theme IS being treated. That is we feel it when, in such tangled connexions, we happen to care. I shouldn't really go on as if this were the case with many readers.
Beginning of WHAT MAISIE KNEW
(3) The litigation had seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal the judgement of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child. The father, who, though bespattered from head to foot, had made good his case, was, in pursuance of this triumph, appointed to keep her: it was not so much that the mother's character had been more absolutely damaged as that the brilliancy of a lady's complexion (and this lady's, in court, was immensely remarked) might be more regarded as showing the spots. Attached, however, to the second pronouncement was a condition that detracted, for Beale Farange, from its sweetness--an order that he should refund to his late wife the twenty-six hundred pounds put down by her, as it was called, some three years before, in the interest of the child's maintenance and precisely on a proved understanding that he would take no proceedings: a sum of which he had had the administration and of which he could render not the least account. The obligation thus attributed to her adversary was no small balm to Ida's resentment; it drew a part of the sting from her defeat and compelled Mr. Farange perceptibly to lower his crest. He was unable to produce the money or to raise it in any way; so that after a squabble scarcely less public and scarcely more decent than the original shock (4) of battle his only issue from his predicament was a compromise proposed by his legal advisers and finally accepted by hers.
His debt was by this arrangement remitted to him and the little girl disposed of in a manner worthy of the judgement-seat of Solomon. She was divided in two and the portions tossed impartially to the disputants. They would take her, in rotation, for six months at a time; she would spend half the year with each. This was odd justice in the eyes of those who still blinked in the fierce light projected from the tribunal--a light in which neither parent figured in the least as a happy example to youth and innocence. What was to have been expected on the evidence was the nomination, in loco parentis, of some proper third person, some respectable or at least some presentable friend. Apparently, however, the circle of the Faranges had been scanned in vain for any such ornament; so that the only solution finally meeting all the difficulties was, save that of sending Maisie to a Home, the partition of the tutelary office in the manner I have mentioned. There were more reasons for her parents to agree to it than there had ever been for them to agree to anything; and they now prepared with her help to enjoy the distinction that waits upon vulgarity sufficiently attested. Their rupture had resounded, and after being perfectly insignificant together they would be decidedly striking apart. Had they not produced an impression that warranted people in looking for appeals in the newspapers for the rescue of the little one--reverberation, amid a vociferous public, of the idea that some movement (5) should be started or some benevolent person should come forward? A good lady came indeed a step or two: she was distantly related to Mrs. Farange, to whom she proposed that, having children and nurseries wound up and going, she should be allowed to take home the bone of contention and, by working it into her system, relieve at least one of the parents. This would make every time, for Maisie, after her inevitable six months with Beale, much more of a change.
"More of a change?" Ida cried. "Won't it be enough of a change for her to come from that low brute to the person in the world who detests him most?"
"No, because you detest him so much that you'll always talk to her about him. You'll keep him before her by perpetually abusing him."
Mrs. Farange stared. "Pray, then, am I to do nothing to counteract his villainous abuse of ME?"
The good lady, for a moment, made no reply: her silence was a grim judgement of the whole point of view. "Poor little monkey!" she at last exclaimed; and the words were an epitaph for the tomb of Maisie's childhood. She was abandoned to her fate. What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel for bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed. They had wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other. She should serve their anger and seal their revenge, for husband and wife had been alike crippled by the heavy hand of justice, which in the last resort met on neither side their indignant claim to get, as they called it, everything. If each was only to get half this seemed to concede that neither was so base as the other pretended, or, to put it differently, offered them both as bad indeed, since they were only as good as each other. The mother had wished to prevent the father from, as she said, "so much as looking" at the child; the father's plea was that the mother's lightest touch was "simply contamination." These were the opposed principles in which Maisie was to be educated--she was to fit them together as she might. Nothing could have been more touching at first than her failure to suspect the ordeal that awaited her little unspotted soul. There were persons horrified to think what those in charge of it would combine to try to make of it: no one could conceive in advance that they would be able to make nothing ill.
This was a society in which for the most part people were occupied only with chatter, but the disunited couple had at last grounds for expecting a time of high activity. They girded their loins, they felt as if the quarrel had only begun. They felt indeed more married than ever, inasmuch as what marriage had mainly suggested to them was the unbroken opportunity to quarrel. There had been "sides" before, and there were sides as much as ever; for the sider too the prospect opened out, taking the pleasant form of a superabundance of matter for desultory conversation. The many friends of the Faranges drew together to differ about them; contradiction (7) grew young again over teacups and cigars. Everybody was always assuring everybody of something very shocking, and nobody would have been jolly if nobody had been outrageous. The pair appeared to have a social attraction which failed merely as regards each other: it was indeed a great deal to be able to say for Ida that no one but Beale desired her blood, and for Beale that if he should ever have his eyes scratched out it would be only by his wife. It was generally felt, to begin with, that they were awfully good-looking--they had really not been analysed to a deeper residuum. They made up together for instance some twelve feet three of stature, and nothing was more discussed than the apportionment of this quantity. The sole flaw in Ida's beauty was a length and reach of arm conducive perhaps to her having so often beaten her ex-husband at billiards, a game in which she showed a superiority largely accountable, as she maintained, for the resentment finding expression in his physical violence. Billiards was her great accomplishment and the distinction her name always first produced the mention of. Notwithstanding some very long lines everything about her that might have been large and that in many women profited by the licence was, with a single exception, admired and cited for its smallness. The exception was her eyes, which might have been of mere regulation size, but which overstepped the modesty of nature; her mouth, on the other hand, was barely perceptible, and odds were freely taken as to the measurement of her waist. She was a person who, when she was out--and she was always (8) out--produced everywhere a sense of having been seen often, the sense indeed of a kind of abuse of visibility, so that it would have been, in the usual places, rather vulgar to wonder at her. Strangers only did that; but they, to the amusement of the familiar, did it very much: it was an inevitable way of betraying an alien habit. Like her husband she carried clothes, carried them as a train carries passengers: people had been known to compare their taste and dispute about the accommodation they gave these articles, though inclining on the whole to the commendation of Ida as less overcrowded, especially with jewellery and flowers. Beale Farange had natural decorations, a kind of costume in his vast fair beard, burnished like a gold breastplate, and in the eternal glitter of the teeth that his long moustache had been trained not to hide and that gave him, in every possible situation, the look of the joy of life. He had been destined in his youth for diplomacy and momentarily attached, without a salary, to a legation which enabled him often to say "In MY time in the East": but contemporary history had somehow had no use for him, had hurried past him and left him in perpetual Piccadilly. Every one knew what he had--only twenty-five hundred. Poor Ida, who had run through everything, had now nothing but her carriage and her paralysed uncle. This old brute, as he was called, was supposed to have a lot put away. The child was provided for, thanks to a crafty godmother, a defunct aunt of Beale's, who had left her something in such a manner that the parents could appropriate only the income.
(9) Chapter 1
The child was provided for, but the new arrangement was inevitably confounding to a young intelligence intensely aware that something had happened which must matter a good deal and looking anxiously out for the effects of so great a cause. It was to be the fate of this patient little girl to see much more than she at first understood, but also even at first to understand much more than any little girl, however patient, had perhaps ever understood before. Only a drummer-boy in a ballad or a story could have been so in the thick of the fight. She was taken into the confidence of passions on which she fixed just the stare she might have had for images bounding across the wall in the slide of a magic-lantern. Her little world was phantasmagoric--strange shadows dancing on a sheet. It was as if the whole performance had been given for her--a mite of a half-scared infant in a great dim theatre. She was in short introduced to life with a liberality in which the selfishness of others found its account, and there was nothing to avert the sacrifice but the modesty of her youth.
Her first term was with her father, who spared her only in not letting her have the wild letters addressed to her by her mother: he confined himself to holding them up at her and shaking them, while he showed his teeth, and then amusing her by the way he chucked them, across the room, bang into the fire. Even at (10) that moment, however, she had a scared anticipation of fatigue, a guilty sense of not rising to the occasion, feeling the charm of the violence with which the stiff unopened envelopes, whose big monograms--Ida bristled with monograms--she would have liked to see, were made to whizz, like dangerous missiles, through the air. The greatest effect of the great cause was her own greater importance, chiefly revealed to her in the larger freedom with which she was handled, pulled hither and thither and kissed, and the proportionately greater niceness she was obliged to show. Her features had somehow become prominent; they were so perpetually nipped by the gentlemen who came to see her father and the smoke of whose cigarettes went into her face. Some of these gentlemen made her strike matches and light their cigarettes; others, holding her on knees violently jolted, pinched the calves of her legs till she shrieked--her shriek was much admired--and reproached them with being toothpicks. The word stuck in her mind and contributed to her feeling from this time that she was deficient in something that would meet the general desire. She found out what it was: it was a congenital tendency to the production of a substance to which Moddle, her nurse, gave a short ugly name, a name painfully associated at dinner with the part of the joint that she didn't like. She had left behind her the time when she had no desires to meet, none at least save Moddle's, who, in Kensington Gardens, was always on the bench when she came back to see if she had been playing too far. Moddle's desire was merely that she shouldn't do that, and she met it so (11) easily that the only spots in that long brightness were the moments of her wondering what would become of her if, on her rushing back, there should be no Moddle on the bench. They still went to the Gardens, but there was a difference even there; she was impelled perpetually to look at the legs of other children and ask her nurse if THEY were toothpicks. Moddle was terribly truthful; she always said: "Oh my dear, you'll not find such another pair as your own." It seemed to have to do with something else that Moddle often said: "You feel the strain--that's where it is; and you'll feel it still worse, you know."
Thus from the first Maisie not only felt it, but knew she felt it. A part of it was the consequence of her father's telling her he felt it too, and telling Moddle, in her presence, that she must make a point of driving that home. She was familiar, at the age of six, with the fact that everything had been changed on her account, everything ordered to enable him to give himself up to her. She was to remember always the words in which Moddle impressed upon her that he did so give himself: "Your papa wishes you never to forget, you know, that he has been dreadfully put about." If the skin on Moddle's face had to Maisie the air of being unduly, almost painfully, stretched, it never presented that appearance so much as when she uttered, as she often had occasion to utter, such words. The child wondered if they didn't make it hurt more than usual; but it was only after some time that she was able to attach to the picture of her father's sufferings, and more particularly to her nurse's manner about them, the meaning for which (12) these things had waited. By the time she had grown sharper, as the gentlemen who had criticised her calves used to say, she found in her mind a collection of images and echoes to which meanings were attachable--images and echoes kept for her in the childish dusk, the dim closet, the high drawers, like games she wasn't yet big enough to play. The great strain meanwhile was that of carrying by the right end the things her father said about her mother--things mostly indeed that Moddle, on a glimpse of them, as if they had been complicated toys or difficult books, took out of her hands and put away in the closet. A wonderful assortment of objects of this kind she was to discover there later, all tumbled up too with the things, shuffled into the same receptacle, that her mother had said about her father.
She had the knowledge that on a certain occasion which every day brought nearer her mother would be at the door to take her away, and this would have darkened all the days if the ingenious Moddle hadn't written on a paper in very big easy words ever so many pleasures that she would enjoy at the other house. These promises ranged from "a mother's fond love" to "a nice poached egg to your tea," and took by the way the prospect of sitting up ever so late to see the lady in question dressed, in silks and velvets and diamonds and pearls, to go out: so that it was a real support to Maisie, at the supreme hour, to feel how, by Moddle's direction, the paper was thrust away in her pocket and there clenched in her fist. The supreme hour was to furnish her with a vivid reminiscence, that of a strange outbreak in the (13) drawing-room on the part of Moddle, who, in reply to something her father had just said, cried aloud: "You ought to be perfectly ashamed of yourself--you ought to blush, sir, for the way you go on!" The carriage, with her mother in it, was at the door; a gentleman who was there, who was always there, laughed out very loud; her father, who had her in his arms, said to Moddle: "My dear woman, I'll settle YOU presently!"--after which he repeated, showing his teeth more than ever at Maisie while he hugged her, the words for which her nurse had taken him up. Maisie was not at the moment so fully conscious of them as of the wonder of Moddle's sudden disrespect and crimson face; but she was able to produce them in the course of five minutes when, in the carriage, her mother, all kisses, ribbons, eyes, arms, strange sounds and sweet smells, said to her: "And did your beastly papa, my precious angel, send any message to your own loving mamma?" Then it was that she found the words spoken by her beastly papa to be, after all, in her little bewildered ears, from which, at her mother's appeal, they passed, in her clear shrill voice, straight to her little innocent lips. "He said I was to tell you, from him," she faithfully reported, "that you're a nasty horrid pig!"
(14) Chapter 2
In that lively sense of the immediate which is the very air of a child's mind the past, on each occasion, became for her as indistinct as the future: she surrendered herself to the actual with a good faith that might have been touching to either parent. Crudely as they had calculated they were at first justified by the event: she was the little feathered shuttlecock they could fiercely keep flying between them. The evil they had the gift of thinking or pretending to think of each other they poured into her little gravely-gazing soul as into a boundless receptacle, and each of them had doubtless the best conscience in the world as to the duty of teaching her the stern truth that should be her safeguard against the other. She was at the age for which all stories are true and all conceptions are stories. The actual was the absolute, the present alone was vivid. The objurgation for instance launched in the carriage by her mother after she had at her father's bidding punctually performed was a missive that dropped into her memory with the dry rattle of a letter falling into a pillar-box. Like the letter it was, as part of the contents of a well-stuffed post-bag, delivered in due course at the right address. In the presence of these overflowings, after they had continued for a couple of years, the associates of either party sometimes felt that something should be done for what they called "the real good, (15) don't you know?" of the child. The only thing done, however, in general, took place when it was sighingly remarked that she fortunately wasn't all the year round where she happened to be at the awkward moment, and that, furthermore, either from extreme cunning or from extreme stupidity, she appeared not to take things in.
The theory of her stupidity, eventually embraced by her parents, corresponded with a great date in her small still life: the complete vision, private but final, of the strange office she filled. It was literally a moral revolution and accomplished in the depths of her nature. The stiff dolls on the dusky shelves began to move their arms and legs; old forms and phrases began to have a sense that frightened her. She had a new feeling, the feeling of danger; on which a new remedy rose to meet it, the idea of an inner self or, in other words, of concealment. She puzzled out with imperfect signs, but with a prodigious spirit, that she had been a centre of hatred and a messenger of insult, and that everything was bad because she had been employed to make it so. Her parted lips locked themselves with the determination to be employed no longer. She would forget everything, she would repeat nothing, and when, as a tribute to the successful application of her system, she began to be called a little idiot, she tasted a pleasure new and keen. When therefore, as she grew older, her parents in turn announced before her that she had grown shockingly dull, it was not from any real contraction of her little stream of life. She spoiled their fun, but she practically added to her own. She (16) saw more and more; she saw too much. It was Miss Overmore, her first governess, who on a momentous occasion had sown the seeds of secrecy; sown them not by anything she said, but by a mere roll of those fine eyes which Maisie already admired. Moddle had become at this time, after alternations of residence of which the child had no clear record, an image faintly embalmed in the remembrance of hungry disappearances from the nursery and distressful lapses in the alphabet, sad embarrassments, in particular, when invited to recognise something her nurse described as "the important letter haitch." Miss Overmore, however hungry, never disappeared: this marked her somehow as of higher rank, and the character was confirmed by a prettiness that Maisie supposed to be extraordinary. Mrs. Farange had described her as almost too pretty, and some one had asked what that mattered so long as Beale wasn't there. "Beale or no Beale," Maisie had heard her mother reply, "I take her because she's a lady and yet awfully poor. Rather nice people, but there are seven sisters at home. What do people mean?"
Maisie didn't know what people meant, but she knew very soon all the names of all the sisters; she could say them off better than she could say the multiplication-table. She privately wondered moreover, though she never asked, about the awful poverty, of which her companion also never spoke. Food at any rate came up by mysterious laws; Miss Overmore never, like Moddle, had on an apron, and when she ate she held her fork with her little finger curled out. The child, who watched her at many moments, (17) watched her particularly at that one. "I think you're lovely," she often said to her; even mamma, who was lovely too, had not such a pretty way with the fork. Maisie associated this showier presence with her now being "big," knowing of course that nursery-governesses were only for little girls who were not, as she said, "really" little. She vaguely knew, further, somehow, that the future was still bigger than she, and that a part of what made it so was the number of governesses lurking in it and ready to dart out. Everything that had happened when she was really little was dormant, everything but the positive certitude, bequeathed from afar by Moddle, that the natural way for a child to have her parents was separate and successive, like her mutton and her pudding or her bath and her nap.
"DOES he know he lies?"--that was what she had vivaciously asked Miss Overmore on the occasion which was so suddenly to lead to a change in her life.
"Does he know--?" Miss Overmore stared; she had a stocking pulled over her hand and was pricking at it with a needle which she poised in the act. Her task was homely, but her movement, like all her movements, graceful.
"That he 'lies'?"
"That's what mamma says I'm to tell him--'that he lies and he knows he lies.' " Miss Overmore turned very red, though she laughed out till her head fell back; then she pricked again at her muffled hand so hard that Maisie wondered how she could (18) bear it. "AM I to tell him?" the child went on. It was then that her companion addressed her in the unmistakeable language of a pair of eyes of deep dark grey. "I can't say No," they replied as distinctly as possible; "I can't say No, because I'm afraid of your mamma, don't you see? Yet how can I say Yes after your papa has been so kind to me, talking to me so long the other day, smiling and flashing his beautiful teeth at me the time we met him in the Park, the time when, rejoicing at the sight of us, he left the gentlemen he was with and turned and walked with us, stayed with us for half an hour?" Somehow in the light of Miss Overmore's lovely eyes that incident came back to Maisie with a charm it hadn't had at the time, and this in spite of the fact that after it was over her governess had never but once alluded to it. On their way home, when papa had quitted them, she had expressed the hope that the child wouldn't mention it to mamma. Maisie liked her so, and had so the charmed sense of being liked by her, that she accepted this remark as settling the matter and wonderingly conformed to it. The wonder now lived again, lived in the recollection of what papa had said to Miss Overmore: "I've only to look at you to see you're a person I can appeal to for help to save my daughter." Maisie's ignorance of what she was to be saved from didn't diminish the pleasure of the thought that Miss Overmore was saving her. It seemed to make them cling together as in some wild game of "going round."
(19) Chapter 3
She was therefore all the more startled when her mother said to her in connexion with something to be done before her next migration: "You understand of course that she's not going with you."
Maisie turned quite faint. "Oh I thought she was."
"It doesn't in the least matter, you know, what you think," Mrs. Farange loudly replied; "and you had better indeed for the future, miss, learn to keep your thoughts to yourself." This was exactly what Maisie had already learned, and the accomplishment was just the source of her mother's irritation. It was of a horrid little critical system, a tendency, in her silence, to judge her elders, that this lady suspected her, liking as she did, for her own part, a child to be simple and confiding. She liked also to hear the report of the whacks she administered to Mr. Farange's character, to his pretensions to peace of mind: the satisfaction of dealing them diminished when nothing came back. The day was at hand, and she saw it, when she should feel more delight in hurling Maisie at him than in snatching her away; so much so that her conscience winced under the acuteness of a candid friend who had remarked that the real end of all their tugging would be that each parent would try to make the little girl a burden to the other--a sort of game in which a fond mother clearly wouldn't show to advantage. The prospect (20) of not showing to advantage, a distinction in which she held she had never failed, begot in Ida Farange an ill humour of which several persons felt the effect. She determined that Beale at any rate should feel it; she reflected afresh that in the study of how to be odious to him she must never give way. Nothing could incommode him more than not to get the good, for the child, of a nice female appendage who had clearly taken a fancy to her. One of the things Ida said to the appendage was that Beale's was a house in which no decent woman could consent to be seen. It was Miss Overmore herself who explained to Maisie that she had had a hope of being allowed to accompany her to her father's, and that this hope had been dashed by the way her mother took it. "She says that if I ever do such a thing as enter his service I must never expect to show my face in this house again. So I've promised not to attempt to go with you. If I wait patiently till you come back here we shall certainly be together once more."
Waiting patiently, and above all waiting till she should come back there, seemed to Maisie a long way round--it reminded her of all the things she had been told, first and last, that she should have if she'd be good and that in spite of her goodness she had never had at all. "Then who'll take care of me at papa's?"
"Heaven only knows, my own precious!" Miss Overmore replied, tenderly embracing her. There was indeed no doubt that she was dear to this beautiful friend. What could have proved it better than the fact that before a week was out, in spite of their (21) distressing separation and her mother's prohibition and Miss Overmore's scruples and Miss Overmore's promise, the beautiful friend had turned up at her father's? The little lady already engaged there to come by the hour, a fat dark little lady with a foreign name and dirty fingers, who wore, throughout, a bonnet that had at first given her a deceptive air, too soon dispelled, of not staying long, besides asking her pupil questions that had nothing to do with lessons, questions that Beale Farange himself, when two or three were repeated to him, admitted to be awfully low--this strange apparition faded before the bright creature who had braved everything for Maisie's sake. The bright creature told her little charge frankly what had happened--that she had really been unable to hold out. She had broken her vow to Mrs. Farange; she had struggled for three days and then had come straight to Maisie's papa and told him the simple truth. She adored his daughter; she couldn't give her up; she'd make for her any sacrifice. On this basis it had been arranged that she should stay; her courage had been rewarded; she left Maisie in no doubt as to the amount of courage she had required. Some of the things she said made a particular impression on the child--her declaration for instance that when her pupil should get older she'd understand better just how "dreadfully bold" a young lady, to do exactly what she had done, had to be.
"Fortunately your papa appreciates it; he appreciates it IMMENSELY"--that was one of the things Miss Overmore also said, with a striking insistence (22) on the adverb. Maisie herself was no less impressed with what this martyr had gone through, especially after hearing of the terrible letter that had come from Mrs. Farange. Mamma had been so angry that, in Miss Overmore's own words, she had loaded her with insult--proof enough indeed that they must never look forward to being together again under mamma's roof. Mamma's roof, however, had its turn, this time, for the child, of appearing but remotely contingent, so that, to reassure her, there was scarce a need of her companion's secret, solemnly confided--the probability there would be no going back to mamma at all. It was Miss Overmore's private conviction, and a part of the same communication, that if Mr. Farange's daughter would only show a really marked preference she would be backed up by "public opinion" in holding on to him. Poor Maisie could scarcely grasp that incentive, but she could surrender herself to the day. She had conceived her first passion, and the object of it was her governess. It hadn't been put to her, and she couldn't, or at any rate she didn't, put it to herself, that she liked Miss Overmore better than she liked papa; but it would have sustained her under such an imputation to feel herself able to reply that papa too liked Miss Overmore exactly as much. He had particularly told her so. Besides she could easily see it.
(23) Chapter 4
All this led her on, but it brought on her fate as well, the day when her mother would be at the door in the carriage in which Maisie now rode on no occasions but these. There was no question at present of Miss Overmore's going back with her: it was universally recognised that her quarrel with Mrs. Farange was much too acute. The child felt it from the first; there was no hugging nor exclaiming as that lady drove her away--there was only a frightening silence, unenlivened even by the invidious enquiries of former years, which culminated, according to its stern nature, in a still more frightening old woman, a figure awaiting her on the very doorstep. "You're to be under this lady's care," said her mother. "Take her, Mrs. Wix," she added, addressing the figure impatiently and giving the child a push from which Maisie gathered that she wished to set Mrs. Wix an example of energy. Mrs. Wix took her and, Maisie felt the next day, would never let her go. She had struck her at first, just after Miss Overmore, as terrible; but something in her voice at the end of an hour touched the little girl in a spot that had never even yet been reached. Maisie knew later what it was, though doubtless she couldn't have made a statement of it: these were things that a few days' talk with Mrs. Wix quite lighted up. The principal one was a matter Mrs. Wix herself always immediately (24) mentioned: she had had a little girl quite of her own, and the little girl had been killed on the spot. She had had absolutely nothing else in all the world, and her affliction had broken her heart. It was comfortably established between them that Mrs. Wix's heart was broken. What Maisie felt was that she had been, with passion and anguish, a mother, and that this was something Miss Overmore was not, something (strangely, confusingly) that mamma was even less.
So it was that in the course of an extraordinarily short time she found herself as deeply absorbed in the image of the little dead Clara Matilda, who, on a crossing in the Harrow Road, had been knocked down and crushed by the cruellest of hansoms, as she had ever found herself in the family group made vivid by one of seven. "She's your little dead sister," Mrs. Wix ended by saying, and Maisie, all in a tremor of curiosity and compassion, addressed from that moment a particular piety to the small accepted acquisition. Somehow she wasn't a real sister, but that only made her the more romantic. It contributed to this view of her that she was never to be spoken of in that character to any one else--least of all to Mrs. Farange, who wouldn't care for her nor recognise the relationship: it was to be just an unutterable and inexhaustible little secret with Mrs. Wix. Maisie knew everything about her that could be known, everything she had said or done in her little mutilated life, exactly how lovely she was, exactly how her hair was curled and her frocks were trimmed. Her hair came down far below her waist--it was of the most wonderful golden brightness, (25) just as Mrs. Wix's own had been a long time before. Mrs. Wix's own was indeed very remarkable still, and Maisie had felt at first that she should never get on with it. It played a large part in the sad and strange appearance, the appearance as of a kind of greasy greyness, which Mrs. Wix had presented on the child's arrival. It had originally been yellow, but time had turned that elegance to ashes, to a turbid sallow unvenerable white. Still excessively abundant, it was dressed in a manner of which the poor lady appeared not yet to have recognised the supersession, with a glossy braid, like a large diadem, on the top of the head, and behind, at the nape of the neck, a dingy rosette like a large button. She wore glasses which, in humble reference to a divergent obliquity of vision, she called her straighteners, and a little ugly snuff-coloured dress trimmed with satin bands in the form of scallops and glazed with antiquity. The straighteners, she explained to Maisie, were put on for the sake of others, whom, as she believed, they helped to recognise the bearing, otherwise doubtful, of her regard; the rest of the melancholy garb could only have been put on for herself. With the added suggestion of her goggles it reminded her pupil of the polished shell or corslet of a horrid beetle. At first she had looked cross and almost cruel; but this impression passed away with the child's increased perception of her being in the eyes of the world a figure mainly to laugh at. She was as droll as a charade or an animal toward the end of the "natural history"--a person whom people, to make talk lively, described to each other and imitated. Every one knew the (26) straighteners; every one knew the diadem and the button, the scallops and satin bands; every one, though Maisie had never betrayed her, knew even Clara Matilda.
It was on account of these things that mamma got her for such low pay, really for nothing: so much, one day when Mrs. Wix had accompanied her into the drawing-room and left her, the child heard one of the ladies she found there--a lady with eyebrows arched like skipping-ropes and thick black stitching, like ruled lines for musical notes on beautiful white gloves--announce to another. She knew governesses were poor; Miss Overmore was unmentionably and Mrs. Wix ever so publicly so. Neither this, however, nor the old brown frock nor the diadem nor the button, made a difference for Maisie in the charm put forth through everything, the charm of Mrs. Wix's conveying that somehow, in her ugliness and her poverty, she was peculiarly and soothingly safe; safer than any one in the world, than papa, than mamma, than the lady with the arched eyebrows; safer even, though so much less beautiful, than Miss Overmore, on whose loveliness, as she supposed it, the little girl was faintly conscious that one couldn't rest with quite the same tucked-in and kissed-for-good-night feeling. Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave. It was from something in Mrs. Wix's tone, which in spite of caricature remained indescribable and inimitable, that Maisie, before her term with her mother was over, drew this sense of a (27) support, like a breast-high banister in a place of "drops," that would never give way. If she knew her instructress was poor and queer she also knew she was not nearly so "qualified" as Miss Overmore, who could say lots of dates straight off (letting you hold the book yourself) [sic] state the position of Malabar, play six pieces without notes and, in a sketch, put in beautifully the trees and houses and difficult parts. Maisie herself could play more pieces than Mrs. Wix, who was moreover visibly ashamed of her houses and trees and could only, with the help of a smutty forefinger, of doubtful legitimacy in the field of art, do the smoke coming out of the chimneys.
They dealt, the governess and her pupil, in "subjects," but there were many the governess put off from week to week and that they never got to at all: she only used to say "We'll take that in its proper order." Her order was a circle as vast as the untravelled globe. She had not the spirit of adventure--the child could perfectly see how many subjects she was afraid of. She took refuge on the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed there curled the blue river of truth. She knew swarms of stories, mostly those of the novels she had read; relating them with a memory that never faltered and a wealth of detail that was Maisie's delight. They were all about love and beauty and countesses and wickedness. Her conversation was practically an endless narrative, a great garden of romance, with sudden vistas into her own life and gushing fountains of homeliness. These were the parts where they most lingered; she made the child take with her again every step of (28) her long, lame course and think it beyond magic or monsters. Her pupil acquired a vivid vision of every one who had ever, in her phrase, knocked against her--some of them oh so hard!--every one literally but Mr. Wix, her husband, as to whom nothing was mentioned save that he had been dead for ages. He had been rather remarkably absent from his wife's career, and Maisie was never taken to see his grave.
(29) Chapter 5
The second parting from Miss Overmore had been bad enough, but this first parting from Mrs. Wix was much worse. The child had lately been to the dentist's and had a term of comparison for the screwed-up intensity of the scene. It was dreadfully silent, as it had been when her tooth was taken out; Mrs. Wix had on that occasion grabbed her hand and they had clung to each other with the frenzy of their determination not to scream. Maisie, at the dentist's, had been heroically still, but just when she felt most anguish had become aware of an audible shriek on the part of her companion, a spasm of stifled sympathy. This was reproduced by the only sound that broke their supreme embrace when, a month later, the "arrangement," as her periodical uprootings were called, played the part of the horrible forceps. Embedded in Mrs. Wix's nature as her tooth had been socketed in her gum, the operation of extracting her would really have been a case for chloroform. It was a hug that fortunately left nothing to say, for the poor woman's want of words at such an hour seemed to fall in with her want of everything. Maisie's alternate parent, in the outermost vestibule--he liked the impertinence of crossing as much as that of his late wife's threshold--stood over them with his open watch and his still more open grin, while from the only corner of an eye on which something of Mrs. Wix's didn't impinge (30) the child saw at the door a brougham in which Miss Overmore also waited. She remembered the difference when, six months before, she had been torn from the breast of that more spirited protectress. Miss Overmore, then also in the vestibule, but of course in the other one, had been thoroughly audible and voluble; her protest had rung out bravely and she had declared that something--her pupil didn't know exactly what--was a regular wicked shame. That had at the time dimly recalled to Maisie the far-away moment of Moddle's great outbreak: there seemed always to be "shames" connected in one way or another with her migrations. At present, while Mrs. Wix's arms tightened and the smell of her hair was strong, she further remembered how, in pacifying Miss Overmore, papa had made use of the words "you dear old duck!"--an expression which, by its oddity, had stuck fast in her young mind, having moreover a place well prepared for it there by what she knew of the governess whom she now always mentally characterised as the pretty one. She wondered whether this affection would be as great as before: that would at all events be the case with the prettiness Maisie could see in the face which showed brightly at the window of the brougham.
The brougham was a token of harmony, of the fine conditions papa would this time offer: he had usually come for her in a hansom, with a four-wheeler behind for the boxes. The four-wheeler with the boxes on it was actually there, but mamma was the only lady with whom she had ever been in a conveyance of the kind always of old spoken of by Moddle as a private (31) carriage. Papa's carriage was, now that he had one, still more private, somehow, than mamma's; and when at last she found herself quite on top, as she felt, of its inmates and gloriously rolling away, she put to Miss Overmore, after another immense and talkative squeeze, a question of which the motive was a desire for information as to the continuity of a certain sentiment. "Did papa like you just the same while I was gone?" she enquired--full of the sense of how markedly his favour had been established in her presence. She had bethought herself that this favour might, like her presence and as if depending on it, be only intermittent and for the season. Papa, on whose knee she sat, burst into one of those loud laughs of his that, however prepared she was, seemed always, like some trick in a frightening game, to leap forth and make her jump. Before Miss Overmore could speak he replied: "Why, you little donkey, when you're away what have I left to do but just to love her?" Miss Overmore hereupon immediately took her from him, and they had a merry little scrimmage over her of which Maisie caught the surprised perception in the white stare of an old lady who passed in a victoria. Then her beautiful friend remarked to her very gravely: "I shall make him understand that if he ever again says anything as horrid as that to you I shall carry you straight off and we'll go and live somewhere together and be good quiet little girls." The child couldn't quite make out why her father's speech had been horrid, since it only expressed that appreciation which their companion herself had of old described as "immense." (32) To enter more into the truth of the matter she appealed to him again directly, asked if in all those months Miss Overmore hadn't been with him just as she had been before and just as she would be now. "Of course she has, old girl--where else could the poor dear be?" cried Beale Farange, to the still greater scandal of their companion, who protested that unless he straightway "took back" his nasty wicked fib it would be, this time, not only him she would leave, but his child too and his house and his tiresome troubles--all the impossible things he had succeeded in putting on her. Beale, under this frolic menace, took nothing back at all; he was indeed apparently on the point of repeating his extravagance, but Miss Overmore instructed her little charge that she was not to listen to his bad jokes: she was to understand that a lady couldn't stay with a gentleman that way without some awfully proper reason.
Maisie looked from one of her companions to the other; this was the freshest gayest start she had yet enjoyed, but she had a shy fear of not exactly believing them. "Well, what reason IS proper?" she thoughtfully demanded.
"Oh a long-legged stick of a tomboy: there's none so good as that." Her father enjoyed both her drollery and his own and tried again to get possession of her--an effort deprecated by their comrade and leading again to something of a public scuffle. Miss Overmore declared to the child that she had been all the while with good friends; on which Beale Farange went on: "She means good friends of mine, you know--tremendous friends of mine. There has (33) been no end of THEM about--that I WILL say for her!" Maisie felt bewildered and was afterwards for some time conscious of a vagueness, just slightly embarrassing, as to the subject of so much amusement and as to where her governess had really been. She didn't feel at all as if she had been seriously told, and no such feeling was supplied by anything that occurred later. Her embarrassment, of a precocious instinctive order, attached itself to the idea that this was another of the matters it was not for her, as her mother used to say, to go into. Therefore, under her father's roof during the time that followed, she made no attempt to clear up her ambiguity by an ingratiating way with housemaids; and it was an odd truth that the ambiguity itself took nothing from the fresh pleasure promised her by renewed contact with Miss Overmore. The confidence looked for by that young lady was of the fine sort that explanation can't improve, and she herself at any rate was a person superior to any confusion. For Maisie moreover concealment had never necessarily seemed deception; she had grown up among things as to which her foremost knowledge was that she was never to ask about them. It was far from new to her that the questions of the small are the peculiar diversion of the great: except the affairs of her doll Lisette there had scarcely ever been anything at her mother's that was explicable with a grave face. Nothing was so easy to her as to send the ladies who gathered there off into shrieks, and she might have practised upon them largely if she had been of a more calculating turn. Everything had something behind it: life was like a long, long (34) corridor with rows of closed doors. She had learned that at these doors it was wise not to knock--this seemed to produce from within such sounds of derision. Little by little, however, she understood more, for it befell that she was enlightened by Lisette's questions, which reproduced the effect of her own upon those for whom she sat in the very darkness of Lisette. Was she not herself convulsed by such innocence? In the presence of it she often imitated the shrieking ladies. There were at any rate things she really couldn't tell even a French doll. She could only pass on her lessons and study to produce on Lisette the impression of having mysteries in her life, wondering the while whether she succeeded in the air of shading off, like her mother, into the unknowable. When the reign of Miss Overmore followed that of Mrs. Wix she took a fresh cue, emulating her governess and bridging over the interval with the simple expectation of trust. Yes, there were matters one couldn't "go into" with a pupil. There were for instance days when, after prolonged absence, Lisette, watching her take off her things, tried hard to discover where she had been. Well, she discovered a little, but never discovered all. There was an occasion when, on her being particularly indiscreet, Maisie replied to her--and precisely about the motive of a disappearance--as she, Maisie, had once been replied to by Mrs. Farange: "Find out for yourself!" She mimicked her mother's sharpness, but she was rather ashamed afterwards, though as to whether of the sharpness or of the mimicry was not quite clear.
(35) Chapter 6
She became aware in time that this phase wouldn't have shone by lessons, the care of her education being now only one of the many duties devolving on Miss Overmore; a devolution as to which she was present at various passages between that lady and her father--passages significant, on either side, of dissent and even of displeasure. It was gathered by the child on these occasions that there was something in the situation for which her mother might "come down" on them all, though indeed the remark, always dropped by her father, was greeted on his companion's part with direct contradiction. Such scenes were usually brought to a climax by Miss Overmore's demanding, with more asperity than she applied to any other subject, in what position under the sun such a person as Mrs. Farange would find herself for coming down. As the months went on the little girl's interpretations thickened, and the more effectually that this stretch was the longest she had known without a break. She got used to the idea that her mother, for some reason, was in no hurry to reinstate her: that idea was forcibly expressed by her father whenever Miss Overmore, differing and decided, took him up on the question, which he was always putting forward, of the urgency of sending her to school. For a governess Miss Overmore differed surprisingly; far more for instance than would (36) have entered into the bowed head of Mrs. Wix. She observed to Maisie many times that she was quite conscious of not doing her justice, and that Mr. Farange equally measured and equally lamented this deficiency. The reason of it was that she had mysterious responsibilities that interfered--responsibilities, Miss Overmore intimated, to Mr. Farange himself and to the friendly noisy little house and those who came there. Mr. Farange's remedy for every inconvenience was that the child should be put at school--there were such lots of splendid schools, as everybody knew, at Brighton and all over the place. That, however, Maisie learned, was just what would bring her mother down: from the moment he should delegate to others the housing of his little charge he hadn't a leg to stand on before the law. Didn't he keep her away from her mother precisely because Mrs. Farange was one of these others?
There was also the solution of a second governess, a young person to come in by the day and really do the work; but to this Miss Overmore wouldn't for a moment listen, arguing against it with great public relish and wanting to know from all comers--she put it even to Maisie herself--if they didn't see how frightfully it would give her away. "What am I supposed to be at all, don't you see, if I'm not here to look after her?" She was in a false position and so freely and loudly called attention to it that it seemed to become almost a source of glory. The way out of it of course was just to do her plain duty; but that was unfortunately what, with his excessive, his exorbitant demands on her, which every one indeed (37) appeared quite to understand, he practically, he selfishly prevented. Beale Farange, for Miss Overmore, was now never anything but "he," and the house was as full as ever of lively gentlemen with whom, under that designation, she chaffingly talked about him. Maisie meanwhile, as a subject of familiar gossip on what was to be done with her, was left so much to herself that she had hours of wistful thought of the large loose discipline of Mrs. Wix; yet she none the less held it under her father's roof a point of superiority that none of his visitors were ladies. It added to this odd security that she had once heard a gentleman say to him as if it were a great joke and in obvious reference to Miss Overmore: "Hanged if she'll let another woman come near you--hanged if she ever will. She'd let fly a stick at her as they do at a strange cat!" Maisie greatly preferred gentlemen as inmates in spite of their also having their way--louder but sooner over--of laughing out at her. They pulled and pinched, they teased and tickled her; some of them even, as they termed it, shied things at her, and all of them thought it funny to call her by names having no resemblance to her own. The ladies on the other hand addressed her as "You poor pet" and scarcely touched her even to kiss her. But it was of the ladies she was most afraid.
She was now old enough to understand how disproportionate a stay she had already made with her father; and also old enough to enter a little into the ambiguity attending this excess, which oppressed her particularly whenever the question had been touched upon (38) in talk with her governess. "Oh you needn't worry: she doesn't care!" Miss Overmore had often said to her in reference to any fear that her mother might resent her prolonged detention. "She has other people than poor little YOU to think about, and has gone abroad with them; so you needn't be in the least afraid she'll stickle this time for her rights." Maisie knew Mrs. Farange had gone abroad, for she had had weeks and weeks before a letter from her beginning "My precious pet" and taking leave of her for an indeterminate time; but she had not seen in it a renunciation of hatred or of the writer's policy of asserting herself, for the sharpest of all her impressions had been that there was nothing her mother would ever care so much about as to torment Mr. Farange. What at last, however, was in this connexion bewildering and a little frightening was the dawn of a suspicion that a better way had been found to torment Mr. Farange than to deprive him of his periodical burden. This was the question that worried our young lady and that Miss Overmore's confidences and the frequent observations of her employer only rendered more mystifying. It was a contradiction that if Ida had now a fancy for waiving the rights she had originally been so hot about her late husband shouldn't jump at the monopoly for which he had also in the first instance so fiercely fought; but when Maisie, with a subtlety beyond her years, sounded this new ground her main success was in hearing her mother more freshly abused. Miss Overmore had up to now rarely deviated from a decent reserve, but the day came when she expressed herself with a vividness (39) not inferior to Beale's own on the subject of the lady who had fled to the Continent to wriggle out of her job. It would serve this lady right, Maisie gathered, if that contract, in the shape of an overgrown and underdressed daughter, should be shipped straight out to her and landed at her feet in the midst of scandalous excesses.
The picture of these pursuits was what Miss Overmore took refuge in when the child tried timidly to ascertain if her father were disposed to feel he had too much of her. She evaded the point and only kicked up all round it the dust of Ida's heartlessness and folly, of which the supreme proof, it appeared, was the fact that she was accompanied on her journey by a gentleman whom, to be painfully plain on it, she had--well, "picked up." The only terms on which, unless they were married, ladies and gentlemen might, as Miss Overmore expressed it, knock about together, were the terms on which she and Mr. Farange had exposed themselves to possible misconception. She had indeed, as has been noted, often explained this before, often said to Maisie: "I don't know what in the world, darling, your father and I should do without you, for you just make the difference, as I've told you, of keeping us perfectly proper." The child took in the office it was so endearingly presented to her that she performed a comfort that helped her to a sense of security even in the event of her mother's giving her up. Familiar as she had grown with the fact of the great alternative to the proper, she felt in her governess and her father a strong reason for not emulating that detachment. At the same time she (40) had heard somehow of little girls--of exalted rank, it was true--whose education was carried on by instructors of the other sex, and she knew that if she were at school at Brighton it would be thought an advantage to her to be more or less in the hands of masters. She turned these things over and remarked to Miss Overmore that if she should go to her mother perhaps the gentleman might become her tutor.
"The gentleman?" The proposition was complicated enough to make Miss Overmore stare.
"The one who's with mamma. Mightn't that make it right--as right as your being my governess makes it for you to be with papa?"
Miss Overmore considered; she coloured a little; then she embraced her ingenious friend. "You're too sweet! I'm a REAL governess."
"And couldn't he be a real tutor?"
"Of course not. He's ignorant and bad."
"Bad--?" Maisie echoed with wonder.
Her companion gave a queer little laugh at her tone. "He's ever so much younger--" But that was all.
"Younger than you?"
Miss Overmore laughed again; it was the first time Maisie had seen her approach so nearly to a giggle. "Younger than--no matter whom. I don't know anything about him and don't want to," she rather inconsequently added. "He's not my sort, and I'm sure, my own darling, he's not yours." And she repeated the free caress into which her colloquies with Maisie almost always broke and which made the child feel that HER affection at least (41) was a gage of safety. Parents had come to seem vague, but governesses were evidently to be trusted. Maisie's faith in Mrs. Wix for instance had suffered no lapse from the fact that all communication with her had temporarily dropped. During the first weeks of their separation Clara Matilda's mamma had repeatedly and dolefully written to her, and Maisie had answered with an enthusiasm controlled only by orthographical doubts; but the correspondence had been duly submitted to Miss Overmore, with the final effect of its not suiting her. It was this lady's view that Mr. Farange wouldn't care for it at all, and she ended by confessing--since her pupil pushed her--that she didn't care for it herself. She was furiously jealous, she said; and that weakness was but a new proof of her disinterested affection. She pronounced Mrs. Wix's effusions moreover illiterate and unprofitable; she made no scruple of declaring it monstrous that a woman in her senses should have placed the formation of her daughter's mind in such ridiculous hands. Maisie was well aware that the proprietress of the old brown dress and the old odd headgear was lower in the scale of "form" than Miss Overmore; but it was now brought home to her with pain that she was educationally quite out of the question. She was buried for the time beneath a conclusive remark of her critic's: "She's really beyond a joke!" This remark was made as that charming woman held in her hand the last letter that Maisie was to receive from Mrs. Wix; it was fortified by a decree proscribing the preposterous tie. "Must I then write and tell her?" the child bewilderedly asked: she (43) grew pale at the dreadful things it appeared involved for her to say. "Don't dream of it, my dear--I'LL write: you may trust me!" cried Miss Overmore; who indeed wrote to such purpose that a hush in which you could have heard a pin drop descended upon poor Mrs. Wix. She gave for weeks and weeks no sign whatever of life: it was as if she had been as effectually disposed of by Miss Overmore's communication as her little girl, in the Harrow Road, had been disposed of by the terrible hansom. Her very silence became after this one of the largest elements of Maisie's consciousness; it proved a warm and habitable air, into which the child penetrated further than she dared ever to mention to her companions. Somewhere in the depths of it the dim straighteners were fixed upon her; somewhere out of the troubled little current Mrs. Wix intensely waited.
(43) Chapter 7
It quite fell in with this intensity that one day, on returning from a walk with the housemaid, Maisie should have found her in the hall, seated on the stool usually occupied by the telegraph-boys who haunted Beale Farange's door and kicked their heels while, in his room, answers to their missives took form with the aid of smoke-puffs and growls. It had seemed to her on their parting that Mrs. Wix had reached the last limits of the squeeze, but she now felt those limits to be transcended and that the duration of her visitor's hug was a direct reply to Miss Overmore's veto. She understood in a flash how the visit had come to be possible--that Mrs. Wix, watching her chance, must have slipped in under protection of the fact that papa, always tormented in spite of arguments with the idea of a school, had, for a three days' excursion to Brighton, absolutely insisted on the attendance of her adversary. It was true that when Maisie explained their absence and their important motive Mrs. Wix wore an expression so peculiar that it could only have had its origin in surprise. This contradiction indeed peeped out only to vanish, for at the very moment that, in the spirit of it, she threw herself afresh upon her young friend a hansom crested with neat luggage rattled up to the door and Miss Overmore bounded out. The shock of her encounter with Mrs. Wix was less violent than Maisie had feared on (44) seeing her and didn't at all interfere with the sociable tone in which, under her rival's eyes, she explained to her little charge that she had returned. for a particular reason, a day sooner than she first intended. She had left papa--in such nice lodgings--at Brighton; but he would come back to his dear little home on the morrow. As for Mrs. Wix, papa's companion supplied Maisie in later converse with the right word for the attitude of this personage: Mrs. Wix "stood up" to her in a manner that the child herself felt at the time to be astonishing. This occurred indeed after Miss Overmore had so far raised her interdict as to make a move to the dining-room, where, in the absence of any suggestion of sitting down, it was scarcely more than natural that even poor Mrs. Wix should stand up. Maisie at once enquired if at Brighton, this time, anything had come of the possibility of a school; to which, much to her surprise, Miss Overmore, who had always grandly repudiated it, replied after an instant, but quite as if Mrs. Wix were not there:
"It may be, darling, that something WILL come. The objection, I must tell you, has been quite removed."
At this it was still more startling to hear Mrs. Wix speak out with great firmness. "I don't think, if you'll allow me to say so, that there's any arrangement by which the objection CAN be 'removed.' What has brought me here to-day is that I've a message for Maisie from dear Mrs. Farange."
The child's heart gave a great thump. "Oh mamma's come back?"
"Not yet, sweet love, but she's coming," said Mrs. (45) Wix, "and she has--most thoughtfully, you know--sent me on to prepare you."
"To prepare her for what, pray?" asked Miss Overmore, whose first smoothness began, with this news, to be ruffled.
Mrs. Wix quietly applied her straighteners to Miss Overmore's flushed beauty. "Well, miss, for a very important communication."
"Can't dear Mrs. Farange, as you so oddly call her, make her communications directly? Can't she take the trouble to write to her only daughter?" the younger lady demanded. "Maisie herself will tell you that it's months and months since she has had so much as a word from her."
"Oh but I've written to mamma!" cried the child as if this would do quite as well.
"That makes her treatment of you all the greater scandal," the governess in possession promptly declared.
"Mrs. Farange is too well aware," said Mrs. Wix with sustained spirit, "of what becomes of her letters in this house."
Maisie's sense of fairness hereupon interposed for her visitor. "You know, Miss Overmore, that papa doesn't like everything of mamma's."
"No one likes, my dear, to be made the subject of such language as your mother's letters contain. They were not fit for the innocent child to see," Miss Overmore observed to Mrs. Wix.
"Then I don't know what you complain of, and she's better without them. It serves every purpose that I'm in Mrs. Farange's confidence."
(46) Miss Overmore gave a scornful laugh. "Then you must be mixed up with some extraordinary proceedings!"
"None so extraordinary," cried Mrs. Wix, turning very pale, "as to say horrible things about the mother to the face of the helpless daughter!"
"Things not a bit more horrible, I think," Miss Overmore returned, "than those you, madam, appear to have come here to say about the father!"
Mrs. Wix looked for a moment hard at Maisie, and then, turning again to this witness, spoke with a trembling voice. "I came to say nothing about him, and you must excuse Mrs. Farange and me if we're not so above all reproach as the companion of his travels."
The young woman thus described stared at the apparent breadth of the description--she needed a moment to take it in. Maisie, however, gazing solemnly from one of the disputants to the other, noted that her answer, when it came, perched upon smiling lips. "It will do quite as well, no doubt, if you come up to the requirements of the companion of Mrs. Farange's!"
Mrs. Wix broke into a queer laugh; it sounded to Maisie an unsuccessful imitation of a neigh. "That's just what I'm here to make known--how perfectly the poor lady comes up to them herself." She held up her head at the child. "You must take your mamma's message, Maisie, and you must feel that her wishing me to come to you with it this way is a great proof of interest and affection. She sends you her particular love and announces to you that she's engaged to be married to Sir Claude."
(47) "Sir Claude?" Maisie wonderingly echoed. But while Mrs. Wix explained that this gentleman was a dear friend of Mrs. Farange's, who had been of great assistance to her in getting to Florence and in making herself comfortable there for the winter, she was not too violently shaken to perceive her old friend's enjoyment of the effect of this news on Miss Overmore. That young lady opened her eyes very wide; she immediately remarked that Mrs. Farange's marriage would of course put an end to any further pretension to take her daughter back. Mrs. Wix enquired with astonishment why it should do anything of the sort, and Miss Overmore gave as an instant reason that it was clearly but another dodge in a system of dodges. She wanted to get out of the bargain: why else had she now left Maisie on her father's hands weeks and weeks beyond the time about which she had originally made such a fuss? It was vain for Mrs. Wix to represent--as she speciously proceeded to do--that all this time would be made up as soon as Mrs. Farange returned: she, Miss Overmore, knew nothing, thank heaven, about her confederate, but was very sure any person capable of forming that sort of relation with the lady in Florence would easily agree to object to the presence in his house of the fruit of a union that his dignity must ignore. It was a game like another, and Mrs. Wix's visit was clearly the first move in it. Maisie found in this exchange of asperities a fresh incitement to the unformulated fatalism in which her sense of her own career had long since taken refuge; and it was the beginning for her of a deeper prevision that, (48) in spite of Miss Overmore's brilliancy and Mrs. Wix's passion, she should live to see a change in the nature of the struggle she appeared to have come into the world to produce. It would still be essentially a struggle, but its object would now be NOT to receive her.
Mrs. Wix, after Miss Overmore's last demonstration, addressed herself wholly to the little girl, and, drawing from the pocket of her dingy old pelisse a small flat parcel, removed its envelope and wished to know if THAT looked like a gentleman who wouldn't be nice to everybody--let alone to a person he would be so sure to find so nice. Mrs. Farange, in the candour of new-found happiness, had enclosed a "cabinet" photograph of Sir Claude, and Maisie lost herself in admiration of the fair smooth face, the regular features, the kind eyes, the amiable air, the general glossiness and smartness of her prospective stepfather--only vaguely puzzled to suppose herself now with two fathers at once. Her researches had hitherto indicated that to incur a second parent of the same sex you had usually to lose the first. "ISN'T he sympathetic?" asked Mrs. Wix, who had clearly, on the strength of his charming portrait, made up her mind that Sir Claude promised her a future. "You can see, I hope," she added with much expression, "that HE'S a perfect gentleman!" Maisie had never before heard the word "sympathetic" applied to anybody's face; she heard it with pleasure and from that moment it agreeably remained with her. She testified moreover to the force of her own perception in a small soft sigh of response to the pleasant (49) eyes that seemed to seek her acquaintance, to speak to her directly. "He's quite lovely!" she declared to Mrs. Wix. Then eagerly, irrepressibly, as she still held the photograph and Sir Claude continued to fraternise, "Oh can't I keep it?" she broke out. No sooner had she done so than she looked up from it at Miss Overmore: this was with the sudden instinct of appealing to the authority that had long ago impressed on her that she mustn't ask for things. Miss Overmore, to her surprise, looked distant and rather odd, hesitating and giving her time to turn again to Mrs. Wix. Then Maisie saw that lady's long face lengthen; it was stricken and almost scared, as if her young friend really expected more of her than she had to give. The photograph was a possession that, direly denuded, she clung to, and there was a momentary struggle between her fond clutch of it and her capability of every sacrifice for her precarious pupil. With the acuteness of her years, however, Maisie saw that her own avidity would triumph, and she held out the picture to Miss Overmore as if she were quite proud of her mother. "Isn't he just lovely?" she demanded while poor Mrs. Wix hungrily wavered, her straighteners largely covering it and her pelisse gathered about her with an intensity that strained its ancient seams.
"It was to ME, darling," the visitor said, "that your mamma so generously sent it; but of course if it would give you particular pleasure--" She faltered, only gasping her surrender.
Miss Overmore continued extremely remote. "If the photograph's your property, my dear, I shall be (50) happy to oblige you by looking at it on some future occasion. But you must excuse me if I decline to touch an object belonging to Mrs. Wix."
That lady had by this time grown very red. "You might as well see him this way, miss," she retorted, "as you certainly never will, I believe, in any other! Keep the pretty picture, by all means, my precious," she went on: "Sir Claude will be happy himself, I dare say, to give me one with a kind inscription." The pathetic quaver of this brave boast was not lost on Maisie, who threw herself so gratefully on the speaker's neck that, when they had concluded their embrace, the public tenderness of which, she felt, made up for the sacrifice she imposed, their companion had had time to lay a quick hand on Sir Claude and, with a glance at him or not, whisk him effectually out of sight. Released from the child's arms Mrs. Wix looked about for the picture; then she fixed Miss Overmore with a hard dumb stare; and finally, with her eyes on the little girl again, achieved the grimmest of smiles. "Well, nothing matters, Maisie, because there's another thing your mamma wrote about. She has made sure of me." Even after her loyal hug Maisie felt a bit of a sneak as she glanced at Miss Overmore for permission to understand this. But Mrs. Wix left them in no doubt of what it meant. "She has definitely engaged me--for her return and for yours. Then you'll see for yourself." Maisie, on the spot, quite believed she should; but the prospect was suddenly thrown into confusion by an extraordinary demonstration from Miss Overmore.
"Mrs. Wix," said that young lady, "has some (51) undiscoverable reason for regarding your mother's hold on you as strengthened by the fact that she's about to marry. I wonder then--on that system--what our visitor will say to your father's."
Miss Overmore's words were directed to her pupil, but her face, lighted with an irony that made it prettier even than ever before, was presented to the dingy figure that had stiffened itself for departure. The child's discipline had been bewildering--it had ranged freely between the prescription that she was to answer when spoken to and the experience of lively penalties on obeying that prescription. This time, nevertheless, she felt emboldened for risks; above all as something portentous seemed to have leaped into her sense of the relations of things. She looked at Miss Overmore much as she had a way of looking at persons who treated her to "grown up" jokes. "Do you mean papa's hold on me--do you mean HE'S about to marry?"
"Papa's not about to marry--papa IS married, my dear. Papa was married the day before yesterday at Brighton." Miss Overmore glittered more gaily; meanwhile it came over Maisie, and quite dazzlingly, that her "smart" governess was a bride. "He's my husband, if you please, and I'm his little wife. So NOW we'll see who's your little mother!" She caught her pupil to her bosom in a manner that was not to be outdone by the emissary of her predecessor, and a few moments later, when things had lurched back into their places, that poor lady, quite defeated of the last word, had soundlessly taken flight.
(52) Chapter 8
After Mrs. Wix's retreat Miss Overmore appeared to recognise that she was not exactly in a position to denounce Ida Farange's second union; but she drew from a table-drawer the photograph of Sir Claude and, standing there before Maisie, studied it at some length.
"Isn't he beautiful?" the child ingenuously asked.
Her companion hesitated. "No--he's horrid," she, to Maisie's surprise, sharply returned. But she debated another minute, after which she handed back the picture. It appeared to Maisie herself to exhibit a fresh attraction, and she was troubled, having never before had occasion to differ from her lovely friend. So she only could ask what, such being the case, she should do with it: should she put it quite away--where it wouldn't be there to offend? On this Miss Overmore again cast about; after which she said unexpectedly: "Put it on the schoolroom mantelpiece."
Maisie felt a fear. "Won't papa dislike to see it there?"
"Very much indeed; but that won't matter NOW." Miss Overmore spoke with peculiar significance and to her pupil's mystification.
"On account of the marriage?" Maisie risked.
Miss Overmore laughed, and Maisie could see that in spite of the irritation produced by Mrs. Wix (53) she was in high spirits. "Which marriage do you mean?"
With the question put to her it suddenly struck the child she didn't know, so that she felt she looked foolish. So she took refuge in saying: "Shall YOU be different--?" This was a full implication that the bride of Sir Claude would be.
"As your father's wedded wife? Utterly!" Miss Overmore replied. And the difference began of course in her being addressed, even by Maisie, from that day and by her particular request, as Mrs. Beale. It was there indeed principally that it ended, for except that the child could reflect that she should presently have four parents in all, and also that at the end of three months the staircase, for a little girl hanging over banisters, sent up the deepening rustle of more elaborate advances, everything made the same impression as before. Mrs. Beale had very pretty frocks, but Miss Overmore's had been quite as good, and if papa was much fonder of his second wife than he had been of his first Maisie had foreseen that fondness, had followed its development almost as closely as the person more directly involved. There was little indeed in the commerce of her companions that her precocious experience couldn't explain, for if they struck her as after all rather deficient in that air of the honeymoon of which she had so often heard--in much detail, for instance, from Mrs. Wix--it was natural to judge the circumstance in the light of papa's proved disposition to contest the empire of the matrimonial tie. His honeymoon, when he came back from (54) Brighton--not on the morrow of Mrs. Wix's visit, and not, oddly, till several days later--his honeymoon was perhaps perceptibly tinged with the dawn of a later stage of wedlock. There were things dislike of which, as the child knew it, wouldn't matter to Mrs. Beale now, and their number increased so that such a trifle as his hostility to the photograph of Sir Claude quite dropped out of view. This pleasing object found a conspicuous place in the schoolroom, which in truth Mr. Farange seldom entered and in which silent admiration formed, during the time I speak of, almost the sole scholastic exercise of Mrs. Beale's pupil.
Maisie was not long in seeing just what her stepmother had meant by the difference she should show in her new character. If she was her father's wife she was not her own governess, and if her presence had had formerly to be made regular by the theory of a humble function she was now on a footing that dispensed with all theories and was inconsistent with all servitude. That was what she had meant by the drop of the objection to a school; her small companion was no longer required at home as--it was Mrs. Beale's own amusing word--a little duenna. The argument against a successor to Miss Overmore remained: it was composed frankly of the fact, of which Mrs. Beale granted the full absurdity, that she was too awfully fond of her stepdaughter to bring herself to see her in vulgar and mercenary hands. The note of this particular danger emboldened Maisie to put in a word for Mrs. Wix, the modest measure of whose avidity she had taken from the (55) first; but Mrs. Beale disposed afresh and effectually of a candidate who would be sure to act in some horrible and insidious way for Ida's interest and who moreover was personally loathsome and as ignorant as a fish. She made also no more of a secret of the awkward fact that a good school would be hideously expensive, and of the further circumstance, which seemed to put an end to everything, that when it came to the point papa, in spite of his previous clamour, was really most nasty about paying. "Would you believe," Mrs. Beale confidentially asked of her little charge, "that he says I'm a worse expense than ever, and that a daughter and a wife together are really more than he can afford?" It was thus that the splendid school at Brighton lost itself in the haze of larger questions, though the fear that it would provoke Ida to leap into the breach subsided with her prolonged, her quite shameless non-appearance. Her daughter and her successor were therefore left to gaze in united but helpless blankness at all Maisie was not learning.
This quantity was so great as to fill the child's days with a sense of intermission to which even French Lisette gave no accent--with finished games and unanswered questions and dreaded tests; with the habit, above all, in her watch for a change, of hanging over banisters when the door-bell sounded. This was the great refuge of her impatience, but what she heard at such times was a clatter of gaiety downstairs; the impression of which, from her earliest childhood, had built up in her the belief that the grown-up time was the time of real amusement and (56) above all of real intimacy. Even Lisette, even Mrs. Wix had never, she felt, in spite of hugs and tears, been so intimate with her as so many persons at present were with Mrs. Beale and as so many others of old had been with Mrs. Farange. The note of hilarity brought people together still more than the note of melancholy, which was the one exclusively sounded, for instance, by poor Mrs. Wix. Maisie in these days preferred none the less that domestic revels should be wafted to her from a distance: she felt sadly unsupported for facing the inquisition of the drawing-room. That was a reason the more for making the most of Susan Ash, who in her quality of under-housemaid moved at a very different level and who, none the less, was much depended upon out of doors. She was a guide to peregrinations that had little in common with those intensely definite airings that had left with the child a vivid memory of the regulated mind of Moddle. There had been under Moddle's system no dawdles at shop-windows and no nudges, in Oxford Street, of "I SAY, look at 'ER!" There had been an inexorable treatment of crossings and a serene exemption from the fear that--especially at corners, of which she was yet weakly fond--haunted the housemaid, the fear of being, as she ominously said, "spoken to." The dangers of the town equally with its diversions added to Maisie's sense of being untutored and unclaimed.
The situation, however, had taken a twist when, on another of her returns, at Susan's side, extremely tired, from the pursuit of exercise qualified by much hovering, she encountered another emotion. She (57) on this occasion learnt at the door that her instant attendance was requested in the drawing-room. Crossing the threshold in a cloud of shame she discerned through the blur Mrs. Beale seated there with a gentleman who immediately drew the pain from her predicament by rising before her as the original of the photograph of Sir Claude. She felt the moment she looked at him that he was by far the most shining presence that had ever made her gape, and her pleasure in seeing him, in knowing that he took hold of her and kissed her, as quickly throbbed into a strange shy pride in him, a perception of his making up for her fallen state, for Susan's public nudges, which quite bruised her, and for all the lessons that, in the dead schoolroom, where at times she was almost afraid to stay alone, she was bored with not having. It was as if he had told her on the spot that he belonged to her, so that she could already show him off and see the effect he produced. No, nothing else that was most beautiful ever belonging to her could kindle that particular joy--not Mrs. Beale at that very moment, not papa when he was gay, nor mamma when she was dressed, nor Lisette when she was new. The joy almost overflowed in tears when he laid his hand on her and drew her to him, telling her, with a smile of which the promise was as bright as that of a Christmas-tree, that he knew her ever so well by her mother, but had come to see her now so that he might know her for himself. She could see that his view of this kind of knowledge was to make her come away with him, and, further, that it was just what he was there for and had already (58) been some time: arranging it with Mrs. Beale and getting on with that lady in a manner evidently not at all affected by her having on the arrival of his portrait thought of him so ill. They had grown almost intimate--or had the air of it--over their discussion; and it was still further conveyed to Maisie that Mrs. Beale had made no secret, and would make yet less of one, of all that it cost to let her go. "You seem so tremendously eager," she said to the child, "that I hope you're at least clear about Sir Claude's relation to you. It doesn't appear to occur to him to give you the necessary reassurance."
Maisie, a trifle mystified, turned quickly to her new friend. "Why it's of course that you're MARRIED to her, isn't it?"
Her anxious emphasis started them off, as she had learned to call it; this was the echo she infallibly and now quite resignedly produced; moreover Sir Claude's laughter was an indistinguishable part of the sweetness of his being there. "We've been married, my dear child, three months, and my interest in you is a consequence, don't you know? of my great affection for your mother. In coming here it's of course for your mother I'm acting."
"Oh I know," Maisie said with all the candour of her competence. "She can't come herself--except just to the door." Then as she thought afresh: "Can't she come even to the door now?"
"There you are!" Mrs. Beale exclaimed to Sir Claude. She spoke as if his dilemma were ludicrous.
His kind face, in an hesitation, seemed to recognise (59) it; but he answered the child with a frank smile. "No--not very well."
"Because she has married you?"
He promptly accepted this reason. "Well, that has a good deal to do with it."
He was so delightful to talk to that Maisie pursued the subject. "But papa--HE has married Miss Overmore."
"Ah you'll see that he won't come for you at your mother's," that lady interposed.
"Yes, but that won't be for a long time," Maisie hastened to respond.
"We won't talk about it now--you've months and months to put in first." And Sir Claude drew her closer.
"Oh that's what makes it so hard to give her up!" Mrs. Beale made this point with her arms out to her stepdaughter. Maisie, quitting Sir Claude, went over to them and, clasped in a still tenderer embrace, felt entrancingly the extension of the field of happiness. "I'LL come for you," said her stepmother, "if Sir Claude keeps you too long: we must make him quite understand that! Don't talk to me about her ladyship!" she went on to their visitor so familiarly that it was almost as if they must have met before. "I know her ladyship as if I had made her. They're a pretty pair of parents!" cried Mrs. Beale.
Maisie had so often heard them called so that the remark diverted her but an instant from the agreeable wonder of this grand new form of allusion to her mother; and that, in its turn, presently left her free to catch at the pleasant possibility, in connexion (60) with herself, of a relation much happier as between Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude than as between mamma and papa. Still the next thing that happened was that her interest in such a relation brought to her lips a fresh question. "Have you seen papa?" she asked of Sir Claude.
It was the signal for their going off again, as her small stoicism had perfectly taken for granted that it would be. All that Mrs. Beale had nevertheless to add was the vague apparent sarcasm: "Oh papa!"
"I'm assured he's not at home," Sir Claude replied to the child; "but if he had been I should have hoped for the pleasure of seeing him."
"Won't he mind your coming?" Maisie asked as with need of the knowledge.
"Oh you bad little girl!" Mrs. Beale humorously protested.
The child could see that at this Sir Claude, though still moved to mirth, coloured a little; but he spoke to her very kindly. "That's just what I came to see, you know--whether your father WOULD mind. But Mrs. Beale appears strongly of the opinion that he won't."
This lady promptly justified that view to her stepdaughter. "It will be very interesting, my dear, you know, to find out what it is to-day that your father does mind. I'm sure i don't know!"--and she seemed to repeat, though with perceptible resignation, her plaint of a moment before. "Your father, darling, is a very odd person indeed." She turned with this, smiling, to Sir Claude. "But perhaps (61) it's hardly civil for me to say that of his not objecting to have YOU in the house. If you knew some of the people he does have!"
Maisie knew them all, and none indeed were to be compared to Sir Claude. He laughed back at Mrs. Beale; he looked at such moments quite as Mrs. Wix, in the long stories she told her pupil, always described the lovers of her distressed beauties--"the perfect gentleman and strikingly handsome." He got up, to the child's regret, as if he were going. "Oh I dare say we should be all right!"
Mrs. Beale once more gathered in her little charge, holding her close and looking thoughtfully over her head at their visitor. "It's so charming--for a man of your type--to have wanted her so much!"
"What do you know about my type?" Sir Claude laughed. "Whatever it may be I dare say it deceives you. The truth about me is simply that I'm the most unappreciated of--what do you call the fellows?--'family-men.' Yes, I'm a family-man; upon my honour I am!"
"Then why on earth," cried Mrs. Beale, "didn't you marry a family-woman?"
Sir Claude looked at her hard. "YOU know who one marries, I think. Besides, there ARE no family-women--hanged if there are! None of them want any children--hanged if they do!"
His account of the matter was most interesting, and Maisie, as if it were of bad omen for her, stared at the picture in some dismay. At the same time she felt, through encircling arms, her protectress hesitate. (62) "You do come out with things! But you mean her ladyship doesn't want any--really?"
"Won't hear of them--simply. But she can't help the one she HAS got." And with this Sir Claude's eyes rested on the little girl in a way that seemed to her to mask her mother's attitude with the consciousness of his own. "She must make the best of her, don't you see? If only for the look of the thing, don't you know? one wants one's wife to take the proper line about her child."
"Oh I know what one wants!" Mrs. Beale cried with a competence that evidently impressed her interlocutor.
"Well, if you keep HIM up--and I dare say you've had worry enough--why shouldn't I keep Ida? What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander--or the other way round, don't you know? I mean to see the thing through."
Mrs. Beale, for a minute, still with her eyes on him as he leaned upon the chimneypiece, appeared to turn this over. "You're just a wonder of kindness--that's what you are!" she said at last. "A lady's expected to have natural feelings. But YOUR horrible sex--! Isn't it a horrible sex, little love?" she demanded with her cheek upon her stepdaughter's.
"Oh I like gentlemen best," Maisie lucidly replied.
The words were taken up merrily. "That's a good one for YOU!" Sir Claude exclaimed to Mrs. Beale.
"No," said that lady: "I've only to remember the women she sees at her mother's."
(63) "Ah they 're very nice now," Sir Claude returned.
"What do you call 'nice'?"
"Well, they're all right."
"That doesn't answer me," said Mrs. Beale; "but I dare say you do take care of them. That makes you more of an angel to want this job too." And she playfully whacked her smaller companion.
"I'm not an angel--I'm an old grandmother," Sir Claude declared. "I like babies--I always did. If we go to smash I shall look for a place as responsible nurse."
Maisie, in her charmed mood, drank in an imputation on her years which at another moment might have been bitter; but the charm was sensibly interrupted by Mrs. Beale's screwing her round and gazing fondly into her eyes, "You're willing to leave me, you wretch?"
The little girl deliberated; even this consecrated tie had become as a cord she must suddenly snap. But she snapped it very gently. "Isn't it my turn for mamma?"
"You're a horrible little hypocrite! The less, I think, now said about 'turns' the better," Mrs. Beale made answer. "i know whose turn it is. You've not such a passion for your mother!"
"I say, I say: DO look out!" Sir Claude quite amiably protested.
"There's nothing she hasn't heard. But it doesn't matter--it hasn't spoiled her. If you knew what it costs me to part with you!" she pursued to Maisie.
Sir Claude watched her as she charmingly clung (64) to the child. "I'm so glad you really care for her. That's so much to the good."
Mrs. Beale slowly got up, still with her hands on Maisie, but emitting a soft exhalation. "Well, if you're glad, that may help us; for I assure you that I shall never give up any rights in her that I may consider I've acquired by my own sacrifices. I shall hold very fast to my interest in her. What seems to have happened is that she has brought you and me together."
"She has brought you and me together," said Sir Claude.
His cheerful echo prolonged the happy truth, and Maisie broke out almost with enthusiasm: "I've brought you and her together!"
Her companions of course laughed anew and Mrs. Beale gave her an affectionate shake. "You little monster--take care what you do! But that's what she does do," she continued to Sir Claude. "She did it to me and Beale."
"Well then," he said to Maisie, "you must try the trick at OUR place." He held out his hand to her again. "Will you come now?"
"Now--just as I am?" She turned with an immense appeal to her stepmother, taking a leap over the mountain of "mending," the abyss of packing that had loomed and yawned before her. "Oh MAY I?"
Mrs. Beale addressed her assent to Sir Claude. "As well so as any other way. I'll send on her things to-morrow." Then she gave a tug to the child's coat, glancing at her up and down with some ruefulness. (65) "She's not turned out as I should like--her mother will pull her to pieces. But what's one to do--with nothing to do it on? And she's better than when she came--you can tell her mother that. I'm sorry to have to say it to you--but the poor child was a sight."
"Oh I'll turn her out myself !" the visitor cordially said.
"I shall like to see how!"--Mrs. Beale appeared much amused. "You must bring her to show me--we can manage that. Good-bye, little fright!" And her last word to Sir Claude was that she would keep him up to the mark.
(66) Chapter 9
The idea of what she was to make up and the prodigious total it came to were kept well before Maisie at her mother's. These things were the constant occupation of Mrs. Wix, who arrived there by the back stairs, but in tears of joy, the day after her own arrival. The process of making up, as to which the good lady had an immense deal to say, took, through its successive phases, so long that it heralded a term at least equal to the child's last stretch with her father. This, however, was a fuller and richer time: it bounded along to the tune of Mrs. Wix's constant insistence on the energy they must both put forth. There was a fine intensity in the way the child agreed with her that under Mrs. Beale and Susan Ash she had learned nothing whatever; the wildness of the rescued castaway was one of the forces that would henceforth make for a career of conquest. The year therefore rounded itself as a receptacle of retarded knowledge--a cup brimming over with the sense that now at least she was learning. Mrs. Wix fed this sense from the stores of her conversation and with the immense bustle of her reminder that they must cull the fleeting hour. They were surrounded with subjects they must take at a rush and perpetually getting into the attitude of triumphant attack. They had certainly no idle hours, and the child went to bed each night as tired as from a long day's play. (67) This had begun from the moment of their reunion, begun with all Mrs. Wix had to tell her young friend of the reasons of her ladyship's extraordinary behaviour at the very first.
It took the form of her ladyship's refusal for three days to see her little girl--three days during which Sir Claude made hasty merry dashes into the schoolroom to smooth down the odd situation, to say "She'll come round, you know; I assure you she'll come round," and a little even to compensate Maisie for the indignity he had caused her to suffer. There had never in the child's life been, in all ways, such a delightful amount of reparation. It came out by his sociable admission that her ladyship had not known of his visit to her late husband's house and of his having made that person's daughter a pretext for striking up an acquaintance with the dreadful creature installed there. Heaven knew she wanted her child back and had made every plan of her own for removing her; what she couldn't for the present at least forgive any one concerned was such an officious underhand way of bringing about the transfer. Maisie carried more of the weight of this resentment than even Mrs. Wix's confidential ingenuity could lighten for her, especially as Sir Claude himself was not at all ingenious, though indeed on the other hand he was not at all crushed. He was amused and intermittent and at moments most startling; he impressed on his young companion, with a frankness that agitated her much more than he seemed to guess, that he depended on her not letting her mother, when she should see her, get anything out of her (68) about anything Mrs. Beale might have said to him. He came in and out; he professed, in joke, to take tremendous precautions; he showed a positive disposition to romp. He chaffed Mrs. Wix till she was purple with the pleasure of it, and reminded Maisie of the reticence he expected of her till she set her teeth like an Indian captive. Her lessons these first days and indeed for long after seemed to be all about Sir Claude, and yet she never really mentioned to Mrs. Wix that she was prepared, under his inspiring injunction, to be vainly tortured. This lady, however, had formulated the position of things with an acuteness that showed how little she needed to be coached. Her explanation of everything that seemed not quite pleasant--and if her own footing was perilous it met that danger as well--was that her ladyship was passionately in love. Maisie accepted this hint with infinite awe and pressed upon it much when she was at last summoned into the presence of her mother.
There she encountered matters amid which it seemed really to help to give her a clue--an almost terrifying strangeness, full, none the less, after a little, of reverberations of Ida's old fierce and demonstrative recoveries of possession. They had been some time in the house together, and this demonstration came late. Preoccupied, however, as Maisie was with the idea of the sentiment Sir Claude had inspired, and familiar, in addition, by Mrs. Wix's anecdotes, with the ravages that in general such a sentiment could produce, she was able to make allowances for her ladyship's remarkable appearance, her (69) violent splendour, the wonderful colour of her lips and even the hard stare, the stare of some gorgeous idol described in a story-book, that had come into her eyes in consequence of a curious thickening of their already rich circumference. Her professions and explanations were mixed with eager challenges and sudden drops, in the midst of which Maisie recognised as a memory of other years the rattle of her trinkets and the scratch of her endearments, the odour of her clothes and the jumps of her conversation. She had all her old clever way--Mrs. Wix said it was "aristocratic"--of changing the subject as she might have slammed the door in your face. The principal thing that was different was the tint of her golden hair, which had changed to a coppery red and, with the head it profusely covered, struck the child as now lifted still further aloft. This picturesque parent showed literally a grander stature and a nobler presence, things which, with some others that might have been bewildering, were handsomely accounted for by the romantic state of her affections. It was her affections, Maisie could easily see, that led Ida to break out into questions as to what had passed at the other house between that horrible woman and Sir Claude; but it was also just here that the little girl was able to recall the effect with which in earlier days she had practised the pacific art of stupidity. This art again came to her aid: her mother, in getting rid of her after an interview in which she had achieved a hollowness beyond her years, allowed her fully to understand she had not grown a bit more amusing.
(70) She could bear that; she could bear anything that helped her to feel she had done something for Sir Claude. If she hadn't told Mrs. Wix how Mrs. Beale seemed to like him she certainly couldn't tell her ladyship. In the way the past revived for her there was a queer confusion. It was because mamma hated papa that she used to want to know bad things of him; but if at present she wanted to know the same of Sir Claude it was quite from the opposite motive. She was awestruck at the manner in which a lady might be affected through the passion mentioned by Mrs. Wix; she held her breath with the sense of picking her steps among the tremendous things of life. What she did, however, now, after the interview with her mother, impart to Mrs. Wix was that, in spite of her having had her "good" effect, as she called it--the effect she studied, the effect of harmless vacancy--her ladyship's last words had been that her ladyship's duty by her would be thoroughly done. Over this announcement governess and pupil looked at each other in silent profundity; but as the weeks went by it had no consequences that interfered gravely with the breezy gallop of making up. Her ladyship's duty took at times the form of not seeing her child for days together, and Maisie led her life in great prosperity between Mrs. Wix and kind Sir Claude. Mrs. Wix had a new dress and, as she was the first to proclaim, a better position; so it all struck Maisie as a crowded brilliant life, with, for the time, Mrs. Beale and Susan Ash simply "left out" like children not invited to a Christmas party. Mrs. Wix had a secret terror which, like most of her secret feelings, (71) she discussed with her little companion, in great solemnity, by the hour: the possibility of her ladyship's coming down on them, in her sudden high-bred way, with a school. But she had also a balm to this fear in a conviction of the strength of Sir Claude's grasp of the situation. He was too pleased--didn't he constantly say as much?--with the good impression made, in a wide circle, by Ida's sacrifices; and he came into the schoolroom repeatedly to let them know how beautifully he felt everything had gone off and everything would go on.
He disappeared at times for days, when his patient friends understood that her ladyship would naturally absorb him; but he always came back with the drollest stories of where he had been, a wonderful picture of society, and even with pretty presents that showed how in absence he thought of his home. Besides giving Mrs. Wix by his conversation a sense that they almost themselves "went out," he gave her a five-pound note and the history of France and an umbrella with a malachite knob, and to Maisie both chocolate-creams and story-books, besides a lovely greatcoat (which he took her out all alone to buy) and ever so many games in boxes, with printed directions, and a bright red frame for the protection of his famous photograph. The games were, as he said, to while away the evening hour; and the evening hour indeed often passed in futile attempts on Mrs. Wix's part to master what "it said" on the papers. When he asked the pair how they liked the games they always replied "Oh immensely!" but they had earnest discussions as to whether they hadn't better (72) appeal to him frankly for aid to understand them. This was a course their delicacy shrank from; they couldn't have told exactly why, but it was a part of their tenderness for him not to let him think they had trouble. What dazzled most was his kindness to Mrs. Wix, not only the five-pound note and the "not forgetting" her, but the perfect consideration, as she called it with an air to which her sounding of the words gave the only grandeur Maisie was to have seen her wear save on a certain occasion hereafter to be described, an occasion when the poor lady was grander than all of them put together. He shook hands with her, he recognised her, as she said, and above all, more than once, he took her, with his stepdaughter, to the pantomime and, in the crowd, coming out, publicly gave her his arm. When he met them in sunny Piccadilly he made merry and turned and walked with them, heroically suppressing his consciousness of the stamp of his company, a heroism that--needless for Mrs. Wix to sound THOSE words--her ladyship, though a blood-relation, was little enough the woman to be capable of. Even to the hard heart of childhood there was something tragic in such elation at such humanities: it brought home to Maisie the way her humble companion had sidled and ducked through life. But it settled the question of the degree to which Sir Claude was a gentleman: he was more of one than anybody else in the world--"I don't care," Mrs. Wix repeatedly remarked, "whom you may meet in grand society, nor even to whom you may be contracted in marriage." There were questions that Maisie never asked; so her governess (73) was spared the embarrassment of telling her if he were more of a gentleman than papa. This was not moreover from the want of opportunity, for there were no moments between them at which the topic could be irrelevant, no subject they were going into, not even the principal dates or the auxiliary verbs, in which it was further off than the turn of the page. The answer on the winter nights to the puzzle of cards and counters and little bewildering pamphlets was just to draw up to the fire and talk about him; and if the truth must be told this edifying interchange constituted for the time the little girl's chief education.
It must also be admitted that he took them far, further perhaps than was always warranted by the old-fashioned conscience, the dingy decencies, of Maisie's simple instructress. There were hours when Mrs. Wix sighingly testified to the scruples she surmounted, seemed to ask what other line one COULD take with a young person whose experience had been, as it were, so peculiar. "It isn't as if you didn't already know everything, is it, love?" and "I can't make you any worse than you ARE, can I, darling?"--these were the terms in which the good lady justified to herself and her pupil her pleasant conversational ease. What the pupil already knew was indeed rather taken for granted than expressed, but it performed the useful function of transcending all textbooks and supplanting all studies. If the child couldn't be worse it was a comfort even to herself that she was bad--a comfort offering a broad firm support to the fundamental fact of the present crisis: the fact that mamma was fearfully jealous. This was another (74) side of the circumstance of mamma's passion, and the deep couple in the schoolroom were not long in working round to it. It brought them face to face with the idea of the inconvenience suffered by any lady who marries a gentleman producing on other ladies the charming effect of Sir Claude. That such ladies wouldn't be able to help falling in love with him was a reflexion naturally irritating to his wife. One day when some accident, some crash of a banged door or some scurry of a scared maid, had rendered this truth particularly vivid, Maisie, receptive and profound, suddenly said to her companion: "And you, my dear, are you in love with him too?"
Even her profundity had left a margin for a laugh; so she was a trifle startled by the solemn promptitude with which Mrs. Wix plumped out: "Over head and ears. I've NEVER, since you ask me, been so far gone."
This boldness had none the less no effect of deterrence for her when, a few days later--it was because several had elapsed without a visit from Sir Claude--her governess turned the tables. "May I ask you, miss, if YOU are?" Mrs. Wix brought it out, she could see, with hesitation, but clearly intending a joke. "Why RATHER!" the child made answer, as if in surprise at not having long ago seemed sufficiently to commit herself; on which her friend gave a sigh of apparent satisfaction. It might in fact have expressed positive relief. Everything was as it should be.
Yet it was not with them, they were very sure, that her ladyship was furious, nor because she had forbidden it that there befell at last a period--six (75) months brought it round--when for days together he scarcely came near them. He was "off," and Ida was "off," and they were sometimes off together and sometimes apart; there were seasons when the simple students had the house to themselves, when the very servants seemed also to be "off" and dinner became a reckless forage in pantries and sideboards. Mrs. Wix reminded her disciple on such occasions--hungry moments often, when all the support of the reminder was required--that the "real life" of their companions, the brilliant society in which it was inevitable they should move and the complicated pleasures in which it was almost presumptuous of the mind to follow them, must offer features literally not to be imagined without being seen. At one of these times Maisie found her opening it out that, though the difficulties were many, it was Mrs. Beale who had now become the chief. Then somehow it was brought fully to the child's knowledge that her stepmother had been making attempts to see her, that her mother had deeply resented it, that her stepfather had backed her stepmother up, that the latter had pretended to be acting as the representative of her father, and that her mother took the whole thing, in plain terms, very hard. The situation was, as Mrs. Wix declared, an extraordinary muddle to be sure. Her account of it brought back to Maisie the happy vision of the way Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale had made acquaintance--an incident to which, with her stepfather, though she had had little to say about it to Mrs. Wix, she had during the first weeks of her stay at her mother's found more than one opportunity to revert. As to (76) what had taken place the day Sir Claude came for her, she had been vaguely grateful to Mrs. Wix for not attempting, as her mother had attempted, to put her through. That was what Sir Claude had called the process when he warned her of it, and again afterwards when he told her she was an awfully good "chap" for having foiled it. Then it was that, well aware Mrs. Beale hadn't in the least really given her up, she had asked him if he remained in communication with her and if for the time everything must really be held to be at an end between her stepmother and herself. This conversation had occurred in consequence of his one day popping into the schoolroom and finding Maisie alone.
(77) Chapter 10
He was smoking a cigarette and he stood before the fire and looked at the meagre appointments of the room in a way that made her rather ashamed of them. Then before (on the subject of Mrs. Beale) he let her "draw" him--that was another of his words; it was astonishing how many she gathered in--he remarked that really mamma kept them rather low on the question of decorations. Mrs. Wix had put up a Japanese fan and two rather grim texts; she had wished they were gayer, but they were all she happened to have. Without Sir Claude's photograph, however, the place would have been, as he said, as dull as a cold dinner. He had said as well that there were all sorts of things they ought to have; yet governess and pupil, it had to be admitted, were still divided between discussing the places where any sort of thing would look best if any sort of thing should ever come and acknowledging that mutability in the child's career which was naturally unfavourable to accumulation. She stayed long enough only to miss things, not half long enough to deserve them. The way Sir Claude looked about the schoolroom had made her feel with humility as if it were not very different from the shabby attic in which she had visited Susan Ash. Then he had said in abrupt reference to Mrs. Beale: "Do you think she really cares for you?"
(78) "Oh awfully!" Maisie had replied.
"But, I mean, does she love you for yourself, as they call it, don't you know? Is she as fond of you, now, as Mrs. Wix?"
The child turned it over. "Oh I'm not every bit Mrs. Beale has!"
Sir Claude seemed much amused at this. "No; you're not every bit she has!"
He laughed for some moments, but that was an old story to Maisie, who was not too much disconcerted to go on: "But she'll never give me up."
"Well, I won't either, old boy: so that's not so wonderful, and she's not the only one. But if she's so fond of you, why doesn't she write to you?"
"Oh on account of mamma." This was rudimentary, and she was almost surprised at the simplicity of Sir Claude's question.
"I see--that's quite right," he answered. "She might get at you--there are all sorts of ways. But of course there's Mrs. Wix."
"There's Mrs. Wix," Maisie lucidly concurred. "Mrs. Wix can't abide her."
Sir Claude seemed interested. "Oh she can't abide her? Then what does she say about her?"
"Nothing at all--because she knows I shouldn't like it. Isn't it sweet of her?" the child asked.
"Certainly; rather nice. Mrs. Beale wouldn't hold her tongue for any such thing as that, would she?"
Maisie remembered how little she had done so; but she desired to protect Mrs. Beale too. The only protection she could think of, however, was the plea: "Oh at papa's, you know, they don't mind!"
(79) At this Sir Claude only smiled. "No, I dare say not. But here we mind, don't we?--we take care what we say. I don't suppose it's a matter on which I ought to prejudice you," he went on; "but I think we must on the whole be rather nicer here than at your father's. However, I don't press that; for it's the sort of question on which it's awfully awkward for you to speak. Don't worry, at any rate: I assure you I'll back you up." Then after a moment and while he smoked he reverted to Mrs. Beale and the child's first enquiry. "I'm afraid we can't do much for her just now. I haven't seen her since that day--upon my word I haven't seen her." The next instant, with a laugh the least bit foolish, the young man slightly coloured: he must have felt this profession of innocence to be excessive as addressed to Maisie. It was inevitable to say to her, however, that of course her mother loathed the lady of the other house. He couldn't go there again with his wife's consent, and he wasn't the man--he begged her to believe, falling once more, in spite of himself, into the scruple of showing the child he didn't trip--to go there without it. He was liable in talking with her to take the tone of her being also a man of the world. He had gone to Mrs. Beale's to fetch away Maisie, but that was altogether different. Now that she was in her mother's house what pretext had he to give her mother for paying calls on her father's wife? And of course Mrs. Beale couldn't come to Ida's--Ida would tear her limb from limb. Maisie, with this talk of pretexts, remembered how much Mrs. Beale had made of her being a good one, and how, for such a function, (80) it was her fate to be either much depended on or much missed. Sir Claude moreover recognised on this occasion that perhaps things would take a turn later on; and he wound up by saying: "I'm sure she does sincerely care for you--how can she possibly help it? She's very young and very pretty and very clever: I think she's charming. But we must walk very straight. If you'll help me, you know, I'll help YOU," he concluded in the pleasant fraternising, equalising, not a bit patronising way which made the child ready to go through anything for him and the beauty of which, as she dimly felt, was that it was so much less a deceitful descent to her years than a real indifference to them.
It gave her moments of secret rapture--moments of believing she might help him indeed. The only mystification in this was the imposing time of life that her elders spoke of as youth. For Sir Claude then Mrs. Beale was "young," just as for Mrs. Wix Sir Claude was: that was one of the merits for which Mrs. Wix most commended him. What therefore was Maisie herself, and, in another relation to the matter, what therefore was mamma? It took her some time to puzzle out with the aid of an experiment or two that it wouldn't do to talk about mamma's youth. She even went so far one day, in the presence of that lady's thick colour and marked lines, as to wonder if it would occur to any one but herself to do so. Yet if she wasn't young then she was old; and this threw an odd light on her having a husband of a different generation. Mr. Farange was still older--that Maisie perfectly knew; and it brought her in due (81) course to the perception of how much more, since Mrs. Beale was younger than Sir Claude, papa must be older than Mrs. Beale. Such discoveries were disconcerting and even a trifle confounding: these persons, it appeared, were not of the age they ought to be. This was somehow particularly the case with mamma, and the fact made her reflect with some relief on her not having gone with Mrs. Wix into the question of Sir Claude's attachment to his wife. She was conscious that in confining their attention to the state of her ladyship's own affections they had been controlled--Mrs. Wix perhaps in especial--by delicacy and even by embarrassment. The end of her colloquy with her stepfather in the schoolroom was her saying: "Then if we're not to see Mrs. Beale at all it isn't what she seemed to think when you came for me."
He looked rather blank. "What did she seem to think?"
"Why that I've brought you together."
"She thought that?" Sir Claude asked.
Maisie was surprised at his already forgetting it. "Just as I had brought papa and her. Don't you remember she said so?"
It came back to Sir Claude in a peal of laughter. "Oh yes--she said so!"
"And YOU said so," Maisie lucidly pursued.
He recovered, with increasing mirth, the whole occasion. "And YOU said so!" he retorted as if they were playing a game.
"Then were we all mistaken?"
He considered a little. "No, on the whole not. I (82) dare say it's just what you HAVE done. We ARE together--it's really most odd. She's thinking of us--of you and me--though we don't meet. And I've no doubt you'll find it will be all right when you go back to her."
"Am I going back to her?" Maisie brought out with a little gasp which was like a sudden clutch of the happy present.
It appeared to make Sir Claude grave a moment; it might have made him feel the weight of the pledge his action had given. "Oh some day, I suppose! We've plenty of time."
"I've such a tremendous lot to make up," Maisie said with a sense of great boldness.
"Certainly, and you must make up every hour of it. Oh I'll SEE that you do!"
This was encouraging; and to show cheerfully that she was reassured she replied: "That's what Mrs. Wix sees too."
"Oh yes," said Sir Claude; "Mrs. Wix and I are shoulder to shoulder."
Maisie took in a little this strong image; after which she exclaimed: "Then I've done it also to you and her--I've brought YOU together!"
"Blest if you haven't!" Sir Claude laughed. "And more, upon my word, than any of the lot. Oh you've done for US! Now if you could--as I suggested, you know, that day--only manage me and your mother!"
The child wondered. "Bring you and HER together?"
"You see we're not together--not a bit. But I oughtn't to tell you such things; all the more that you (83) won't really do it--not you. No, old chap," the young man continued; "there you'll break down. But it won't matter--we'll rub along. The great thing is that you and I are all right."
"WE'RE all right!" Maisie echoed devoutly. But the next moment, in the light of what he had just said, she asked: "How shall I ever leave you?" It was as if she must somehow take care of him.
His smile did justice to her anxiety. "Oh well, you needn't! It won't come to that."
"Do you mean that when I do go you'll go with me?"
Sir Claude cast about. "Not exactly 'with' you perhaps; but I shall never be far off."
"But how do you know where mamma may take you?"
He laughed again. "I don't, I confess!" Then he had an idea, though something too jocose. "That will be for you to see--that she shan't take me too far."
"How can I help it?" Maisie enquired in surprise. "Mamma doesn't care for me," she said very simply. "Not really." Child as she was, her little long history was in the words; and it was as impossible to contradict her as if she had been venerable.
Sir Claude's silence was an admission of this, and still more the tone in which he presently replied: "That won't prevent her from--some time or other--leaving me with you."
"Then we'll live together?" she eagerly demanded.
"I'm afraid," said Sir Claude, smiling, "that that will be Mrs. Beale's real chance."
(84) Her eagerness just slightly dropped at this; she remembered Mrs. Wix's pronouncement that it was all an extraordinary muddle. "To take me again? Well, can't you come to see me there?"
"Oh I dare say!"
Though there were parts of childhood Maisie had lost she had all childhood's preference for the particular promise. "Then you WILL come--you'll come often, won't you?" she insisted; while at the moment she spoke the door opened for the return of Mrs. Wix. Sir Claude hereupon, instead of replying, gave her a look which left her silent and embarrassed.
When he again found privacy convenient, however--which happened to be long in coming--he took up their conversation very much where it had dropped. "You see, my dear, if I shall be able to go to you at your father's it yet isn't at all the same thing for Mrs. Beale to come to you here." Maisie gave a thoughtful assent to this proposition, though conscious she could scarcely herself say just where the difference would lie. She felt how much her stepfather saved her, as he said with his habitual amusement, the trouble of that. "I shall probably be able to go to Mrs. Beale's without your mother's knowing it."
Maisie stared with a certain thrill at the dramatic element in this. "And she couldn't come here without mamma's--?" She was unable to articulate the word for what mamma would do.
"My dear child, Mrs. Wix would tell of it."
"But I thought," Maisie objected, "that Mrs. Wix and you--"
"Are such brothers-in-arms?"--Sir Claude (85) caught her up. "Oh yes, about everything but Mrs. Beale. And if you should suggest," he went on, "that we might somehow or other hide her peeping in from Mrs. Wix--"
"Oh I don't suggest THAT!" Maisie in turn cut him short.
Sir Claude looked as if he could indeed quite see why. "No; it would really be impossible." There came to her from this glance at what they might hide the first small glimpse of something in him that she wouldn't have expected. There had been times when she had had to make the best of the impression that she was herself deceitful; yet she had never concealed anything bigger than a thought. Of course she now concealed this thought of how strange it would be to see HIM hide; and while she was so actively engaged he continued: "Besides, you know, I'm not afraid of your father."
"And you are of my mother?"
"Rather, old man!" Sir Claude returned.
(86) Chapter 11
It must not be supposed that her ladyship's intermissions were not qualified by demonstrations of another order--triumphal entries and breathless pauses during which she seemed to take of everything in the room, from the state of the ceiling to that of her daughter's boot-toes, a survey that was rich in intentions. Sometimes she sat down and sometimes she surged about, but her attitude wore equally in either case the grand air of the practical. She found so much to deplore that she left a great deal to expect, and bristled so with calculation that she seemed to scatter remedies and pledges. Her visits were as good as an outfit; her manner, as Mrs. Wix once said, as good as a pair of curtains; but she was a person addicted to extremes--sometimes barely speaking to her child and sometimes pressing this tender shoot to a bosom cut, as Mrs. Wix had also observed, remarkably low. She was always in a fearful hurry, and the lower the bosom was cut the more it was to be gathered she was wanted elsewhere. She usually broke in alone, but sometimes Sir Claude was with her, and during all the earlier period there was nothing on which these appearances had had so delightful a bearing as on the way her ladyship was, as Mrs. Wix expressed it, under the spell. "But ISN'T she under it!" Maisie used in thoughtful but familiar reference to exclaim after Sir Claude had swept mamma away (87) in peals of natural laughter. Not even in the old days of the convulsed ladies had she heard mamma laugh so freely as in these moments of conjugal surrender, to the gaiety of which even a little girl could see she had at last a right--a little girl whose thoughtfulness was now all happy selfish meditation on good omens and future fun.
Unaccompanied, in subsequent hours, and with an effect of changing to meet a change, Ida took a tone superficially disconcerting and abrupt--the tone of having, at an immense cost, made over everything to Sir Claude and wishing others to know that if everything wasn't right it was because Sir Claude was so dreadfully vague. "He has made from the first such a row about you," she said on one occasion to Maisie, "that I've told him to do for you himself and try how he likes it--see? I've washed my hands of you; I've made you over to him; and if you're discontented it's on him, please, you'll come down. So don't haul poor ME up--I assure you I've worries enough." One of these, visibly, was that the spell rejoiced in by the schoolroom fire was already in danger of breaking; another was that she was finally forced to make no secret of her husband's unfitness for real responsibilities. The day came indeed when her breathless auditors learnt from her in bewilderment that what ailed him was that he was, alas, simply not serious. Maisie wept on Mrs. Wix's bosom after hearing that Sir Claude was a butterfly; considering moreover that her governess but half-patched it up in coming out at various moments the next few days with the opinion that it (88) was proper to his "station" to be careless and free. That had been proper to every one's station that she had yet encountered save poor Mrs. Wix's own, and the particular merit of Sir Claude had seemed precisely that he was different from every one. She talked with him, however, as time went on, very freely about her mother; being with him, in this relation, wholly without the fear that had kept her silent before her father--the fear of bearing tales and making bad things worse. He appeared to accept the idea that he had taken her over and made her, as he said, his particular lark; he quite agreed also that he was an awful fraud and an idle beast and a sorry dunce. And he never said a word to her against her mother--he only remained dumb and discouraged in the face of her ladyship's own overtopping earnestness. There were occasions when he even spoke as if he had wrenched his little charge from the arms of a parent who had fought for her tooth and nail.
This was the very moral of a scene that flashed into vividness one day when the four happened to meet without company in the drawing-room and Maisie found herself clutched to her mother's breast and passionately sobbed and shrieked over, made the subject of a demonstration evidently sequent to some sharp passage just enacted. The connexion required that while she almost cradled the child in her arms Ida should speak of her as hideously, as fatally estranged, and should rail at Sir Claude as the cruel author of the outrage. "He has taken you FROM me," she cried; "he has set you AGAINST me, and you've been won away and your horrid little mind has been (89) poisoned! You've gone over to him, you've given yourself up to side against me and hate me. You never open your mouth to me--you know you don't; and you chatter to him like a dozen magpies. Don't lie about it--I hear you all over the place. You hang about him in a way that's barely decent--he can do what he likes with you. Well then, let him, to his heart's content: he has been in such a hurry to take you that we'll see if it suits him to keep you. I'm very good to break my heart about it when you've no more feeling for me than a clammy little fish!" She suddenly thrust the child away and, as a disgusted admission of failure, sent her flying across the room into the arms of Mrs. Wix, whom at this moment and even in the whirl of her transit Maisie saw, very red, exchange a quick queer look with Sir Claude.
The impression of the look remained with her, confronting her with such a critical little view of her mother's explosion that she felt the less ashamed of herself for incurring the reproach with which she had been cast off. Her father had once called her a heartless little beast, and now, though decidedly scared, she was as stiff and cold as if the description had been just. She was not even frightened enough to cry, which would have been a tribute to her mother's wrongs: she was only, more than anything else, curious about the opinion mutely expressed by their companions. Taking the earliest opportunity to question Mrs. Wix on this subject she elicited the remarkable reply: "Well, my dear, it's her ladyship's game, and we must just hold on like grim death." (90) Maisie could interpret at her leisure these ominous words. Her reflexions indeed at this moment thickened apace, and one of them made her sure that her governess had conversations, private, earnest and not infrequent, with her denounced stepfather. She perceived in the light of a second episode that something beyond her knowledge had taken place in the house. The things beyond her knowledge--numerous enough in truth--had not hitherto, she believed, been the things that had been nearest to her: she had even had in the past a small smug conviction that in the domestic labyrinth she always kept the clue. This time too, however, she at last found out--with the discreet aid, it had to be confessed, of Mrs. Wix. Sir Claude's own assistance was abruptly taken from her, for his comment on her ladyship's game was to start on the spot, quite alone, for Paris, evidently because he wished to show a spirit when accused of bad behaviour. He might be fond of his stepdaughter, Maisie felt, without wishing her to be after all thrust on him in such a way; his absence therefore, it was clear, was a protest against the thrusting. It was while this absence lasted that our young lady finally discovered what had happened in the house to be that her mother was no longer in love.
The limit of a passion for Sir Claude had certainly been reached, she judged, some time before the day on which her ladyship burst suddenly into the schoolroom to introduce Mr. Perriam, who, as she announced from the doorway to Maisie, wouldn't believe his ears that one had a great hoyden of a daughter. Mr. Perriam was short and massive--Mrs. Wix remarked (91) afterwards that he was "too fat for the pace"; and it would have been difficult to say of him whether his head were more bald or his black moustache more bushy. He seemed also to have moustaches over his eyes, which, however, by no means prevented these polished little globes from rolling round the room as if they had been billiard-balls impelled by Ida's celebrated stroke. Mr. Perriam wore on the hand that pulled his moustache a diamond of dazzling lustre, in consequence of which and of his general weight and mystery our young lady observed on his departure that if he had only had a turban he would have been quite her idea of a heathen Turk.
"He's quite my idea," Mrs. Wix replied, "of a heathen Jew."
"Well, I mean," said Maisie, "of a person who comes from the East."
"That's where he MUST come from," her governess opined--"he comes from the City." In a moment she added as if she knew all about him. [sic] "He's one of those people who have lately broken out. He'll be immensely rich."
"On the death of his papa?" the child interestedly enquired.
"Dear no--nothing hereditary. I mean he has made a mass of money."
"How much, do you think?" Maisie demanded.
Mrs. Wix reflected and sketched it. "Oh many millions."
Mrs. Wix was not sure of the number, but there were enough of them to have seemed to warm up (92) for the time the penury of the schoolroom--to linger there as an afterglow of the hot heavy light Mr. Perriam sensibly shed. This was also, no doubt, on his part, an effect of that enjoyment of life with which, among her elders, Maisie had been in contact from her earliest years--the sign of happy maturity, the old familiar note of overflowing cheer. "How d'ye do, ma'am? How d'ye do, little miss?"--he laughed and nodded at the gaping figures. "She has brought me up for a peep--it's true I wouldn't take you on trust. She's always talking about you, but she'd never produce you; so to-day I challenged her on the spot. Well, you ain't a myth, my dear--I back down on that," the visitor went on to Maisie; "nor you either, miss, though you might be, to be sure!"
"I bored him with you, darling--I bore every one," Ida said, "and to prove that you ARE a sweet thing, as well as a fearfully old one, I told him he could judge for himself. So now he sees that you're a dreadful bouncing business and that your poor old Mummy's at least sixty!"--and her ladyship smiled at Mr. Perriam with the charm that her daughter had heard imputed to her at papa's by the merry gentlemen who had so often wished to get from him what they called a "rise." Her manner at that instant gave the child a glimpse more vivid than any yet enjoyed of the attraction that papa, in remarkable language, always denied she could put forth.
Mr. Perriam, however, clearly recognised it in the humour with which he met her. "I never said (93) you ain't wonderful--did I ever say it, hey?" and he appealed with pleasant confidence to the testimony of the schoolroom, about which itself also he evidently felt something might be expected of him. "So this is their little place, hey? Charming, charming, charming!" he repeated as he vaguely looked round. The interrupted students clung together as if they had been personally exposed; but Ida relieved their embarrassment by a hunch of her high shoulders. This time the smile she addressed to Mr. Perriam had a beauty of sudden sadness. "What on earth is a poor woman to do?"
The visitor's grimace grew more marked as he continued to look, and the conscious little schoolroom felt still more like a cage at a menagerie. "Charming, charming, charming!" Mr. Perriam insisted; but the parenthesis closed with a prompt click. "There you are!" said her ladyship. "By-bye!" she sharply added. The next minute they were on the stairs, and Mrs. Wix and her companion, at the open door and looking mutely at each other, were reached by the sound of the large social current that carried them back to their life.
It was singular perhaps after this that Maisie never put a question about Mr. Perriam, and it was still more singular that by the end of a week she knew all she didn't ask. What she most particularly knew--and the information came to her, unsought, straight from Mrs. Wix--was that Sir Claude wouldn't at all care for the visits of a millionaire who was in and out of the upper rooms. How little he would care was proved by the fact that under the (94) sense of them Mrs. Wix's discretion broke down altogether; she was capable of a transfer of allegiance, capable, at the altar of propriety, of a desperate sacrifice of her ladyship. As against Mrs. Beale, she more than once intimated, she had been willing to do the best for her, but as against Sir Claude she could do nothing for her at all. It was extraordinary the number of things that, still without a question, Maisie knew by the time her stepfather came back from Paris--came bringing her a splendid apparatus for painting in water-colours and bringing Mrs. Wix, by a lapse of memory that would have been droll if it had not been a trifle disconcerting, a second and even a more elegant umbrella. He had forgotten all about the first, with which, buried in as many wrappers as a mummy of the Pharaohs, she wouldn't for the world have done anything so profane as use it. Maisie knew above all that though she was now, by what she called an informal understanding, on Sir Claude's "side," she had yet not uttered a word to him about Mr. Perriam. That gentleman became therefore a kind of flourishing public secret, out of the depths of which governess and pupil looked at each other portentously from the time their friend was restored to them. He was restored in great abundance, and it was marked that, though he appeared to have felt the need to take a stand against the risk of being too roughly saddled with the offspring of others, he at this period exposed himself more than ever before to the presumption of having created expectations.
If it had become now, for that matter, a question (95) of sides, there was at least a certain amount of evidence as to where they all were. Maisie of course, in such a delicate position, was on nobody's; but Sir Claude had all the air of being on hers. If therefore Mrs. Wix was on Sir Claude's, her ladyship on Mr. Perriam's and Mr. Perriam presumably on her ladyship's, this left only Mrs. Beale and Mr. Farange to account for. Mrs. Beale clearly was, like Sir Claude, on Maisie's, and papa, it was to be supposed, on Mrs. Beale's. Here indeed was a slight ambiguity, as papa's being on Mrs. Beale's didn't somehow seem to place him quite on his daughter's. It sounded, as this young lady thought it over, very much like puss-in-the-corner, and she could only wonder if the distribution of parties would lead to a rushing to and fro and a changing of places. She was in the presence, she felt, of restless change: wasn't it restless enough that her mother and her stepfather should already be on different sides? That was the great thing that had domestically happened. Mrs. Wix, besides, had turned another face: she had never been exactly gay, but her gravity was now an attitude as public as a posted placard. She seemed to sit in her new dress and brood over her lost delicacy, which had become almost as doleful a memory as that of poor Clara Matilda. "It IS hard for him," she often said to her companion; and it was surprising how competent on this point Maisie was conscious of being to agree with her. Hard as it was, however, Sir Claude had never shown to greater advantage than in the gallant generous sociable way he carried it off: a way that drew from Mrs. Wix a hundred expressions of relief at his (96) not having suffered it to embitter him. It threw him more and more at last into the schoolroom, where he had plainly begun to recognise that if he was to have the credit of perverting the innocent child he might also at least have the amusement. He never came into the place without telling its occupants that they were the nicest people in the house--a remark which always led them to say to each other "Mr. Perriam!" as loud as ever compressed lips and enlarged eyes could make them articulate. He caused Maisie to remember what she had said to Mrs. Beale about his having the nature of a good nurse, and, rather more than she intended before Mrs. Wix, to bring the whole thing out by once remarking to him that none of her good nurses had smoked quite so much in the nursery. This had no more effect than it was meant to on his cigarettes: he was always smoking, but always declaring that it was death to him not to lead a domestic life.
He led one after all in the schoolroom, and there were hours of late evening, when she had gone to bed, that Maisie knew he sat there talking with Mrs. Wix of how to meet his difficulties. His consideration for this unfortunate woman even in the midst of them continued to show him as the perfect gentleman and lifted the subject of his courtesy into an upper air of beatitude in which her very pride had the hush of anxiety. "He leans on me--he leans on me!" she only announced from time to time; and she was more surprised than amused when, later on, she accidentally found she had given her pupil the impression of a support literally supplied by her (97) person. This glimpse of a misconception led her to be explicit--to put before the child, with an air of mourning indeed for such a stoop to the common, that what they talked about in the small hours, as they said, was the question of his taking right hold of life. The life she wanted him to take right hold of was the public: "she" being, I hasten to add, in this connexion, not the mistress of his fate, but only Mrs. Wix herself. She had phrases about him that were full of easy understanding, yet full of morality. "He's a wonderful nature, but he can't live like the lilies. He's all right, you know, but he must have a high interest." She had more than once remarked that his affairs were sadly involved, but that they must get him--Maisie and she together apparently--into Parliament. The child took it from her with a flutter of importance that Parliament was his natural sphere, and she was the less prepared to recognise a hindrance as she had never heard of any affairs whatever that were not involved. She had in the old days once been told by Mrs. Beale that her very own were, and with the refreshment of knowing that she HAD affairs the information hadn't in the least overwhelmed her. It was true and perhaps a little alarming that she had never heard of any such matters since then. Full of charm at any rate was the prospect of some day getting Sir Claude in; especially after Mrs. Wix, as the fruit of more midnight colloquies, once went so far as to observe that she really believed it was all that was wanted to save him. This critic, with these words, struck her disciple as cropping up, after the manner of mamma (98) when mamma talked, quite in a new place. The child stared as at the jump of a kangaroo.
"Save him from what?"
Mrs. Wix debated, then covered a still greater distance. "Why just from awful misery."
(99) Chapter 12
She had not at the moment explained her ominous speech, but the light of remarkable events soon enabled her companion to read it. It may indeed be said that these days brought on a high quickening of Maisie's direct perceptions, of her sense of freedom to make out things for herself. This was helped by an emotion intrinsically far from sweet--the increase of the alarm that had most haunted her meditations. She had no need to be told, as on the morrow of the revelation of Sir Claude's danger she was told by Mrs. Wix, that her mother wanted more and more to know why the devil her father didn't send for her: she had too long expected mamma's curiosity on this point to express itself sharply. Maisie could meet such pressure so far as meeting it was to be in a position to reply, in words directly inspired, that papa would be hanged before he'd again be saddled with her. She therefore recognised the hour that in troubled glimpses she had long foreseen, the hour when--the phrase for it came back to her from Mrs. Beale--with two fathers, two mothers and two homes, six protections in all, she shouldn't know "wherever" to go. Such apprehension as she felt on this score was not diminished by the fact that Mrs. Wix herself was suddenly white with terror: a circumstance leading Maisie to the further knowledge that this lady was still more scared on her own (100) behalf than on that of her pupil. A governess who had only one frock was not likely to have either two fathers or two mothers: accordingly if even with these resources Maisie was to be in the streets, where in the name of all that was dreadful was poor Mrs. Wix to be? She had had, it appeared, a tremendous brush with Ida, which had begun and ended with the request that she would be pleased on the spot to "bundle." It had come suddenly but completely, this signal of which she had gone in fear. The companions confessed to each other the dread each had hidden the worst of, but Mrs. Wix was better off than Maisie in having a plan of defence. She declined indeed to communicate it till it was quite mature; but meanwhile, she hastened to declare, her feet were firm in the schoolroom. They could only be loosened by force: she would "leave" for the police perhaps, but she wouldn't leave for mere outrage. That would be to play her ladyship's game, and it would take another turn of the screw to make her desert her darling. Her ladyship had come down with extraordinary violence: it had been one of many symptoms of a situation strained--"between them all," as Mrs. Wix said, "but especially between the two"--to the point of God only knew what.
Her description of the crisis made the child balance. "Between which two?--papa and mamma?"
"Dear no. I mean between your mother and HIM."
Maisie, in this, recognised an opportunity to be really deep. " 'Him'?--Mr. Perriam?"
She fairly brought a blush to the scared face. "Well, my dear, I must say what you DON'T know (101) ain't worth mentioning. That it won't go on for ever with Mr. Perriam--since I MUST meet you--who can suppose? But I meant dear Sir Claude."
Maisie stood corrected rather than abashed. "I see. But it's about Mr. Perriam he's angry?"
Mrs. Wix waited. "He says he's not."
"Not angry? He has told you so?"
Mrs. Wix looked at her hard. "Not about HIM."
"Then about some one else?"
Mrs. Wix looked at her harder. "About some one else."
"Lord Eric?" the child promptly brought forth.
At this, of a sudden, her governess was more agitated. "Oh why, little unfortunate, should we discuss their dreadful names?"--and she threw herself for the millionth time on Maisie's neck. It took her pupil but a moment to feel that she quivered with insecurity, and, the contact of her terror aiding, the pair in another instant were sobbing in each other's arms. Then it was that, completely relaxed, demoralised as she had never been, Mrs. Wix suffered her wound to bleed and her resentment to gush. Her great bitterness was that Ida had called her false, denounced her hypocrisy and duplicity, reviled her spying and tattling, her lying and grovelling to Sir Claude. "Me, ME," the poor woman wailed, "who've seen what I've seen and gone through everything only to cover her up and ease her off and smooth her down? If I've been an 'ipocrite it's the other way round: I've pretended, to him and to her, to myself and to you and to every one, NOT to see! It serves me right to have held my tongue before such horrors!" (102) What horrors they were her companion forbore too closely to enquire, showing even signs not a few of an ability to take them for granted. That put the couple more than ever, in this troubled sea, in the same boat, so that with the consciousness of ideas on the part of her fellow mariner Maisie could sit close and wait. Sir Claude on the morrow came in to tea, and then the ideas were produced. It was extraordinary how the child's presence drew out their full strength. The principal one was startling, but Maisie appreciated the courage with which her governess handled it. It simply consisted of the proposal that whenever and wherever they should seek refuge Sir Claude should consent to share their asylum. On his protesting with all the warmth in nature against this note of secession she asked what else in the world was left to them if her ladyship should stop supplies.
"Supplies be hanged, my dear woman!" said their delightful friend. "Leave supplies to me--I'll take care of supplies."
Mrs. Wix rose to it. "Well, it's exactly because I knew you'd be so glad to do so that I put the question before you. There's a way to look after us better than any other. The way's just to come along with us."
It hung before Maisie, Mrs. Wix's way, like a glittering picture, and she clasped her hands in ecstasy. "Come along, come along, come along!"
Sir Claude looked from his stepdaughter back to her governess. "Do you mean leave this house and take up my abode with you?"
(103) "It will be the right thing--if you feel as you've told me you feel." Mrs. Wix, sustained and uplifted, was now as clear as a bell.
Sir Claude had the air of trying to recall what he had told her; then the light broke that was always breaking to make his face more pleasant. "It's your happy thought that I shall take a house for you?"
"For the wretched homeless child. Any roof--over OUR heads--will do for us; but of course for you it will have to be something really nice."
Sir Claude's eyes reverted to Maisie, rather hard, as she thought; and there was a shade in his very smile that seemed to show her--though she also felt it didn't show Mrs. Wix--that the accommodation prescribed must loom to him pretty large. The next moment, however, he laughed gaily enough. "My dear lady, you exaggerate tremendously MY poor little needs." Mrs. Wix had once mentioned to her young friend that when Sir Claude called her his dear lady he could do anything with her; and Maisie felt a certain anxiety to see what he would do now. Well, he only addressed her a remark of which the child herself was aware of feeling the force. "Your plan appeals to me immensely; but of course--don't you see?--I shall have to consider the position I put myself in by leaving my wife."
"You'll also have to remember," Mrs. Wix replied, "that if you don't look out your wife won't give you time to consider. Her ladyship will leave YOU."
"Ah my good friend, I do look out!" the young man returned while Maisie helped herself afresh to bread and butter. "Of course if that happens I shall (104) have somehow to turn round; but I hope with all my heart it won't. I beg your pardon," he continued to his stepdaughter, "for appearing to discuss that sort of possibility under your sharp little nose. But the fact is I FORGET half the time that Ida's your sainted mother."
"So do I!" said Maisie, her mouth full of bread and butter and to put him the more in the right.
Her protectress, at this, was upon her again. "The little desolate precious pet!" For the rest of the conversation she was enclosed in Mrs. Wix's arms, and as they sat there interlocked Sir Claude, before them with his tea-cup, looked down at them in deepening thought. Shrink together as they might they couldn't help, Maisie felt, being a very large lumpish image of what Mrs. Wix required of his slim fineness. She knew moreover that this lady didn't make it better by adding in a moment: "Of course WE shouldn't dream of a whole house. Any sort of little lodging, however humble, would be only too blest."
"But it would have to be something that would hold us all," said Sir Claude.
"Oh yes," Mrs. Wix concurred; "the whole point's our being together. While you're waiting, before you act, for her ladyship to take some step, our position here will come to an impossible pass. You don't know what I went through with her for you yesterday--and for our poor darling; but it's not a thing I can promise you often to face again. She cast me out in horrible language--she has instructed the servants not to wait on me."
(105) "Oh the poor servants are all right!" Sir Claude eagerly cried.
"They're certainly better than their mistress. It's too dreadful that I should sit here and say of your wife, Sir Claude, and of Maisie's own mother, that she's lower than a domestic; but my being betrayed into such remarks is just a reason the more for our getting away. I shall stay till I'm taken by the shoulders, but that may happen any day. What also may perfectly happen, you must permit me to repeat, is that she'll go off to get rid of us."
"Oh if she'll only do that!" Sir Claude laughed. "That would be the very making of us!"
"Don't say it--don't say it!" Mrs. Wix pleaded. "Don't speak of anything so fatal. You know what I mean. We must all cling to the right. You mustn't be bad."
Sir Claude set down his tea-cup; he had become more grave and he pensively wiped his moustache. "Won't all the world say I'm awful if I leave the house before--before she has bolted? They'll say it was my doing so that made her bolt."
Maisie could grasp the force of this reasoning, but it offered no check to Mrs. Wix. "Why need you mind that--if you've done it for so high a motive? Think of the beauty of it," the good lady pressed.
"Of bolting with YOU?" Sir Claude ejaculated.
She faintly smiled--she even faintly coloured. "So far from doing you harm it will do you the highest good. Sir Claude, if you'll listen to me, it will save you."
"Save me from what?"
(106) Maisie, at this question, waited with renewed suspense for an answer that would bring the thing to some finer point than their companion had brought it to before. But there was on the contrary only more mystification in Mrs. Wix's reply. "Ah from you know what!"
"Do you mean from some other woman!"
"Yes--from a real bad one."
Sir Claude at least, the child could see, was not mystified; so little indeed that a smile of intelligence broke afresh in his eyes. He turned them in vague discomfort to Maisie, and then something in the way she met them caused him to chuck her playfully under the chin. It was not till after this that he good-naturedly met Mrs. Wix. "You think me much worse than I am."
"If that were true," she returned, "I wouldn't appeal to you. I do, Sir Claude, in the name of all that's good in you--and oh so earnestly! We can help each other. What you'll do for our young friend here I needn't say. That isn't even what I want to speak of now. What I want to speak of is what you'll GET--don't you see?--from such an opportunity to take hold. Take hold of US--take hold of HER. Make her your duty--make her your life: she'll repay you a thousand-fold!"
It was to Mrs. Wix, during this appeal, that Maisie's contemplation transferred itself: partly because, though her heart was in her throat for trepidation, her delicacy deterred her from appearing herself to press the question; partly from the coercion of seeing Mrs. Wix come out as Mrs. Wix had never come (107) before--not even on the day of her call at Mrs. Beale's with the news of mamma's marriage. On that day Mrs. Beale had surpassed her in dignity, but nobody could have surpassed her now. There was in fact at this moment a fascination for her pupil in the hint she seemed to give that she had still more of that surprise behind. So the sharpened sense of spectatorship was the child's main support, the long habit, from the first, of seeing herself in discussion and finding in the fury of it--she had had a glimpse of the game of football--a sort of compensation for the doom of a peculiar passivity. It gave her often an odd air of being present at her history in as separate a manner as if she could only get at experience by flattening her nose against a pane of glass. Such she felt to be the application of her nose while she waited for the effect of Mrs. Wix's eloquence. Sir Claude, however, didn't keep her long in a position so ungraceful: he sat down and opened his arms to her as he had done the day he came for her at her father's, and while he held her there, looking at her kindly, but as if their companion had brought the blood a good deal to his face, he said:
"Dear Mrs. Wix is magnificent, but she's rather too grand about it. I mean the situation isn't after all quite so desperate or quite so simple. But I give you my word before her, and I give it to her before you, that I'll never, never, forsake you. Do you hear that, old fellow, and do you take it in? I'll stick to you through everything."
Maisie did take it in--took it with a long tremor (108) of all her little being; and then as, to emphasise it, he drew her closer she buried her head on his shoulder and cried without sound and without pain. While she was so engaged she became aware that his own breast was agitated, and gathered from it with rapture that his tears were as silently flowing. Presently she heard a loud sob from Mrs. Wix--Mrs. Wix was the only one who made a noise.
She was to have made, for some time, none other but this, though within a few days, in conversation with her pupil, she described her intercourse with Ida as little better than the state of being battered. There was as yet nevertheless no attempt to eject her by force, and she recognised that Sir Claude, taking such a stand as never before, had intervened with passion and with success. As Maisie remembered--and remembered wholly without disdain--that he had told her he was afraid of her ladyship, the little girl took this act of resolution as a proof of what, in the spirit of the engagement sealed by all their tears, he was really prepared to do. Mrs. Wix spoke to her of the pecuniary sacrifice by which she herself purchased the scant security she enjoyed and which, if it was a defence against the hand of violence, yet left her exposed to incredible rudeness. Didn't her ladyship find every hour of the day some artful means to humiliate and trample upon her? There was a quarter's salary owing her--a great name, even Maisie could suspect, for a small matter; she should never see it as long as she lived, but keeping quiet about it put her ladyship, thank heaven, a little in one's power. Now that he was doing so much else (109) she could never have the grossness to apply for it to Sir Claude. He had sent home for schoolroom consumption a huge frosted cake, a wonderful delectable mountain with geological strata of jam, which might, with economy, see them through many days of their siege; but it was none the less known to Mrs. Wix that his affairs were more and more involved, and her fellow partaker looked back tenderly, in the light of these involutions, at the expression of face with which he had greeted the proposal that he should set up another establishment. Maisie felt that if their maintenance should hang by a thread they must still demean themselves with the highest delicacy. What he was doing was simply acting without delay, so far as his embarrassments permitted, on the inspiration of his elder friend. There was at this season a wonderful month of May--as soft as a drop of the wind in a gale that had kept one awake--when he took out his stepdaughter with a fresh alacrity and they rambled the great town in search, as Mrs. Wix called it, of combined amusement and instruction.
They rode on the top of 'buses; they visited outlying parks; they went to cricket-matches where Maisie fell asleep; they tried a hundred places for the best one to have tea. This was his direct way of rising to Mrs. Wix's grand lesson--of making his little accepted charge his duty and his life. They dropped, under incontrollable impulses, into shops that they agreed were too big, to look at things that they agreed were too small, and it was during these hours that Mrs. Wix, alone at home, but a subject (110) of regretful reference as they pulled off their gloves for refreshment, subsequently described herself as least sheltered from the blows her ladyship had achieved such ingenuity in dealing. She again and again repeated that she wouldn't so much have minded having her "attainments" held up to scorn and her knowledge of every subject denied, hadn't she been branded as "low" in character and tone. There was by this time no pretence on the part of any one of denying it to be fortunate that her ladyship habitually left London every Saturday and was more and more disposed to a return late in the week. It was almost equally public that she regarded as a preposterous "pose," and indeed as a direct insult to herself, her husband's attitude of staying behind to look after a child for whom the most elaborate provision had been made. If there was a type Ida despised, Sir Claude communicated to Maisie, it was the man who pottered about town of a Sunday; and he also mentioned how often she had declared to him that if he had a grain of spirit he would be ashamed to accept a menial position about Mr. Farange's daughter. It was her ladyship's contention that he was in craven fear of his predecessor--otherwise he would recognise it as an obligation of plain decency to protect his wife against the outrage of that person's barefaced attempt to swindle her. The swindle was that Mr. Farange put upon her the whole intolerable burden; "and even when I pay for you myself," Sir Claude averred to his young friend, "she accuses me the more of truckling and grovelling." It was Mrs. Wix's conviction, they both (111) knew, arrived at on independent grounds, that Ida's weekly excursions were feelers for a more considerable absence. If she came back later each week the week would be sure to arrive when she wouldn't come back at all. This appearance had of course much to do with Mrs. Wix's actual valour. Could they but hold out long enough the snug little home with Sir Claude would find itself informally established.
(112) Chapter 13
This might moreover have been taken to be the sense of a remark made by her stepfather as--one rainy day when the streets were all splash and two umbrellas unsociable and the wanderers had sought shelter in the National Gallery--Maisie sat beside him staring rather sightlessly at a roomful of pictures which he had mystified her much by speaking of with a bored sigh as a "silly superstition." They represented, with patches of gold and cataracts of purple, with stiff saints and angular angels, with ugly Madonnas and uglier babies, strange prayers and prostrations; so that she at first took his words for a protest against devotional idolatry--all the more that he had of late often come with her and with Mrs. Wix to morning church, a place of worship of Mrs. Wix's own choosing, where there was nothing of that sort; no haloes on heads, but only, during long sermons, beguiling backs of bonnets, and where, as her governess always afterwards observed, he gave the most earnest attention. It presently appeared, however, that his reference was merely to the affectation of admiring such ridiculous works--an admonition that she received from him as submissively as she received everything. What turn it gave to their talk needn't here be recorded: the transition to the colourless schoolroom and lonely Mrs. Wix was doubtless an effect of relaxed interest in what was before them. Maisie expressed in her own (113) way the truth that she never went home nowadays without expecting to find the temple of her studies empty and the poor priestess cast out. This conveyed a full appreciation of her peril, and it was in rejoinder that Sir Claude uttered, acknowledging the source of that peril, the reassurance at which I have glanced. "Don't be afraid, my dear: I've squared her." It required indeed a supplement when he saw that it left the child momentarily blank. "I mean that your mother lets me do what I want so long as I let her do what SHE wants."
"So you ARE doing what you want?" Maisie asked.
"Rather, Miss Farange!"
Miss Farange turned it over. "And she's doing the same?"
"Up to the hilt!"
Again she considered. "Then, please, what may it be?"
"I wouldn't tell you for the whole world."
She gazed at a gaunt Madonna; after which she broke into a slow smile. "Well, I don't care, so long as you do let her."
"Oh you monster!"--and Sir Claude's gay vehemence brought him to his feet.
Another day, in another place--a place in Baker Street where at a hungry hour she had sat down with him to tea and buns--he brought out a question disconnected from previous talk. "I say, you know, what do you suppose your father WOULD do?"
Maisie hadn't long to cast about or to question his pleasant eyes. "If you were really to go with us? He'd make a great complaint."
(114) He seemed amused at the term she employed. "Oh I shouldn't mind a 'complaint'!"
"He'd talk to every one about it," said Maisie.
"Well, I shouldn't mind that either."
"Of course not," the child hastened to respond. "You've told me you're not afraid of him."
"The question is are you?" said Sir Claude.
Maisie candidly considered; then she spoke resolutely. "No, not of papa."
"But of somebody else?"
"Certainly, of lots of people."
"Of your mother first and foremost of course."
"Dear, yes; more of mamma than of--than of--"
"Than of what?" Sir Claude asked as she hesitated for a comparison.
She thought over all objects of dread. "Than of a wild elephant!" she at last declared. "And you are too," she reminded him as he laughed.
"Oh yes, I am too."
Again she meditated. "Why then did you marry her?"
"Just because I WAS afraid."
"Even when she loved you?"
"That made her the more alarming."
For Maisie herself, though her companion seemed to find it droll, this opened up depths of gravity. "More alarming than she is now?"
"Well, in a different way. Fear, unfortunately, is a very big thing, and there's a great variety of kinds."
She took this in with complete intelligence. "Then I think I've got them all."
(115) "You?" her friend cried. "Nonsense! You're thoroughly 'game.' "
"I'm awfully afraid of Mrs. Beale," Maisie objected.
He raised his smooth brows. "That charming woman?"
"Well," she answered, "you can't understand it because you're not in the same state."
She had been going on with a luminous "But" when, across the table, he laid his hand on her arm. "I CAN understand it," he confessed. "I AM in the same state."
"Oh but she likes you so!" Maisie promptly pleaded.
Sir Claude literally coloured. "That has something to do with it."
Maisie wondered again. "Being liked with being afraid?"
"Yes, when it amounts to adoration."
"Then why aren't you afraid of ME?"
"Because with you it amounts to that?" He had kept his hand on her arm. "Well, what prevents is simply that you're the gentlest spirit on earth. Besides--" he pursued; but he came to a pause.
"I SHOULD be in fear if you were older--there! See--you already make me talk nonsense," the young man added. "The question's about your father. Is he likewise afraid of Mrs. Beale?"
"I think not. And yet he loves her," Maisie mused.
"Oh no--he doesn't; not a bit!" After which, as his companion stared, Sir Claude apparently felt (116) that he must make this oddity fit with her recollections. "There's nothing of that sort NOW."
But Maisie only stared the more. "They've changed?"
"Like your mother and me."
She wondered how he knew. "Then you've seen Mrs. Beale again?"
He demurred. "Oh no. She has written to me," he presently subjoined. "SHE'S not afraid of your father either. No one at all is--really." Then he went on while Maisie's little mind, with its filial spring too relaxed from of old for a pang at this want of parental majesty, speculated on the vague relation between Mrs. Beale's courage and the question, for Mrs. Wix and herself, of a neat lodging with their friend. "She wouldn't care a bit if Mr. Farange should make a row."
"Do you mean about you and me and Mrs. Wix? Why should she care? It wouldn't hurt HER."
Sir Claude, with his legs out and his hand diving into his trousers-pocket, threw back his head with a laugh just perceptibly tempered, as she thought, by a sigh. "My dear stepchild, you're delightful! Look here, we must pay. You've had five buns?"
"How CAN you?" Maisie demanded, crimson under the eye of the young woman who had stepped to their board. "I've had three."
Shortly after this Mrs. Wix looked so ill that it was to be feared her ladyship had treated her to some unexampled passage. Maisie asked if anything worse than usual had occurred; whereupon the poor woman (117) brought out with infinite gloom: "He has been seeing Mrs. Beale."
"Sir Claude?" The child remembered what he had said. "Oh no--not SEEING her!"
"I beg your pardon. I absolutely know it." Mrs. Wix was as positive as she was dismal.
Maisie nevertheless ventured to challenge her. "And how, please, do you know it?"
She faltered a moment. "From herself. I've been to see her." Then on Maisie's visible surprise: "I went yesterday while you were out with him. He has seen her repeatedly."
It was not wholly clear to Maisie why Mrs. Wix should be prostrate at this discovery; but her general consciousness of the way things could be both perpetrated and resented always eased off for her the strain of the particular mystery. "There may be some mistake. He says he hasn't."
Mrs. Wix turned paler, as if this were a still deeper ground for alarm. "He says so?--he denies that he has seen her?"
"He told me so three days ago. Perhaps she's mistaken," Maisie suggested.
"Do you mean perhaps she lies? She lies whenever it suits her, I'm very sure. But I know when people lie--and that's what I've loved in you, that YOU never do. Mrs. Beale didn't yesterday at any rate. He HAS seen her."
Maisie was silent a little. "He says not," she then repeated. "Perhaps--perhaps--" Once more she paused.
"Do you mean perhaps HE lies?"
(118) "Gracious goodness, no!" Maisie shouted.
Mrs. Wix's bitterness, however, again overflowed. "He does, he does," she cried, "and it's that that's just the worst of it! They'll take you, they'll take you, and what in the world will then become of me?" She threw herself afresh upon her pupil and wept over her with the inevitable effect of causing the child's own tears to flow. But Maisie couldn't have told you if she had been crying at the image of their separation or at that of Sir Claude's untruth. As regards this deviation it was agreed between them that they were not in a position to bring it home to him. Mrs. Wix was in dread of doing anything to make him, as she said, "worse"; and Maisie was sufficiently initiated to be able to reflect that in speaking to her as he had done he had only wished to be tender of Mrs. Beale. It fell in with all her inclinations to think of him as tender, and she forbore to let him know that the two ladies had, as SHE would never do, betrayed him.
She had not long to keep her secret, for the next day, when she went out with him, he suddenly said in reference to some errand he had first proposed: "No, we won't do that--we'll do something else." On this, a few steps from the door, he stopped a hansom and helped her in; then following her he gave the driver over the top an address that she lost. When he was seated beside her she asked him where they were going; to which he replied "My dear child, you'll see." She saw while she watched and wondered that they took the direction of the Regent's Park; but she didn't know why he should make a mystery (119) of that, and it was not till they passed under a pretty arch and drew up at a white house in a terrace from which the view, she thought, must be lovely that, mystified, she clutched him and broke out: "I shall see papa?"
He looked down at her with a kind smile. "No, probably not. I haven't brought you for that."
"Then whose house is it?"
"It's your father's. They've moved her [sic]."
She looked about: she had known Mr. Farange in four or five houses, and there was nothing astonishing in this except that it was the nicest place yet. "But I shall see Mrs. Beale?"
"It's to see her that I brought you."
She stared, very white, and, with her hand on his arm, though they had stopped, kept him sitting in the cab. "To leave me, do you mean?"
He could scarce bring it out. "It's not for me to say if you CAN stay. We must look into it."
"But if I do I shall see papa?"
"Oh some time or other, no doubt." Then Sir Claude went on: "Have you really so very great a dread of that?"
Maisie glanced away over the apron of the cab--gazed a minute at the green expanse of the Regent's Park and, at this moment colouring to the roots of her hair, felt the full, hot rush of an emotion more mature than any she had yet known. It consisted of an odd unexpected shame at placing in an inferior light, to so perfect a gentleman and so charming a person as Sir Claude, so very near a relative as Mr. Farange. She remembered, however, her friend's (120) telling her that no one was seriously afraid of her father, and she turned round with a small toss of her head. "Oh I dare say I can manage him!"
Sir Claude smiled, but she noted that the violence with which she had just changed colour had brought into his own face a slight compunctious and embarrassed flush. It was as if he had caught his first glimpse of her sense of responsibility. Neither of them made a movement to get out, and after an instant he said to her: "Look here, if you say so we won't after all go in."
"Ah but I want to see Mrs. Beale!" the child gently wailed.
"But what if she does decide to take you? Then, you know, you'll have to remain."
Maisie turned it over. "Straight on--and give you up?"
"Well--I don't quite know about giving me up."
"I mean as I gave up Mrs. Beale when I last went to mamma's. I couldn't do without you here for anything like so long a time as that." It struck her as a hundred years since she had seen Mrs. Beale, who was on the other side of the door they were so near and whom she yet had not taken the jump to clasp in her arms.
"Oh I dare say you'll see more of me than you've seen of Mrs. Beale. It isn't in ME to be so beautifully discreet," Sir Claude said. "But all the same," he continued, "I leave the thing, now that we're here, absolutely WITH you. You must settle it. We'll only go in if you say so. If you don't say so we'll turn right round and drive away."
(121) "So in that case Mrs. Beale won't take me?"
"Well--not by any act of ours."
"And I shall be able to go on with mamma?" Maisie asked.
"Oh I don't say that!"
She considered. "But I thought you said you had squared her?"
Sir Claude poked his stick at the splashboard of the cab. "Not, my dear child, to the point she now requires."
"Then if she turns me out and I don't come here--?"
Sir Claude promptly took her up. "What do I offer you, you naturally enquire? My poor chick, that's just what I ask myself. I don't see it, I confess, quite as straight as Mrs. Wix."
His companion gazed a moment at what Mrs. Wix saw. "You mean WE can't make a little family?"
"It's very base of me, no doubt, but I can't wholly chuck your mother."
Maisie, at this, emitted a low but lengthened sigh, a slight sound of reluctant assent which would certainly have been amusing to an auditor. "Then there isn't anything else?"
"I vow I don't quite see what there is."
Maisie waited; her silence seemed to signify that she too had no alternative to suggest. But she made another appeal. "If I come here you'll come to see me?"
"I won't lose sight of you."
"But how often will you come?" As he hung fire she pressed him. "Often and often?"
(122) Still he faltered. "My dear old woman--" he began. Then he paused again, going on the next moment with a change of tone. "You're too funny! Yes then," he said; "often and often."
"All right!" Maisie jumped out. Mrs. Beale was at home, but not in the drawing-room, and when the butler had gone for her the child suddenly broke out: "But when I'm here what will Mrs. Wix do?"
"Ah you should have thought of that sooner!" said her companion with the first faint note of asperity she had ever heard him sound.
(123) Chapter 14
Mrs. Beale fairly swooped upon her, and the effect of the whole hour was to show the child how much, how quite formidably indeed, after all, she was loved. This was the more the case as her stepmother, so changed--in the very manner of her mother--that she really struck her as a new acquaintance, somehow recalled more familiarity than Maisie could feel. A rich strong expressive affection in short pounced upon her in the shape of a handsomer, ampler, older Mrs. Beale. It was like making a fine friend, and they hadn't been a minute together before she felt elated at the way she had met the choice imposed on her in the cab. There was a whole future in the combination of Mrs. Beale's beauty and Mrs. Beale's hug. She seemed to Maisie charming to behold, and also to have no connexion at all with anybody who had once mended underclothing and had meals in the nursery. The child knew one of her father's wives was a woman of fashion, but she had always dimly made a distinction, not applying that epithet without reserve to the other. Mrs. Beale had since their separation acquired a conspicuous right to it, and Maisie's first flush of response to her present delight coloured all her splendour with meanings that this time were sweet. She had told Sir Claude she was afraid of the lady in the Regent's Park; but she had confidence enough to break, on the (124) spot, into the frankest appreciation. "Why, aren't you beautiful? Isn't she beautiful, Sir Claude, ISN'T she?"
"The handsomest woman in London, simply," Sir Claude gallantly replied. "Just as sure as you're the best little girl!"
Well, the handsomest woman in London gave herself up, with tender lustrous looks and every demonstration of fondness, to a happiness at last clutched again. There was almost as vivid a bloom in her maturity as in mamma's, and it took her but a short time to give her little friend an impression of positive power--an impression that seemed to begin like a long bright day. This was a perception on Maisie's part that neither mamma, nor Sir Claude, nor Mrs. Wix, with their immense and so varied respective attractions, had exactly kindled, and that made an immediate difference when the talk, as it promptly did, began to turn to her father. Oh yes, Mr. Farange was a complication, but she saw now that he wouldn't be one for his daughter. For Mrs, [sic] Beale certainly he was an immense one--she speedily made known as much; but Mrs. Beale from this moment presented herself to Maisie as a person to whom a great gift had come. The great gift was just for handling complications. Maisie felt how little she made of them when, after she had dropped to Sir Claude some recall of a previous meeting, he made answer, with a sound of consternation and yet an air of relief, that he had denied to their companion their having, since the day he came for her, seen each other till that moment.
(125) Mrs. Beale could but vaguely pity it. "Why did you do anything so silly?"
"To protect your reputation."
"From Maisie?" Mrs. Beale was much amused. "My reputation with Maisie is too good to suffer."
"But you believed me, you rascal, didn't you?" Sir Claude asked of the child.
She looked at him; she smiled. "Her reputation did suffer. I discovered you had been here."
He was not too chagrined to laugh. "The way, my dear, you talk of that sort of thing!"
"How should she talk," Mrs. Beale wanted to know, "after all this wretched time with her mother?"
"It was not mamma who told me," Maisie explained. "It was only Mrs. Wix." She was hesitating whether to bring out before Sir Claude the source of Mrs. Wix's information; but Mrs. Beale, addressing the young man, showed the vanity of scruples.
"Do you know that preposterous person came to see me a day or two ago?--when I told her I had seen you repeatedly."
Sir Claude, for once in a way, was disconcerted. "The old cat! She never told me. Then you thought I had lied?" he demanded of Maisie.
She was flurried by the term with which he had qualified her gentle friend, but she took the occasion for one to which she must in every manner lend herself. "Oh I didn't mind! But Mrs. Wix did," she added with an intention benevolent to her governess.
Her intention was not very effective as regards Mrs. Beale. "Mrs. Wix is too idiotic!" that lady declared.
(126) "But to you, of all people," Sir Claude asked, "what had she to say?"
"Why that, like Mrs. Micawber--whom she must, I think, rather resemble--she will never, never, never desert Miss Farange."
"Oh I'll make that all right!" Sir Claude cheerfully returned.
"I'm sure I hope so, my dear man," said Mrs. Beale, while Maisie wondered just how he would proceed. Before she had time to ask Mrs. Beale continued: "That's not all she came to do, if you please. But you'll never guess the rest."
"Shall i guess it?" Maisie quavered.
Mrs. Beale was again amused. "Why you're just the person! It must be quite the sort of thing you've heard at your awful mother's. Have you never seen women there crying to her to 'spare' the men they love?"
Maisie, wondering, tried to remember; but Sir Claude was freshly diverted. "Oh they don't trouble about Ida! Mrs. Wix cried to you to spare ME?"
"She regularly went down on her knees to me."
"The darling old dear!" the young man exclaimed.
These words were a joy to Maisie--they made up for his previous description of Mrs. Wix. "And WILL you spare him?" she asked of Mrs. Beale.
Her stepmother, seizing her and kissing her again, seemed charmed with the tone of her question. "Not an inch of him! I'll pick him to the bone!"
"You mean that he'll really come often?" Maisie pressed.
(127) Mrs. Beale turned lovely eyes to Sir Claude. "That's not for me to say--it's for him."
He said nothing at once, however; with his hands in his pockets and vaguely humming a tune--even Maisie could see he was a little nervous--he only walked to the window and looked out at the Regent's Park. "Well, he has promised," Maisie said. "But how will papa like it?"
"His being in and out? Ah that's a question that, to be frank with you, my dear, hardly matters. In point of fact, however, Beale greatly enjoys the idea that Sir Claude too, poor man, has been forced to quarrel with your mother."
Sir Claude turned round and spoke gravely and kindly. "Don't be afraid, Maisie; you won't lose sight of me."
"Thank you so much!" Maisie was radiant. "But what I meant--don't you know?--was what papa would say to ME."
"Oh I've been having that out with him," said Mrs. Beale. "He'll behave well enough. You see the great difficulty is that, though he changes every three days about everything else in the world, he has never changed about your mother. It's a caution, the way he hates her."
Sir Claude gave a short laugh. "It certainly can't beat the way she still hates HIM!"
"Well," Mrs. Beale went on obligingly, "nothing can take the place of that feeling with either of them, and the best way they can think of to show it is for each to leave you as long as possible on the hands of the other. There's nothing, as you've seen for (128) yourself, that makes either so furious. It isn't, asking so little as you do, that you're much of an expense or a trouble; it's only that you make each feel so well how nasty the other wants to be. Therefore Beale goes on loathing your mother too much to have any great fury left for any one else. Besides, you know, I've squared him."
"Oh Lord!" Sir Claude cried with a louder laugh and turning again to the window.
"i know how!" Maisie was prompt to proclaim. "By letting him do what he wants on condition that he lets you also do it."
"You're too delicious, my own pet!"--she was involved in another hug. "How in the world have I got on so long without you? I've not been happy, love," said Mrs. Beale with her cheek to the child's.
"Be happy now!"--Maisie throbbed with shy tenderness.
"I think I shall be. You'll save me."
"As I'm saving Sir Claude?" the little girl asked eagerly.
Mrs. Beale, a trifle at a loss, appealed to her visitor, "Is she really?"
He showed high amusement at Maisie's question. "It's dear Mrs. Wix's idea. There may be something in it."
"He makes me his duty--he makes me his life," Maisie set forth to her stepmother.
"Why that's what i want to do!" Mrs. Beale, so anticipated, turned pink with astonishment.
"Well, you can do it together. Then he'll HAVE to come!"
(129) Mrs. Beale by this time had her young friend fairly in her lap and she smiled up at Sir Claude. "Shall we do it together?"
His laughter had dropped, and for a moment he turned his handsome serious face not to his hostess, but to his stepdaughter. "Well, it's rather more decent than some things. Upon my soul, the way things are going, it seems to me the only decency!" He had the air of arguing it out to Maisie, of presenting it, through an impulse of conscience, as a connexion in which they could honourably see her participate; though his plea of mere "decency" might well have appeared to fall below her rosy little vision. "If we're not good for YOU," he exclaimed, "I'll be hanged if I know who we shall be good for!"
Mrs. Beale showed the child an intenser light. "I dare say you WILL save us--from one thing and another."
"Oh I know what she'll save ME from!" Sir Claude roundly asserted. "There'll be rows of course," he went on.
Mrs. Beale quickly took him up. "Yes, but they'll be nothing--for you at least--to the rows your wife makes as it is. I can bear what i suffer--I can't bear what you go through."
"We're doing a good deal for you, you know, young woman," Sir Claude went on to Maisie with the same gravity.
She coloured with a sense of obligation and the eagerness of her desire it should be remarked how little was lost on her. "Oh I know!"
(130) "Then you must keep us all right!" This time he laughed.
"How you talk to her!" cried Mrs. Beale.
"No worse than you!" he gaily answered.
"Handsome is that handsome does!" she returned in the same spirit. "You can take off your things," she went on, releasing Maisie.
The child, on her feet, was all emotion. "Then I'm just to stop--this way?"
"It will do as well as any other. Sir Claude, tomorrow, will have your things brought."
"I'll bring them myself. Upon my word I'll see them packed!" Sir Claude promised. "Come here and unbutton."
He had beckoned his young companion to where he sat, and he helped to disengage her from her coverings while Mrs. Beale, from a little distance, smiled at the hand he displayed. "There's a stepfather for you! I'm bound to say, you know, that he makes up for the want of other people."
"He makes up for the want of a nurse!" Sir Claude laughed. "Don't you remember I told you so the very first time?"
"Remember? It was exactly what made me think so well of you!"
"Nothing would induce me," the young man said to Maisie, "to tell you what made me think so well of HER." Having divested the child he kissed her gently and gave her a little pat to make her stand off. The pat was accompanied with a vague sigh in which his gravity of a moment before came back. "All the same, if you hadn't had the fatal gift of beauty--!"
(131) "Well, what?" Maisie asked, wondering why he paused. It was the first time she had heard of her beauty.
"Why, we shouldn't all be thinking so well of each other!"
"He isn't speaking of personal loveliness--you've not THAT vulgar beauty, my dear, at all," Mrs. Beale explained. "He's just talking of plain dull charm of character."
"Her character's the most extraordinary thing in all the world," Sir Claude stated to Mrs. Beale.
"Oh I know all about that sort of thing!"--she fairly bridled with the knowledge.
It gave Maisie somehow a sudden sense of responsibility from which she sought refuge. "Well, you've got it too, 'that sort of thing'--you've got the fatal gift: you both really have!" she broke out.
"Beauty of character? My dear boy, we haven't a pennyworth!" Sir Claude protested.
"Speak for yourself, sir!" leaped lightly from Mrs. Beale. "I'm good and I'm clever. What more do you want? For you, I'll spare your blushes and not be personal--I'll simply say that you're as handsome as you can stick together."
"You're both very lovely; you can't get out of it!"--Maisie felt the need of carrying her point. "And it's beautiful to see you side by side."
Sir Claude had taken his hat and stick; he stood looking at her a moment. "You're a comfort in trouble! But I must go home and pack you."
"And when will you come back?--to-morrow, to-morrow?"
(132) "You see what we're in for!" he said to Mrs. Beale.
"Well, I can bear it if you can."
Their companion gazed from one of them to the other, thinking that though she had been happy indeed between Sir Claude and Mrs. Wix she should evidently be happier still between Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale. But it was like being perched on a prancing horse, and she made a movement to hold on to something. "Then, you know, shan't I bid good-bye to Mrs. Wix?"
"Oh I'll make it all right with her," said Sir Claude.
Maisie considered. "And with mamma?"
"Ah mamma!" he sadly laughed.
Even for the child this was scarcely ambiguous; but Mrs. Beale endeavoured to contribute to its clearness. "Your mother will crow, she'll crow--"
"Like the early bird!" said Sir Claude as she looked about for a comparison.
"She'll need no consolation," Mrs. Beale went on, "for having made your father grandly blaspheme."
Maisie stared. "Will he grandly blaspheme?" It was impressive, it might have been out of the Bible, and her question produced a fresh play of caresses, in which Sir Claude also engaged. She wondered meanwhile who, if Mrs. Wix was disposed of, would represent in her life the element of geography and anecdote; and she presently surmounted the delicacy she felt about asking. "Won't there be any one to give me lessons?"
Mrs. Beale was prepared with a reply that struck (133) her as absolutely magnificent. "You shall have such lessons as you've never had in all your life. You shall go to courses."
"Courses?" Maisie had never heard of such things.
"At institutions--on subjects."
Maisie continued to stare. "Subjects?"
Mrs. Beale was really splendid. "All the most important ones. French literature--and sacred history. You'll take part in classes--with awfully smart children."
"I'm going to look thoroughly into the whole thing, you know." And Sir Claude, with characteristic kindness, gave her a nod of assurance accompanied by a friendly wink.
But Mrs. Beale went much further. "My dear child, you shall attend lectures."
The horizon was suddenly vast and Maisie felt herself the smaller for it. "All alone?"
"Oh no; I'll attend them with you," said Sir Claude. "They'll teach me a lot I don't know."
"So they will me," Mrs. Beale gravely admitted. "We'll go with her together--it will be charming. It's ages," she confessed to Maisie, "since I've had any time for study. That's another sweet way in which you'll be a motive to us. Oh won't the good she'll do us be immense?" she broke out uncontrollably to Sir Claude.
He weighed it; then he replied: "That's certainly our idea." Of this idea Maisie naturally had less of a grasp, but it inspired her with almost equal enthusiasm. If in so bright a prospect there would be nothing to long for it followed that she wouldn't long (134) for Mrs. Wix; but her consciousness of her assent to the absence of that fond figure caused a pair of words that had often sounded in her ears to ring in them again. It showed her in short what her father had always meant by calling her mother a "low sneak" and her mother by calling her father one. She wondered if she herself shouldn't be a low sneak in learning to be so happy without Mrs. Wix. What would Mrs. Wix do?--where would Mrs. Wix go? Before Maisie knew it, and at the door, as Sir Claude was off, these anxieties, on her lips, grew articulate and her stepfather had stopped long enough to answer them. "Oh I'll square her!" he cried; and with this he departed.
Face to face with Mrs. Beale Maisie, giving a sigh of relief, looked round at what seemed to her the dawn of a higher order. "Then EVERY ONE will be squared!" she peacefully said. On which her stepmother affectionately bent over her again.
(135) Chapter 15
It was Susan Ash who came to her with the news: "He's downstairs, miss, and he do look beautiful."
In the schoolroom at her father's, which had pretty blue curtains, she had been making out at the piano a lovely little thing, as Mrs. Beale called it, a "Moonlight Berceuse" sent her through the post by Sir Claude, who considered that her musical education had been deplorably neglected and who, the last months at her mother's, had been on the point of making arrangements for regular lessons. She knew from him familiarly that the real thing, as he said, was shockingly dear and that anything else was a waste of money, and she therefore rejoiced the more at the sacrifice represented by this composition, of which the price, five shillings, was marked on the cover and which was evidently the real thing. She was already on her feet. "Mrs. Beale has sent up for me?"
"Oh no--it's not that," said Susan Ash. "Mrs. Beale has been out this hour."
"Dear no--not papa. You'll do, miss, all but them wandering 'airs," Susan went on. "Your papa never came 'ome at all," she added.
"Home from where?" Maisie responded a little absently and very excitedly. She gave a wild manual brush to her locks.
(136) "Oh that, miss, I should be very sorry to tell you! I'd rather tuck away that white thing behind--though I'm blest if it's my work."
"Do then, please. I know where papa was," Maisie impatiently continued.
"Well, in your place I wouldn't tell."
"He was at the club--the Chrysanthemum. So!"
"All night long? Why the flowers shut up at night, you know!" cried Susan Ash.
"Well, I don't care"--the child was at the door. "Sir Claude asked for me ALONE?"
"The same as if you was a duchess."
Maisie was aware on her way downstairs that she was now quite as happy as one, and also, a moment later, as she hung round his neck, that even such a personage would scarce commit herself more grandly. There was moreover a hint of the duchess in the infinite point with which, as she felt, she exclaimed: "And this is what you call coming OFTEN?"
Sir Claude met her delightfully and in the same fine spirit. "My dear old man, don't make me a scene--I assure you it's what every woman I look at does. Let us have some fun--it's a lovely day: clap on something smart and come out with me; then we'll talk it over quietly." They were on their way five minutes later to Hyde Park, and nothing that even in the good days at her mother's they had ever talked over had more of the sweetness of tranquillity than his present prompt explanations. He was at his best in such an office and with the exception of Mrs. Wix the only person she had met in her life who ever explained. With him, however, the act had (137) an authority transcending the wisdom of woman. It all came back--all the plans that always failed, all the rewards and bribes that she was perpetually paying for in advance and perpetually out of pocket by afterwards--the whole great stress to be dealt with introduced her on each occasion afresh to the question of money. Even she herself almost knew how it would have expressed the strength of his empire to say that to shuffle away her sense of being duped he had only, from under his lovely moustache, to breathe upon it. It was somehow in the nature of plans to be expensive and in the nature of the expensive to be impossible. To be "involved" was of the essence of everybody's affairs, and also at every particular moment to be more involved than usual. This had been the case with Sir Claude's, with papa's, with mamma's, with Mrs. Beale's and with Maisie's own at the particular moment, a moment of several weeks, that had elapsed since our young lady had been re-established at her father's. There wasn't "two-and-tuppence" for anything or for any one, and that was why there had been no sequel to the classes in French literature with all the smart little girls. It was devilish awkward, didn't she see? to try, without even the limited capital mentioned, to mix her up with a remote array that glittered before her after this as the children of the rich. She was to feel henceforth as if she were flattening her nose upon the hard window-pane of the sweet-shop of knowledge. If the classes, however, that were select, and accordingly the only ones, were impossibly dear, the lectures at the institutions--at least at some of them(138)--were directly addressed to the intelligent poor, and it therefore had to be easier still to produce on the spot the reason why she had been taken to none. This reason, Sir Claude said, was that she happened to be just going to be, though they had nothing to do with that in now directing their steps to the banks of the Serpentine. Maisie's own park, in the north, had been nearer at hand, but they rolled westward in a hansom because at the end of the sweet June days this was the direction taken by every one that any one looked at. They cultivated for an hour, on the Row and by the Drive, this opportunity for each observer to amuse and for one of them indeed, not a little hilariously, to mystify the other, and before the hour was over Maisie had elicited, in reply to her sharpest challenge, a further account of her friend's long absence.
"Why I've broken my word to you so dreadfully--promising so solemnly and then never coming? Well, my dear, that's a question that, not seeing me day after day, you must very often have put to Mrs. Beale."
"Oh yes," the child replied; "again and again."
"And what has she told you?"
"That you're as bad as you're beautiful."
"Is that what she says?"
"Those very words."
"Ah the dear old soul!" Sir Claude was much diverted, and his loud, clear laugh was all his explanation. Those were just the words Maisie had last heard him use about Mrs. Wix. She clung to his hand, which was encased in a pearl-grey glove (139) ornamented with the thick black lines that, at her mother's, always used to strike her as connected with the way the bestitched fists of the long ladies carried, with the elbows well out, their umbrellas upside down. The mere sense of his grasp in her own covered the ground of loss just as much as the ground of gain. His presence was like an object brought so close to her face that she couldn't see round its edges. He himself, however, remained showman of the spectacle even after they had passed out of the Park and begun, under the charm of the spot and the season, to stroll in Kensington Gardens. What they had left behind them was, as he said, only a pretty bad circus, and, through prepossessing gates and over a bridge, they had come in a quarter of an hour, as he also remarked, a hundred miles from London. A great green glade was before them, and high old trees, and under the shade of these, in the fresh turf, the crooked course of a rural footpath. "It's the Forest of Arden," Sir Claude had just delightfully observed, "and I'm the banished duke, and you're--what was the young woman called?--the artless country wench. And there," he went on, "is the other girl--what's her name, Rosalind?--and (don't you know?) the fellow who was making up to her. Upon my word he IS making up to her!"
His allusion was to a couple who, side by side, at the end of the glade, were moving in the same direction as themselves. These distant figures, in their slow stroll (which kept them so close together that their heads, drooping a little forward, almost touched), presented the back of a lady who looked tall, who (140) was evidently a very fine woman, and that of a gentleman whose left hand appeared to be passed well into her arm while his right, behind him, made jerky motions with the stick that it grasped. Maisie's fancy responded for an instant to her friend's idea that the sight was idyllic; then, stopping short, she brought out with all her clearness: "Why mercy--if it isn't mamma!"
Sir Claude paused with a stare. "Mamma? But mamma's at Brussels."
Maisie, with her eyes on the lady, wondered. "At Brussels?"
"She's gone to play a match."
"At billiards? You didn't tell me."
"Of course I didn't!" Sir Claude ejaculated. "There's plenty I don't tell you. She went on Wednesday."
The couple had added to their distance, but Maisie's eyes more than kept pace with them. "Then she has come back."
Sir Claude watched the lady. "It's much more likely she never went!"
"It's mamma!" the child said with decision.
They had stood still, but Sir Claude had made the most of his opportunity, and it happened that just at this moment, at the end of the vista, the others halted and, still showing only their backs, seemed to stay talking. "Right you are, my duck!" he exclaimed at last. "It's my own sweet wife!"
He had spoken with a laugh, but he had changed colour, and Maisie quickly looked away from him. "Then who is it with her?"
(141) "Blest if I know!" said Sir Claude.
"Is it Mr. Perriam?"
"Oh dear no--Perriam's smashed."
"Exposed--in the City. But there are quantities of others!" Sir Claude smiled.
Maisie appeared to count them; she studied the gentleman's back. "Then is this Lord Eric?"
For a moment her companion made no answer, and when she turned her eyes again to him he was looking at her, she thought, rather queerly. "What do you know about Lord Eric?"
She tried innocently to be odd in return. "Oh I know more than you think! Is it Lord Eric?" she repeated.
"It may be. Blest if I care!"
Their friends had slightly separated and now, as Sir Claude spoke, suddenly faced round, showing all the splendour of her ladyship and all the mystery of her comrade. Maisie held her breath. "They're coming!"
"Let them come." And Sir Claude, pulling out his cigarettes, began to strike a light.
"We shall meet them!"
"No. They'll meet US."
Maisie stood her ground. "They see us. Just look."
Sir Claude threw away his match. "Come straight on." The others, in the return, evidently startled, had half-paused again, keeping well apart. "She's horribly surprised and wants to slope," he continued. "But it's too late."
Maisie advanced beside him, making out even (142) across the interval that her ladyship was ill at ease. "Then what will she do?"
Sir Claude puffed his cigarette. "She's quickly thinking." He appeared to enjoy it.
Ida had wavered but an instant; her companion clearly gave her moral support. Maisie thought he somehow looked brave, and he had no likeness whatever to Mr. Perriam. His face, thin and rather sharp, was smooth, and it was not till they came nearer that she saw he had a remarkably fair little moustache. She could already see that his eyes were of the lightest blue. He was far nicer than Mr. Perriam. Mamma looked terrible from afar, but even under her guns the child's curiosity flickered and she appealed again to Sir Claude. "Is it--IS it Lord Eric?"
Sir Claude smoked composedly enough. "I think it's the Count."
This was a happy solution--it fitted her idea of a count. But what idea, as she now came grandly on, did mamma fit?--unless that of an actress, in some tremendous situation, sweeping down to the footlights as if she would jump them. Maisie felt really so frightened that before she knew it she had passed her hand into Sir Claude's arm. Her pressure caused him to stop, and at the sight of this the other couple came equally to a stand and, beyond the diminished space, remained a moment more in talk. This, however, was the matter of an instant; leaving the Count apparently to come round more circuitously--an outflanking movement, if Maisie had but known--her ladyship resumed the onset. "What WILL she do now?" her daughter asked.
(143) Sir Claude was at present in a position to say: "Try to pretend it's me."
"Why that I'm up to something."
In another minute poor Ida had justified this prediction, erect there before them like a figure of justice in full dress. There were parts of her face that grew whiter while Maisie looked, and other parts in which this change seemed to make other colours reign with more intensity. "What are you doing with my daughter?" she demanded of her husband; in spite of the indignant tone of which Maisie had a greater sense than ever in her life before of not being personally noticed. It seemed to her Sir Claude also grew pale as an effect of the loud defiance with which Ida twice repeated this question. He put her, instead of answering it, an enquiry of his own: "Who the devil have you got hold of NOW?" and at this her ladyship turned tremendously to the child, glaring at her as at an equal plotter of sin. Maisie received in petrifaction the full force of her mother's huge painted eyes--they were like Japanese lanterns swung under festal arches. But life came back to her from a tone suddenly and strangely softened. "Go straight to that gentleman, my dear; I've asked him to take you a few minutes. He's charming--go. I've something to say to THIS creature."
Maisie felt Sir Claude immediately clutch her. "No, no--thank you: that won't do. She's mine."
"Yours?" It was confounding to Maisie to hear her speak quite as if she had never heard of Sir Claude before.
(144) "Mine. You've given her up. You've not another word to say about her. I have her from her father," said Sir Claude--a statement that startled his companion, who could also measure its lively action on her mother.
There was visibly, however, an influence that made Ida consider; she glanced at the gentleman she had left, who, having strolled with his hands in his pockets to some distance, stood there with unembarrassed vagueness. She directed to him the face that was like an illuminated garden, turnstile and all, for the frequentation of which he had his season-ticket; then she looked again at Sir Claude. "I've given her up to her father to KEEP--not to get rid of by sending about the town either with you or with any one else. If she's not to mind me let HIM come and tell me so. I decline to take it from another person, and I like your pretending that with your humbug of 'interest' you've a leg to stand on. I know your game and have something now to say to you about it."
Sir Claude gave a squeeze of the child's arm. "Didn't I tell you she'd have, Miss Farange?"
"You're uncommonly afraid to hear it," Ida went on; "but if you think she'll protect you from it you're mightily mistaken." She gave him a moment. "I'll give her the benefit as soon as look at you. Should you like her to know, my dear?" Maisie had a sense of her launching the question with effect; yet our young lady was also conscious of hoping that Sir Claude would declare that preference. We have already learned that she had come to like people's (145) liking her to "know." Before he could reply at all, none the less, her mother opened a pair of arms of extraordinary elegance, and then she felt the loosening of his grasp. "My own child," Ida murmured in a voice--a voice of sudden confused tenderness--that it seemed to her she heard for the first time. She wavered but an instant, thrilled with the first direct appeal, as distinguished from the mere maternal pull, she had ever had from lips that, even in the old vociferous years, had always been sharp. The next moment she was on her mother's breast, where, amid a wilderness of trinkets, she felt as if she had suddenly been thrust, with a smash of glass, into a jeweller's shop-front, but only to be as suddenly ejected with a push and the brisk injunction: "Now go to the Captain!"
Maisie glanced at the gentleman submissively, but felt the want of more introduction. "The Captain?"
Sir Claude broke into a laugh. "I told her it was the Count."
Ida stared; she rose so superior that she was colossal. "You're too utterly loathsome," she then declared. "Be off!" she repeated to her daughter.
Maisie started, moved backward and, looking at Sir Claude, "Only for a moment," she signed to him in her bewilderment.
But he was too angry to heed her--too angry with his wife; as she turned away she heard his anger break out. "You damned old b----!"--she couldn't quite hear all. It was enough, it was too much: she fled before it, rushing even to a stranger for the shock of such a change of tone.
(146) Chapter 16
As she met the Captain's light blue eyes the greatest marvel occurred; she felt a sudden relief at finding them reply with anxiety to the horror in her face. "What in the world has he done?" He put it all on Sir Claude.
"He has called her a damned old brute." She couldn't help bringing that out.
The Captain, at the same elevation as her ladyship, gaped wide; then of course, like every one else, he was convulsed. But he instantly caught himself up, echoing her bad words. "A damned old brute--your mother?"
Maisie was already conscious of her second movement. "I think she tried to make him angry."
The Captain's stupefaction was fine. "Angry--SHE? Why she's an angel!"
On the spot, as he said this, his face won her over; it was so bright and kind, and his blue eyes had such a reflexion of some mysterious grace that, for him at least, her mother had put forth. Her fund of observation enabled her as she gazed up at him to place him: he was a candid simple soldier; very grave--she came back to that--but not at all terrible. At any rate he struck a note that was new to her and that after a moment made her say: "Do you like her very much?"
He smiled down at her, hesitating, looking pleasanter (147) and pleasanter. "Let me tell you about your mother."
He put out a big military hand which she immediately took, and they turned off together to where a couple of chairs had been placed under one of the trees. "She told me to come to you," Maisie explained as they went; and presently she was close to him in a chair, with the prettiest of pictures--the sheen of the lake through other trees--before them, and the sound of birds, the plash of boats, the play of children in the air. The Captain, inclining his military person, sat sideways to be closer and kinder, and as her hand was on the arm of her seat he put his own down on it again to emphasise something he had to say that would be good for her to hear. He had already told her how her mother, from the moment of seeing her so unexpectedly with a person who was--well, not at all the right person, had promptly asked him to take charge of her while she herself tackled, as she said, the real culprit. He gave the child the sense of doing for the time what he liked with her; ten minutes before she had never seen him, but she could now sit there touching him, touched and impressed by him and thinking it nice when a gentleman was thin and brown--brown with a kind of clear depth that made his straw-coloured moustache almost white and his eyes resemble little pale flowers. The most extraordinary thing was the way she didn't appear just then to mind Sir Claude's being tackled. The Captain wasn't a bit like him, for it was an odd part of the pleasantness of mamma's friend that it resided in a manner in this friend's (148) having a face so informally put together that the only kindness could be to call it funny. An odder part still was that it finally made our young lady, to classify him further, say to herself that, of all people in the world, he reminded her most insidiously of Mrs. Wix. He had neither straighteners nor a diadem, nor, at least in the same place as the other, a button; he was sun-burnt and deep-voiced and smelt of cigars, yet he marvellously had more in common with her old governess than with her young stepfather. What he had to say to her that was good for her to hear was that her poor mother (didn't she know?) was the best friend he had ever had in all his life. And he added: "She has told me ever so much about you. I'm awfully glad to know you."
She had never, she thought, been so addressed as a young lady, not even by Sir Claude the day, so long ago, that she found him with Mrs. Beale. It struck her as the way that at balls, by delightful partners, young ladies must be spoken to in the intervals of dances; and she tried to think of something that would meet it at the same high point. But this effort flurried her, and all she could produce was: "At first, you know, I thought you were Lord Eric."
The Captain looked vague. "Lord Eric?"
"And then Sir Claude thought you were the Count."
At this he laughed out. "Why he's only five foot high and as red as a lobster!" Maisie laughed, with a certain elegance, in return--the young lady at the ball certainly would--and was on the point, as conscientiously, of pursuing the subject with an (149) agreeable question. But before she could speak her companion challenged her. "Who in the world's Lord Eric?"
"Don't you know him?" She judged her young lady would say that with light surprise.
"Do you mean a fat man with his mouth always open?" She had to confess that their acquaintance was so limited that she could only describe the bearer of the name as a friend of mamma's; but a light suddenly came to the Captain, who quickly spoke as knowing her man. "What-do-you-call-him's brother, the fellow that owned Bobolink?" Then, with all his kindness, he contradicted her flat. "Oh dear no; your mother never knew HIM."
"But Mrs. Wix said so," the child risked.
"My old governess."
This again semed [sic] amusing to the Captain. "She mixed him up, your old governess. He's an awful beast. Your mother never looked at him."
He was as positive as he was friendly, but he dropped for a minute after this into a silence that gave Maisie, confused but ingenious, a chance to redeem the mistake of pretending to know too much by the humility of inviting further correction. "And doesn't she know the Count?"
"Oh I dare say! But he's another ass." After which abruptly, with a different look, he put down again on the back of her own the hand he had momentarily removed. Maisie even thought he coloured a little. "I want tremendously to speak to you. You must never believe any harm of your mother."
(150) "Oh I assure you I DON'T!" cried the child, blushing, herself, up to her eyes in a sudden surge of deprecation of such a thought.
The Captain, bending his head, raised her hand to his lips with a benevolence that made her wish her glove had been nicer. "Of course you don't when you know how fond she is of YOU."
"She's fond of me?" Maisie panted.
"Tremendously. But she thinks you don't like her. You MUST like her. She has had too much to put up with."
"Oh yes--I know!" She rejoiced that she had never denied it.
"Of course I've no right to speak of her except as a particular friend," the Captain went on. "But she's a splendid woman. She has never had any sort of justice."
"Hasn't she?"--his companion, to hear the words, felt a thrill altogether new.
"Perhaps I oughtn't to say it to you, but she has had everything to suffer."
"Oh yes--you can SAY it to me!" Maisie hastened to profess.
The Captain was glad. "Well, you needn't tell. It's all for YOU--do you see?"
Serious and smiling she only wanted to take it from him. "It's between you and me! Oh there are lots of things I've never told!"
"Well, keep this with the rest. I assure you she has had the most infernal time, no matter what any one says to the contrary. She's the cleverest woman I ever saw in all my life. She's too charming." She (151) had been touched already by his tone, and now she leaned back in her chair and felt something tremble within her. "She's tremendous fun--she can do all sorts of things better than I've ever seen any one. She has the pluck of fifty--and I know; I assure you I do. She has the nerve for a tiger-shoot--by Jove I'd TAKE her! And she is awfully open and generous, don't you know? there are women that are such horrid sneaks. She'll go through anything for any one she likes." He appeared to watch for a moment the effect on his companion of this emphasis; then he gave a small sigh that mourned the limits of the speakable. But it was almost with the note of a fresh challenge that he wound up: "Look here, she's TRUE!"
Maisie had so little desire to assert the contrary that she found herself, in the intensity of her response, throbbing with a joy still less utterable than the essence of the Captain's admiration. She was fairly hushed with the sense that he spoke of her mother as she had never heard any one speak. It came over her as she sat silent that, after all, this admiration and this respect were quite new words, which took a distinction from the fact that nothing in the least resembling them in quality had on any occasion dropped from the lips of her father, of Mrs. Beale, of Sir Claude or even of Mrs. Wix. What it appeared to her to come to was that on the subject of her ladyship it was the first real kindness she had heard, so that at the touch of it something strange and deep and pitying surged up within her--a revelation that, practically and so far as she knew, her mother, apart from this, had only been disliked. (152) Mrs. Wix's original account of Sir Claude's affection seemed as empty now as the chorus in a children's game, and the husband and wife, but a little way off at that moment, were face to face in hatred and with the dreadful name he had called her still in the air. What was it the Captain on the other hand had called her? Maisie wanted to hear that again. The tears filled her eyes and rolled down her cheeks, which burned under them with the rush of a consciousness that for her too, five minutes before, the vivid towering beauty whose assault she awaited had been, a moment long, an object of pure dread. She became on the spot indifferent to her usual fear of showing what in children was notoriously most offensive--presented to her companion, soundlessly but hideously, her wet distorted face. She cried, with a pang, straight AT him, cried as she had never cried at any one in all her life. "Oh do you love her?" she brought out with a gulp that was the effect of her trying not to make a noise.
It was doubtless another consequence of the thick mist through which she saw him that in reply to her question the Captain gave her such a queer blurred look. He stammered, yet in his voice there was also the ring of a great awkward insistence. "Of course I'm tremendously fond of her--I like her better than any woman I ever saw. I don't mind in the least telling you that," he went on, "and I should think myself a great beast if I did." Then to show that his position was superlatively clear he made her, with a kindness that even Sir Claude had never surpassed, tremble again as she had trembled at his (153) first outbreak. He called her by her name, and her name drove it home. "My dear Maisie, your mother's an angel!"
It was an almost unbelievable balm--it soothed so her impression of danger and pain. She sank back in her chair, she covered her face with her hands. "Oh mother, mother, mother!" she sobbed. She had an impression that the Captain, beside her, if more and more friendly, was by no means unembarrassed; in a minute, however, when her eyes were clearer, he was erect in front of her, very red and nervously looking about him and whacking his leg with his stick. "Say you love her, Mr. Captain; say it, say it!" she implored.
Mr. Captain's blue eyes fixed themselves very hard. "Of COURSE I love her, damn it, you know!"
At this she also jumped up; she had fished out somehow her pocket-handkerchief. "So do i then. I do, I do, I do!" she passionately asseverated.
"Then will you come back to her?"
Maisie, staring, stopped the tight little plug of her handkerchief on the way to her eyes. "She won't have me."
"Yes she will. She wants you."
"Back at the house--with Sir Claude?"
Again he hung fire. "No, not with him. In another place."
They stood looking at each other with an intensity unusual as between a Captain and a little girl. "She won't have me in any place."
"Oh yes she will if i ask her!"
Maisie's intensity continued. "Shall you be there?"
(154) The Captain's, on the whole, did the same. "Oh yes--some day."
"Then you don't mean now?"
He broke into a quick smile. "Will you come now?--go with us for an hour?"
Maisie considered. "She wouldn't have me even now." She could see that he had his idea, but that her tone impressed him. That disappointed her a little, though in an instant he rang out again.
"She will if I ask her," he repeated. "I'll ask her this minute."
Maisie, turning at this, looked away to where her mother and her stepfather had stopped. At first, among the trees, nobody was visible; but the next moment she exclaimed with expression: "It's over--here he comes!"
The Captain watched the approach of her ladyship's husband, who lounged composedly over the grass, making to Maisie with his closed fingers a little movement in the air. "I've no desire to avoid him."
"Well, you mustn't see him," said Maisie.
"Oh he's in no hurry himself!" Sir Claude had stopped to light another cigarette.
She was vague as to the way it was proper he should feel; but she had a sense that the Captain's remark was rather a free reflexion on it. "Oh he doesn't care!" she replied.
"Doesn't care for what?"
"Doesn't care who you are. He told me so. Go and ask mamma," she added.
"If you can come with us? Very good. You really want me not to wait for him?"
(155) "PLEASE don't." But Sir Claude was not yet near, and the Captain had with his left hand taken hold of her right, which he familiarly, sociably swung a little. "Only first," she continued, "tell me this. Are you going to LIVE with mamma?"
The immemorial note of mirth broke out at her seriousness. "One of these days."
She wondered, wholly unperturbed by his laughter. "Then where will Sir Claude be?"
"He'll have left her of course."
"Does he really intend to do that?"
"You've every opportunity to ask him."
Maisie shook her head with decision. "He won't do it. Not first."
Her "first" made the Captain laugh out again. "Oh he'll be sure to be nasty! But I've said too much to you."
"Well, you know, I'll never tell," said Maisie.
"No, it's all for yourself. Good-bye."
"Good-bye." Maisie kept his hand long enough to add: "I like you too." And then supremely: "You DO love her?"
"My dear child--!" The Captain wanted words.
"Then don't do it only for just a little."
"Like all the others."
"All the others?"--he stood staring.
She pulled away her hand. "Do it always!" She bounded to meet Sir Claude, and as she left the Captain she heard him ring out with apparent gaiety:
"Oh I'm in for it!"
As she joined Sir Claude she noted her mother in (156) the distance move slowly off, and, glancing again at the Captain, saw him, swinging his stick, retreat in the same direction.
She had never seen Sir Claude look as he looked just then; flushed yet not excited--settled rather in an immoveable disgust and at once very sick and very hard. His conversation with her mother had clearly drawn blood, and the child's old horror came back to her, begetting the instant moral contraction of the days when her parents had looked to her to feed their love of battle. Her greatest fear for the moment, however, was that her friend would see she had been crying. The next she became aware that he had glanced at her, and it presently occurred to her that he didn't even wish to be looked at. At this she quickly removed her gaze, while he said rather curtly: "Well, who in the world IS the fellow?"
She felt herself flooded with prudence. "Oh i haven't found out!" This sounded as if she meant he ought to have done so himself; but she could only face doggedly the ugliness of seeming disagreeable, as she used to face it in the hours when her father, for her blankness, called her a dirty little donkey, and her mother, for her falsity, pushed her out of the room.
"Then what have you been doing all this time?"
"Oh I don't know!" It was of the essence of her method not to be silly by halves.
"Then didn't the beast say anything?" They had got down by the lake and were walking fast.
"Well, not very much."
"He didn't speak of your mother?"
"Oh yes, a little!"
(157) "Then what I ask you, please, is HOW?" She kept silence--so long that he presently went on: "I say, you know--don't you hear me?"
At this she produced: "Well, I'm afraid I didn't attend to him very much."
Sir Claude, smoking rather hard, made no immediate rejoinder; but finally he exclaimed: "Then my dear--with such a chance--you were the perfection of a dunce!" He was so irritated--or she took him to be--that for the rest of the time they were in the Gardens he spoke no other word; and she meanwhile subtly abstained from any attempt to pacify him. That would only lead to more questions. At the gate of the Gardens he hailed a four-wheeled cab and, in silence, without meeting her eyes, put her into it, only saying "Give him THAT" as he tossed half a crown upon the seat. Even when from outside he had closed the door and told the man where to go he never took her departing look. Nothing of this kind had ever yet happened to them, but it had no power to make her love him less; so she could not only bear it, she felt as she drove away--she could rejoice in it. It brought again the sweet sense of success that, ages before, she had had at a crisis when, on the stairs, returning from her father's, she had met a fierce question of her mother's with an imbecility as deep and had in consequence been dashed by Mrs. Farange almost to the bottom.
(158) Chapter 17
If for reasons of her own she could bear the sense of Sir Claude's displeasure her young endurance might have been put to a serious test. The days went by without his knocking at her father's door, and the time would have turned sadly to waste if something hadn't conspicuously happened to give it a new difference. What took place was a marked change in the attitude of Mrs. Beale--a change that somehow, even in his absence, seemed to bring Sir Claude again into the house. It began practically with a conversation that occurred between them the day Maisie came home alone in the cab. Mrs. Beale had by that time returned, and she was more successful than their friend in extracting from our young lady an account of the extraordinary passage with the Captain. She came back to it repeatedly, and on the very next day it grew distinct to the child that she was already in full possession of what at the same moment had been enacted between her ladyship and Sir Claude. This was the real origin of her final perception that though he didn't come to the house her stepmother had some rare secret for not being quite without him. This led to some rare passages with Mrs. Beale, the promptest of which had been--not on Maisie's part--a wonderful outbreak of tears. Mrs. Beale was not, as she herself said, a crying creature: she hadn't cried, to Maisie's (159) knowledge, since the lowly governess days, the grey dawn of their connexion. But she wept now with passion, professing loudly that it did her good and saying remarkable things to her charge, for whom the occasion was an equal benefit, an addition to all the fine precautionary wisdom stored away. It somehow hadn't violated that wisdom, Maisie felt, for her to have told Mrs. Beale what she had not told Sir Claude, inasmuch as the greatest strain, to her sense, was between Sir Claude and Sir Claude's wife, and his wife was just what Mrs. Beale was unfortunately not. He sent his stepdaughter three days after the incident in Kensington Gardens a message as frank as it was tender, and that was how Mrs. Beale had had to bring out in a manner that seemed half an appeal, half a defiance: "Well yes, hang it--I DO see him!"
How and when and where, however, were just what Maisie was not to know--an exclusion moreover that she never questioned in the light of a participation large enough to make him, while she shared the ample void of Mrs. Beale's rather blank independence, shine in her yearning eye like the single, the sovereign window-square of a great dim disproportioned room. As far as her father was concerned such hours had no interruption; and then it was clear between them that each was thinking of the absent and thinking the other thought, so that he was an object of conscious reference in everything they said or did. The wretched truth, Mrs. Beale had to confess, was that she had hoped against hope and that in the Regent's Park it was impossible Sir Claude should really be in and out. Hadn't they at last to (160) look the fact in the face?--it was too disgustingly evident that no one after all had been squared. Well, if no one had been squared it was because every one had been vile. No one and every one were of course Beale and Ida, the extent of whose power to be nasty was a thing that, to a little girl, Mrs. Beale simply couldn't give chapter and verse for. Therefore it was that to keep going at all, as she said, that lady had to make, as she also said, another arrangement--the arrangement in which Maisie was included only to the point of knowing it existed and wondering wistfully what it was. Conspicuously at any rate it had a side that was responsible for Mrs. Beale's sudden emotion and sudden confidence--a demonstration this, however, of which the tearfulness was far from deterrent to our heroine's thought of how happy she should be if she could only make an arrangement for herself. Mrs. Beale's own operated, it appeared, with regularity and frequency; for it was almost every day or two that she was able to bring Maisie a message and to take one back. It had been over the vision of what, as she called it, he did for her that she broke down; and this vision was kept in a manner before Maisie by a subsequent increase not only of the gaiety, but literally--it seemed not presumptuous to perceive--of the actual virtue of her friend. The friend was herself the first to proclaim it: he had pulled her up immensely--he had quite pulled her round. She had charming tormenting words about him: he was her good fairy, her hidden spring--above all he was just her "higher" conscience. That was what had particularly come out (161) with her startling tears: he had made her, dear man, think ever so much better of herself. It had been thus rather surprisingly revealed that she had been in a way to think ill, and Maisie was glad to hear of the corrective at the same time that she heard of the ailment.
She presently found herself supposing, and in spite of her envy even hoping, that whenever Mrs. Beale was out of the house Sir Claude had in some manner the satisfaction of it. This was now of more frequent occurrence than ever before--so much so that she would have thought of her stepmother as almost extravagantly absent had it not been that, in the first place, her father was a superior specimen of that habit: it was the frequent remark of his present wife, as it had been, before the tribunals of their country, a prominent plea of her predecessor, that he scarce came home even to sleep. In the second place Mrs. Beale, when she WAS on the spot, had now a beautiful air of longing to make up for everything. The only shadow in such bright intervals was that, as Maisie put it to herself, she could get nothing by questions. It was in the nature of things to be none of a small child's business, even when a small child had from the first been deluded into a fear that she might be only too much initiated. Things then were in Maisie's experience so true to their nature that questions were almost always improper; but she learned on the other hand soon to recognise how at last, sometimes, patient little silences and intelligent little looks could be rewarded by delightful little glimpses. There had been years at Beale Farange's when the monosyllable (162) "he" meant always, meant almost violently, the master; but all that was changed at a period at which Sir Claude's merits were of themselves so much in the air that it scarce took even two letters to name him. "He keeps me up splendidly--he does, my own precious," Mrs. Beale would observe to her comrade; or else she would say that the situation at the other establishment had reached a point that could scarcely be believed--the point, monstrous as it sounded, of his not having laid eyes upon her for twelve days. "She" of course at Beale Farange's had never meant any one but Ida, and there was the difference in this case that it now meant Ida with renewed intensity. Mrs. Beale--it was striking--was in a position to animadvert more and more upon her dreadfulness, the moral of all which appeared to be how abominably yet blessedly little she had to do with her husband. This flow of information came home to our two friends because, truly, Mrs. Beale had not much more to do with her own; but that was one of the reflexions that Maisie could make without allowing it to break the spell of her present sympathy. How could such a spell be anything but deep when Sir Claude's influence, operating from afar, at last really determined the resumption of his stepdaughter's studies? Mrs. Beale again took fire about them and was quite vivid for Maisie as to their being the great matter to which the dear absent one kept her up.
This was the second source--I have just alluded to the first--of the child's consciousness of something that, very hopefully, she described to herself as a new phase; and it also presented in the brightest (163) light the fresh enthusiasm with which Mrs. Beale always reappeared and which really gave Maisie a happier sense than she had yet had of being very dear at least to two persons. That she had small remembrance at present of a third illustrates, I am afraid, a temporary oblivion of Mrs. Wix, an accident to be explained only by a state of unnatural excitement. For what was the form taken by Mrs. Beale's enthusiasm and acquiring relief in the domestic conditions still left to her but the delightful form of "reading" with her little charge on lines directly prescribed and in works profusely supplied by Sir Claude? He had got hold of an awfully good list--"mostly essays, don't you know?" Mrs. Beale had said; a word always august to Maisie, but henceforth to be softened by hazy, in fact by quite languorous edges. There was at any rate a week in which no less than nine volumes arrived, and the impression was to be gathered from Mrs. Beale that the obscure intercourse she enjoyed with Sir Claude not only involved an account and a criticism of studies, but was organised almost for the very purpose of report and consultation. It was for Maisie's education in short that, as she often repeated, she closed her door--closed it to the gentlemen who used to flock there in such numbers and whom her husband's practical desertion of her would have made it a course of the highest indelicacy to receive. Maisie was familiar from of old with the principle at least of the care that a woman, as Mrs. Beale phrased it, attractive and exposed must take of her "character," and was duly impressed with the rigour of her stepmother's scruples. (164) There was literally no one of the other sex whom she seemed to feel at liberty to see at home, and when the child risked an enquiry about the ladies who, one by one, during her own previous period, had been made quite loudly welcome, Mrs. Beale hastened to inform her that, one by one, they had, the fiends, been found out, after all, to be awful. If she wished to know more about them she was recommended to approach her father.
Maisie had, however, at the very moment of this injunction much livelier curiosities, for the dream of lectures at an institution had at last become a reality, thanks to Sir Claude's now unbounded energy in discovering what could be done. It stood out in this connexion that when you came to look into things in a spirit of earnestness an immense deal could be done for very little more than your fare in the Underground. The institution--there was a splendid one in a part of the town but little known to the child--became, in the glow of such a spirit, a thrilling place, and the walk to it from the station through Glower Street (a pronunciation for which Mrs. Beale once laughed at her little friend) a pathway literally strewn with "subjects." Maisie imagined herself to pluck them as she went, though they thickened in the great grey rooms where the fountain of knowledge, in the form usually of a high voice that she took at first to be angry, plashed in the stillness of rows of faces thrust out like empty jugs. "It MUST do us good--it's all so hideous," Mrs. Beale had immediately declared; manifesting a purity of resolution that made these occasions quite the most harmonious (165) of all the many on which the pair had pulled together. Maisie certainly had never, in such an association, felt so uplifted, and never above all been so carried off her feet, as at the moments of Mrs. Beale's breathlessly re-entering the house and fairly shrieking upstairs to know if they should still be in time for a lecture. Her stepdaughter, all ready from the earliest hours, almost leaped over the banister to respond, and they dashed out together in quest of learning as hard as they often dashed back to release Mrs. Beale for other preoccupations. There had been in short no bustle like these particular spasms, once they had broken out, since that last brief flurry when Mrs. Wix, blowing as if she were grooming her, "made up" for everything previously lost at her father's.
These weeks as well were too few, but they were flooded with a new emotion, part of which indeed came from the possibility that, through the long telescope of Glower Street, or perhaps between the pillars of the institution--which impressive objects were what Maisie thought most made it one--they should some day spy Sir Claude. That was what Mrs. Beale, under pressure, had said--doubtless a little impatiently: "Oh yes, oh yes, some day!" His joining them was clearly far less of a matter of course than was to have been gathered from his original profession of desire to improve in their company his own mind; and this sharpened our young lady's guess that since that occasion either something destructive had happened or something desirable hadn't. Mrs. Beale had thrown but a partial light in telling (166) her how it had turned out that nobody had been squared. Maisie wished at any rate that somebody WOULD be squared. However, though in every approach to the temple of knowledge she watched in vain for Sir Claude, there was no doubt about the action of his loved image as an incentive and a recompense. When the institution was most on pillars--or, as Mrs. Beale put it, on stilts--when the subject was deepest and the lecture longest and the listeners ugliest, then it was they both felt their patron in the background would be most pleased with them.
One day, abruptly, with a glance at this background, Mrs. Beale said to her companion: "We'll go to-night to the thingumbob at Earl's Court"; an announcement putting forth its full lustre when she had made known that she referred to the great Exhibition just opened in that quarter, a collection of extraordinary foreign things in tremendous gardens, with illuminations, bands, elephants, switchbacks and side-shows, as well as crowds of people among whom they might possibly see some one they knew. Maisie flew in the same bound at the neck of her friend and at the name of Sir Claude, on which Mrs. Beale confessed that--well, yes, there was just a chance that he would be able to meet them. He never of course, in his terrible position, knew what might happen from hour to hour; but he hoped to be free and he had given Mrs. Beale the tip. "Bring her there on the quiet and I'll try to turn up"--this was clear enough on what so many weeks of privation had made of his desire to see the child: it even appeared to represent on his part a yearning (167) as constant as her own. That in turn was just puzzling enough to make Maisie express a bewilderment. She couldn't see, if they were so intensely of the same mind, why the theory on which she had come back to Mrs. Beale, the general reunion, the delightful trio, should have broken down so in fact. Mrs. Beale furthermore only gave her more to think about in saying that their disappointment was the result of his having got into his head a kind of idea.
"What kind of idea?"
"Oh goodness knows!" She spoke with an approach to asperity. "He's so awfully delicate."
"Delicate?"--that was ambiguous.
"About what he does, don't you know?" said Mrs. Beale. She fumbled. "Well, about what WE do."
Maisie wondered. "You and me?"
"Me and HIM, silly!" cried Mrs. Beale with, this time, a real giggle.
"But you don't do any harm--YOU don't," said Maisie, wondering afresh and intending her emphasis as a decorous allusion to her parents.
"Of course we don't, you angel--that's just the ground i take!" her companion exultantly responded. "He says he doesn't want you mixed up."
"Mixed up with what?"
"That's exactly what i want to know: mixed up with what, and how you are any more mixed--?" Mrs. Beale paused without ending her question. She ended after an instant in a different way. "All you can say is that it's his fancy."
The tone of this, in spite of its expressing a resignation, the fruit of weariness, that dismissed the subject, (168) conveyed so vividly how much such a fancy was not Mrs. Beale's own that our young lady was led by the mere fact of contact to arrive at a dim apprehension of the unuttered and the unknown. The relation between her step-parents had then a mysterious residuum; this was the first time she really had reflected that except as regards herself it was not a relationship. To each other it was only what they might have happened to make it, and she gathered that this, in the event, had been something that led Sir Claude to keep away from her. Didn't he fear she would be compromised? The perception of such a scruple endeared him the more, and it flashed over her that she might simplify everything by showing him how little she made of such a danger. Hadn't she lived with her eyes on it from her third year? It was the condition most frequently discussed at the Faranges', where the word was always in the air and where at the age of five, amid rounds of applause, she could gabble it off. She knew as well in short that a person could be compromised as that a person could be slapped with a hair-brush or left alone in the dark, and it was equally familiar to her that each of these ordeals was in general held to have too little effect. But the first thing was to make absolutely sure of Mrs. Beale. This was done by saying to her thoughtfully: "Well, if you don't mind--and you really don't, do you?"
Mrs. Beale, with a dawn of amusement, considered. "Mixing you up? Not a bit. For what does it mean?"
"Whatever it means I don't in the least mind (169) BEING mixed. Therefore if you don't and I don't," Maisie concluded, "don't you think that when I see him this evening I had better just tell him we don't and ask him why in the world HE should?"
(170) Chapter 18
The child, however, was not destined to enjoy much of Sir Claude at the "thingumbob," which took for them a very different turn indeed. On the spot Mrs. Beale, with hilarity, had urged her to the course proposed; but later, at the Exhibition, she withdrew this allowance, mentioning as a result of second thoughts that when a man was so sensitive anything at all frisky usually made him worse. It would have been hard indeed for Sir Claude to be "worse," Maisie felt, as, in the gardens and the crowd, when the first dazzle had dropped, she looked for him in vain up and down. They had all their time, the couple, for frugal wistful wandering: they had partaken together at home of the light vague meal--Maisie's name for it was a "jam-supper"--to which they were reduced when Mr. Farange sought his pleasure abroad. It was abroad now entirely that Mr. Farange pursued this ideal, and it was the actual impression of his daughter, derived from his wife, that he had three days before joined a friend's yacht at Cowes.
The place was full of side-shows, to which Mrs. Beale could introduce the little girl only, alas, by revealing to her so attractive, so enthralling a name: the side-shows, each time, were sixpence apiece, and the fond allegiance enjoyed by the elder of our pair had been established from the earliest time in spite (171) of a paucity of sixpences. Small coin dropped from her as half-heartedly as answers from bad children to lessons that had not been looked at. Maisie passed more slowly the great painted posters, pressing with a linked arm closer to her friend's pocket, where she hoped for the audible chink of a shilling. But the upshot of this was but to deepen her yearning: if Sir Claude would only at last come the shillings would begin to ring. The companions paused, for want of one, before the Flowers of the Forest, a large presentment of bright brown ladies--they were brown all over--in a medium suggestive of tropical luxuriance, and there Maisie dolorously expressed her belief that he would never come at all. Mrs. Beale hereupon, though discernibly disappointed, reminded her that he had not been promised as a certainty--a remark that caused the child to gaze at the Flowers through a blur in which they became more magnificent, yet oddly more confused, and by which moreover confusion was imparted to the aspect of a gentleman who at that moment, in the company of a lady, came out of the brilliant booth. The lady was so brown that Maisie at first took her for one of the Flowers; but during the few seconds that this required--a few seconds in which she had also desolately given up Sir Claude--she heard Mrs. Beale's voice, behind her, gather both wonder and pain into a single sharp little cry.
"Of all the wickedness--BEALE!"
He had already, without distinguishing them in the mass of strollers, turned another way--it seemed at the brown lady's suggestion. Her course was (172) marked, over heads and shoulders, by an upright scarlet plume, as to the ownership of which Maisie was instantly eager. "Who is she?--who is she?"
But Mrs. Beale for a moment only looked after them. "The liar--the liar!"
Maisie considered. "Because he's not--where one thought?" That was also, a month ago in Kensington Gardens, where her mother had not been. "Perhaps he has come back," she was quick to contribute.
"He never went--the hound!"
That, according to Sir Claude, had been also what her mother had not done, and Maisie could only have a sense of something that in a maturer mind would be called the way history repeats itself. "Who IS she?" she asked again.
Mrs. Beale, fixed to the spot, seemed lost in the vision of an opportunity missed. "If he had only seen me!"--it came from between her teeth. "She's a brand-new one. But he must have been with her since Tuesday."
Maisie took it in. "She's almost black," she then reported.
"They're always hideous," said Mrs. Beale.
This was a remark on which the child had again to reflect. "Oh not his WIVES!" she remonstrantly exclaimed. The words at another moment would probably have set her friend "off," but Mrs. Beale was now, in her instant vigilance, too immensely "on." "Did you ever in your life see such a feather?" Maisie presently continued.
This decoration appeared to have paused at some (173) distance, and in spite of intervening groups they could both look at it. "Oh that's the way they dress--the vulgarest of the vulgar!"
"They're coming back--they'll see us!" Maisie the next moment cried; and while her companion answered that this was exactly what she wanted and the child returned "Here they are--here they are!" the unconscious subjects of so much attention, with a change of mind about their direction, quickly retraced their steps and precipitated themselves upon their critics. Their unconsciousness gave Mrs. Beale time to leap, under her breath, to a recognition which Maisie caught.
"It must be Mrs. Cuddon!"
Maisie looked at Mrs. Cuddon hard--her lips even echoed the name. What followed was extraordinarily rapid--a minute of livelier battle than had ever yet, in so short a span at least, been waged round our heroine. The muffled shock--lest people should notice--was violent, and it was only for her later thought that the steps fell into their order, the steps through which, in a bewilderment not so much of sound as of silence, she had come to find herself, too soon for comprehension and too strangely for fear, at the door of the Exhibition with her father. He thrust her into a hansom and got in after her, and then it was--as she drove along with him--that she recovered a little what had happened. Face to face with them in the gardens he had seen them, and there had been a moment of checked concussion during which, in a glare of black eyes and a toss of red plumage, Mrs. Cuddon had recognised them, (174) ejaculated and vanished. There had been another moment at which she became aware of Sir Claude, also poised there in surprise, but out of her father's view, as if he had been warned off at the very moment of reaching them. It fell into its place with all the rest that she had heard Mrs. Beale say to her father, but whether low or loud was now lost to her, something about his having this time a new one; on which he had growled something indistinct but apparently in the tone and of the sort that the child, from her earliest years, had associated with hearing somebody retort to somebody that somebody was "another." "Oh I stick to the old!" Mrs. Beale had then quite loudly pronounced; and her accent, even as the cab got away, was still in the air, Maisie's effective companion having spoken no other word from the moment of whisking her off--none at least save the indistinguishable address which, over the top of the hansom and poised on the step, he had given the driver. Reconstructing these things later Maisie theorised that she at this point would have put a question to him had not the silence into which he charmed her or scared her--she could scarcely tell which--come from his suddenly making her feel his arm about her, feel, as he drew her close, that he was agitated in a way he had never yet shown her. It struck her he trembled, trembled too much to speak, and this had the effect of making her, with an emotion which, though it had begun to throb in an instant, was by no means all dread, conform to his portentous hush. The act of possession that his pressure in a manner advertised came back to her after (175) the longest of the long intermissions that had ever let anything come back. They drove and drove, and he kept her close; she stared straight before her, holding her breath, watching one dark street succeed another and strangely conscious that what it all meant was somehow that papa was less to be left out of everything than she had supposed. It took her but a minute to surrender to this discovery, which, in the form of his present embrace, suggested a purpose in him prodigiously reaffirmed and with that a confused confidence. She neither knew exactly what he had done nor what he was doing; she could only, altogether impressed and rather proud, vibrate with the sense that he had jumped up to do something and that she had as quickly become a part of it. It was a part of it too that here they were at a house that seemed not large, but in the fresh white front of which the street-lamp showed a smartness of flower-boxes. The child had been in thousands of stories--all Mrs. Wix's and her own, to say nothing of the richest romances of French Elise--but she had never been in such a story as this. By the time he had helped her out of the cab, which drove away, and she heard in the door of the house the prompt little click of his key, the Arabian Nights had quite closed round her.
From this minute that pitch of the wondrous was in everything, particularly in such an instant "Open Sesame" and in the departure of the cab, a rattling void filled with relinquished step-parents; it was, with the vividness, the almost blinding whiteness of the light that sprang responsive to papa's quick touch (176) of a little brass knob on the wall, in a place that, at the top of a short soft staircase, struck her as the most beautiful she had ever seen in her life. The next thing she perceived it to be was the drawing-room of a lady--oh of a lady, she could see in a moment, and not of a gentleman, not even of one like papa himself or even like Sir Claude--whose things were as much prettier than mamma's as it had always had to be confessed that mamma's were prettier than Mrs. Beale's. In the middle of the small bright room and the presence of more curtains and cushions, more pictures and mirrors, more palm-trees drooping over brocaded and gilded nooks, more little silver boxes scattered over little crooked tables and little oval miniatures hooked upon velvet screens than Mrs. Beale and her ladyship together could, in an unnatural alliance, have dreamed of mustering, the child became aware, with a sharp foretaste of compassion, of something that was strangely like a relegation to obscurity of each of those women of taste. It was a stranger operation still that her father should on the spot be presented to her as quite advantageously and even grandly at home in the dazzling scene and himself by so much the more separated from scenes inferior to it. She spent with him in it, while explanations continued to hang back, twenty minutes that, in their sudden drop of danger, affected her, though there were neither buns nor ginger-beer, like an extemporised expensive treat.
"Is she very rich?" He had begun to strike her as almost embarrassed, so shy that he might have found himself with a young lady with whom he had little in (177) common. She was literally moved by this apprehension to offer him some tactful relief.
Beale Farange stood and smiled at his young lady, his back to the fanciful fireplace, his light overcoat--the very lightest in London--wide open, and his wonderful lustrous beard completely concealing the expanse of his shirt-front. It pleased her more than ever to think that papa was handsome and, though as high aloft as mamma and almost, in his specially florid evening-dress, as splendid, of a beauty somehow less belligerent, less terrible. "The Countess? Why do you ask me that?"
Maisie's eyes opened wider. "Is she a Countess?"
He seemed to treat her wonder as a positive tribute. "Oh yes, my dear, but it isn't an English title."
Her manner appreciated this. "Is it a French one?"
"No, nor French either. It's American."
She conversed agreeably. "Ah then of course she must be rich." She took in such a combination of nationality and rank. "I never saw anything so lovely."
"Did you have a sight of her?" Beale asked.
"At the Exhibition?" Maisie smiled. "She was gone too quick."
Her father laughed. "She did slope!" She had feared he would say something about Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude, yet the way he spared them made her rather uneasy too. All he risked was, the next minute, "She has a horror of vulgar scenes."
This was something she needn't take up; she could still continue bland. "But where do you suppose she went?"
(178) "Oh I thought she'd have taken a cab and have been here by this time. But she'll turn up all right."
"I'm sure I HOPE she will," Maisie said; she spoke with an earnestness begotten of the impression of all the beauty about them, to which, in person, the Countess might make further contribution. "We came awfully fast," she added.
Her father again laughed loud. "Yes, my dear, I made you step out!" He waited an instant, then pursued: "I want her to see you."
Maisie, at this, rejoiced in the attention that, for their evening out, Mrs. Beale, even to the extent of personally "doing up" her old hat, had given her appearance. Meanwhile her father went on: "You'll like her awfully."
"Oh I'm sure I shall!" After which, either from the effect of having said so much or from that of a sudden glimpse of the impossibility of saying more, she felt an embarrassment and sought refuge in a minor branch of the subject. "I thought she was Mrs. Cuddon."
Beale's gaiety rather increased than diminished. "You mean my wife did? My dear child, my wife's a damned fool!" He had the oddest air of speaking of his wife as of a person whom she might scarcely have known, so that the refuge of her scruple didn't prove particularly happy. Beale on the other hand appeared after an instant himself to feel a scruple. "What I mean is, to speak seriously, that she doesn't really know anything about anything." He paused, following the child's charmed eyes and tentative step or two as they brought her nearer to the pretty things (179) on one of the tables. "She thinks she has good things, don't you know!" He quite jeered at Mrs. Beale's delusion.
Maisie felt she must confess that it WAS one; everything she had missed at the side-shows was made up to her by the Countess's luxuries. "Yes," she considered; "she does think that."
There was again a dryness in the way Beale replied that it didn't matter what she thought; but there was an increasing sweetness for his daughter in being with him so long without his doing anything worse. The whole hour of course was to remain with her, for days and weeks, ineffaceably illumined and confirmed; by the end of which she was able to read into it a hundred things that had been at the moment mere miraculous pleasantness. What they at the moment came to was simply that her companion was still in a good deal of a flutter, yet wished not to show it, and that just in proportion as he succeeded in this attempt he was able to encourage her to regard him as kind. He moved about the room after a little, showed her things, spoke to her as a person of taste, told her the name, which she remembered, of the famous French lady represented in one of the miniatures, and remarked, as if he had caught her wistful over a trinket or a trailing stuff, that he made no doubt the Countess, on coming in, would give her something jolly. He spied a pink satin box with a looking-glass let into the cover, which he raised, with a quick facetious flourish, to offer her the privilege of six rows of chocolate bonbons, cutting out thereby Sir Claude, who had never gone beyond (180) four rows. "I can do what I like with these," he said, "for I don't mind telling you I gave 'em to her myself." The Countess had evidently appreciated the gift; there were numerous gaps, a ravage now quite unchecked, in the array. Even while they waited together Maisie had her sense, which was the mark of what their separation had become, of her having grown for him, since the last time he had, as it were, noticed her, and by increase of years and of inches if by nothing else, much more of a little person to reckon with. Yes, this was a part of the positive awkwardness that he carried off by being almost foolishly tender. There was a passage during which, on a yellow silk sofa under one of the palms, he had her on his knee, stroking her hair, playfully holding her off while he showed his shining fangs and let her, with a vague affectionate helpless pointless "Dear old girl, dear little daughter," inhale the fragrance of his cherished beard. She must have been sorry for him, she afterwards knew, so well could she privately follow his difficulty in being specific to her about anything. She had such possibilities of vibration, of response, that it needed nothing more than this to make up to her in fact for omissions. The tears came into her eyes again as they had done when in the Park that day the Captain told her so "splendidly" that her mother was good. What was this but splendid too--this still directer goodness of her father and this unexampled shining solitude with him, out of which everything had dropped but that he was papa and that he was magnificent? It didn't spoil it that she finally felt he must have, as he became restless, (181) some purpose he didn't quite see his way to bring out, for in the freshness of their recovered fellowship she would have lent herself gleefully to his suggesting, or even to his pretending, that their relations were easy and graceful. There was something in him that seemed, and quite touchingly, to ask her to help him to pretend--pretend he knew enough about her life and her education, her means of subsistence and her view of himself, to give the questions he couldn't put her a natural domestic tone. She would have pretended with ecstasy if he could only have given her the cue. She waited for it while, between his big teeth, he breathed the sighs she didn't know to be stupid. And as if, though he was so stupid all through, he had let the friendly suffusion of her eyes yet tell him she was ready for anything, he floundered about, wondering what the devil he could lay hold of.
End of Chapter 18 of _What Maisie Knew_
Go to Chapters 19-31