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(182) Chapter 19
When he had lighted a cigarette and begun to smoke in her face it was as if he had struck with the match the note of some queer clumsy ferment of old professions, old scandals, old duties, a dim perception of what he possessed in her and what, if everything had only--damn it!--been totally different, she might still be able to give him. What she was able to give him, however, as his blinking eyes seemed to make out through the smoke, would be simply what he should be able to get from her. To give something, to give here on the spot, was all her own desire. Among the old things that came back was her little instinct of keeping the peace; it made her wonder more sharply what particular thing she could do or not do, what particular word she could speak or not speak, what particular line she could take or not take, that might for every one, even for the Countess, give a better turn to the crisis. She was ready, in this interest, for an immense surrender, a surrender of everything but Sir Claude, of everything but Mrs. Beale. The immensity didn't include THEM; but if he had an idea at the back of his head she had also one in a recess as deep, and for a time, while they sat together, there was an extraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, his vision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision. What there was no effective record of indeed (183) was the small strange pathos on the child's part of an innocence so saturated with knowledge and so directed to diplomacy. What, further, Beale finally laid hold of while he masked again with his fine presence half the flounces of the fireplace was: "Do you know, my dear, I shall soon be off to America?" It struck his daughter both as a short cut and as the way he wouldn't have said it to his wife. But his wife figured with a bright superficial assurance in her response.
"Do you mean with Mrs. Beale?"
Her father looked at her hard. "Don't be a little ass!"
Her silence appeared to represent a concentrated effort not to be. "Then with the Countess?"
"With her or without her, my dear; that concerns only your poor daddy. She has big interests over there, and she wants me to take a look at them."
Maisie threw herself into them. "Will that take very long?"
"Yes; they're in such a muddle--it may take months. Now what I want to hear, you know, is whether you'd like to come along?"
Planted once more before him in the middle of the room she felt herself turning white. "I?" she gasped, yet feeling as soon as she had spoken that such a note of dismay was not altogether pretty. She felt it still more while her father replied, with a shake of his legs, a toss of his cigarette-ash and a fidgety look--he was for ever taking one--all the length of his waistcoat and trousers, that she needn't be quite so disgusted. It helped her in a few seconds to appear more (184) as he would like her that she saw, in the lovely light of the Countess's splendour, exactly, however she appeared, the right answer to make. "Dear papa, I'll go with you anywhere."
He turned his back to her and stood with his nose at the glass of the chimneypiece while he brushed specks of ash out of his beard. Then he abruptly said: "Do you know anything about your brute of a mother?"
It was just of her brute of a mother that the manner of the question in a remarkable degree reminded her: it had the free flight of one of Ida's fine bridgings of space. With the sense of this was kindled for Maisie at the same time an inspiration. "Oh yes, I know everything!" and she became so radiant that her father, seeing it in the mirror, turned back to her and presently, on the sofa, had her at his knee again and was again particularly affecting. Maisie's inspiration instructed her, pressingly, that the more she should be able to say about mamma the less she would be called upon to speak of her step-parents. She kept hoping the Countess would come in before her power to protect them was exhausted; and it was now, in closer quarters with her companion, that the idea at the back of her head shifted its place to her lips. She told him she had met her mother in the Park with a gentleman who, while Sir Claude had strolled with her ladyship, had been kind and had sat and talked to her; narrating the scene with a remembrance of her pledge of secrecy to the Captain quite brushed away by the joy of seeing Beale listen without profane interruption. It was almost an amazement, but it (185) was indeed all a joy, thus to be able to guess that papa was at last quite tired of his anger--of his anger at any rate about mamma. He was only bored with her now. That made it, however, the more imperative that his spent displeasure shouldn't be blown out again. It charmed the child to see how much she could interest him; and the charm remained even when, after asking her a dozen questions, he observed musingly and a little obscurely: "Yes, damned if she won't!" For in this too there was a detachment, a wise weariness that made her feel safe. She had had to mention Sir Claude, though she mentioned him as little as possible and Beale only appeared to look quite over his head. It pieced itself together for her that this was the mildness of general indifference, a source of profit so great for herself personally that if the Countess was the author of it she was prepared literally to hug the Countess. She betrayed that eagerness by a restless question about her, to which her father replied:
"Oh she has a head on her shoulders. I'll back her to get out of anything!" He looked at Maisie quite as if he could trace the connexion between her enquiry and the impatience of her gratitude. "Do you mean to say you'd really come with me?"
She felt as if he were now looking at her very hard indeed, and also as if she had grown ever so much older. "I'll do anything in the world you ask me, papa."
He gave again, with a laugh and with his legs apart, his proprietary glance at his waistcoat and trousers. "That's a way, my dear, of saying 'No, thank you!' (186) You know you don't want to go the least little mite. You can't humbug ME!" Beale Farange laid down. "I don't want to bully you--I never bullied you in my life; but I make you the offer, and it's to take or to leave. Your mother will never again have any more to do with you than if you were a kitchenmaid she had turned out for going wrong. Therefore of course I'm your natural protector and you've a right to get everything out of me you can. Now's your chance, you know--you won't be half-clever if you don't. You can't say I don't put it before you--you can't say I ain't kind to you or that I don't play fair. Mind you never say that, you know--it WOULD bring me down on you. I know what's proper. I'll take you again, just as I HAVE taken you again and again. And I'm much obliged to you for making up such a face."
She was conscious enough that her face indeed couldn't please him if it showed any sign--just as she hoped it didn't--of her sharp impression of what he now really wanted to do. Wasn't he trying to turn the tables on her, embarrass her somehow into admitting that what would really suit her little book would be, after doing so much for good manners, to leave her wholly at liberty to arrange for herself? She began to be nervous again: it rolled over her that this was their parting, their parting for ever, and that he had brought her there for so many caresses only because it was important such an occasion should look better for him than any other. For her to spoil it by the note of discord would certainly give him ground for complaint; and the child was momentarily (187) bewildered between her alternatives of agreeing with him about her wanting to get rid of him and displeasing him by pretending to stick to him. So she found for the moment no solution but to murmur very helplessly: "Oh papa--oh papa!"
"I know what you're up to--don't tell ME!" After which he came straight over and, in the most inconsequent way in the world, clasped her in his arms a moment and rubbed his beard against her cheek. Then she understood as well as if he had spoken it that what he wanted, hang it, was that she should let him off with all the honours--with all the appearance of virtue and sacrifice on his side. It was exactly as if he had broken out to her: "I say, you little booby, help me to be irreproachable, to be noble, and yet to have none of the beastly bore of it. There's only impropriety enough for one of us; so YOU must take it all. REPUDIATE your dear old daddy--in the face, mind you, of his tender supplications. He can't be rough with you--it isn't in his nature: therefore you'll have successfully chucked him because he was too generous to be as firm with you, poor man, as was, after all, his duty." This was what he communicated in a series of tremendous pats on the back; that portion of her person had never been so thumped since Moddle thumped her when she choked. After a moment he gave her the further impression of having become sure enough of her to be able very gracefully to say out: "You know your mother loathes you, loathes you simply. And I've been thinking over your precious man--the fellow you told me about."
(188) "Well," Maisie replied with competence, "I'm sure of HIM."
Her father was vague for an instant. "Do you mean sure of his liking you?"
"Oh no; of his liking HER!"
Beale had a return of gaiety. "There's no accounting for tastes! It's what they all say, you know."
"I don't care--I'm sure of him!" Maisie repeated.
"Sure, you mean, that she'll bolt?"
Maisie knew all about bolting, but, decidedly, she WAS older, and there was something in her that could wince at the way her father made the ugly word--ugly enough at best--sound flat and low. It prompted her to amend his allusion, which she did by saying: "I don't know what she'll do. But she'll be happy."
"Let us hope so," said Beale--almost as for edification. "The more happy she is at any rate the less she'll want you about. That's why I press you," he agreeably pursued, "to consider this handsome offer--I mean seriously, you know--of your sole surviving parent." Their eyes, at this, met again in a long and extraordinary communion which terminated in his ejaculating: "Ah you little scoundrel!" She took it from him in the manner it seemed to her he would like best and with a success that encouraged him to go on: "You ARE a deep little devil!" Her silence, ticking like a watch, acknowledged even this, in confirmation of which he finally brought out: "You've settled it with the other pair!"
(189) "Well, what if I have?" She sounded to herself most bold.
Her father, quite as in the old days, broke into a peal. "Why, don't you know they're awful?"
She grew bolder still. "I don't care--not a bit!"
"But they're probably the worst people in the world and the very greatest criminals," Beale pleasantly urged. "I'm not the man, my dear, not to let you know it."
"Well, it doesn't prevent them from loving me. They love me tremendously." Maisie turned crimson to hear herself.
Her companion fumbled; almost any one--let alone a daughter--would have seen how conscientious he wanted to be. "I dare say. But do you know why?" She braved his eyes and he added: "You're a jolly good pretext."
"For what?" Maisie asked.
"Why, for their game. I needn't tell you what that is."
The child reflected. "Well then that's all the more reason."
"Reason for what, pray?"
"For their being kind to me."
"And for your keeping in with them?" Beale roared again; it was as if his spirits rose and rose. "Do you realise, pray, that in saying that you're a monster?"
She turned it over. "A monster?"
"They've MADE one of you. Upon my honour it's quite awful. It shows the kind of people they are. Don't you understand," Beale pursued, "that when (190) they've made you as horrid as they can--as horrid as themselves--they'll just simply chuck you?"
She had at this a flicker of passion. "They WON'T chuck me!"
"I beg your pardon," her father courteously insisted; "it's my duty to put it before you. I shouldn't forgive myself if I didn't point out to you that they'll cease to require you." He spoke as if with an appeal to her intelligence that she must be ashamed not adequately to meet, and this gave a real distinction to his superior delicacy.
It cleared the case as he had wished. "Cease to require me because they won't care?" She paused with that sketch of her idea.
"OF COURSE Sir Claude won't care if his wife bolts. That's his game. It will suit him down to the ground."
This was a proposition Maisie could perfectly embrace, but it still left a loophole for triumph. She turned it well over. "You mean if mamma doesn't come back ever at all?" The composure with which her face was presented to that prospect would have shown a spectator the long road she had travelled. "Well, but that won't put Mrs. Beale--"
"In the same comfortable position--?" Beale took her up with relish; he had sprung to his feet again, shaking his legs and looking at his shoes. "Right you are, darling! Something more will be wanted for Mrs. Beale." He just paused, then he added: "But she may not have long to wait for it."
Maisie also for a minute looked at his shoes, though they were not the pair she most admired, the laced yellow "uppers" and patent-leather complement. (191) At last, with a question, she raised her eyes. "Aren't you coming back?"
Once more he hung fire; after which he gave a small laugh that in the oddest way in the world reminded her of the unique sounds she had heard emitted by Mrs. Wix. "It may strike you as extraordinary that I should make you such an admission; and in point of fact you're not to understand that I do. But we'll put it that way to help your decision. The point is that that's the way my wife will presently be sure to put it. You'll hear her shrieking that she's deserted, so that she may just pile up her wrongs. She'll be as free as she likes then--as free, you see, as your mother's muff of a husband. They won't have anything more to consider and they'll just put you into the street. Do I understand," Beale enquired, "that, in the face of what I press on you, you still prefer to take the risk of that?" It was the most wonderful appeal any gentleman had ever addressed to his daughter, and it had placed Maisie in the middle of the room again while her father moved slowly about her with his hands in his pockets and something in his step that seemed, more than anything else he had done, to show the habit of the place. She turned her fevered little eyes over his friend's brightnesses, as if, on her own side, to press for some help in a quandary unexampled. As if also the pressure reached him he after an instant stopped short, completing the prodigy of his attitude and the pride of his loyalty by a supreme formulation of the general inducement. "You've an eye, love! Yes, there's money. No end of money."
(192) This affected her at first in the manner of some great flashing dazzle in one of the pantomimes to which Sir Claude had taken her: she saw nothing in it but what it directly conveyed. "And shall I never, never see you again--?"
"If I do go to America?" Beale brought it out like a man. "Never, never, never!"
Hereupon, with the utmost absurdity, she broke down; everything gave way, everything but the horror of hearing herself definitely utter such an ugliness as the acceptance of that. So she only stiffened herself and said: "Then I can't give you up."
She held him some seconds looking at her, showing her a strained grimace, a perfect parade of all his teeth, in which it seemed to her she could read the disgust he didn't quite like to express at this departure from the pliability she had practically promised. But before she could attenuate in any way the crudity of her collapse he gave an impatient jerk which took him to the window. She heard a vehicle stop; Beale looked out; then he freshly faced her. He still said nothing, but she knew the Countess had come back. There was a silence again between them, but with a different shade of embarrassment from that of their united arrival; and it was still without speaking that, abruptly repeating one of the embraces of which he had already been so prodigal, he whisked her back to the lemon sofa just before the door of the room was thrown open. It was thus in renewed and intimate union with him that she was presented to a person whom she instantly recognised as the brown lady.
The brown lady looked almost as astonished, (193) though not quite as alarmed, as when, at the Exhibition, she had gasped in the face of Mrs. Beale. Maisie in truth almost gasped in her own; this was with the fuller perception that she was brown indeed. She literally struck the child more as an animal than as a "real" lady; she might have been a clever frizzled poodle in a frill or a dreadful human monkey in a spangled petticoat. She had a nose that was far too big and eyes that were far too small and a moustache that was, well, not so happy a feature as Sir Claude's. Beale jumped up to her; while, to the child's astonishment, though as if in a quick intensity of thought, the Countess advanced as gaily as if, for many a day, nothing awkward had happened for any one. Maisie, in spite of a large acquaintance with the phenomenon, had never seen it so promptly established that nothing awkward was to be mentioned. The next minute the Countess had kissed her and exclaimed to Beale with bright tender reproach: "Why, you never told me HALF! My dear child," she cried, "it was awfully nice of you to come!"
"But she hasn't come--she won't come!" Beale answered. "I've put it to her how much you'd like it, but she declines to have anything to do with us."
The Countess stood smiling, and after an instant that was mainly taken up with the shock of her weird aspect Maisie felt herself reminded of another smile, which was not ugly, though also interested--the kind light thrown, that day in the Park, from the clean fair face of the Captain. Papa's Captain--yes--was the Countess; but she wasn't nearly so nice as the other: it all came back, doubtless, to (194) Maisie's minor appreciation of ladies. "Shouldn't you like me," said this one endearingly, "to take you to Spa?"
"To Spa?" The child repeated the name to gain time, not to show how the Countess brought back to her a dim remembrance of a strange woman with a horrid face who once, years before, in an omnibus, bending to her from an opposite seat, had suddenly produced an orange and murmured "Little dearie, won't you have it?" She had felt then, for some reason, a small silly terror, though afterwards conscious that her interlocutress, unfortunately hideous, had particularly meant to be kind. This was also what the Countess meant; yet the few words she had uttered and the smile with which she had uttered them immediately cleared everything up. Oh no, she wanted to go nowhere with HER, for her presence had already, in a few seconds, dissipated the happy impression of the room and put an end to the pleasure briefly taken in Beale's command of such elegance. There was no command of elegance in his having exposed her to the approach of the short fat wheedling whiskered person in whom she had now to recognise the only figure wholly without attraction involved in any of the intimate connexions her immediate circle had witnessed the growth of. She was abashed meanwhile, however, at having appeared to weigh in the balance the place to which she had been invited; and she added as quickly as possible: "It isn't to America then?" The Countess, at this, looked sharply at Beale, and Beale, airily enough, asked what the deuce it mattered when she had already (195) given him to understand she wanted to have nothing to do with them. There followed between her companions a passage of which the sense was drowned for her in the deepening inward hum of her mere desire to get off; though she was able to guess later on that her father must have put it to his friend that it was no use talking, that she was an obstinate little pig and that, besides, she was really old enough to choose for herself. It glimmered back to her indeed that she must have failed quite dreadfully to seem ideally other than rude, inasmuch as before she knew it she had visibly given the impression that if they didn't allow her to go home she should cry. Oh if there had ever been a thing to cry about it was being so consciously and gawkily below the handsomest offers any one could ever have received. The great pain of the thing was that she could see the Countess liked her enough to wish to be liked in return, and it was from the idea of a return she sought utterly to flee. It was the idea of a return that after a confusion of loud words had broken out between the others brought to her lips with the tremor preceding disaster: "Can't I, please, be sent home in a cab?" Yes, the Countess wanted her and the Countess was wounded and chilled, and she couldn't help it, and it was all the more dreadful because it only made the Countess more coaxing and more impossible. The only thing that sustained either of them perhaps till the cab came--Maisie presently saw it would come--was its being in the air somehow that Beale had done what he wanted. He went out to look for a conveyance; the servants, he said, had gone to (196) bed, but she shouldn't be kept beyond her time. The Countess left the room with him, and, alone in the possession of it, Maisie hoped she wouldn't come back. It was all the effect of her face--the child simply couldn't look at it and meet its expression halfway. All in a moment too that queer expression had leaped into the lovely things--all in a moment she had had to accept her father as liking some one whom she was sure neither her mother, nor Mrs. Beale, nor Mrs. Wix, nor Sir Claude, nor the Captain, nor even Mr. Perriam and Lord Eric could possibly have liked. Three minutes later, downstairs, with the cab at the door, it was perhaps as a final confession of not having much to boast of that, on taking leave of her, he managed to press her to his bosom without her seeing his face. For herself she was so eager to go that their parting reminded her of nothing, not even of a single one of all the "nevers" that above, as the penalty of not cleaving to him, he had attached to the question of their meeting again. There was something in the Countess that falsified everything, even the great interests in America and yet more the first flush of that superiority to Mrs. Beale and to mamma which had been expressed in Sevres sets and silver boxes. These were still there, but perhaps there were no great interests in America. Mamma had known an American who was not a bit like this one. She was not, however, of noble rank; her name was only Mrs. Tucker. Maisie's detachment would none the less have been more complete if she had not suddenly had to exclaim: "Oh dear, I haven't any money!"
(197) Her father's teeth, at this, were such a picture of appetite without action as to be a match for any plea of poverty. "Make your stepmother pay."
"Stepmothers DON'T pay!" cried the Countess. "No stepmother ever paid in her life!" The next moment they were in the street together, and the next the child was in the cab, with the Countess, on the pavement, but close to her, quickly taking money from a purse whisked out of a pocket. Her father had vanished and there was even yet nothing in that to reawaken the pang of loss. "Here's money," said the brown lady: "go!" The sound was commanding: the cab rattled off. Maisie sat there with her hand full of coin. All that for a cab? As they passed a street-lamp she bent to see how much. What she saw was a cluster of sovereigns. There MUST then have been great interests in America. It was still at any rate the Arabian Nights.
(198) Chapter 20
The money was far too much even for a fee in a fairy-tale, and in the absence of Mrs. Beale, who, though the hour was now late, had not yet returned to the Regent's Park, Susan Ash, in the hall, as loud as Maisie was low and as bold as she was bland, produced, on the exhibition offered under the dim vigil of the lamp that made the place a contrast to the child's recent scene of light, the half-crown that an unsophisticated cabman could pronounce to be the least he would take. It was apparently long before Mrs. Beale would arrive, and in the interval Maisie had been induced by the prompt Susan not only to go to bed like a darling dear, but, in still richer expression of that character, to devote to the repayment of obligations general as well as particular one of the sovereigns in the ordered array that, on the dressing-table upstairs, was naturally not less dazzling to a lone orphan of a housemaid than to the subject of the manoeuvres of a quartette. This subject went to sleep with her property gathered into a knotted handkerchief, the largest that could be produced and lodged under her pillow; but the explanations that on the morrow were inevitably more complete with Mrs. Beale than they had been with her humble friend found their climax in a surrender also more becomingly free. There were explanations indeed that Mrs. Beale had to give as well as to ask, and the (199) most striking of these was to the effect that it was dreadful for a little girl to take money from a woman who was simply the vilest of their sex. The sovereigns were examined with some attention, the result of which, however, was to make the author of that statement desire to know what, if one really went into the matter, they could be called but the wages of sin. Her companion went into it merely so far as the question of what then they were to do with them; on which Mrs. Beale, who had by this time put them into her pocket, replied with dignity and with her hand on the place: "We're to send them back on the spot!" Susan, the child soon afterwards learnt, had been invited to contribute to this act of restitution her one appropriated coin; but a closer clutch of the treasure showed in her private assurance to Maisie that there was a limit to the way she could be "done." Maisie had been open with Mrs. Beale about the whole of last night's transaction; but she now found herself on the part of their indignant inferior a recipient of remarks that were so many ringing tokens of that lady's own suppressions. One of these bore upon the extraordinary hour--it was three in the morning if she really wanted to know--at which Mrs. Beale had re-entered the house; another, in accents as to which Maisie's criticism was still intensely tacit, characterised her appeal as such a "gime," such a "shime," as one had never had to put up with; a third treated with some vigour the question of the enormous sums due belowstairs, in every department, for gratuitous labour and wasted zeal. Our young lady's consciousness was indeed mainly (200) filled for several days with the apprehension created by the too slow subsidence of her attendant's sense of wrong. These days would become terrific like the Revolutions she had learnt by heart in Histories if an outbreak in the kitchen should crown them; and to promote that prospect she had through Susan's eyes more than one glimpse of the way in which Revolutions are prepared. To listen to Susan was to gather that the spark applied to the inflammables and already causing them to crackle would prove to have been the circumstance of one's being called a horrid low thief for refusing to part with one's own.
The redeeming point of this tension was, on the fifth day, that it actually appeared to have had to do with a breathless perception in our heroine's breast that scarcely more as the centre of Sir Claude's than as that of Susan's energies she had soon after breakfast been conveyed from London to Folkestone and established at a lovely hotel. These agents, before her wondering eyes, had combined to carry through the adventure and to give it the air of having owed its success to the fact that Mrs. Beale had, as Susan said, but just stepped out. When Sir Claude, watch in hand, had met this fact with the exclamation "Then pack Miss Farange and come off with us!" there had ensued on the stairs a series of gymnastics of a nature to bring Miss Farange's heart into Miss Farange's mouth. She sat with Sir Claude in a four-wheeler while he still held his watch; held it longer than any doctor who had ever felt her pulse; long enough to give her a vision of something like the ecstasy of neglecting such an opportunity to show (201) impatience. The ecstasy had begun in the schoolroom and over the Berceuse, quite in the manner of the same foretaste on the day, a little while back, when Susan had panted up and she herself, after the hint about the duchess, had sailed down; for what harm then had there been in drops and disappointments if she could still have, even only a moment, the sensation of such a name "brought up"? It had remained with her that her father had foretold her she would some day be in the street, but it clearly wouldn't be this day, and she felt justified of the preference betrayed to that parent as soon as her visitor had set Susan in motion and laid his hand, while she waited with him, kindly on her own. This was what the Captain, in Kensington Gardens, had done; her present situation reminded her a little of that one and renewed the dim wonder of the fashion after which, from the first, such pats and pulls had struck her as the steps and signs of other people's business and even a little as the wriggle or the overflow of their difficulties. What had failed her and what had frightened her on the night of the Exhibition lost themselves at present alike in the impression that any "surprise" now about to burst from Sir Claude would be too big to burst all at once. Any awe that might have sprung from his air of leaving out her stepmother was corrected by the force of a general rule, the odd truth that if Mrs. Beale now never came nor went without making her think of him, it was never, to balance that, the main mark of his own renewed reality to appear to be a reference to Mrs. Beale. To be with Sir Claude was to think (202) of Sir Claude, and that law governed Maisie's mind until, through a sudden lurch of the cab, which had at last taken in Susan and ever so many bundles and almost reached Charing Cross, it popped again somehow into her dizzy head the long-lost image of Mrs. Wix.
It was singular, but from this time she understood and she followed, followed with the sense of an ample filling-out of any void created by symptoms of avoidance and of flight. Her ecstasy was a thing that had yet more of a face than of a back to turn, a pair of eyes still directed to Mrs. Wix even after the slight surprise of their not finding her, as the journey expanded, either at the London station or at the Folkestone hotel. It took few hours to make the child feel that if she was in neither of these places she was at least everywhere else. Maisie had known all along a great deal, but never so much as she was to know from this moment on and as she learned in particular during the couple of days that she was to hang in the air, as it were, over the sea which represented in breezy blueness and with a summer charm a crossing of more spaces than the Channel. It was granted her at this time to arrive at divinations so ample that I shall have no room for the goal if I attempt to trace the stages; as to which therefore I must be content to say that the fullest expression we may give to Sir Claude's conduct is a poor and pale copy of the picture it presented to his young friend. Abruptly, that morning, he had yielded to the action of the idea pumped into him for weeks by Mrs. Wix on lines of approach that she had been capable of the extraordinary (203) art of preserving from entanglement in the fine network of his relations with Mrs. Beale. The breath of her sincerity, blowing without a break, had puffed him up to the flight by which, in the degree I have indicated, Maisie too was carried off her feet. This consisted neither in more nor in less than the brave stroke of his getting off from Mrs. Beale as well as from his wife--of making with the child straight for some such foreign land as would give a support to Mrs. Wix's dream that she might still see his errors renounced and his delinquencies redeemed. It would all be a sacrifice--under eyes that would miss no faintest shade--to what even the strange frequenters of her ladyship's earlier period used to call the real good of the little unfortunate. Maisie's head held a suspicion of much that, during the last long interval, had confusedly, but quite candidly, come and gone in his own; a glimpse, almost awe-stricken in its gratitude, of the miracle her old governess had wrought. That functionary could not in this connexion have been more impressive, even at second-hand, if she had been a prophetess with an open scroll or some ardent abbess speaking with the lips of the Church. She had clung day by day to their plastic associate, plying him with her deep, narrow passion, doing her simple utmost to convert him, and so working on him that he had at last really embraced his fine chance. That the chance was not delusive was sufficiently guaranteed by the completeness with which he could finally figure it out that, in case of his taking action, neither Ida nor Beale, whose book, on each side, it would only too well suit, would make any sort of row.
(204) It sounds, no doubt, too penetrating, but it was not all as an effect of Sir Claude's betrayals that Maisie was able to piece together the beauty of the special influence through which, for such stretches of time, he had refined upon propriety by keeping, so far as possible, his sentimental interests distinct. She had ever of course in her mind fewer names than conceptions, but it was only with this drawback that she now made out her companion's absences to have had for their ground that he was the lover of her stepmother and that the lover of her stepmother could scarce logically pretend to a superior right to look after her. Maisie had by this time embraced the implication of a kind of natural divergence between lovers and little girls. It was just this indeed that could throw light on the probable contents of the pencilled note deposited on the hall-table in the Regent's Park and which would greet Mrs. Beale on her return. Maisie freely figured it as provisionally jocular in tone, even though to herself on this occasion Sir Claude turned a graver face than he had shown in any crisis but that of putting her into the cab when she had been horrid to him after her parting with the Captain. He might really be embarrassed, but he would be sure, to her view, to have muffled in some bravado of pleasantry the disturbance produced at her father's by the removal of a valued servant. Not that there wasn't a great deal too that wouldn't be in the note--a great deal for which a more comfortable place was Maisie's light little brain, where it hummed away hour after hour and caused the first outlook at Folkestone to swim (205) in a softness of colour and sound. It became clear in this medium that her stepfather had really now only to take into account his entanglement with Mrs. Beale. Wasn't he at last disentangled from every one and every thing else? The obstacle to the rupture pressed upon him by Mrs. Wix in the interest of his virtue would be simply that he was in love, or rather, to put it more precisely, that Mrs. Beale had left him no doubt of the degree in which SHE was. She was so much so as to have succeeded in making him accept for a time her infatuated grasp of him and even to some extent the idea of what they yet might do together with a little diplomacy and a good deal of patience. I may not even answer for it that Maisie was not aware of how, in this, Mrs. Beale failed to share his all but insurmountable distaste for their allowing their little charge to breathe the air of their gross irregularity--his contention, in a word, that they should either cease to be irregular or cease to be parental. Their little charge, for herself, had long ago adopted the view that even Mrs. Wix had at one time not thought prohibitively coarse--the view that she was after all, AS a little charge, morally at home in atmospheres it would be appalling to analyse. If Mrs. Wix, however, ultimately appalled, had now set her heart on strong measures, Maisie, as I have intimated, could also work round both to the reasons for them and to the quite other reasons for that lady's not, as yet at least, appearing in them at first-hand.
Oh decidedly I shall never get you to believe the number of things she saw and the number of secrets she discovered! Why in the world, for instance, (206) couldn't Sir Claude have kept it from her--except on the hypothesis of his not caring to--that, when you came to look at it and so far as it was a question of vested interests, he had quite as much right in her as her stepmother, not to say a right that Mrs. Beale was in no position to dispute? He failed at all events of any such successful ambiguity as could keep her, when once they began to look across at France, from regarding even what was least explained as most in the spirit of their old happy times, their rambles and expeditions in the easier better days of their first acquaintance. Never before had she had so the sense of giving him a lead for the sort of treatment of what was between them that would best carry it off, or of his being grateful to her for meeting him so much in the right place. She met him literally at the very point where Mrs. Beale was most to be reckoned with, the point of the jealousy that was sharp in that lady and of the need of their keeping it as long as possible obscure to her that poor Mrs. Wix had still a hand. Yes, she met him too in the truth of the matter that, as her stepmother had had no one else to be jealous of, she had made up for so gross a privation by directing the sentiment to a moral influence. Sir Claude appeared absolutely to convey in a wink that a moral influence capable of pulling a string was after all a moral influence exposed to the scratching out of its eyes; and that, this being the case, there was somebody they couldn't afford to leave unprotected before they should see a little better what Mrs. Beale was likely to do. Maisie, true enough, had not to put it into words to rejoin, in the coffee-room, at luncheon: "What CAN she do but come to you if papa does take a step that will amount to legal desertion?" Neither had he then, in answer, to articulate anything but the jollity of their having found a table at a window from which, as they partook of cold beef and apollinaris--for he hinted they would have to save lots of money--they could let their eyes hover tenderly on the far-off white cliffs that so often had signalled to the embarrassed English a promise of safety. Maisie stared at them as if she might really make out after a little a queer dear figure perched on them--a figure as to which she had already the subtle sense that, wherever perched, it would be the very oddest yet seen in France. But it was at least as exciting to feel where Mrs. Wix wasn't as it would have been to know where she was, and if she wasn't yet at Boulogne this only thickened the plot.
If she was not to be seen that day, however, the evening was marked by an apparition before which, none the less, overstrained suspense folded on the spot its wings. Adjusting her respirations and attaching, under dropped lashes, all her thoughts to a smartness of frock and frill for which she could reflect that she had not appealed in vain to a loyalty in Susan Ash triumphant over the nice things their feverish flight had left behind, Maisie spent on a bench in the garden of the hotel the half-hour before dinner, that mysterious ceremony of the table d'hote for which she had prepared with a punctuality of flutter. Sir Claude, beside her, was occupied with a cigarette and the afternoon papers; and though the hotel was full the garden showed the particular void (208) that ensues upon the sound of the dressing-bell. She had almost had time to weary of the human scene; her own humanity at any rate, in the shape of a smutch on her scanty skirt, had held her so long that as soon as she raised her eyes they rested on a high fair drapery by which smutches were put to shame and which had glided toward her over the grass without her noting its rustle. She followed up its stiff sheen--up and up from the ground, where it had stopped--till at the end of a considerable journey her impression felt the shock of the fixed face which, surmounting it, seemed to offer the climax of the dressed condition. "Why mamma!" she cried the next instant--cried in a tone that, as she sprang to her feet, brought Sir Claude to his own beside her and gave her ladyship, a few yards off, the advantage of their momentary confusion. Poor Maisie's was immense; her mother's drop had the effect of one of the iron shutters that, in evening walks with Susan Ash, she had seen suddenly, at the touch of a spring, rattle down over shining shop-fronts. The light of foreign travel was darkened at a stroke; she had a horrible sense that they were caught; and for the first time of her life in Ida's presence she so far translated an impulse into an invidious act as to clutch straight at the hand of her responsible confederate. It didn't help her that he appeared at first equally hushed with horror; a minute during which, in the empty garden, with its long shadows on the lawn, its blue sea over the hedge and its startled peace in the air, both her elders remained as stiff as tall tumblers filled to the brim and held straight for fear of a spill. (209) At last, in a tone that enriched the whole surprise by its unexpected softness, her mother said to Sir Claude: "Do you mind at all my speaking to her?"
"Oh no; DO you?" His reply was so long in coming that Maisie was the first to find the right note.
He laughed as he seemed to take it from her, and she felt a sufficient concession in his manner of addressing their visitor. "How in the world did you know we were here?"
His wife, at this, came the rest of the way and sat down on the bench with a hand laid on her daughter, whom she gracefully drew to her and in whom, at her touch, the fear just kindled gave a second jump, but now in quite another direction. Sir Claude, on the further side, resumed his seat and his newspapers, so that the three grouped themselves like a family party; his connexion, in the oddest way in the world, almost cynically and in a flash acknowledged, and the mother patting the child into conformities unspeakable. Maisie could already feel how little it was Sir Claude and she who were caught. She had the positive sense of their catching their relative, catching her in the act of getting rid of her burden with a finality that showed her as unprecedentedly relaxed. Oh yes, the fear had dropped, and she had never been so irrevocably parted with as in the pressure of possession now supremely exerted by Ida's long-gloved and much-bangled arm. "I went to the Regent's Park"--this was presently her ladyship's answer to Sir Claude.
"Do you mean to-day?"
"This morning, just after your own call there. (210) That's how I found you out; that's what has brought me."
Sir Claude considered and Maisie waited. "Whom then did you see?"
Ida gave a sound of indulgent mockery. "I like your scare. I know your game. I didn't see the person I risked seeing, but I had been ready to take my chance of her." She addressed herself to Maisie; she had encircled her more closely. "I asked for YOU, my dear, but I saw no one but a dirty parlour-maid. She was red in the face with the great things that, as she told me, had just happened in the absence of her mistress; and she luckily had the sense to have made out the place to which Sir Claude had come to take you. If he hadn't given a false scent I should find you here: that was the supposition on which I've proceeded." Ida had never been so explicit about proceeding or supposing, and Maisie, drinking this in, noted too how Sir Claude shared her fine impression of it. "I wanted to see you," his wife continued, "and now you can judge of the trouble I've taken. I had everything to do in town to-day, but I managed to get off."
Maisie and her companion, for a moment, did justice to this achievement; but Maisie was the first to express it. "I'm glad you wanted to see me, mamma." Then after a concentration more deep and with a plunge more brave: "A little more and you'd have been too late." It stuck in her throat, but she brought it out: "We're going to France."
Ida was magnificent; Ida kissed her on the forehead. "That's just what I thought likely; it made (211) me decide to run down. I fancied that in spite of your scramble you'd wait to cross, and it added to the reason I have for seeing you."
Maisie wondered intensely what the reason could be, but she knew ever so much better than to ask. She was slightly surprised indeed to perceive that Sir Claude didn't, and to hear him immediately enquire: "What in the name of goodness can you have to say to her?"
His tone was not exactly rude, but it was impatient enough to make his wife's response a fresh specimen of the new softness. "That, my dear man, is all my own business."
"Do you mean," Sir Claude asked, "that you wish me to leave you with her?"
"Yes, if you'll be so good; that's the extraordinary request I take the liberty of making." Her ladyship had dropped to a mildness of irony by which, for a moment, poor Maisie was mystified and charmed, puzzled with a glimpse of something that in all the years had at intervals peeped out. Ida smiled at Sir Claude with the strange air she had on such occasions of defying an interlocutor to keep it up as long; her huge eyes, her red lips, the intense marks in her face formed an eclairage as distinct and public as a lamp set in a window. The child seemed quite to see in it the very beacon that had lighted her path; she suddenly found herself reflecting that it was no wonder the gentlemen were guided. This must have been the way mamma had first looked at Sir Claude; it brought back the lustre of the time they had outlived. It must have been the way she looked also at Mr. (212) Perriam and Lord Eric; above all it contributed in Maisie's mind to a completer view of that satisfied state of the Captain. Our young lady grasped this idea with a quick lifting of the heart; there was a stillness during which her mother flooded her with a wealth of support to the Captain's striking tribute. This stillness remained long enough unbroken to represent that Sir Claude too might but be gasping again under the spell originally strong for him; so that Maisie quite hoped he would at least say something to show a recognition of how charming she could be.
What he presently said was: "Are you putting up for the night?"
His wife cast grandly about. "Not here--I've come from Dover."
Over Maisie's head, at this, they still faced each other. "You spend the night there?"
"Yes, I brought some things. I went to the hotel and hastily arranged; then I caught the train that whisked me on here. You see what a day I've had of it."
The statement may surprise, but these were really as obliging if not as lucid words as, into her daughter's ears at least, Ida's lips had ever dropped; and there was a quick desire in the daughter that for the hour at any rate they should duly be welcomed as a ground of intercourse. Certainly mamma had a charm which, when turned on, became a large explanation; and the only danger now in an impulse to applaud it would be that of appearing to signalise its rarity. Maisie, however, risked the peril in the geniality of an admission that Ida had indeed had a (213) rush; and she invited Sir Claude to expose himself by agreeing with her that the rush had been even worse than theirs. He appeared to meet this appeal by saying with detachment enough: "You go back there to-night?"
"Oh yes--there are plenty of trains."
Again Sir Claude hesitated; it would have been hard to say if the child, between them, more connected or divided them. Then he brought out quietly: "It will be late for you to knock about. I'll see you over."
"You needn't trouble, thank you. I think you won't deny that I can help myself and that it isn't the first time in my dreadful life that I've somehow managed it." Save for this allusion to her dreadful life they talked there, Maisie noted, as if they were only rather superficial friends; a special effect that she had often wondered at before in the midst of what she supposed to be intimacies. This effect was augmented by the almost casual manner in which her ladyship went on: "I dare say I shall go abroad."
"From Dover do you mean, straight?"
"How straight I can't say. I'm excessively ill."
This for a minute struck Maisie as but a part of the conversation; at the end of which time she became aware that it ought to strike her--though it apparently didn't strike Sir Claude--as a part of something graver. It helped her to twist nearer. "Ill, mamma--really ill?"
She regretted her "really" as soon as she had spoken it; but there couldn't be a better proof of her mother's present polish than that Ida showed no (214) gleam of a temper to take it up. She had taken up at other times much tinier things. She only pressed Maisie's head against her bosom and said: "Shockingly, my dear. I must go to that new place."
"What new place?" Sir Claude enquired.
Ida thought, but couldn't recall it. "Oh 'Chose,' don't you know?--where every one goes. I want some proper treatment. It's all I've ever asked for on earth. But that's not what I came to say."
Sir Claude, in silence, folded one by one his newspapers; then he rose and stood whacking the palm of his hand with the bundle. "You'll stop and dine with us?"
"Dear no--I can't dine at this sort of hour. I ordered dinner at Dover."
Her ladyship's tone in this one instance showed a certain superiority to those conditions in which her daughter had artlessly found Folkestone a paradise. It was yet not so crushing as to nip in the bud the eagerness with which the latter broke out: "But won't you at least have a cup of tea?"
Ida kissed her again on the brow. "Thanks, love. I had tea before coming." She raised her eyes to Sir Claude. "She IS sweet!" He made no more answer than if he didn't agree; but Maisie was at ease about that and was still taken up with the joy of this happier pitch of their talk, which put more and more of a meaning into the Captain's version of her ladyship and literally kindled a conjecture that such an admirer might, over there at the other place, be waiting for her to dine. Was the same conjecture in Sir Claude's mind? He partly puzzled her, if it had (215) risen there, by the slight perversity with which he returned to a question that his wife evidently thought she had disposed of.
He whacked his hand again with his paper. "I had really much better take you."
"And leave Maisie here alone?"
Mamma so clearly didn't want it that Maisie leaped at the vision of a Captain who had seen her on from Dover and who, while he waited to take her back, would be hovering just at the same distance at which, in Kensington Gardens, the companion of his walk had herself hovered. Of course, however, instead of breathing any such guess she let Sir Claude reply; all the more that his reply could contribute so much to her own present grandeur. "She won't be alone when she has a maid in attendance."
Maisie had never before had so much of a retinue, and she waited also to enjoy the action of it on her ladyship. "You mean the woman you brought from town?" Ida considered. "The person at the house spoke of her in a way that scarcely made her out company for my child." Her tone was that her child had never wanted, in her hands, for prodigious company. But she as distinctly continued to decline Sir Claude's. "Don't be an old goose," she said charmingly. "Let us alone."
In front of them on the grass he looked graver than Maisie at all now thought the occasion warranted. "I don't see why you can't say it before me."
His wife smoothed one of her daughter's curls. "Say what, dear?"
"Why what you came to say."
(216) At this Maisie at last interposed: she appealed to Sir Claude. "Do let her say it to me."
He looked hard for a moment at his little friend. "How do you know what she may say?"
"She must risk it," Ida remarked.
"I only want to protect you," he continued to the child.
"You want to protect yourself--that's what you mean," his wife replied. "Don't be afraid. I won't touch you."
"She won't touch you--she WON'T!" Maisie declared. She felt by this time that she could really answer for it, and something of the emotion with which she had listened to the Captain came back to her. It made her so happy and so secure that she could positively patronise mamma. She did so in the Captain's very language. "She's good, she's good!" she proclaimed.
"Oh Lord!"--Sir Claude, at this, let himself go. He appeared to have emitted some sound of derision that was smothered, to Maisie's ears, by her being again embraced by his wife. Ida released her and held her off a little, looking at her with a very queer face. Then the child became aware that their companion had left them and that from the face in question a confirmatory remark had proceeded.
"I AM good, love," said her ladyship.
(217) Chapter 21
A good deal of the rest of Ida's visit was devoted to explaining, as it were, so extraordinary a statement. This explanation was more copious than any she had yet indulged in, and as the summer twilight gathered and she kept her child in the garden she was conciliatory to a degree that let her need to arrange things a little perceptibly peep out. It was not merely that she explained; she almost conversed; all that was wanting to that was that she should have positively chattered a little less. It was really the occasion of Maisie's life on which her mother was to have most to say to her. That alone was an implication of generosity and virtue, and no great stretch was required to make our young lady feel that she should best meet her and soonest have it over by simply seeming struck with the propriety of her contention. They sat together while the parent's gloved hand sometimes rested sociably on the child's and sometimes gave a corrective pull to a ribbon too meagre or a tress too thick; and Maisie was conscious of the effort to keep out of her eyes the wonder with which they were occasionally moved to blink. Oh there would have been things to blink at if one had let one's self go; and it was lucky they were alone together, without Sir Claude or Mrs. Wix or even Mrs. Beale to catch an imprudent glance. Though profuse and prolonged her ladyship was not exhaustively lucid, and (218) her account of her situation, so far as it could be called descriptive, was a muddle of inconsequent things, bruised fruit of an occasion she had rather too lightly affronted. None of them were really thought out and some were even not wholly insincere. It was as if she had asked outright what better proof could have been wanted of her goodness and her greatness than just this marvellous consent to give up what she had so cherished. It was as if she had said in so many words: "There have been things between us--between Sir Claude and me--which I needn't go into, you little nuisance, because you wouldn't understand them." It suited her to convey that Maisie had been kept, so far as SHE was concerned or could imagine, in a holy ignorance and that she must take for granted a supreme simplicity. She turned this way and that in the predicament she had sought and from which she could neither retreat with grace nor emerge with credit: she draped herself in the tatters of her impudence, postured to her utmost before the last little triangle of cracked glass to which so many fractures had reduced the polished plate of filial superstition. If neither Sir Claude nor Mrs. Wix was there this was perhaps all the more a pity: the scene had a style of its own that would have qualified it for presentation, especially at such a moment as that of her letting it betray that she quite did think her wretched offspring better placed with Sir Claude than in her own soiled hands. There was at any rate nothing scant either in her admissions or her perversions, the mixture of her fear of what Maisie might undiscoverably think and of the support she (219) at the same time gathered from a necessity of selfishness and a habit of brutality. This habit flushed through the merit she now made, in terms explicit, of not having come to Folkestone to kick up a vulgar row. She had not come to box any ears or to bang any doors or even to use any language: she had come at the worst to lose the thread of her argument in an occasional dumb disgusted twitch of the toggery in which Mrs. Beale's low domestic had had the impudence to serve up Miss Farange. She checked all criticism, not committing herself even so far as for those missing comforts of the schoolroom on which Mrs. Wix had presumed.
"I AM good--I'm crazily, I'm criminally good. But it won't do for YOU any more, and if I've ceased to contend with him, and with you too, who have made most of the trouble between us, it's for reasons that you'll understand one of these days but too well--one of these days when I hope you'll know what it is to have lost a mother. I'm awfully ill, but you mustn't ask me anything about it. If I don't get off somewhere my doctor won't answer for the consequences. He's stupefied at what I've borne--he says it has been put on me because I was formed to suffer. I'm thinking of South Africa, but that's none of your business. You must take your choice--you can't ask me questions if you're so ready to give me up. No, I won't tell you; you can find out for yourself. South Africa's wonderful, they say, and if I do go it must be to give it a fair trial. It must be either one thing or the other; if he takes you, you know, he takes you. I've struck my last blow for (220) you; I can follow you no longer from pillar to post. I must live for myself at last, while there's still a handful left of me. I'm very, very ill; I'm very, very tired; I'm very, very determined. There you have it. Make the most of it. Your frock's too filthy; but I came to sacrifice myself." Maisie looked at the peccant places; there were moments when it was a relief to her to drop her eyes even on anything so sordid. All her interviews, all her ordeals with her mother had, as she had grown older, seemed to have, before any other, the hard quality of duration; but longer than any, strangely, were these minutes offered to her as so pacific and so agreeably winding up the connexion. It was her anxiety that made them long, her fear of some hitch, some check of the current, one of her ladyship's famous quick jumps. She held her breath; she only wanted, by playing into her visitor's hands, to see the thing through. But her impatience itself made at instants the whole situation swim; there were things Ida said that she perhaps didn't hear, and there were things she heard that Ida perhaps didn't say. "You're all I have, and yet I'm capable of this. Your father wishes you were dead--that, my dear, is what your father wishes. You'll have to get used to it as I've done--I mean to his wishing that I'M dead. At all events you see for yourself how wonderful I am to Sir Claude. He wishes me dead quite as much; and I'm sure that if making me scenes about YOU could have killed me--!" It was the mark of Ida's eloquence that she started more hares than she followed, and she gave but a glance in the direction of this one; (221) going on to say that the very proof of her treating her husband like an angel was that he had just stolen off not to be fairly shamed. She spoke as if he had retired on tiptoe, as he might have withdrawn from a place of worship in which he was not fit to be present. "You'll never know what I've been through about you--never, never, never. I spare you everything, as I always have; though I dare say you know things that, if I did (I mean if I knew them) would make me--well, no matter! You're old enough at any rate to know there are a lot of things I don't say that I easily might; though it would do me good, I assure you, to have spoken my mind for once in my life. I don't speak of your father's infamous wife: that may give you a notion of the way I'm letting you off. When I say 'you' I mean your precious friends and backers. If you don't do justice to my forbearing, out of delicacy, to mention, just as a last word, about your stepfather, a little fact or two of a kind that really I should only HAVE to mention to shine myself in comparison, and after every calumny, like pure gold: if you don't do me THAT justice you'll never do me justice at all!"
Maisie's desire to show what justice she did her had by this time become so intense as to have brought with it an inspiration. The great effect of their encounter had been to confirm her sense of being launched with Sir Claude, to make it rich and full beyond anything she had dreamed, and everything now conspired to suggest that a single soft touch of her small hand would complete the good work and set her ladyship so promptly and majestically afloat (222) as to leave the great seaway clear for the morrow. This was the more the case as her hand had for some moments been rendered free by a marked manoeuvre of both of her mother's. One of these capricious members had fumbled with visible impatience in some backward depth of drapery and had presently reappeared with a small article in its grasp. The act had a significance for a little person trained, in that relation, from an early age, to keep an eye on manual motions, and its possible bearing was not darkened by the memory of the handful of gold that Susan Ash would never, never believe Mrs. Beale had sent back--"not she; she's too false and too greedy!"--to the munificent Countess. To have guessed, none the less, that her ladyship's purse might be the real figure of the object extracted from the rustling covert at her rear--this suspicion gave on the spot to the child's eyes a direction carefully distant. It added moreover to the optimism that for an hour could ruffle the surface of her deep diplomacy, ruffle it to the point of making her forget that she had never been safe unless she had also been stupid. She in short forgot her habitual caution in her impulse to adopt her ladyship's practical interests and show her ladyship how perfectly she understood them. She saw without looking that her mother pressed a little clasp; heard, without wanting to, the sharp click that marked the closing portemonnaie from which something had been taken. What this was she just didn't see; it was not too substantial to be locked with ease in the fold of her ladyship's fingers. Nothing was less new to Maisie than the art of not thinking (223) singly, so that at this instant she could both bring out what was on her tongue's end and weigh, as to the object in her mother's palm, the question of its being a sovereign against the question of its being a shilling. No sooner had she begun to speak than she saw that within a few seconds this question would have been settled: she had foolishly checked the rising words of the little speech of presentation to which, under the circumstances, even such a high pride as Ida's had had to give some thought. She had checked it completely--that was the next thing she felt: the note she sounded brought into her companion's eyes a look that quickly enough seemed at variance with presentations.
"That was what the Captain said to me that day, mamma. I think it would have given you pleasure to hear the way he spoke of you."
The pleasure, Maisie could now in consternation reflect, would have been a long time coming if it had come no faster than the response evoked by her allusion to it. Her mother gave her one of the looks that slammed the door in her face; never in a career of unsuccessful experiments had Maisie had to take such a stare. It reminded her of the way that once, at one of the lectures in Glower Street, something in a big jar that, amid an array of strange glasses and bad smells, had been promised as a beautiful yellow was produced as a beautiful black. She had been sorry on that occasion for the lecturer, but she was at this moment sorrier for herself. Oh nothing had ever made for twinges like mamma's manner of saying: "The Captain? What Captain?"
(224) "Why when we met you in the Gardens--the one who took me to sit with him. That was exactly what HE said."
Ida let it come on so far as to appear for an instant to pick up a lost thread. "What on earth did he say?" Maisie faltered supremely, but supremely she brought it out. "What you say, mamma--that you're so good."
"What 'I' say?" Ida slowly rose, keeping her eyes on her child, and the hand that had busied itself in her purse conformed at her side and amid the folds of her dress to a certain stiffening of the arm. "I say you're a precious idiot, and I won't have you put words into my mouth!" This was much more peremptory than a mere contradiction. Maisie could only feel on the spot that everything had broken short off and that their communication had abruptly ceased. That was presently proved. "What business have you to speak to me of him?"
Her daughter turned scarlet. "I thought you liked him."
"Him!--the biggest cad in London!" Her ladyship towered again, and in the gathering dusk the whites of her eyes were huge.
Maisie's own, however, could by this time pretty well match them; and she had at least now, with the first flare of anger that had ever yet lighted her face for a foe, the sense of looking up quite as hard as any one could look down. "Well, he was kind about you then; he WAS, and it made me like him. He said things--they were beautiful, they were, they were!" (225) She was almost capable of the violence of forcing this home, for even in the midst of her surge of passion--of which in fact it was a part--there rose in her a fear, a pain, a vision ominous, precocious, of what it might mean for her mother's fate to have forfeited such a loyalty as that. There was literally an instant in which Maisie fully saw--saw madness and desolation, saw ruin and darkness and death. "I've thought of him often since, and I hoped it was with him--with him--!" Here, in her emotion, it failed her, the breath of her filial hope.
But Ida got it out of her. "You hoped, you little horror--?"
"That it was he who's at Dover, that it was he who's to take you. I mean to South Africa," Maisie said with another drop.
Ida's stupefaction, on this, kept her silent unnaturally long, so long that her daughter could not only wonder what was coming, but perfectly measure the decline of every symptom of her liberality. She loomed there in her grandeur, merely dark and dumb; her wrath was clearly still, as it had always been, a thing of resource and variety. What Maisie least expected of it was by this law what now occurred. It melted, in the summer twilight, gradually into pity, and the pity after a little found a cadence to which the renewed click of her purse gave an accent. She had put back what she had taken out. "You're a dreadful dismal deplorable little thing," she murmured. And with this she turned back and rustled away over the lawn.
After she had disappeared Maisie dropped upon (226) the bench again and for some time, in the empty garden and the deeper dusk, sat and stared at the image her flight had still left standing. It had ceased to be her mother only, in the strangest way, that it might become her father, the father of whose wish that she were dead the announcement still lingered in the air. It was a presence with vague edges--it continued to front her, to cover her. But what reality that she need reckon with did it represent if Mr. Farange were, on his side, also going off--going off to America with the Countess, or even only to Spa? That question had, from the house, a sudden gay answer in the great roar of a gong, and at the same moment she saw Sir Claude look out for her from the wide lighted doorway. At this she went to him and he came forward and met her on the lawn. For a minute she was with him there in silence as, just before, at the last, she had been with her mother.
Nothing more, for the instant, passed between them but to move together to the house, where, in the hall, he indulged in one of those sudden pleasantries with which, to the delight of his stepdaughter, his native animation overflowed. "Will Miss Farange do me the honour to accept my arm?"
There was nothing in all her days that Miss Farange had accepted with such bliss, a bright rich element that floated them together to their feast; before they reached which, however, she uttered, in the spirit of a glad young lady taken in to her first (227) dinner, a sociable word that made him stop short. "She goes to South Africa."
"To South Africa?" His face, for a moment, seemed to swing for a jump; the next it took its spring into the extreme of hilarity. "Is that what she said?"
"Oh yes, I didn't MISTAKE!" Maisie took to herself THAT credit. "For the climate."
Sir Claude was now looking at a young woman with black hair, a red frock and a tiny terrier tucked under her elbow. She swept past them on her way to the dining-room, leaving an impression of a strong scent which mingled, amid the clatter of the place, with the hot aroma of food. He had become a little graver; he still stopped to talk. "I see--I see." Other people brushed by; he was not too grave to notice them. "Did she say anything else?"
"Oh yes, a lot more."
On this he met her eyes again with some intensity, but only repeating: "I see--I see."
Maisie had still her own vision, which she brought out. "I thought she was going to give me something."
"What kind of a thing?"
"Some money that she took out of her purse and then put back."
Sir Claude's amusement reappeared. "She thought better of it. Dear thrifty soul! How much did she make by that manoeuvre?"
Maisie considered. "I didn't see. It was very small."
Sir Claude threw back his head. "Do you mean very little? Sixpence?"
Maisie resented this almost as if, at dinner, she were already bandying jokes with an agreeable neighbour. "It may have been a sovereign."
"Or even," Sir Claude suggested, "a ten-pound note." She flushed at this sudden picture of what she perhaps had lost, and he made it more vivid by adding: "Rolled up in a tight little ball, you know--her way of treating banknotes as if they were curl-papers!" Maisie's flush deepened both with the immense plausibility of this and with a fresh wave of the consciousness that was always there to remind her of his cleverness--the consciousness of how immeasurably more after all he knew about mamma than she. She had lived with her so many times without discovering the material of her curl-papers or assisting at any other of her dealings with banknotes. The tight little ball had at any rate rolled away from her for ever--quite like one of the other balls that Ida's cue used to send flying. Sir Claude gave her his arm again, and by the time she was seated at table she had perfectly made up her mind as to the amount of the sum she had forfeited. Everything about her, however--the crowded room, the bedizened banquet, the savour of dishes, the drama of figures--ministered to the joy of life. After dinner she smoked with her friend--for that was exactly what she felt she did--on a porch, a kind of terrace, where the red tips of cigars and the light dresses of ladies made, under the happy stars, a poetry that was almost intoxicating. They talked but little, and she was slightly surprised at his asking for no more news of what her mother had said; but she had no (229) need of talk--there were a sense and a sound in everything to which words had nothing to add. They smoked and smoked, and there was a sweetness in her stepfather's silence. At last he said: "Let us take another turn--but you must go to bed soon. Oh you know, we're going to have a system!" Their turn was back into the garden, along the dusky paths from which they could see the black masts and the red lights of boats and hear the calls and cries that evidently had to do with happy foreign travel; and their system was once more to get on beautifully in this further lounge without a definite exchange. Yet he finally spoke--he broke out as he tossed away the match from which he had taken a fresh light: "I must go for a stroll. I'm in a fidget--I must walk it off." She fell in with this as she fell in with everything; on which he went on: "You go up to Miss Ash"--it was the name they had started; "you must see she's not in mischief. Can you find your way alone?"
"Oh yes; I've been up and down seven times." She positively enjoyed the prospect of an eighth.
Still they didn't separate; they stood smoking together under the stars. Then at last Sir Claude produced it. "I'm free--I'm free."
She looked up at him; it was the very spot on which a couple of hours before she had looked up at her mother. "You're free--you're free."
"To-morrow we go to France." He spoke as if he hadn't heard her; but it didn't prevent her again concurring.
"To-morrow we go to France."
(230) Again he appeared not to have heard her; and after a moment--it was an effect evidently of the depth of his reflexions and the agitation of his soul--he also spoke as if he had not spoken before. "I'm free--I'm free!"
She repeated her form of assent. "You're free--you're free."
This time he did hear her; he fixed her through the darkness with a grave face. But he said nothing more; he simply stooped a little and drew her to him--simply held her a little and kissed her good-night; after which, having given her a silent push upstairs to Miss Ash, he turned round again to the black masts and the red lights. Maisie mounted as if France were at the top.
(231) Chapter 22
The next day it seemed to her indeed at the bottom--down too far, in shuddering plunges, even to leave her a sense, on the Channel boat, of the height at which Sir Claude remained and which had never in every way been so great as when, much in the wet, though in the angle of a screen of canvas, he sociably sat with his stepdaughter's head in his lap and that of Mrs. Beale's housemaid fairly pillowed on his breast. Maisie was surprised to learn as they drew into port that they had had a lovely passage; but this emotion, at Boulogne, was speedily quenched in others, above all in the great ecstasy of a larger impression of life. She was "abroad" and she gave herself up to it, responded to it, in the bright air, before the pink houses, among the bare-legged fishwives and the red-legged soldiers, with the instant certitude of a vocation. Her vocation was to see the world and to thrill with enjoyment of the picture; she had grown older in five minutes and had by the time they reached the hotel recognised in the institutions and manners of France a multitude of affinities and messages. Literally in the course of an hour she found her initiation; a consciousness much quickened by the superior part that, as soon as they had gobbled down a French breakfast--which was indeed a high note in the concert--she observed herself to play to Susan Ash. Sir Claude, who had already bumped (232) against people he knew and who, as he said, had business and letters, sent them out together for a walk, a walk in which the child was avenged, so far as poetic justice required, not only for the loud giggles that in their London trudges used to break from her attendant, but for all the years of her tendency to produce socially that impression of an excess of the queer something which had seemed to waver so widely between innocence and guilt. On the spot, at Boulogne, though there might have been excess there was at least no wavering; she recognised, she understood, she adored and took possession; feeling herself attuned to everything and laying her hand, right and left, on what had simply been waiting for her. She explained to Susan, she laughed at Susan, she towered over Susan; and it was somehow Susan's stupidity, of which she had never yet been so sure, and Susan's bewilderment and ignorance and antagonism, that gave the liveliest rebound to her immediate perceptions and adoptions. The place and the people were all a picture together, a picture that, when they went down to the wide sands, shimmered, in a thousand tints, with the pretty organisation of the plage, with the gaiety of spectators and bathers, with that of the language and the weather, and above all with that of our young lady's unprecedented situation. For it appeared to her that no one since the beginning of time could have had such an adventure or, in an hour, so much experience; as a sequel to which she only needed, in order to feel with conscious wonder how the past was changed, to hear Susan, inscrutably aggravated, express a preference for the (233) Edgware Road. The past was so changed and the circle it had formed already so overstepped that on that very afternoon, in the course of another walk, she found herself enquiring of Sir Claude--and without a single scruple--if he were prepared as yet to name the moment at which they should start for Paris. His answer, it must be said, gave her the least little chill.
"Oh Paris, my dear child--I don't quite know about Paris!"
This required to be met, but it was much less to challenge him than for the rich joy of her first discussion of the details of a tour that, after looking at him a minute, she replied: "Well, isn't that the REAL thing, the thing that when one does come abroad--?"
He had turned grave again, and she merely threw that out: it was a way of doing justice to the seriousness of their life. She couldn't moreover be so much older since yesterday without reflecting that if by this time she probed a little he would recognise that she had done enough for mere patience. There was in fact something in his eyes that suddenly, to her own, made her discretion shabby. Before she could remedy this he had answered her last question, answered it in the way that, of all ways, she had least expected. "The thing it doesn't do not to do? Certainly Paris is charming. But, my dear fellow, Paris eats your head off. I mean it's so beastly expensive."
That note gave her a pang--it suddenly let in a harder light. Were they poor then, that is was HE poor, really poor beyond the pleasantry of apollinaris and cold beef? They had walked to the end of the (234) long jetty that enclosed the harbour and were looking out at the dangers they had escaped, the grey horizon that was England, the tumbled surface of the sea and the brown smacks that bobbed upon it. Why had he chosen an embarrassed time to make this foreign dash? unless indeed it was just the dash economic, of which she had often heard and on which, after another look at the grey horizon and the bobbing boats, she was ready to turn round with elation. She replied to him quite in his own manner: "I see, I see." She smiled up at him. "Our affairs are involved."
"That's it." He returned her smile. "Mine are not quite so bad as yours; for yours are really, my dear man, in a state I can't see through at all. But mine will do--for a mess."
She thought this over. "But isn't France cheaper than England?"
England, over there in the thickening gloom, looked just then remarkably dear. "I dare say; some parts."
"Then can't we live in those parts?"
There was something that for an instant, in satisfaction of this, he had the air of being about to say and yet not saying. What he presently said was: "This very place is one of them."
"Then we shall live here?"
He didn't treat it quite so definitely as she liked. "Since we've come to save money!"
This made her press him more. "How long shall we stay?"
"Oh three or four days."
It took her breath away. "You can save money in that time?"
(235) He burst out laughing, starting to walk again and taking her under his arm. He confessed to her on the way that she too had put a finger on the weakest of all his weaknesses, the fact, of which he was perfectly aware, that he probably might have lived within his means if he had never done anything for thrift. "It's the happy thoughts that do it," he said; "there's nothing so ruinous as putting in a cheap week." Maisie heard afresh among the pleasant sounds of the closing day that steel click of Ida's change of mind. She thought of the ten-pound note it would have been delightful at this juncture to produce for her companion's encouragement. But the idea was dissipated by his saying irrelevantly, in presence of the next thing they stopped to admire: "We shall stay till she arrives."
She turned upon him. "Mrs. Beale?"
"Mrs. Wix. I've had a wire," he went on. "She has seen your mother."
"Seen mamma?" Maisie stared. "Where in the world?"
"Apparently in London. They've been together."
For an instant this looked ominous--a fear came into her eyes. "Then she hasn't gone?"
"Your mother?--to South Africa? I give it up, dear boy," Sir Claude said; and she seemed literally to see him give it up as he stood there and with a kind of absent gaze--absent, that is, from HER affairs--followed the fine stride and shining limbs of a young fishwife who had just waded out of the sea with her basketful of shrimps. His thought came back to her sooner than his eyes. "But I dare say it's all right. (236) She wouldn't come if it wasn't, poor old thing: she knows rather well what she's about."
This was so reassuring that Maisie, after turning it over, could make it fit into her dream. "Well, what IS she about?"
He finally stopped looking at the fishwife--he met his companion's enquiry. "Oh you know!" There was something in the way he said it that made, between them, more of an equality than she had yet imagined; but it had also more the effect of raising her up than of letting him down, and what it did with her was shown by the sound of her assent.
"Yes--I know!" What she knew, what she COULD know is by this time no secret to us: it grew and grew at any rate, the rest of that day, in the air of what he took for granted. It was better he should do that than attempt to test her knowledge; but there at the worst was the gist of the matter: it was open between them at last that their great change, as, speaking as if it had already lasted weeks, Maisie called it, was somehow built up round Mrs. Wix. Before she went to bed that night she knew further that Sir Claude, since, as HE called it, they had been on the rush, had received more telegrams than one. But they separated again without speaking of Mrs. Beale.
Oh what a crossing for the straighteners and the old brown dress--which latter appurtenance the child saw thriftily revived for the possible disasters of travel! The wind got up in the night and from her little room at the inn Maisie could hear the noise of the sea. The next day it was raining and everything (237) different: this was the case even with Susan Ash, who positively crowed over the bad weather, partly, it seemed, for relish of the time their visitor would have in the boat, and partly to point the moral of the folly of coming to such holes. In the wet, with Sir Claude, Maisie went to the Folkestone packet, on the arrival of which, with many signs of the fray, he made her wait under an umbrella by the quay; whence almost ere the vessel touched, he was to be descried, in quest of their friend, wriggling--that had been his word--through the invalids massed upon the deck. It was long till he reappeared--it was not indeed till every one had landed; when he presented the object of his benevolence in a light that Maisie scarce knew whether to suppose the depth of prostration or the flush of triumph. The lady on his arm, still bent beneath her late ordeal, was muffled in such draperies as had never before offered so much support to so much woe. At the hotel, an hour later, this ambiguity dropped: assisting Mrs. Wix in private to refresh and reinvest herself, Maisie heard from her in detail how little she could have achieved if Sir Claude hadn't put it in her power. It was a phrase that in her room she repeated in connexions indescribable: he had put it in her power to have "changes," as she said, of the most intimate order, adapted to climates and occasions so various as to foreshadow in themselves the stages of a vast itinerary. Cheap weeks would of course be in their place after so much money spent on a governess; sums not grudged, however, by this lady's pupil, even on her feeling her own appearance give rise, through the straighteners, to an attention perceptibly mystified. (238) Sir Claude in truth had had less time to devote to it than to Mrs. Wix's; and moreover she would rather be in her own shoes than in her friend's creaking new ones in the event of an encounter with Mrs. Beale. Maisie was too lost in the idea of Mrs. Beale's judgement of so much newness to pass any judgement herself. Besides, after much luncheon and many endearments, the question took quite another turn, to say nothing of the pleasure of the child's quick view that there were other eyes than Susan Ash's to open to what she could show. She couldn't show much, alas, till it stopped raining, which it declined to do that day; but this had only the effect of leaving more time for Mrs. Wix's own demonstration. It came as they sat in the little white and gold salon which Maisie thought the loveliest place she had ever seen except perhaps the apartment of the Countess; it came while the hard summer storm lashed the windows and blew in such a chill that Sir Claude, with his hands in his pockets and cigarettes in his teeth, fidgeting, frowning, looking out and turning back, ended by causing a smoky little fire to be made in the dressy little chimney. It came in spite of something that could only be named his air of wishing to put it off; an air that had served him--oh as all his airs served him!--to the extent of his having for a couple of hours confined the conversation to gratuitous jokes and generalities, kept it on the level of the little empty coffee-cups and petits verres (Mrs. Wix had two of each!) that struck Maisie, through the fumes of the French fire and the English tobacco, as a token more than ever that they were launched. She felt (239) now, in close quarters and as clearly as if Mrs. Wix had told her, that what this lady had come over for was not merely to be chaffed and to hear her pupil chaffed; not even to hear Sir Claude, who knew French in perfection, imitate the strange sounds emitted by the English folk at the hotel. It was perhaps half an effect of her present renovations, as if her clothes had been somebody's else: she had at any rate never produced such an impression of high colour, of a redness associated in Maisie's mind at THAT pitch either with measles or with "habits." Her heart was not at all in the gossip about Boulogne; and if her complexion was partly the result of the dejeuner and the petits verres it was also the brave signal of what she was there to say. Maisie knew when this did come how anxiously it had been awaited by the youngest member of the party. "Her ladyship packed me off--she almost put me into the cab!" That was what Mrs. Wix at last brought out.
(240) Chapter 23
Sir Claude was stationed at the window; he didn't so much as turn round, and it was left to the youngest of the three to take up the remark. "Do you mean you went to see her yesterday?"
"She came to see ME. She knocked at my shabby door. She mounted my squalid stair. She told me she had seen you at Folkestone."
Maisie wondered. "She went back that evening?"
"No; yesterday morning. She drove to me straight from the station. It was most remarkable. If I had a job to get off she did nothing to make it worse--she did a great deal to make it better." Mrs. Wix hung fire, though the flame in her face burned brighter; then she became capable of saying: "Her ladyship's kind! She did what I didn't expect."
Maisie, on this, looked straight at her stepfather's back; it might well have been for her at that hour a monument of her ladyship's kindness. It remained, as such, monumentally still, and for a time that permitted the child to ask of their companion: "Did she really help you?"
"Most practically." Again Mrs. Wix paused; again she quite resounded. "She gave me a ten-pound note."
At that, still looking out, Sir Claude, at the window, laughed loud. "So you see, Maisie, we've not quite lost it!"
(241) "Oh no," Maisie responded. "Isn't that too charming?" She smiled at Mrs. Wix. "We know all about it." Then on her friend's showing such blankness as was compatible with such a flush she pursued: "She does want me to have you?"
Mrs. Wix showed a final hesitation, which, however, while Sir Claude drummed on the window-pane, she presently surmounted. It came to Maisie that in spite of his drumming and of his not turning round he was really so much interested as to leave himself in a manner in her hands; which somehow suddenly seemed to her a greater proof than he could have given by interfering. "She wants me to have YOU!" Mrs. Wix declared.
Maisie answered this bang at Sir Claude. "Then that's nice for all of us."
Of course it was, his continued silence sufficiently admitted while Mrs. Wix rose from her chair and, as if to take more of a stand, placed herself, not without majesty, before the fire. The incongruity of her smartness, the circumference of her stiff frock, presented her as really more ready for Paris than any of them. She also gazed hard at Sir Claude's back. "Your wife was different from anything she had ever shown me. She recognises certain proprieties."
"Which? Do you happen to remember?" Sir Claude asked.
Mrs. Wix's reply was prompt. "The importance for Maisie of a gentlewoman, of some one who's not--well, so bad! She objects to a mere maid, and I don't in the least mind telling you what she wants me to do." One thing was clear--Mrs. Wix was now (242) bold enough for anything. "She wants me to persuade you to get rid of the person from Mrs. Beale's."
Maisie waited for Sir Claude to pronounce on this; then she could only understand that he on his side waited, and she felt particularly full of common sense as she met her responsibility. "Oh I don't want Susan with YOU!" she said to Mrs. Wix.
Sir Claude, always from the window, approved. "That's quite simple. I'll take her back."
Mrs. Wix gave a positive jump; Maisie caught her look of alarm. " 'Take' her? You don't mean to go over on purpose?"
Sir Claude said nothing for a moment; after which, "Why shouldn't I leave you here?" he enquired.
Maisie, at this, sprang up. "Oh do, oh do, oh do!" The next moment she was interlaced with Mrs. Wix, and the two, on the hearth-rug, their eyes in each other's eyes, considered the plan with intensity. Then Maisie felt the difference of what they saw in it.
"She can surely go back alone: why should you put yourself out?" Mrs. Wix demanded.
"Oh she's an idiot--she's incapable. If anything should happen to her it would be awkward: it was I who brought her--without her asking. If I turn her away I ought with my own hand to place her again exactly where I found her."
Mrs. Wix's face appealed to Maisie on such folly, and her manner, as directed to their companion, had, to her pupil's surprise, an unprecedented firmness. "Dear Sir Claude, I think you're perverse. Pay her fare and give her a sovereign. She has had an experience (243) that she never dreamed of and that will be an advantage to her through life. If she goes wrong on the way it will be simply because she wants to, and, with her expenses and her remuneration--make it even what you like!--you'll have treated her as handsomely as you always treat every one."
This was a new tone--as new as Mrs. Wix's cap; and it could strike a young person with a sharpened sense for latent meanings as the upshot of a relation that had taken on a new character. It brought out for Maisie how much more even than she had guessed her friends were fighting side by side. At the same time it needed so definite a justification that as Sir Claude now at last did face them she at first supposed him merely resentful of excessive familiarity. She was therefore yet more puzzled to see him show his serene beauty untroubled, as well as an equal interest in a matter quite distinct from any freedom but her ladyship's. "Did my wife come alone?" He could ask even that good-humouredly.
"When she called on me?" Mrs. Wix WAS red now: his good humour wouldn't keep down her colour, which for a minute glowed there like her ugly honesty. "No--there was some one in the cab." The only attenuation she could think of was after a minute to add: "But they didn't come up."
Sir Claude broke into a laugh--Maisie herself could guess what it was at: while he now walked about, still laughing, and at the fireplace gave a gay kick to a displaced log, she felt more vague about almost everything than about the drollery of such a "they." She in fact could scarce have told you if it (244) was to deepen or to cover the joke that she bethought herself to observe: "Perhaps it was her maid."
Mrs. Wix gave her a look that at any rate deprecated the wrong tone. "It was not her maid."
"Do you mean there are this time two?" Sir Claude asked as if he hadn't heard.
"Two maids?" Maisie went on as if she might assume he had.
The reproach of the straighteners darkened; but Sir Claude cut across it with a sudden: "See here; what do you mean? And what do you suppose SHE meant?"
Mrs. Wix let him for a moment, in silence, understand that the answer to his question, if he didn't take care, might give him more than he wanted. It was as if, with this scruple, she measured and adjusted all she gave him in at last saying: "What she meant was to make me know that you're definitely free. To have that straight from her was a joy I of course hadn't hoped for: it made the assurance, and my delight at it, a thing I could really proceed upon. You already know now certainly I'd have started even if she hadn't pressed me; you already know what, so long, we've been looking for and what, as soon as she told me of her step taken at Folkestone, I recognised with rapture that we HAVE. It's your freedom that makes me right"--she fairly bristled with her logic. "But I don't mind telling you that it's her action that makes me happy!"
"Her action?" Sir Claude echoed. "Why, my dear woman, her action is just a hideous crime. It happens to satisfy our sympathies in a way that's (245) quite delicious; but that doesn't in the least alter the fact that it's the most abominable thing ever done. She has chucked our friend here overboard not a bit less than if she had shoved her, shrieking and pleading, out of that window and down two floors to the paving-stones."
Maisie surveyed serenely the parties to the discussion. "Oh your friend here, dear Sir Claude, doesn't plead and shriek!"
He looked at her a moment. "Never. Never. That's one, only one, but charming so far as it goes, of about a hundred things we love her for." Then he pursued to Mrs. Wix: "What I can't for the life of me make out is what Ida is REALLY up to, what game she was playing in turning to you with that cursed cheek after the beastly way she has used you. Where--to explain her at all--does she fancy she can presently, when we least expect it, take it out of us?"
"She doesn't fancy anything, nor want anything out of any one. Her cursed cheek, as you call it, is the best thing I've ever seen in her. I don't care a fig for the beastly way she used me--I forgive it all a thousand times over!" Mrs. Wix raised her voice as she had never raised it; she quite triumphed in her lucidity. "I understand her, I almost admire her!" she quavered. She spoke as if this might practically suffice; yet in charity to fainter lights she threw out an explanation. "As I've said, she was different; upon my word I wouldn't have known her. She had a glimmering, she had an instinct; they brought her. It was a kind of happy thought, and if you couldn't have supposed she would ever have had such a thing, (246) why of course I quite agree with you. But she did have it! There!"
Maisie could feel again how a certain rude rightness in this plea might have been found exasperating; but as she had often watched Sir Claude in apprehension of displeasures that didn't come, so now, instead of saying "Oh hell!" as her father used, she observed him only to take refuge in a question that at the worst was abrupt.
"Who IS it this time, do you know?"
Mrs. Wix tried blind dignity. "Who is what, Sir Claude?"
"The man who stands the cabs. Who was in the one that waited at your door?"
At this challenge she faltered so long that her young friend's pitying conscience gave her a hand. "It wasn't the Captain."
This good intention, however, only converted the excellent woman's scruple to a more ambiguous stare; besides of course making Sir Claude go off. Mrs. Wix fairly appealed to him. "Must I really tell you?"
His amusement continued. "Did she make you promise not to?"
Mrs. Wix looked at him still harder. "I mean before Maisie."
Sir Claude laughed again. "Why SHE can't hurt him!"
Maisie felt herself, as it passed, brushed by the light humour of this. "Yes, I can't hurt him."
The straighteners again roofed her over; after which they seemed to crack with the explosion of their (247) wearer's honesty. Amid the flying splinters Mrs. Wix produced a name. "Mr. Tischbein."
There was for an instant a silence that, under Sir Claude's influence and while he and Maisie looked at each other, suddenly pretended to be that of gravity. "We don't know Mr. Tischbein, do we, dear?"
Maisie gave the point all needful thought. "No, I can't place Mr. Tischbein."
It was a passage that worked visibly on their friend. "You must pardon me, Sir Claude," she said with an austerity of which the note was real, "if I thank God to your face that he has in his mercy--I mean his mercy to our charge--allowed me to achieve this act." She gave out a long puff of pain. "It was time!" Then as if still more to point the moral: "I said just now I understood your wife. I said just now I admired her. I stand to it: I did both of those things when I saw how even SHE, poor thing, saw. If you want the dots on the i's you shall have them. What she came to me for, in spite of everything, was that I'm just"--she quavered it out--"well, just clean! What she saw for her daughter was that there must at last be a DECENT person!"
Maisie was quick enough to jump a little at the sound of this implication that such a person was what Sir Claude was not; the next instant, however, she more profoundly guessed against whom the discrimination was made. She was therefore left the more surprised at the complete candour with which he embraced the worst. "If she's bent on decent persons why has she given her to ME? You don't call me a decent person, and I'll do Ida the justice that (248) SHE never did. I think I'm as indecent as any one and that there's nothing in my behaviour that makes my wife's surrender a bit less ignoble!"
"Don't speak of your behaviour!" Mrs. Wix cried. "Don't say such horrible things; they're false and they're wicked and I forbid you! It's to KEEP you decent that I'm here and that I've done everything I have done. It's to save you--I won't say from yourself, because in yourself you're beautiful and good! It's to save you from the worst person of all. I haven't, after all, come over to be afraid to speak of her! That's the person in whose place her ladyship wants such a person as even me; and if she thought herself, as she as good as told me, not fit for Maisie's company, it's not, as you may well suppose, that she may make room for Mrs. Beale!"
Maisie watched his face as it took this outbreak, and the most she saw in it was that it turned a little white. That indeed made him look, as Susan Ash would have said, queer; and it was perhaps a part of the queerness that he intensely smiled. "You're too hard on Mrs. Beale. She has great merits of her own."
Mrs. Wix, at this, instead of immediately replying, did what Sir Claude had been doing before: she moved across to the window and stared a while into the storm. There was for a minute, to Maisie's sense, a hush that resounded with wind and rain. Sir Claude, in spite of these things, glanced about for his hat; on which Maisie spied it first and, making a dash for it, held it out to him. He took it with a gleam of a "thank-you" in his face, and then (249) something moved her still to hold the other side of the brim; so that, united by their grasp of this object, they stood some seconds looking many things at each other. By this time Mrs. Wix had turned round. "Do you mean to tell me," she demanded, "that you ARE going back?"
"To Mrs. Beale?" Maisie surrendered his hat, and there was something that touched her in the embarrassed, almost humiliated way their companion's challenge made him turn it round and round. She had seen people do that who, she was sure, did nothing else that Sir Claude did. "I can't just say, my dear thing. We'll see about it--we'll talk of it to-morrow. Meantime I must get some air."
Mrs. Wix, with her back to the window, threw up her head to a height that, still for a moment, had the effect of detaining him. "All the air in France, Sir Claude, won't, I think, give you the courage to deny that you're simply afraid of her!"
Oh this time he did look queer; Maisie had no need of Susan's vocabulary to note it! It would have come to her of itself as, with his hand on the door, he turned his eyes from his stepdaughter to her governess and then back again. Resting on Maisie's, though for ever so short a time, there was something they gave up to her and tried to explain. His lips, however, explained nothing; they only surrendered to Mrs. Wix. "Yes. I'm simply afraid of her!" He opened the door and passed out.
It brought back to Maisie his confession of fear of her mother; it made her stepmother then the second lady about whom he failed of the particular virtue (250) that was supposed most to mark a gentleman. In fact there were three of them, if she counted in Mrs. Wix, before whom he had undeniably quailed. Well, his want of valour was but a deeper appeal to her tenderness. To thrill with response to it she had only to remember all the ladies she herself had, as they called it, funked.
(251) Chapter 24
It continued to rain so hard that our young lady's private dream of explaining the Continent to their visitor had to contain a provision for some adequate treatment of the weather. At the table d'hote that evening she threw out a variety of lights: this was the second ceremony of the sort she had sat through, and she would have neglected her privilege and dishonoured her vocabulary--which indeed consisted mainly of the names of dishes--if she had not been proportionately ready to dazzle with interpretations. Preoccupied and overawed, Mrs. Wix was apparently dim: she accepted her pupil's version of the mysteries of the _menu_ in a manner that might have struck the child as the depression of a credulity conscious not so much of its needs as of its dimensions. Maisie was soon enough--though it scarce happened before bedtime--confronted again with the different sort of programme for which she reserved her criticism. They remounted together to their sitting-room while Sir Claude, who said he would join them later, remained below to smoke and to converse with the old acquaintances that he met wherever he turned. He had proposed his companions, for coffee, the enjoyment of the salon de lecture, but Mrs. Wix had replied promptly and with something of an air that it struck her their own apartments offered them every convenience. They offered the good lady herself, Maisie (252) could immediately observe, not only that of this rather grand reference, which, already emulous, so far as it went, of her pupil, she made as if she had spent her life in salons; but that of a stiff French sofa where she could sit and stare at the faint French lamp, in default of the French clock that had stopped, as for some account of the time Sir Claude would so markedly interpose. Her demeanour accused him so directly of hovering beyond her reach that Maisie sought to divert her by a report of Susan's quaint attitude on the matter of their conversation after lunch. Maisie had mentioned to the young woman for sympathy's sake the plan for her relief, but her disapproval of alien ways appeared, strange to say, only to prompt her to hug her gloom; so that between Mrs. Wix's effect of displacing her and the visible stiffening of her back the child had the sense of a double office and enlarged play for pacific powers.
These powers played to no great purpose, it was true, in keeping before Mrs. Wix the vision of Sir Claude's perversity, which hung there in the pauses of talk and which he himself, after unmistakeable delays, finally made quite lurid by bursting in--it was near ten o'clock--with an object held up in his hand. She knew before he spoke what it was; she knew at least from the underlying sense of all that, since the hour spent after the Exhibition with her father, had not sprung up to reinstate Mr. Farange--she knew it meant a triumph for Mrs. Beale. The mere present sight of Sir Claude's face caused her on the spot to drop straight through her last impression of Mr. Farange a plummet that reached still deeper (253) down than the security of these days of flight. She had wrapped that impression in silence--a silence that had parted with half its veil to cover also, from the hour of Sir Claude's advent, the image of Mr. Farange's wife. But if the object in Sir Claude's hand revealed itself as a letter which he held up very high, so there was something in his mere motion that laid Mrs. Beale again bare. "Here we are!" he cried almost from the door, shaking his trophy at them and looking from one to the other. Then he came straight to Mrs. Wix; he had pulled two papers out of the envelope and glanced at them again to see which was which. He thrust one out open to Mrs. Wix. "Read that." She looked at him hard, as if in fear: it was impossible not to see he was excited. Then she took the letter, but it was not her face that Maisie watched while she read. Neither, for that matter, was it this countenance that Sir Claude scanned: he stood before the fire and, more calmly, now that he had acted, communed in silence with his stepdaughter.
The silence was in truth quickly broken; Mrs. Wix rose to her feet with the violence of the sound she emitted. The letter had dropped from her and lay upon the floor; it had made her turn ghastly white and she was speechless with the effect of it. "It's too abominable--it's too unspeakable!" she then cried.
"Isn't it a charming thing?" Sir Claude asked. "It has just arrived, enclosed in a word of her own. She sends it on to me with the remark that comment's superfluous. I really think it is. That's all you can say."
(254) "She oughtn't to pass such a horror about," said Mrs. Wix. "She ought to put it straight in the fire."
"My dear woman, she's not such a fool! It's much too precious." He had picked the letter up and he gave it again a glance of complacency which produced a light in his face. "Such a document"--he considered, then concluded with a slight drop--"such a document is, in fine, a basis!"
"A basis for what?"
"Hers?" Mrs. Wix's voice had become outright the voice of derision. "How can SHE proceed?"
Sir Claude turned it over. "How can she get rid of him? Well--she IS rid of him."
"Not legally." Mrs. Wix had never looked to her pupil so much as if she knew what she was talking about.
"I dare say," Sir Claude laughed; "but she's not a bit less deprived than I!"
"Of the power to get a divorce? It's just your want of the power that makes the scandal of your connexion with her. Therefore it's just her want of it that makes that of hers with you. That's all I contend!" Mrs. Wix concluded with an unparalleled neigh of battle. Oh she did know what she was talking about!
Maisie had meanwhile appealed mutely to Sir Claude, who judged it easier to meet what she didn't say than to meet what Mrs. Wix did.
"It's a letter to Mrs. Beale from your father, my dear, written from Spa and making the rupture between them perfectly irrevocable. It lets her know, and not in pretty language, that, as we technically say, (255) he deserts her. It puts an end for ever to their relations." He ran his eyes over it again, then appeared to make up his mind. "In fact it concerns you, Maisie, so nearly and refers to you so particularly that I really think you ought to see the terms in which this new situation is created for you." And he held out the letter.
Mrs. Wix, at this, pounced upon it; she had grabbed it too soon even for Maisie to become aware of being rather afraid of it. Thrusting it instantly behind her she positively glared at Sir Claude. "See it, wretched man?--the innocent child SEE such a thing? I think you must be mad, and she shall not have a glimpse of it while I'm here to prevent!"
The breadth of her action had made Sir Claude turn red--he even looked a little foolish. "You think it's too bad, eh? But it's precisely because it's bad that it seemed to me it would have a lesson and a virtue for her."
Maisie could do a quick enough justice to his motive to be able clearly to interpose. She fairly smiled at him. "I assure you I can quite believe how bad it is!" She thought of something, kept it back a moment, and then spoke. "I know what's in it!"
He of course burst out laughing and, while Mrs. Wix groaned an "Oh heavens!" replied: "You wouldn't say that, old boy, if you did! The point I make is," he continued to Mrs. Wix with a blandness now re-established--"the point I make is simply that it sets Mrs. Beale free."
She hung fire but an instant. "Free to live with YOU?"
(256) "Free not to live, not to pretend to live, with her husband."
"Ah they're mighty different things!"--a truth as to which her earnestness could now with a fine inconsequent look invite the participation of the child.
Before Maisie could commit herself, however, the ground was occupied by Sir Claude, who, as he stood before their visitor with an expression half rueful, half persuasive, rubbed his hand sharply up and down the back of his head. "Then why the deuce do you grant so--do you, I may even say, rejoice so--that by the desertion of my own precious partner I'm free?"
Mrs. Wix met this challenge first with silence, then with a demonstration the most extraordinary, the most unexpected. Maisie could scarcely believe her eyes as she saw the good lady, with whom she had associated no faintest shade of any art of provocation, actually, after an upward grimace, give Sir Claude a great giggling insinuating naughty slap. "You wretch--you KNOW why!" And she turned away. The face that with this movement she left him to present to Maisie was to abide with his stepdaughter as the very image of stupefaction; but the pair lacked time to communicate either amusement or alarm before their admonisher was upon them again. She had begun in fact to show infinite variety and she flashed about with a still quicker change of tone. "Have you brought me that thing as a pretext for your going over?"
Sir Claude braced himself. "I can't, after such news, in common decency not go over. I mean, don't (257) you know, in common courtesy and humanity. My dear lady, you can't chuck a woman that way, especially taking the moment when she has been most insulted and wronged. A fellow must behave like a gentleman, damn it, dear good Mrs. Wix. We didn't come away, we two, to hang right on, you know: it was only to try our paces and just put in a few days that might prove to every one concerned that we're in earnest. It's exactly because we're in earnest that, dash it, we needn't be so awfully particular. I mean, don't you know, we needn't be so awfully afraid." He showed a vivacity, an intensity of argument, and if Maisie counted his words she was all the more ready to swallow after a single swift gasp those that, the next thing, she became conscious he paused for a reply to. "We didn't come, old girl, did we," he pleaded straight, "to stop right away for ever and put it all in NOW?"
Maisie had never doubted she could be heroic for him. "Oh no!" It was as if she had been shocked at the bare thought. "We're just taking it as we find it." She had a sudden inspiration, which she backed up with a smile. "We're just seeing what we can afford." She had never yet in her life made any claim for herself, but she hoped that this time, frankly, what she was doing would somehow be counted to her. Indeed she felt Sir Claude WAS counting it, though she was afraid to look at him--afraid she should show him tears. She looked at Mrs. Wix; she reached her maximum. "I don't think I ought to be bad to Mrs. Beale."
She heard, on this, a deep sound, something inarticulate (258) and sweet, from Sir Claude; but tears were what Mrs. Wix didn't scruple to show. "Do you think you ought to be bad to ME?" The question was the more disconcerting that Mrs. Wix's emotion didn't deprive her of the advantage of her effect. "If you see that woman again you're lost!" she declared to their companion.
Sir Claude looked at the moony globe of the lamp; he seemed to see for an instant what seeing Mrs. Beale would consist of. It was also apparently from this vision that he drew strength to return: "Her situation, by what has happened, is completely changed; and it's no use your trying to prove to me that I needn't take any account of that."
"If you see that woman you're lost!" Mrs. Wix with greater force repeated.
"Do you think she'll not let me come back to you? My dear lady, I leave you here, you and Maisie, as a hostage to fortune, and I promise you by all that's sacred that I shall be with you again at the very latest on Saturday. I provide you with funds; I install you in these lovely rooms; I arrange with the people here that you be treated with every attention and supplied with every luxury. The weather, after this, will mend; it will be sure to be exquisite. You'll both be as free as air and you can roam all over the place and have tremendous larks. You shall have a carriage to drive you; the whole house shall be at your call. You'll have a magnificent position." He paused, he looked from one of his companions to the other as to see the impression he had made. Whether or no he judged it adequate he subjoined after a moment: (259) "And you'll oblige me above all by not making a fuss."
Maisie could only answer for the impression on herself, though indeed from the heart even of Mrs. Wix's rigour there floated to her sense a faint fragrance of depraved concession. Maisie had her dumb word for the show such a speech could make, for the irresistible charm it could take from his dazzling sincerity; and before she could do anything but blink at excess of light she heard this very word sound on Mrs. Wix's lips, just as if the poor lady had guessed it and wished, snatching it from her, to blight it like a crumpled flower. "You're dreadful, you're terrible, for you know but too well that it's not a small thing to me that you should address me in terms that are princely!" Princely was what he stood there and looked and sounded; that was what Maisie for the occasion found herself reduced to simple worship of him for being. Yet strange to say too, as Mrs. Wix went on, an echo rang within her that matched the echo she had herself just produced. "How much you must WANT to see her to say such things as that and to be ready to do so much for the poor little likes of Maisie and me! She has a hold on you, and you know it, and you want to feel it again and--God knows, or at least i do, what's your motive and desire--enjoy it once more and give yourself up to it! It doesn't matter if it's one day or three: enough is as good as a feast and the lovely time you'll have with her is something you're willing to pay for! I dare say you'd like me to believe that your pay is to get her to give you up; but that's a matter on which (260) I strongly urge you not to put down your money in advance. Give HER up first. Then pay her what you please!"
Sir Claude took this to the end, though there were things in it that made him colour, called into his face more of the apprehension than Maisie had ever perceived there of a particular sort of shock. She had an odd sense that it was the first time she had seen any one but Mrs. Wix really and truly scandalised, and this fed her inference, which grew and grew from moment to moment, that Mrs. Wix was proving more of a force to reckon with than either of them had allowed so much room for. It was true that, long before, she had obtained a "hold" of him, as she called it, different in kind from that obtained by Mrs. Beale and originally by her ladyship. But Maisie could quite feel with him now that he had really not expected this advantage to be driven so home. Oh they hadn't at all got to where Mrs. Wix would stop, for the next minute she was driving harder than ever. It was the result of his saying with a certain dryness, though so kindly that what most affected Maisie in it was his patience: "My dear friend, it's simply a matter in which I must judge for myself. You've judged FOR me, I know, a good deal, of late, in a way that I appreciate, I assure you, down to the ground. But you can't do it always; no one can do that for another, don't you see, in every case. There are exceptions, particular cases that turn up and that are awfully delicate. It would be too easy if I could shift it all off on you: it would be allowing you to incur an amount of responsibility that I should simply become (261) quite ashamed of. You'll find, I'm sure, that you'll have quite as much as you'll enjoy if you'll be so good as to accept the situation as circumstances happen to make it for you and to stay here with our friend, till I rejoin you, on the footing of as much pleasantness and as much comfort--and I think I have a right to add, to both of you, of as much faith in ME--as possible."
Oh he was princely indeed: that came out more and more with every word he said and with the particular way he said it, and Maisie could feel his monitress stiffen almost with anguish against the increase of his spell and then hurl herself as a desperate defence from it into the quite confessed poorness of violence, of iteration. "You're afraid of her--afraid, afraid, afraid! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!" Mrs. Wix wailed it with a high quaver, then broke down into a long shudder of helplessness and woe. The next minute she had flung herself again on the lean sofa and had burst into a passion of tears.
Sir Claude stood and looked at her a moment; he shook his head slowly, altogether tenderly. "I've already admitted it--I'm in mortal terror; so we'll let that settle the question. I think you had best go to bed," he added; "you've had a tremendous day and you must both be tired to death. I shall not expect you to concern yourselves in the morning with my movements. There's an early boat on; I shall have cleared out before you're up; and I shall moreover have dealt directly and most effectively, I assure you, with the haughty but not quite hopeless Miss Ash." He turned to his stepdaughter as if at once (262) to take leave of her and give her a sign of how, through all tension and friction, they were still united in such a way that she at least needn't worry. "Maisie boy!"--he opened his arms to her. With her culpable lightness she flew into them and, while he kissed her, chose the soft method of silence to satisfy him, the silence that after battles of talk was the best balm she could offer his wounds. They held each other long enough to reaffirm intensely their vows; after which they were almost forced apart by Mrs. Wix's jumping to her feet.
Her jump, either with a quick return or with a final lapse of courage, was also to supplication almost abject. "I beseech you not to take a step so miserable and so fatal. I know her but too well, even if you jeer at me for saying it; little as I've seen her I know her, I know her. I know what she'll do--I see it as I stand here. Since you're afraid of her it's the mercy of heaven. Don't, for God's sake, be afraid to show it, to profit by it and to arrive at the very safety that it gives you. I'M not afraid of her, I assure you; you must already have seen for yourself that there's nothing I'm afraid of now. Let me go to her--I'LL settle her and I'll take that woman back without a hair of her touched. Let me put in the two or three days--let me wind up the connexion. You stay here with Maisie, with the carriage and the larks and the luxury; then I'll return to you and we'll go off together--we'll live together without a cloud. Take me, take me," she went on and on--the tide of her eloquence was high. "Here I am; I know what I am and what I ain't; but I say boldly (263) to the face of you both that I'll do better for you, far, than ever she'll even try to. I say it to yours, Sir Claude, even though I owe you the very dress on my back and the very shoes on my feet. I owe you everything--that's just the reason; and to pay it back, in profusion, what can that be but what I want? Here I am, here I am!"--she spread herself into an exhibition that, combined with her intensity and her decorations, appeared to suggest her for strange offices and devotions, for ridiculous replacements and substitutions. She manipulated her gown as she talked, she insisted on the items of her debt. "I have nothing of my own, I know--no money, no clothes, no appearance, no anything, nothing but my hold of this little one truth, which is all in the world I can bribe you with: that the pair of you are more to me than all besides, and that if you'll let me help you and save you, make what you both want possible in the one way it CAN be, why, I'll work myself to the bone in your service!"
Sir Claude wavered there without an answer to this magnificent appeal; he plainly cast about for one, and in no small agitation and pain. He addressed himself in his quest, however, only to vague quarters until he met again, as he so frequently and actively met it, the more than filial gaze of his intelligent little charge. That gave him--poor plastic and dependent male--his issue. If she was still a child she was yet of the sex that could help him out. He signified as much by a renewed invitation to an embrace. She freshly sprang to him and again they inaudibly conversed. "Be nice to her, be nice to (264) her," he at last distinctly articulated; "be nice to her as you've not even been to ME!" On which, without another look at Mrs. Wix, he somehow got out of the room, leaving Maisie under the slight oppression of these words as well as of the idea that he had unmistakeably once more dodged.
(265) Chapter 25
Every single thing he had prophesied came so true that it was after all no more than fair to expect quite as much for what he had as good as promised. His pledges they could verify to the letter, down to his very guarantee that a way would be found with Miss Ash. Roused in the summer dawn and vehemently squeezed by that interesting exile, Maisie fell back upon her couch with a renewed appreciation of his policy, a memento of which, when she rose later on to dress, glittered at her from the carpet in the shape of a sixpence that had overflowed from Susan's pride of possession. Sixpences really, for the forty-eight hours that followed, seemed to abound in her life; she fancifully computed the number of them represented by such a period of "larks." The number was not kept down, she presently noticed, by any scheme of revenge for Sir Claude's flight which should take on Mrs. Wix's part the form of a refusal to avail herself of the facilities he had so bravely ordered. It was in fact impossible to escape them; it was in the good lady's own phrase ridiculous to go on foot when you had a carriage prancing at the door. Everything about them pranced: the very waiters even as they presented the dishes to which, from a similar sense of the absurdity of perversity, Mrs. Wix helped herself with a freedom that spoke to Maisie quite as much of her depletion as of her (266) logic. Her appetite was a sign to her companion of a great many things and testified no less on the whole to her general than to her particular condition. She had arrears of dinner to make up, and it was touching that in a dinnerless state her moral passion should have burned so clear. She partook largely as a refuge from depression, and yet the opportunity to partake was just a mark of the sinister symptoms that depressed her. The affair was in short a combat, in which the baser element triumphed, between her refusal to be bought off and her consent to be clothed and fed. It was not at any rate to be gainsaid that there was comfort for her in the developments of France; comfort so great as to leave Maisie free to take with her all the security for granted and brush all the danger aside. That was the way to carry out in detail Sir Claude's injunction to be "nice"; that was the way, as well, to look, with her, in a survey of the pleasures of life abroad, straight over the head of any doubt.
They shrank at last, all doubts, as the weather cleared up: it had an immense effect on them and became quite as lovely as Sir Claude had engaged. This seemed to have put him so into the secret of things, and the joy of the world so waylaid the steps of his friends, that little by little the spirit of hope filled the air and finally took possession of the scene. To drive on the long cliff was splendid, but it was perhaps better still to creep in the shade--for the sun was strong--along the many-coloured and many-odoured _port_ and through the streets in which, to English eyes, everything that was the same was a (267) mystery and everything that was different a joke. Best of all was to continue the creep up the long Grand' Rue to the gate of the haute ville and, passing beneath it, mount to the quaint and crooked rampart, with its rows of trees, its quiet corners and friendly benches where brown old women in such white-frilled caps and such long gold earrings sat and knitted or snoozed, its little yellow-faced houses that looked like the homes of misers or of priests and its dark chateau where small soldiers lounged on the bridge that stretched across an empty moat and military washing hung from the windows of towers. This was a part of the place that could lead Maisie to enquire if it didn't just meet one's idea of the middle ages; and since it was rather a satisfaction than a shock to perceive, and not for the first time, the limits in Mrs. Wix's mind of the historic imagination, that only added one more to the variety of kinds of insight that she felt it her own present mission to show. They sat together on the old grey bastion; they looked down on the little new town which seemed to them quite as old, and across at the great dome and the high gilt Virgin of the church that, as they gathered, was famous and that pleased them by its unlikeness to any place in which they had worshipped. They wandered in this temple afterwards and Mrs. Wix confessed that for herself she had probably made a fatal mistake early in life in not being a Catholic. Her confession in its turn caused Maisie to wonder rather interestedly what degree of lateness it was that shut the door against an escape from such an error. They went back to the rampart on the second morning(268)--the spot on which they appeared to have come furthest in the journey that was to separate them from everything objectionable in the past: it gave them afresh the impression that had most to do with their having worked round to a confidence that on Maisie's part was determined and that she could see to be on her companion's desperate. She had had for many hours the sense of showing Mrs. Wix so much that she was comparatively slow to become conscious of being at the same time the subject of a like aim. The business went the faster, however, from the moment she got her glimpse of it; it then fell into its place in her general, her habitual view of the particular phenomenon that, had she felt the need of words for it, she might have called her personal relation to her knowledge. This relation had never been so lively as during the time she waited with her old governess for Sir Claude's reappearance, and what made it so was exactly that Mrs. Wix struck her as having a new suspicion of it. Mrs. Wix had never yet had a suspicion--this was certain--so calculated to throw her pupil, in spite of the closer union of such adventurous hours, upon the deep defensive. Her pupil made out indeed as many marvels as she had made out on the rush to Folkestone; and if in Sir Claude's company on that occasion Mrs. Wix was the constant implication, so in Mrs. Wix's, during these hours, Sir Claude was--and most of all through long pauses--the perpetual, the insurmountable theme. It all took them back to the first flush of his marriage and to the place he held in the schoolroom at that crisis of love and pain; only he (269) had himself blown to a much bigger balloon the large consciousness he then filled out.
They went through it all again, and indeed while the interval dragged by the very weight of its charm they went, in spite of defences and suspicions, through everything. Their intensified clutch of the future throbbed like a clock ticking seconds; but this was a timepiece that inevitably, as well, at the best, rang occasionally a portentous hour. Oh there were several of these, and two or three of the worst on the old city-wall where everything else so made for peace. There was nothing in the world Maisie more wanted than to be as nice to Mrs. Wix as Sir Claude had desired; but it was exactly because this fell in with her inveterate instinct of keeping the peace that the instinct itself was quickened. From the moment it was quickened, however, it found other work, and that was how, to begin with, she produced the very complication she most sought to avert. What she had essentially done, these days, had been to read the unspoken into the spoken; so that thus, with accumulations, it had become more definite to her that the unspoken was, unspeakably, the completeness of the sacrifice of Mrs. Beale. There were times when every minute that Sir Claude stayed away was like a nail in Mrs. Beale's coffin. That brought back to Maisie--it was a roundabout way--the beauty and antiquity of her connexion with the flower of the Overmores as well as that lady's own grace and charm, her peculiar prettiness and cleverness and even her peculiar tribulations. A hundred things hummed at the back of her head, but two of these (270) were simple enough. Mrs. Beale was by the way, after all, just her stepmother and her relative. She was just--and partly for that very reason--Sir Claude's greatest intimate ("lady-intimate" was Maisie's term) so that what together they were on Mrs. Wix's prescription to give up and break short off with was for one of them his particular favourite and for the other her father's wife. Strangely, indescribably her perception of reasons kept pace with her sense of trouble; but there was something in her that, without a supreme effort not to be shabby, couldn't take the reasons for granted. What it comes to perhaps for ourselves is that, disinherited and denuded as we have seen her, there still lingered in her life an echo of parental influence--she was still reminiscent of one of the sacred lessons of home. It was the only one she retained, but luckily she retained it with force. She enjoyed in a word an ineffaceable view of the fact that there were things papa called mamma and mamma called papa a low sneak for doing or for not doing. Now this rich memory gave her a name that she dreaded to invite to the lips of Mrs. Beale: she should personally wince so just to hear it. The very sweetness of the foreign life she was steeped in added with each hour of Sir Claude's absence to the possibility of such pangs. She watched beside Mrs. Wix the great golden Madonna, and one of the ear-ringed old women who had been sitting at the end of their bench got up and pottered away.
"Adieu mesdames!" said the old woman in a little cracked civil voice--a demonstration by which our friends were so affected that they bobbed up and almost (271) curtseyed to her. They subsided again, and it was shortly after, in a summer hum of French insects and a phase of almost somnolent reverie, that Maisie most had the vision of what it was to shut out from such a perspective so appealing a participant. It had not yet appeared so vast as at that moment, this prospect of statues shining in the blue and of courtesy in romantic forms.
"Why after all should we have to choose between you? Why shouldn't we be four?" she finally demanded.
Mrs. Wix gave the jerk of a sleeper awakened or the start even of one who hears a bullett [sic] whiz at the flag of truce. Her stupefaction at such a breach of the peace delayed for a moment her answer. "Four improprieties, do you mean? Because two of us happen to be decent people! Do I gather you to wish that I should stay on with you even if that woman IS capable--?"
Maisie took her up before she could further phrase Mrs. Beale's capability. "Stay on as MY companion--yes. Stay on as just what you were at mamma's. Mrs. Beale WOULD let you!" the child said.
Mrs. Wix had by this time fairly sprung to her arms. "And who, I'd like to know, would let Mrs. Beale? Do you mean, little unfortunate, that YOU would?"
"Why not, if now she's free?"
"Free? Are you imitating HIM? Well, if Sir Claude's old enough to know better, upon my word I think it's right to treat you as if you also were. You'll have to, at any rate--to know better--if (272) that's the line you're proposing to take." Mrs. Wix had never been so harsh; but on the other hand Maisie could guess that she herself had never appeared so wanton. What was underlying, however, rather overawed than angered her; she felt she could still insist--not for contradiction, but for ultimate calm. Her wantonness meanwhile continued to work upon her friend, who caught again, on the rebound, the sound of deepest provocation. "Free, free, free? If she's as free as YOU are, my dear, she's free enough, to be sure!"
"As I am?"--Maisie, after reflexion and despite whatever of portentous this seemed to convey, risked a critical echo.
"Well," said Mrs. Wix, "nobody, you know, is free to commit a crime."
"A crime!" The word had come out in a way that made the child sound it again.
"You'd commit as great a one as their own--and so should I--if we were to condone their immorality by our presence."
Maisie waited a little; this seemed so fiercely conclusive. "Why is it immorality?" she nevertheless presently enquired.
Her companion now turned upon her with a reproach softer because it was somehow deeper. "You're too unspeakable! Do you know what we're talking about?"
In the interest of ultimate calm Maisie felt that she must be above all clear. "Certainly; about their taking advantage of their freedom."
"Well, to do what?"
(273) "Why, to live with us."
Mrs. Wix's laugh, at this, was literally wild. " 'Us?' Thank you!"
"Then to live with ME."
The words made her friend jump. "You give me up? You break with me for ever? You turn me into the street?"
Maisie, though gasping a little, bore up under the rain of challenges. "Those, it seems to me, are the things you do to ME."
Mrs. Wix made little of her valour. "I can promise you that, whatever I do, I shall never let you out of my sight! You ask me why it's immorality when you've seen with your own eyes that Sir Claude has felt it to be so to that dire extent that, rather than make you face the shame of it, he has for months kept away from you altogether? Is it any more difficult to see that the first time he tries to do his duty he washes his hands of HER--takes you straight away from her?"
Maisie turned this over, but more for apparent consideration than from any impulse to yield too easily. "Yes, I see what you mean. But at that time they weren't free." She felt Mrs. Wix rear up again at the offensive word, but she succeeded in touching her with a remonstrant hand. "I don't think you know how free they've become."
"I know, I believe, at least as much as you do!"
Maisie felt a delicacy but overcame it. "About the Countess?"
"Your father's--temptress?" Mrs. Wix gave her a sidelong squint. "Perfectly. She pays him!"
(274) "Oh DOES she?" At this the child's countenance fell: it seemed to give a reason for papa's behaviour and place it in a more favourable light. She wished to be just. "I don't say she's not generous. She was so to me."
"How, to you?"
"She gave me a lot of money."
Mrs. Wix stared. "And pray what did you do with a lot of money?"
"I gave it to Mrs. Beale."
"And what did Mrs. Beale do with it?"
"She sent it back."
"To the Countess? Gammon!" said Mrs. Wix. She disposed of that plea as effectually as Susan Ash.
"Well, I don't care!" Maisie replied. "What I mean is that you don't know about the rest."
"The rest? What rest?"
Maisie wondered how she could best put it. "Papa kept me there an hour."
"I do know--Sir Claude told me. Mrs. Beale had told him."
Maisie looked incredulity. "How could she--when I didn't speak of it?"
Mrs. Wix was mystified. "Speak of what?"
"Why, of her being so frightful."
"The Countess? Of course she's frightful!" Mrs. Wix returned. After a moment she added: "That's why she pays him."
Maisie pondered. "It's the best thing about her then--if she gives him as much as she gave ME."
"Well, it's not the best thing about HIM! Or rather perhaps it IS too!" Mrs. Wix subjoined.
(275) "But she's awful--really and truly," Maisie went on.
Mrs. Wix arrested her. "You needn't go into details!" It was visibly at variance with this injunction that she yet enquired: "How does that make it any better?"
"Their living with me? Why for the Countess--and for her whiskers!--he has put me off on them. I understood him," Maisie profoundly said.
"I hope then he understood you. It's more than I do!" Mrs. Wix admitted.
This was a real challenge to be plainer, and our young lady immediately became so. "I mean it isn't a crime."
"Why then did Sir Claude steal you away?"
"He didn't steal--he only borrowed me. I knew it wasn't for long," Maisie audaciously professed.
"You must allow me to reply to that," cried Mrs. Wix, "that you knew nothing of the sort, and that you rather basely failed to back me up last night when you pretended so plump that you did! You hoped in fact, exactly as much as I did and as in my senseless passion I even hope now, that this may be the beginning of better things."
Oh yes, Mrs. Wix was indeed, for the first time, sharp; so that there at last stirred in our heroine the sense not so much of being proved disingenuous as of being precisely accused of the meanness that had brought everything down on her through her very desire to shake herself clear of it. She suddenly felt herself swell with a passion of protest. "I never, NEVER hoped I wasn't going again to see Mrs. Beale! (276) I didn't, I didn't, I didn't!" she repeated. Mrs. Wix bounced about with a force of rejoinder of which she also felt that she must anticipate the concussion and which, though the good lady was evidently charged to the brim, hung fire long enough to give time for an aggravation. "She's beautiful and I love her! I love her and she's beautiful!"
"And I'm hideous and you hate ME?" Mrs. Wix fixed her a moment, then caught herself up. "I won't embitter you by absolutely accusing you of that; though, as for my being hideous, it's hardly the first time I've been told so! I know it so well that even if I haven't whiskers--have I?--I dare say there are other ways in which the Countess is a Venus to me! My pretensions must therefore seem to you monstrous--which comes to the same thing as your not liking me. But do you mean to go so far as to tell me that you WANT to live with them in their sin?"
"You know what I want, you know what I want!"--Maisie spoke with the shudder of rising tears.
"Yes, I do; you want me to be as bad as yourself! Well, I won't. There! Mrs. Beale's as bad as your father!" Mrs. Wix went on.
"She's not!--she's not!" her pupil almost shrieked in retort.
"You mean because Sir Claude at least has beauty and wit and grace? But he pays just as the Countess pays!" Mrs. Wix, who now rose as she spoke, fairly revealed a latent cynicism.
It raised Maisie also to her feet; her companion had walked off a few steps and paused. The two looked at each other as they had never looked, and Mrs. Wix (277) seemed to flaunt there in her finery. "Then doesn't he pay YOU too?" her unhappy charge demanded.
At this she bounded in her place. "Oh you incredible little waif!" She brought it out with a wail of violence; after which, with another convulsion, she marched straight away.
Maisie dropped back on the bench and burst into sobs.
(278) Chapter 26
Nothing so dreadful of course could be final or even for many minutes prolonged: they rushed together again too soon for either to feel that either had kept it up, and though they went home in silence it was with a vivid perception for Maisie that her companion's hand had closed upon her. That hand had shown altogether, these twenty-four hours, a new capacity for closing, and one of the truths the child could least resist was that a certain greatness had now come to Mrs. Wix. The case was indeed that the quality of her motive surpassed the sharpness of her angles; both the combination and the singularity of which things, when in the afternoon they used the carriage, Maisie could borrow from the contemplative hush of their grandeur the freedom to feel to the utmost. She still bore the mark of the tone in which her friend had thrown out that threat of never losing sight of her. This friend had been converted in short from feebleness to force; and it was the light of her new authority that showed from how far she had come. The threat in question, sharply exultant, might have produced defiance; but before anything so ugly could happen another process had insidiously forestalled it. The moment at which this process had begun to mature was that of Mrs. Wix's breaking out with a dignity attuned to their own apartments and with an advantage now measurably gained. They had ordered (279) coffee after luncheon, in the spirit of Sir Claude's provision, and it was served to them while they awaited their equipage in the white and gold saloon. It was flanked moreover with a couple of liqueurs, and Maisie felt that Sir Claude could scarce have been taken more at his word had it been followed by anecdotes and cigarettes. The influence of these luxuries was at any rate in the air. It seemed to her while she tiptoed at the chimney-glass, pulling on her gloves and with a motion of her head shaking a feather into place, to have had something to do with Mrs. Wix's suddenly saying: "Haven't you really and truly ANY moral sense?"
Maisie was aware that her answer, though it brought her down to her heels, was vague even to imbecility, and that this was the first time she had appeared to practise with Mrs. Wix an intellectual inaptitude to meet her--the infirmity to which she had owed so much success with papa and mamma. The appearance did her injustice, for it was not less through her candour than through her playfellow's pressure that after this the idea of a moral sense mainly coloured their intercourse. She began, the poor child, with scarcely knowing what it was; but it proved something that, with scarce an outward sign save her surrender to the swing of the carriage, she could, before they came back from their drive, strike up a sort of acquaintance with. The beauty of the day only deepened, and the splendour of the afternoon sea, and the haze of the far headlands, and the taste of the sweet air. It was the coachman indeed who, smiling and cracking his whip, turning in his (280) place, pointing to invisible objects and uttering unintelligible sounds--all, our tourists recognised, strict features of a social order principally devoted to language: it was this polite person, I say, who made their excursion fall so much short that their return left them still a stretch of the long daylight and an hour that, at his obliging suggestion, they spent on foot by the shining sands. Maisie had seen the plage the day before with Sir Claude, but that was a reason the more for showing on the spot to Mrs. Wix that it was, as she said, another of the places on her list and of the things of which she knew the French name. The bathers, so late, were absent and the tide was low; the sea-pools twinkled in the sunset and there were dry places as well, where they could sit again and admire and expatiate: a circumstance that, while they listened to the lap of the waves, gave Mrs. Wix a fresh support for her challenge. "Have you absolutely none at all?"
She had no need now, as to the question itself at least, to be specific; that on the other hand was the eventual result of their quiet conjoined apprehension of the thing that--well, yes, since they must face it--Maisie absolutely and appallingly had so little of. This marked more particularly the moment of the child's perceiving that her friend had risen to a level which might--till superseded at all events--pass almost for sublime. Nothing more remarkable had taken place in the first heat of her own departure, no act of perception less to be overtraced by our rough method, than her vision, the rest of that Boulogne day, of the manner in which she figured. I so (281) despair of courting [sic] her noiseless mental footsteps here that I must crudely give you my word for its being from this time forward a picture literally present to her. Mrs. Wix saw her as a little person knowing so extraordinarily much that, for the account to be taken of it, what she still didn't know would be ridiculous if it hadn't been embarrassing. Mrs. Wix was in truth more than ever qualified to meet embarrassment; I am not sure that Maisie had not even a dim discernment of the queer law of her own life that made her educate to that sort of proficiency those elders with whom she was concerned. She promoted, as it were, their development; nothing could have been more marked for instance than her success in promoting Mrs. Beale's. She judged that if her whole history, for Mrs. Wix, had been the successive stages of her knowledge, so the very climax of the concatenation would, in the same view, be the stage at which the knowledge should overflow. As she was condemned to know more and more, how could it logically stop before she should know Most? It came to her in fact as they sat there on the sands that she was distinctly on the road to know Everything. She had not had governesses for nothing: what in the world had she ever done but learn and learn and learn? She looked at the pink sky with a placid foreboding that she soon should have learnt All. They lingered in the flushed air till at last it turned to grey and she seemed fairly to receive new information from every brush of the breeze. By the time they moved homeward it was as if this inevitability had become for Mrs. Wix a long, tense cord, twitched by a nervous (282) hand, on which the valued pearls of intelligence were to be neatly strung.
In the evening upstairs they had another strange sensation, as to which Maisie couldn't afterwards have told you whether it was bang in the middle or quite at the beginning that her companion sounded with fresh emphasis the note of the moral sense. What mattered was merely that she did exclaim, and again, as at first appeared, most disconnectedly: "God help me, it does seem to peep out!" Oh the queer confusions that had wooed it at last to such peeping! None so queer, however, as the words of woe, and it might verily be said of rage, in which the poor lady bewailed the tragic end of her own rich ignorance. There was a point at which she seized the child and hugged her as close as in the old days of partings and returns; at which she was visibly at a loss how to make up to such a victim for such contaminations: appealing, as to what she had done and was doing, in bewilderment, in explanation, in supplication, for reassurance, for pardon and even outright for pity.
"I don't know what I've said to you, my own: I don't know what I'm saying or what the turn you've given my life has rendered me, heaven forgive me, capable of saying. Have I lost all delicacy, all decency, all measure of how far and how bad? It seems to me mostly that I have, though I'm the last of whom you would ever have thought it. I've just done it for YOU, precious--not to lose you, which would have been worst of all: so that I've had to pay with my own innocence, if you do laugh! for clinging to (283) you and keeping you. Don't let me pay for nothing; don't let me have been thrust for nothing into such horrors and such shames. I never knew anything about them and I never wanted to know! Now I know too much, too much!" the poor woman lamented and groaned. "I know so much that with hearing such talk I ask myself where I am; and with uttering it too, which is worse, say to myself that I'm far, too far, from where I started! I ask myself what I should have thought with my lost one if I had heard myself cross the line. There are lines I've crossed with YOU where I should have fancied I had come to a pretty pass--!" She gasped at the mere supposition. "I've gone from one thing to another, and all for the real love of you; and now what would any one say--I mean any one but THEM--if they were to hear the way I go on? I've had to keep up with you, haven't I?--and therefore what could I do less than look to you to keep up with ME? But it's not THEM that are the worst--by which I mean to say it's not HIM: it's your dreadfully base papa and the one person in the world whom he could have found, I do believe--and she's not the Countess, duck--wickeder than himself. While they were about it at any rate, since they WERE ruining you, they might have done it so as to spare an honest woman. Then I shouldn't have had to do whatever it is that's the worst: throw up at you the badness you haven't taken in, or find my advantage in the vileness you HAVE! What I did lose patience at this morning was at how it was that without your seeming to condemn--for you didn't, you (284) remember!--you yet did seem to KNOW. Thank God, in his mercy, at last, IF you do!"
The night, this time, was warm and one of the windows stood open to the small balcony over the rail of which, on coming up from dinner, Maisie had hung a long time in the enjoyment of the chatter, the lights, the life of the quay made brilliant by the season and the hour. Mrs. Wix's requirements had drawn her in from this posture and Mrs. Wix's embrace had detained her even though midway in the outpouring her confusion and sympathy had permitted, or rather had positively helped, her to disengage herself. But the casement was still wide, the spectacle, the pleasure were still there, and from her place in the room, which, with its polished floor and its panels of elegance, was lighted from without more than from within, the child could still take account of them. She appeared to watch and listen; after which she answered Mrs. Wix with a question. "If I do know--?"
"If you do condemn." The correction was made with some austerity.
It had the effect of causing Maisie to heave a vague sigh of oppression and then after an instant and as if under cover of this ambiguity pass out again upon the balcony. She hung again over the rail; she felt the summer night; she dropped down into the manners of France. There was a cafe below the hotel, before which, with little chairs and tables, people sat on a space enclosed by plants in tubs; and the impression was enriched by the flash of the white aprons of waiters and the music of a man and a woman who, from beyond (285) the precinct, sent up the strum of a guitar and the drawl of a song about "amour." Maisie knew what "amour" meant too, and wondered if Mrs. Wix did: Mrs. Wix remained within, as still as a mouse and perhaps not reached by the performance. After a while, but not till the musicians had ceased and begun to circulate with a little plate, her pupil came back to her. "IS it a crime?" Maisie then asked.
Mrs. Wix was as prompt as if she had been crouching in a lair. "Branded by the Bible."
"Well, he won't commit a crime."
Mrs. Wix looked at her gloomily. "He's committing one now."
"In being with her."
Maisie had it on her tongue's end to return once more: "But now he's free." She remembered, however, in time that one of the things she had known for the last entire hour was that this made no difference. After that, and as if to turn the right way, she was on the point of a blind dash, a weak reversion to the reminder that it might make a difference, might diminish the crime for Mrs. Beale; till such a reflexion was in its order also quashed by the visibility in Mrs. Wix's face of the collapse produced by her inference from her pupil's manner that after all her pains her pupil didn't even yet adequately understand. Never so much as when confronted had Maisie wanted to understand, and all her thought for a minute centred in the effort to come out with something which should be a disproof of her simplicity. "Just TRUST me, dear; that's all!"--she came out (286) finally with that; and it was perhaps a good sign of her action that with a long, impartial moan Mrs. Wix floated her to bed.
There was no letter the next morning from Sir Claude--which Mrs. Wix let out that she deemed the worst of omens; yet it was just for the quieter communion they so got with him that, when after the coffee and rolls which made them more foreign than ever, it came to going forth for fresh drafts upon his credit they wandered again up the hill to the rampart instead of plunging into distraction with the crowd on the sands or into the sea with the semi-nude bathers. They gazed once more at their gilded Virgin; they sank once more upon their battered bench; they felt once more their distance from the Regent's Park. At last Mrs. Wix became definite about their friend's silence. "He IS afraid of her! She has forbidden him to write." The fact of his fear Maisie already knew; but her companion's mention of it had at this moment two unexpected results. The first was her wondering in dumb remonstrance how Mrs. Wix, with a devotion not after all inferior to her own, could put into such an allusion such a grimness of derision; the second was that she found herself suddenly drop into a deeper view of it. She too had been afraid, as we have seen, of the people of whom Sir Claude was afraid, and by that law she had had her due measure of latest apprehension of Mrs. Beale. What occurred at present, however, was that, whereas this sympathy appeared vain as for him, the ground of it loomed dimly as a reason for selfish alarm. That uneasiness had not carried her far before Mrs. Wix spoke again (287) and with an abruptness so great as almost to seem irrelevant. "Has it never occurred to you to be jealous of her?"
It never had in the least; yet the words were scarce in the air before Maisie had jumped at them. She held them well, she looked at them hard; at last she brought out with an assurance which there was no one, alas, but herself to admire: "Well, yes--since you ask me." She debated, then continued: "Lots of times!"
Mrs. Wix glared askance an instant; such approval as her look expressed was not wholly unqualified. It expressed at any rate something that presumably had to do with her saying once more: "Yes. He's afraid of her."
Maisie heard, and it had afresh its effect on her even through the blur of the attention now required by the possibility of that idea of jealousy--a possibility created only by her feeling she had thus found the way to show she was not simple. It struck out of Mrs. Wix that this lady still believed her moral sense to be interested and feigned; so what could be such a gage of her sincerity as a peep of the most restless of the passions? Such a revelation would baffle discouragement, and discouragement was in fact so baffled that, helped in some degree by the mere intensity of their need to hope, which also, according to its nature, sprang from the dark portent of the absent letter, the real pitch of their morning was reached by the note, not of mutual scrutiny, but of unprecedented frankness. There were broodings indeed and silences, and Maisie sank deeper into the vision (288) that for her friend she was, at the most, superficial, and that also, positively, she was the more so the more she tried to appear complete. Was the sum of all knowledge only to know how little in this presence one would ever reach it? The answer to that question luckily lost itself in the brightness suffusing the scene as soon as Maisie had thrown out in regard to Mrs. Beale such a remark as she had never dreamed she should live to make. "If I thought she was unkind to him--I don't know WHAT I should do!"
Mrs. Wix dropped one of her squints; she even confirmed it by a wild grunt. "I know what i should!"
Maisie at this felt that she lagged. "Well, I can think of ONE thing."
Mrs. Wix more directly challenged her. "What is it then?"
Maisie met her expression as if it were a game with forfeits for winking. "I'd KILL her!" That at least, she hoped as she looked away, would guarantee her moral sense. She looked away, but her companion said nothing for so long that she at last turned her head again. Then she saw the straighteners all blurred with tears which after a little seemed to have sprung from her own eyes. There were tears in fact on both sides of the spectacles, and they were even so thick that it was presently all Maisie could do to make out through them that slowly, finally Mrs. Wix put forth a hand. It was the material pressure that settled this and even at the end of some minutes more things besides. It settled in its own way one thing in particular, which, though often, between them, heaven knew, hovered round and hung over, (289) was yet to be established without the shadow of an attenuating smile. Oh there was no gleam of levity, as little of humour as of deprecation, in the long time they now sat together or in the way in which at some unmeasured point of it Mrs. Wix became distinct enough for her own dignity and yet not loud enough for the snoozing old women.
"I adore him. I adore him."
Maisie took it well in; so well that in a moment more she would have answered profoundly: "So do I." But before that moment passed something took place that brought other words to her lips; nothing more, very possibly, than the closer consciousness in her hand of the significance of Mrs. Wix's. Their hands remained linked in unutterable sign of their union, and what Maisie at last said was simply and serenely: "Oh I know!"
Their hands were so linked and their union was so confirmed that it took the far deep note of a bell, borne to them on the summer air, to call them back to a sense of hours and proprieties. They had touched bottom and melted together, but they gave a start at last: the bell was the voice of the inn and the inn was the image of luncheon. They should be late for it; they got up, and their quickened step on the return had something of the swing of confidence. When they reached the hotel the table d'hote had begun; this was clear from the threshold, clear from the absence in the hall and on the stairs of the "personnel," as Mrs. Wix said--she had picked THAT up--all collected in the dining-room. They mounted to their apartments for a brush before the glass, and it was Maisie who, (290) in passing and from a vain impulse, threw open the white and gold door. She was thus first to utter the sound that brought Mrs. Wix almost on top of her, as by the other accident it would have brought her on top of Mrs. Wix. It had at any rate the effect of leaving them bunched together in a strained stare at their new situation. This situation had put on in a flash the bright form of Mrs. Beale: she stood there in her hat and her jacket, amid bags and shawls, smiling and holding out her arms. If she had just arrived it was a different figure from either of the two that for THEIR benefit, wan and tottering and none too soon to save life, the Channel had recently disgorged. She was as lovely as the day that had brought her over, as fresh as the luck and the health that attended her: it came to Maisie on the spot that she was more beautiful than she had ever been. All this was too quick to count, but there was still time in it to give the child the sense of what had kindled the light. That leaped out of the open arms, the open eyes, the open mouth; it leaped out with Mrs. Beale's loud cry at her: "I'm free, I'm free!"
(291) Chapter 27
The greatest wonder of all was the way Mrs. Beale addressed her announcement, so far as could be judged, equally to Mrs. Wix, who, as if from sudden failure of strength, sank into a chair while Maisie surrendered to the visitor's embrace. As soon as the child was liberated she met with profundity Mrs. Wix's stupefaction and actually was able to see that while in a manner sustaining the encounter her face yet seemed with intensity to say: "Now, for God's sake, don't crow 'I told you so!' " Maisie was somehow on the spot aware of an absence of disposition to crow; it had taken her but an extra minute to arrive at such a quick survey of the objects surrounding Mrs. Beale as showed that among them was no appurtenance of Sir Claude's. She knew his dressing-bag now--oh with the fondest knowledge!--and there was an instant during which its not being there was a stroke of the worst news. She was yet to learn what it could be to recognise in some lapse of a sequence the proof of an extinction, and therefore remained unaware that this momentary pang was a foretaste of the experience of death. It of course yielded in a flash to Mrs. Beale's brightness, it gasped itself away in her own instant appeal. "You've come alone?"
"Without Sir Claude?" Strangely, Mrs. Beale looked even brighter. "Yes; in the eagerness to get (292) at you. You abominable little villain!"--and her stepmother, laughing clear, administered to her cheek a pat that was partly a pinch. "What were you up to and what did you take me for? But I'm glad to be abroad, and after all it's you who have shown me the way. I mightn't, without you, have been able to come--to come, that is, so soon. Well, here I am at any rate and in a moment more I should have begun to worry about you. This will do very well"--she was good-natured about the place and even presently added that it was charming. Then with a rosier glow she made again her great point: "I'm free, I'm free!" Maisie made on her side her own: she carried back her gaze to Mrs. Wix, whom amazement continued to hold; she drew afresh her old friend's attention to the superior way she didn't take that up. What she did take up the next minute was the question of Sir Claude. "Where is he? Won't he come?"
Mrs. Beale's consideration of this oscillated with a smile between the two expectancies with which she was flanked: it was conspicuous, it was extraordinary, her unblinking acceptance of Mrs. Wix, a miracle of which Maisie had even now begun to read a reflexion in that lady's long visage. "He'll come, but we must MAKE him!" she gaily brought forth.
"Make him?" Maisie echoed.
"We must give him time. We must play our cards."
"But he promised us awfully," Maisie replied.
"My dear child, he has promised ME awfully; I mean lots of things, and not in every case kept his promise to the letter." Mrs. Beale's good humour (293) insisted on taking for granted Mrs. Wix's, to whom her attention had suddenly grown prodigious. "I dare say he has done the same with you, and not always come to time. But he makes it up in his own way--and it isn't as if we didn't know exactly what he is. There's one thing he is," she went on, "which makes everything else only a question, for us, of tact." They scarce had time to wonder what this was before, as they might have said, it flew straight into their face. "He's as free as I am!"
"Yes, I know," said Maisie; as if, however, independently weighing the value of that. She really weighed also the oddity of her stepmother's treating it as news to HER, who had been the first person literally to whom Sir Claude had mentioned it. For a few seconds, as if with the sound of it in her ears, she stood with him again, in memory and in the twilight, in the hotel garden at Folkestone.
Anything Mrs. Beale overlooked was, she indeed divined, but the effect of an exaltation of high spirits, a tendency to soar that showed even when she dropped--still quite impartially--almost to the confidential. "Well, then--we've only to wait. He can't do without us long. I'm sure, Mrs. Wix, he can't do without YOU! He's devoted to you; he has told me so much about you. The extent I count on you, you know, count on you to help me--!" was an extent that even all her radiance couldn't express. What it couldn't express quite as much as what it could made at any rate every instant her presence and even her famous freedom loom larger; and it was this mighty mass that once more led her companions, bewildered and (294) disjoined, to exchange with each other as through a thickening veil confused and ineffectual signs. They clung together at least on the common ground of unpreparedness, and Maisie watched without relief the havoc of wonder in Mrs. Wix. It had reduced her to perfect impotence, and, but that gloom was black upon her, she sat as if fascinated by Mrs. Beale's high style. It had plunged her into a long deep hush; for what had happened was the thing she had least allowed for and before which the particular rigour she had worked up could only grow limp and sick. Sir Claude was to have reappeared with his accomplice or without her; never, never his accomplice without HIM. Mrs. Beale had gained apparently by this time an advantage she could pursue: she looked at the droll dumb figure with jesting reproach. "You really won't shake hands with me? Never mind; you'll come round!" She put the matter to no test, going on immediately and, instead of offering her hand, raising it, with a pretty gesture that her bent head met, to a long black pin that played a part in her back hair. "Are hats worn at luncheon? If you're as hungry as I am we must go right down."
Mrs. Wix stuck fast, but she met the question in a voice her pupil scarce recognised. "I wear mine."
Mrs. Beale, swallowing at one glance her brand-new bravery, which she appeared at once to refer to its origin and to follow in its flights, accepted this as conclusive. "Oh but I've not such a beauty!" Then she turned rejoicingly to Maisie. "I've got a beauty for YOU, my dear."
(295) "A love of a hat--in my luggage. I remembered THAT"--she nodded at the object on her stepdaughter's head--"and I've brought you one with a peacock's breast. It's the most gorgeous blue!"
It was too strange, this talking with her there already not about Sir Claude but about peacocks--too strange for the child to have the presence of mind to thank her. But the felicity in which she had arrived was so proof against everything that Maisie felt more and more the depth of the purpose that must underlie it. She had a vague sense of its being abysmal, the spirit with which Mrs. Beale carried off the awkwardness, in the white and gold salon, of such a want of breath and of welcome. Mrs. Wix was more breathless than ever; the embarrassment of Mrs. Beale's isolation was as nothing to the embarrassment of her grace. The perception of this dilemma was the germ on the child's part of a new question altogether. What if WITH this indulgence--? But the idea lost itself in something too frightened for hope and too conjectured for fear; and while everything went by leaps and bounds one of the waiters stood at the door to remind them that the table d'hote was half over.
"Had you come up to wash hands?" Mrs. Beale hereupon asked them. "Go and do it quickly and I'll be with you: they've put my boxes in that nice room--it was Sir Claude's. Trust him," she laughed, "to have a nice one!" The door of a neighbouring room stood open, and now from the threshold, addressing herself again to Mrs. Wix, she launched a note that gave the very key of what, as she would (296) have said, she was up to. "Dear lady, please attend to my daughter."
She was up to a change of deportment so complete that it represented--oh for offices still honourably subordinate if not too explicitly menial--an absolute coercion, an interested clutch of the old woman's respectability. There was response, to Maisie's view, I may say at once, in the jump of that respectability to its feet: it was itself capable of one of the leaps, one of the bounds just mentioned, and it carried its charge, with this momentum and while Mrs. Beale popped into Sir Claude's chamber, straight away to where, at the end of the passage, pupil and governess were quartered. The greatest stride of all, for that matter, was that within a few seconds the pupil had, in another relation, been converted into a daughter. Maisie's eyes were still following it when, after the rush, with the door almost slammed and no thought of soap and towels, the pair stood face to face. Mrs. Wix, in this position, was the first to gasp a sound. "Can it ever be that SHE has one?"
Maisie felt still more bewildered. "One what?"
"Why moral sense."
They spoke as if you might have two, but Mrs. Wix looked as if it were not altogether a happy thought, and Maisie didn't see how even an affirmative from her own lips would clear up what had become most of a mystery. It was to this larger puzzle she sprang pretty straight. "IS she my mother now?"
It was a point as to which an horrific glimpse of the responsibility of an opinion appeared to affect Mrs. Wix like a blow in the stomach. She had evidently (297) never thought of it; but she could think and rebound. "If she is, he's equally your father."
Maisie, however, thought further. "Then my father and my mother--!"
But she had already faltered and Mrs. Wix had already glared back: "Ought to live together? Don't begin it AGAIN!" She turned away with a groan, to reach the washing-stand, and Maisie could by this time recognise with a certain ease that that way verily madness did lie. Mrs. Wix gave a great untidy splash, but the next instant had faced round. "She has taken a new line."
"She was nice to you," Maisie concurred.
"What SHE thinks so--'go and dress the young lady!' But it's something!" she panted. Then she thought out the rest. "If he won't have her, why she'll have YOU. She'll be the one."
"The one to keep me abroad?"
"The one to give you a home." Mrs. Wix saw further; she mastered all the portents. "Oh she's cruelly clever! It's not a moral sense." She reached her climax: "It's a game!"
"Not to lose him. She has sacrificed him--to her duty."
"Then won't he come?" Maisie pleaded.
Mrs. Wix made no answer; her vision absorbed her. "He has fought. But she has won."
"Then won't he come?" the child repeated.
Mrs. Wix made it out. "Yes, hang him!" She had never been so profane.
For all Maisie minded! "Soon--to-morrow?"
(298) "Too soon--whenever. Indecently soon."
"But then we SHALL be together!" the child went on. It made Mrs. Wix look at her as if in exasperation; but nothing had time to come before she precipitated: "Together with YOU!" The air of criticism continued, but took voice only in her companion's bidding her wash herself and come down. The silence of quick ablutions fell upon them, presently broken, however, by one of Maisie's sudden reversions. "Mercy, isn't she handsome?"
Mrs. Wix had finished; she waited. "She'll attract attention." They were rapid, and it would have been noticed that the shock the beauty had given them acted, incongruously, as a positive spur to their preparations for rejoining her. She had none the less, when they returned to the sitting-room, already descended; the open door of her room showed it empty and the chambermaid explained. Here again they were delayed by another sharp thought of Mrs. Wix's. "But what will she live on meanwhile?"
Maisie stopped short. "Till Sir Claude comes?"
It was nothing to the violence with which her friend had been arrested. "Who'll pay the bills?"
Maisie thought. "Can't SHE?"
"She? She hasn't a penny."
The child wondered. "But didn't papa--?"
"Leave her a fortune?" Mrs. Wix would have appeared to speak of papa as dead had she not immediately added: "Why he lives on other women!"
Oh yes, Maisie remembered. "Then can't he send--?" She faltered again; even to herself it sounded queer.
(299) "Some of their money to his wife?" Mrs. Wix gave a laugh still stranger than the weird suggestion. "I dare say she'd take it!"
They hurried on again; yet again, on the stairs, Maisie pulled up. "Well, if she had stopped in England--!" she threw out.
Mrs. Wix considered. "And he had come over instead?"
"Yes, as we expected." Maisie launched her speculation. "What then would she have lived on?"
Mrs. Wix hung fire but an instant. "On other men!" And she marched downstairs.
(300) Chapter 28
Mrs. Beale, at table between the pair, plainly attracted the attention Mrs. Wix had foretold. No other lady present was nearly so handsome, nor did the beauty of any other accommodate itself with such art to the homage it produced. She talked mainly to her other neighbour, and that left Maisie leisure both to note the manner in which eyes were riveted and nudges interchanged, and to lose herself in the meanings that, dimly as yet and disconnectedly, but with a vividness that fed apprehension, she could begin to read into her stepmother's independent move. Mrs. Wix had helped her by talking of a game; it was a connexion in which the move could put on a strategic air. Her notions of diplomacy were thin, but it was a kind of cold diplomatic shoulder and an elbow of more than usual point that, temporarily at least, were presented to her by the averted inclination of Mrs. Beale's head. There was a phrase familiar to Maisie, so often was it used by this lady to express the idea of one's getting what one wanted: one got it--Mrs. Beale always said SHE at all events always got it or proposed to get it--by "making love." She was at present making love, singular as it appeared, to Mrs. Wix, and her young friend's mind had never moved in such freedom as on thus finding itself face to face with the question of what she wanted to get. This period of the omelette aux rognons (301) and the poulet saute, while her sole surviving parent, her fourth, fairly chattered to her governess, left Maisie rather wondering if her governess would hold out. It was strange, but she became on the spot quite as interested in Mrs. Wix's moral sense as Mrs. Wix could possibly be in hers: it had risen before her so pressingly that this was something new for Mrs. Wix to resist. Resisting Mrs. Beale herself promised at such a rate to become a very different business from resisting Sir Claude's view of her. More might come of what had happened--whatever it was--than Maisie felt she could have expected. She put it together with a suspicion that, had she ever in her life had a sovereign changed, would have resembled an impression, baffled by the want of arithmetic, that her change was wrong: she groped about in it that she was perhaps playing the passive part in a case of violent substitution. A victim was what she should surely be if the issue between her step-parents had been settled by Mrs. Beale's saying: "Well, if she can live with but one of us alone, with which in the world should it be but me?" That answer was far from what, for days, she had nursed herself in, and the desolation of it was deepened by the absence of anything from Sir Claude to show he had not had to take it as triumphant. Had not Mrs. Beale, upstairs, as good as given out that she had quitted him with the snap of a tension, left him, dropped him in London, after some struggle as a sequel to which her own advent represented that she had practically sacrificed him? Maisie assisted in fancy at the probable episode in the Regent's Park, finding elements almost of terror (302) in the suggestion that Sir Claude had not had fair play. They drew something, as she sat there, even from the pride of an association with such beauty as Mrs. Beale's; and the child quite forgot that, though the sacrifice of Mrs. Beale herself was a solution she had not invented, she would probably have seen Sir Claude embark upon it without a direct remonstrance.
What her stepmother had clearly now promised herself to wring from Mrs. Wix was an assent to the great modification, the change, as smart as a juggler's trick, in the interest of which nothing so much mattered as the new convenience of Mrs. Beale. Maisie could positively seize the moral that her elbow seemed to point in ribs thinly defended--the moral of its not mattering a straw which of the step-parents was the guardian. The essence of the question was that a girl wasn't a boy: if Maisie had been a mere rough trousered thing, destined at the best probably to grow up a scamp, Sir Claude would have been welcome. As the case stood he had simply tumbled out of it, and Mrs. Wix would henceforth find herself in the employ of the right person. These arguments had really fallen into their place, for our young friend, at the very touch of that tone in which she had heard her new title declared. She was still, as a result of so many parents, a daughter to somebody even after papa and mamma were to all intents dead. If her father's wife and her mother's husband, by the operation of a natural or, for all she knew, a legal rule, were in the shoes of their defunct partners, then Mrs. Beale's partner was exactly as defunct as Sir Claude's and her shoes the very pair to which, in "Farange v. (303) Farange and Others," the divorce court had given priority. The subject of that celebrated settlement saw the rest of her day really filled out with the pomp of all that Mrs. Beale assumed. The assumption rounded itself there between this lady's entertainers, flourished in a way that left them, in their bottomless element, scarce a free pair of eyes to exchange signals. It struck Maisie even a little that there was a rope or two Mrs. Wix might have thrown out if she would, a rocket or two she might have sent up. They had at any rate never been so long together without communion or telegraphy, and their companion kept them apart by simply keeping them with her. From this situation they saw the grandeur of their intenser relation to her pass and pass like an endless procession. It was a day of lively movement and of talk on Mrs. Beale's part so brilliant and overflowing as to represent music and banners. She took them out with her promptly to walk and to drive, and even--towards night--sketched a plan for carrying them to the Etablissement, where, for only a franc apiece, they should listen to a concert of celebrities. It reminded Maisie, the plan, of the side-shows at Earl's Court, and the franc sounded brighter than the shillings which had at that time failed; yet this too, like the other, was a frustrated hope: the francs failed like the shillings and the side-shows had set an example to the concert. The Etablissement in short melted away, and it was little wonder that a lady who from the moment of her arrival had been so gallantly in the breach should confess herself at last done up. Maisie could appreciate her fatigue; the day had not passed (304) without such an observer's discovering that she was excited and even mentally comparing her state to that of the breakers after a gale. It had blown hard in London, and she would take time to go down. It was of the condition known to the child by report as that of talking against time that her emphasis, her spirit, her humour, which had never dropped, now gave the impression.
She too was delighted with foreign manners; but her daughter's opportunities of explaining them to her were unexpectedly forestalled by her own tone of large acquaintance with them. One of the things that nipped in the bud all response to her volubility was Maisie's surprised retreat before the fact that Continental life was what she had been almost brought up on. It was Mrs. Beale, disconcertingly, who began to explain it to her friends; it was she who, wherever they turned, was the interpreter, the historian and the guide. She was full of reference to her early travels--at the age of eighteen: she had at that period made, with a distinguished Dutch family, a stay on the Lake of Geneva. Maisie had in the old days been regaled with anecdotes of these adventures, but they had with time become phantasmal, and the heroine's quite showy exemption from bewilderment at Boulogne, her acuteness on some of the very subjects on which Maisie had been acute to Mrs. Wix, were a high note of the majesty, of the variety of advantage, with which she had alighted. It was all a part of the wind in her sails and of the weight with which her daughter was now to feel her hand. The effect of it on Maisie was to add already the burden (305) of time to her separation from Sir Claude. This might, to her sense, have lasted for days; it was as if, with their main agitation transferred thus to France and with neither mamma now nor Mrs. Beale nor Mrs. Wix nor herself at his side, he must be fearfully alone in England. Hour after hour she felt as if she were waiting; yet she couldn't have said exactly for what. There were moments when Mrs. Beale's flow of talk was a mere rattle to smother a knock. At no part of the crisis had the rattle so public a purpose as when, instead of letting Maisie go with Mrs. Wix to prepare for dinner, she pushed her--with a push at last incontestably maternal--straight into the room inherited from Sir Claude. She titivated her little charge with her own brisk hands; then she brought out: "I'm going to divorce your father."
This was so different from anything Maisie had expected that it took some time to reach her mind. She was aware meanwhile that she probably looked rather wan. "To marry Sir Claude?"
Mrs. Beale rewarded her with a kiss. "It's sweet to hear you put it so."
This was a tribute, but it left Maisie balancing for an objection. "How CAN you when he's married?"
"He isn't--practically. He's free, you know."
"Free to marry?"
"Free, first, to divorce his own fiend."
The benefit that, these last days, she had felt she owed a certain person left Maisie a moment so ill-prepared for recognising this lurid label that she hesitated long enough to risk: "Mamma?"
"She isn't your mamma any longer," Mrs. Beale (306) returned. "Sir Claude has paid her money to cease to be." Then as if remembering how little, to the child, a pecuniary transaction must represent: "She lets him off supporting her if he'll let her off supporting you."
Mrs. Beale appeared, however, to have done injustice to her daughter's financial grasp. "And support me himself?" Maisie asked.
"Take the whole bother and burden of you and never let her hear of you again. It's a regular signed contract."
"Why that's lovely of her!" Maisie cried.
"It's not so lovely, my dear, but that he'll get his divorce."
Maisie was briefly silent; after which, "No--he won't get it," she said. Then she added still more boldly: "And you won't get yours."
Mrs. Beale, who was at the dressing-glass, turned round with amusement and surprise. "How do you know that?"
"Oh I know!" cried Maisie.
"From Mrs. Wix?"
Maisie debated, then after an instant took her cue from Mrs. Beale's absence of anger, which struck her the more as she had felt how much of her courage she needed. "From Mrs. Wix," she admitted.
Mrs. Beale, at the glass again, made play with a powder-puff. "My own sweet, she's mistaken!" was all she said.
There was a certain force in the very amenity of this, but our young lady reflected long enough to remember that it was not the answer Sir Claude himself (307) had made. The recollection nevertheless failed to prevent her saying: "Do you mean then that he won't come till he has got it?"
Mrs. Beale gave a last touch; she was ready; she stood there in all her elegance. "I mean, my dear, that it's because he HASN'T got it that I left him."
This opened a view that stretched further than Maisie could reach. She turned away from it, but she spoke before they went out again. "Do you like Mrs. Wix now?"
"Why, my chick, I was just going to ask you if you think she has come at all to like poor bad me!"
Maisie thought, at this hint; but unsuccessfully. "I haven't the least idea. But I'll find out."
"Do!" said Mrs. Beale, rustling out with her in a scented air and as if it would be a very particular favour.
The child tried promptly at bed-time, relieved now of the fear that their visitor would wish to separate her for the night from her attendant. "Have you held out?" she began as soon as the two doors at the end of the passage were again closed on them.
Mrs. Wix looked hard at the flame of the candle. "Held out--?"
"Why, she has been making love to you. Has she won you over?"
Mrs. Wix transferred her intensity to her pupil's face. "Over to what?"
"To HER keeping me instead."
"Instead of Sir Claude?" Mrs. Wix was distinctly gaining time.
"Yes; who else? since it's not instead of you."
(308) Mrs. Wix coloured at this lucidity. "Yes, that IS what she means."
"Well, do you like it?" Maisie asked.
She actually had to wait, for oh her friend was embarrassed! "My opposition to the connexion--theirs--would then naturally to some extent fall. She has treated me to-day as if I weren't after all quite such a worm; not that I don't know very well where she got the pattern of her politeness. But of course," Mrs. Wix hastened to add, "I shouldn't like her as THE one nearly so well as him."
" 'Nearly so well!' " Maisie echoed. "I should hope indeed not." She spoke with a firmness under which she was herself the first to quiver. "I thought you 'adored' him."
"I do," Mrs. Wix sturdily allowed.
"Then have you suddenly begun to adore her too?"
Mrs. Wix, instead of directly answering, only blinked in support of her sturdiness. "My dear, in what a tone you ask that! You're coming out."
"Why shouldn't I? YOU'VE come out. Mrs. Beale has come out. We each have our turn!" And Maisie threw off the most extraordinary little laugh that had ever passed her young lips.
There passed Mrs. Wix's indeed the next moment a sound that more than matched it. "You're most remarkable!" she neighed.
Her pupil, though wholly without aspirations to pertness, barely faltered. "I think you've done a great deal to make me so."
"Very true, I have." She dropped to humility, as if she recalled her so recent self-arraignment.
(309) "Would you accept her then? That's what I ask," said Maisie.
"As a substitute?" Mrs. Wix turned it over; she met again the child's eyes. "She has literally almost fawned upon me."
"She hasn't fawned upon HIM. She hasn't even been kind to him."
Mrs. Wix looked as if she had now an advantage. "Then do you propose to 'kill' her?"
"You don't answer my question," Maisie persisted. "I want to know if you accept her."
Mrs. Wix continued to hedge. "I want to know if YOU do!"
Everything in the child's person, at this, announced that it was easy to know. "Not for a moment."
"Not the two now?" Mrs. Wix had caught on; she flushed with it. "Only him alone?"
"Him alone or nobody."
"Not even ME?" cried Mrs. Wix.
Maisie looked at her a moment, then began to undress. "Oh you're nobody!"
(310) Chapter 29
Her sleep was drawn out; she instantly recognised lateness in the way her eyes opened to Mrs. Wix, erect, completely dressed, more dressed than ever, and gazing at her from the centre of the room. The next thing she was sitting straight up, wide awake with the fear of the hours of "abroad" that she might have lost. Mrs. Wix looked as if the day had already made itself felt, and the process of catching up with it began for Maisie in hearing her distinctly say: "My poor dear, he has come!"
"Sir Claude?" Maisie, clearing the little bed-rug with the width of her spring, felt the polished floor under her bare feet.
"He crossed in the night; he got in early." Mrs. Wix's head jerked stiffly backward. "He's there."
"And you've seen him?"
"No. He's there--he's there," Mrs. Wix repeated. Her voice came out with a queer extinction that was not a voluntary drop, and she trembled so that it added to their common emotion. Visibly pale, they gazed at each other.
"Isn't it too BEAUTIFUL?" Maisie panted back at her; a challenge with an answer to which, however, she was not ready at once. The term Maisie had used was a flash of diplomacy--to prevent at any rate Mrs. Wix's using another. To that degree it was successful; there was only an appeal, strange and mute, in the white old face, which produced the effect of a want of (311) decision greater than could by any stretch of optimism have been associated with her attitude toward what had happened. For Maisie herself indeed what had happened was oddly, as she could feel, less of a simple rapture than any arrival or return of the same supreme friend had ever been before. What had become overnight, what had become while she slept, of the comfortable faculty of gladness? She tried to wake it up a little wider by talking, by rejoicing, by plunging into water and into clothes, and she made out that it was ten o'clock, but also that Mrs. Wix had not yet breakfasted. The day before, at nine, they had had together a cafe complet in their sitting-room. Mrs. Wix on her side had evidently also a refuge to seek. She sought it in checking the precipitation of some of her pupil's present steps, in recalling to her with an approach to sternness that of such preliminaries those embodied in a thorough use of soap should be the most thorough, and in throwing even a certain reprobation on the idea of hurrying into clothes for the sake of a mere stepfather. She took her in hand with a silent insistence; she reduced the process to sequences more definite than any it had known since the days of Moddle. Whatever it might be that had now, with a difference, begun to belong to Sir Claude's presence was still after all compatible, for our young lady, with the instinct of dressing to see him with almost untidy haste. Mrs. Wix meanwhile luckily was not wholly directed to repression. "He's there--he's there!" she had said over several times. It was her answer to every invitation to mention how long she had been up and her motive for respecting so rigidly (312) the slumber of her companion. It formed for some minutes her only account of the whereabouts of the others and her reason for not having yet seen them, as well as of the possibility of their presently being found in the salon.
"He's there--he's there!" she declared once more as she made, on the child, with an almost invidious tug, a strained undergarment "meet."
"Do you mean he's in the salon?" Maisie asked again.
"He's WITH her," Mrs. Wix desolately said. "He's with her," she reiterated.
"Do you mean in her own room?" Maisie continued.
She waited an instant. "God knows!"
Maisie wondered a little why, or how, God should know; this, however, delayed but an instant her bringing out: "Well, won't she go back?"
"Go back? Never!"
"She'll stay all the same?"
"All the more."
"Then won't Sir Claude go?" Maisie asked.
"Go back--if SHE doesn't?" Mrs. Wix appeared to give this question the benefit of a minute's thought. "Why should he have come--only to go back?"
Maisie produced an ingenious solution. "To MAKE her go. To take her."
Mrs. Wix met it without a concession. "If he can make her go so easily, why should he have let her come?"
Maisie considered. "Oh just to see ME. She has a right."
(313) "Yes--she has a right."
"She's my mother!" Maisie tentatively tittered.
"Yes--she's your mother."
"Besides," Maisie went on, "he didn't let her come. He doesn't like her coming, and if he doesn't like it--"
Mrs. Wix took her up. "He must lump it--that's what he must do! Your mother was right about him--I mean your real one. He has no strength. No--none at all." She seemed more profoundly to muse. "He might have had some even with HER--I mean with her ladyship. He's just a poor sunk slave," she asserted with sudden energy.
Maisie wondered again. "A slave?"
"To his passions."
She continued to wonder and even to be impressed; after which she went on: "But how do you know he'll stay?"
"Because he likes us!"--and Mrs. Wix, with her emphasis of the word, whirled her charge round again to deal with posterior hooks. She had positively never shaken her so.
It was as if she quite shook something out of her. "But how will that help him if we--in spite of his liking!--don't stay?"
"Do you mean if we go off and leave him with her?"--Mrs. Wix put the question to the back of her pupil's head. "It WON'T help him. It will be his ruin. He'll have got nothing. He'll have lost everything. It will be his utter destruction, for he's certain after a while to loathe her."
"Then when he loathes her"--it was astonishing (314) how she caught the idea--"he'll just come right after us!" Maisie announced.
"She'll keep him. She'll hold him for ever."
Maisie doubted. "When he 'loathes' her?"
"That won't matter. She won't loathe him. People don't!" Mrs. Wix brought up.
"Some do. Mamma does," Maisie contended.
"Mamma does NOT!" It was startling--her friend contradicted her flat. "She loves him--she adores him. A woman knows." Mrs. Wix spoke not only as if Maisie were not a woman, but as if she would never be one. "i know!" she cried.
"Then why on earth has she left him?"
Mrs. Wix hesitated. "He hates HER. Don't stoop so--lift up your hair. You know how I'm affected toward him," she added with dignity; "but you must also know that I see clear."
Maisie all this time was trying hard to do likewise. "Then if she has left him for that why shouldn't Mrs. Beale leave him?"
"Because she's not such a fool!"
"Not such a fool as mamma?"
"Precisely--if you WILL have it. Does it look like her leaving him?" Mrs. Wix enquired. She brooded again; then she went on with more intensity: "Do you want to know really and truly why? So that she may be his wretchedness and his punishment."
"His punishment?"--this was more than as yet Maisie could quite accept. "For what?"
"For everything. That's what will happen: he'll (315) be tied to her for ever. She won't mind in the least his hating her, and she won't hate him back. She'll only hate US."
"Us?" the child faintly echoed.
"She'll hate YOU."
"Me? Why, I brought them together!" Maisie resentfully cried.
"You brought them together." There was a completeness in Mrs. Wix's assent. "Yes; it was a pretty job. Sit down." She began to brush her pupil's hair and, as she took up the mass of it with some force of hand, went on with a sharp recall: "Your mother adored him at first--it might have lasted. But he began too soon with Mrs. Beale. As you say," she pursued with a brisk application of the brush, "you brought them together."
"I brought them together"--Maisie was ready to reaffirm it. She felt none the less for a moment at the bottom of a hole; then she seemed to see a way out. "But I didn't bring mamma together--" She just faltered.
"With all those gentlemen?"--Mrs. Wix pulled her up. "No; it isn't quite so bad as that."
"I only said to the Captain"--Maisie had the quick memory of it--"that I hoped he at least (he was awfully nice!) would love her and keep her."
"And even that wasn't much harm," threw in Mrs. Wix.
"It wasn't much good," Maisie was obliged to recognise. "She can't bear him--not even a mite. She told me at Folkestone."
Mrs. Wix suppressed a gasp; then after a bridling (316) instant during which she might have appeared to deflect with difficulty from her odd consideration of Ida's wrongs: "He was a nice sort of person for her to talk to you about!"
"Oh I LIKE him!" Maisie promptly rejoined; and at this, with an inarticulate sound and an inconsequence still more marked, her companion bent over and dealt her on the cheek a rapid peck which had the apparent intention of a kiss.
"Well, if her ladyship doesn't agree with you, what does it only prove?" Mrs. Wix demanded in conclusion. "It proves that she's fond of Sir Claude!"
Maisie, in the light of some of the evidence, reflected on that till her hair was finished, but when she at last started up she gave a sign of no very close embrace of it. She grasped at this moment Mrs. Wix's arm. "He must have got his divorce!"
"Since day before yesterday? Don't talk trash."
This was spoken with an impatience which left the child nothing to reply; whereupon she sought her defence in a completely different relation to the fact. "Well, I knew he would come!"
"So did I; but not in twenty-four hours. I gave him a few days!" Mrs. Wix wailed.
Maisie, whom she had now released, looked at her with interest. "How many did SHE give him?"
Mrs. Wix faced her a moment; then as if with a bewildered sniff: "You had better ask her!" But she had no sooner uttered the words than she caught herself up. "Lord o' mercy, how we talk!"
Maisie felt that however they talked she must see him, but she said nothing more for a time, a time (317) during which she conscientiously finished dressing and Mrs. Wix also kept silence. It was as if they each had almost too much to think of, and even as if the child had the sense that her friend was watching her and seeing if she herself were watched. At last Mrs. Wix turned to the window and stood--sightlessly, as Maisie could guess--looking away. Then our young lady, before the glass, gave the supreme shake. "Well, I'm ready. And now to SEE him!"
Mrs. Wix turned round, but as if without having heard her. "It's tremendously grave." There were slow still tears behind the straighteners.
"It is--it is." Maisie spoke as if she were now dressed quite up to the occasion; as if indeed with the last touch she had put on the judgement-cap. "I must see him immediately."
"How can you see him if he doesn't send for you?"
"Why can't I go and find him?"
"Because you don't know where he is."
"Can't I just look in the salon?" That still seemed simple to Maisie.
Mrs. Wix, however, instantly cut it off. "I wouldn't have you look in the salon for all the world!" Then she explained a little: "The salon isn't ours now."
"Yours and mine. It's theirs."
"Theirs?" Maisie, with her stare, continued to echo. "You mean they want to keep us out?"
Mrs. Wix faltered; she sank into a chair and, as Maisie had often enough seen her do before, covered her face with her hands. "They ought to, at least. The situation's too monstrous!"
(318) Maisie stood there a moment--she looked about the room. "I'll go to him--I'll find him."
"i won't! I won't go NEAR them!" cried Mrs. Wix.
"Then I'll see him alone." The child spied what she had been looking for--she possessed herself of her hat. "Perhaps I'll take him out!" And with decision she quitted the room.
When she entered the salon it was empty, but at the sound of the opened door some one stirred on the balcony, and Sir Claude, stepping straight in, stood before her. He was in light fresh clothes and wore a straw hat with a bright ribbon; these things, besides striking her in themselves as the very promise of the grandest of grand tours, gave him a certain radiance and, as it were, a tropical ease; but such an effect only marked rather more his having stopped short and, for a longer minute than had ever at such a juncture elapsed, not opened his arms to her. His pause made her pause and enabled her to reflect that he must have been up some time, for there were no traces of breakfast; and that though it was so late he had rather markedly not caused her to be called to him. Had Mrs. Wix been right about their forfeiture of the salon? Was it all his now, all his and Mrs. Beale's? Such an idea, at the rate her small thoughts throbbed, could only remind her of the way in which what had been hers hitherto was what was exactly most Mrs. Beale's and his. It was strange to be standing there and greeting him across a gulf, for he had by this time spoken, smiled and said: "My dear child, my dear child!" but without coming any nearer. In a flash she saw he was different--more so than he knew or (319) designed. The next minute indeed it was as if he caught an impression from her face: this made him hold out his hand. Then they met, he kissed her, he laughed, she thought he even blushed: something of his affection rang out as usual. "Here I am, you see, again--as I promised you."
It was not as he had promised them--he had not promised them Mrs. Beale; but Maisie said nothing about that. What she said was simply: "I knew you had come. Mrs. Wix told me."
"Oh yes. And where is she?"
"In her room. She got me up--she dressed me."
Sir Claude looked at her up and down; a sweetness of mockery that she particularly loved came out in his face whenever he did that, and it was not wanting now. He raised his eyebrows and his arms to play at admiration; he was evidently after all disposed to be gay. "Got you up?--I should think so! She has dressed you most beautifully. Isn't she coming?"
Maisie wondered if she had better tell. "She said not."
"Doesn't she want to see a poor devil?"
She looked about under the vibration of the way he described himself, and her eyes rested on the door of the room he had previously occupied. "Is Mrs. Beale in there?"
Sir Claude looked blankly at the same object. "I haven't the least idea!"
"You haven't seen her?"
"Not the tip of her nose."
Maisie thought: there settled on her, in the light of his beautiful smiling eyes, the faintest purest coldest (320) conviction that he wasn't telling the truth. "She hasn't welcomed you?"
"Not by a single sign."
"Then where is she?"
Sir Claude laughed; he seemed both amused and surprised at the point she made of it. "I give it up!"
"Doesn't she know you've come?"
He laughed again. "Perhaps she doesn't care!"
Maisie, with an inspiration, pounced on his arm. "Has she GONE?"
He met her eyes and then she could see that his own were really much graver than his manner. "Gone?" She had flown to the door, but before she could raise her hand to knock he was beside her and had caught it. "Let her be. I don't care about her. I want to see YOU."
Maisie fell back with him. "Then she HASN'T gone?"
He still looked as if it were a joke, but the more she saw of him the more she could make out that he was troubled. "It wouldn't be like her!"
She stood wondering at him. "Did you want her to come?"
"How can you suppose--?" He put it to her candidly. "We had an immense row over it."
"Do you mean you've quarrelled?"
Sir Claude was at a loss. "What has she told you?"
"That I'm hers as much as yours. That she represents papa."
His gaze struck away through the open window (321) and up to the sky; she could hear him rattle in his trousers-pockets his money or his keys. "Yes--that's what she keeps saying." It gave him for a moment an air that was almost helpless.
"You say you don't care about her," Maisie went on. "DO you mean you've quarrelled?"
"We do nothing in life but quarrel."
He rose before her, as he said this, so soft and fair, so rich, in spite of what might worry him, in restored familiarities, that it gave a bright blur to the meaning--to what would otherwise perhaps have been the palpable promise--of the words. "Oh YOUR quarrels!" she exclaimed with discouragement.
"I assure you hers are quite fearful!"
"I don't speak of hers. I speak of yours."
"Ah don't do it till I've had my coffee! You're growing up clever," he added. Then he said: "I suppose you've breakfasted?"
"Oh no--I've had nothing."
"Nothing in your room?"--he was all compunction. "My dear old man!--we'll breakfast then together." He had one of his happy thoughts. "I say--we'll go out."
"That was just what I hoped. I've brought my hat."
"You ARE clever! We'll go to a cafe." Maisie was already at the door; he glanced round the room. "A moment--my stick." But there appeared to be no stick. "No matter; I left it--oh!" He remembered with an odd drop and came out.
"You left it in London?" she asked as they went downstairs.
(322) "Yes--in London: fancy!"
"You were in such a hurry to come," Maisie explained.
He had his arm round her. "That must have been the reason." Halfway down he stopped short again, slapping his leg. "And poor Mrs. Wix?"
Maisie's face just showed a shadow. "Do you want her to come?"
"Dear no--I want to see you alone."
"That's the way I want to see YOU!" she replied. "Like before."
"Like before!" he gaily echoed. "But I mean has she had her coffee?"
"Then I'll send it up to her. Madame!" He had already, at the foot of the stair, called out to the stout patronne, a lady who turned to him from the bustling, breezy hall a countenance covered with fresh matutinal powder and a bosom as capacious as the velvet shelf of a chimneypiece, over which her round white face, framed in its golden frizzle, might have figured as a showy clock. He ordered, with particular recommendations, Mrs. Wix's repast, and it was a charm to hear his easy brilliant French: even his companion's ignorance could measure the perfection of it. The patronne, rubbing her hands and breaking in with high swift notes as into a florid duet, went with him to the street, and while they talked a moment longer Maisie remembered what Mrs. Wix had said about every one's liking him. It came out enough through the morning powder, it came out enough in the heaving bosom, how the landlady liked him. He had (323) evidently ordered something lovely for Mrs. Wix. "Et bien soigne, n'est-ce-pas?"
"Soyez tranquille"--the patronne beamed upon him. "Et pour Madame?"
"Madame?" he echoed--it just pulled him up a little.
"Rien encore. Come, Maisie." She hurried along with him, but on the way to the cafe he said nothing.
(324) Chapter 30
After they were seated there it was different: the place was not below the hotel, but further along the quay; with wide, clear windows and a floor sprinkled with bran in a manner that gave it for Maisie something of the added charm of a circus. They had pretty much to themselves the painted spaces and the red plush benches; these were shared by a few scattered gentlemen who picked teeth, with facial contortions, behind little bare tables, and by an old personage in particular, a very old personage with a red ribbon in his buttonhole, whose manner of soaking buttered rolls in coffee and then disposing of them in the little that was left of the interval between his nose and chin might at a less anxious hour have cast upon Maisie an almost envious spell. They too had their cafe au lait and their buttered rolls, determined by Sir Claude's asking her if she could with that light aid wait till the hour of dejeuner. His allusion to this meal gave her, in the shaded sprinkled coolness, the scene, as she vaguely felt, of a sort of ordered mirrored licence, the haunt of those--the irregular, like herself--who went to bed or who rose too late, something to think over while she watched the white-aproned waiter perform as nimbly with plates and saucers as a certain conjurer her friend had in London taken her to a music-hall to see. Sir Claude had presently begun to talk again, to tell her how London (325) had looked and how long he had felt himself, on either side, to have been absent; all about Susan Ash too and the amusement as well as the difficulty he had had with her; then all about his return journey and the Channel in the night and the crowd of people coming over and the way there were always too many one knew. He spoke of other matters beside, especially of what she must tell him of the occupations, while he was away, of Mrs. Wix and her pupil. Hadn't they had the good time he had promised?--had he exaggerated a bit the arrangements made for their pleasure? Maisie had something--not all there was--to say of his success and of their gratitude: she had a complication of thought that grew every minute, grew with the consciousness that she had never seen him in this particular state in which he had been given back.
Mrs. Wix had once said--it was once or fifty times; once was enough for Maisie, but more was not too much--that he was wonderfully various. Well, he was certainly so, to the child's mind, on the present occasion: he was much more various than he was anything else. Besides, the fact that they were together in a shop, at a nice little intimate table as they had so often been in London, only made greater the difference of what they were together about. This difference was in his face, in his voice, in every look he gave her and every movement he made. They were not the looks and the movements he really wanted to show, and she could feel as well that they were not those she herself wanted. She had seen him nervous, she had seen every one she had come in contact (326) with nervous, but she had never seen him so nervous as this. Little by little it gave her a settled terror, a terror that partook of the coldness she had felt just before, at the hotel, to find herself, on his answer about Mrs. Beale, disbelieve him. She seemed to see at present, to touch across the table, as if by laying her hand on it, what he had meant when he confessed on those several occasions to fear. Why was such a man so often afraid? It must have begun to come to her now that there was one thing just such a man above all could be afraid of. He could be afraid of himself. His fear at all events was there; his fear was sweet to her, beautiful and tender to her, was having coffee and buttered rolls and talk and laughter that were no talk and laughter at all with her; his fear was in his jesting postponing perverting voice; it was just in this make-believe way he had brought her out to imitate the old London playtimes, to imitate indeed a relation that had wholly changed, a relation that she had with her very eyes seen in the act of change when, the day before in the salon, Mrs. Beale rose suddenly before her. She rose before her, for that matter, now, and even while their refreshment delayed Maisie arrived at the straight question for which, on their entrance, his first word had given opportunity. "Are we going to have dejeuner with Mrs. Beale?"
His reply was anything but straight. "You and I?"
Maisie sat back in her chair. "Mrs. Wix and me."
Sir Claude also shifted. "That's an enquiry, my dear child, that Mrs. Beale herself must answer." Yes, he had shifted; but abruptly, after a moment (327) during which something seemed to hang there between them and, as it heavily swayed, just fan them with the air of its motion, she felt that the whole thing was upon them. "Do you mind," he broke out, "my asking you what Mrs. Wix has said to you?"
"Said to me?"
"This day or two--while I was away."
"Do you mean about you and Mrs. Beale?"
Sir Claude, resting on his elbows, fixed his eyes a moment on the white marble beneath them. "No; I think we had a good deal of that--didn't we?--before I left you. It seems to me we had it pretty well all out. I mean about yourself, about your--don't you know?--associating with us, as I might say, and staying on with us. While you were alone with our friend what did she say?"
Maisie felt the weight of the question; it kept her silent for a space during which she looked at Sir Claude, whose eyes remained bent. "Nothing," she returned at last.
He showed incredulity. "Nothing?"
"Nothing," Maisie repeated; on which an interruption descended in the form of a tray bearing the preparations for their breakfast.
These preparations were as amusing as everything else; the waiter poured their coffee from a vessel like a watering-pot and then made it froth with the curved stream of hot milk that dropped from the height of his raised arm; but the two looked across at each other through the whole play of French pleasantness with a gravity that had now ceased to dissemble. Sir Claude sent the waiter off again for something and (328) then took up her answer. "Hasn't she tried to affect you?"
Face to face with him thus it seemed to Maisie that she had tried so little as to be scarce worth mentioning; again therefore an instant she shut herself up. Presently she found her middle course. "Mrs. Beale likes her now; and there's one thing I've found out--a great thing. Mrs. Wix enjoys her being so kind. She was tremendously kind all day yesterday."
"I see. And what did she do?" Sir Claude asked.
Maisie was now busy with her breakfast, and her companion attacked his own; so that it was all, in form at least, even more than their old sociability. "Everything she could think of. She was as nice to her as you are," the child said. "She talked to her all day."
"And what did she say to her?"
"Oh I don't know." Maisie was a little bewildered with his pressing her so for knowledge; it didn't fit into the degree of intimacy with Mrs. Beale that Mrs. Wix had so denounced and that, according to that lady, had now brought him back in bondage. Wasn't he more aware than his stepdaughter of what would be done by the person to whom he was bound? In a moment, however, she added: "She made love to her."
Sir Claude looked at her harder, and it was clearly something in her tone that made him quickly say: "You don't mind my asking you, do you?"
"Not at all; only I should think you'd know better than I."
"What Mrs. Beale did yesterday?"
She thought he coloured a trifle; but almost simultaneously (329) with that impression she found herself answering: "Yes--if you HAVE seen her."
He broke into the loudest of laughs. "Why, my dear boy, I told you just now I've absolutely not. I say, don't you believe me?"
There was something she was already so afraid of that it covered up other fears. "Didn't you come back to see her?" she enquired in a moment. "Didn't you come back because you always want to so much?"
He received her enquiry as he had received her doubt--with an extraordinary absence of resentment. "I can imagine of course why you think that. But it doesn't explain my doing what I have. It was, as I said to you just now at the inn, really and truly you I wanted to see."
She felt an instant as she used to feel when, in the back garden at her mother's, she took from him the highest push of a swing--high, high, high--that he had had put there for her pleasure and that had finally broken down under the weight and the extravagant patronage of the cook. "Well, that's beautiful. But to see me, you mean, and go away again?"
"My going away again is just the point. I can't tell yet--it all depends."
"On Mrs. Beale?" Maisie asked. "SHE won't go away." He finished emptying his coffee-cup and then, when he had put it down, leaned back in his chair, where she could see that he smiled on her. This only added to her idea that he was in trouble, that he was turning somehow in his pain and trying different things. He continued to smile and she went on: "Don't you know that?"
(330) "Yes, I may as well confess to you that as much as that I do know. SHE won't go away. She'll stay."
"She'll stay. She'll stay," Maisie repeated.
"Just so. Won't you have some more coffee?"
"And another buttered roll?"
He signed to the hovering waiter, who arrived with the shining spout of plenty in either hand and with the friendliest interest in mademoiselle. "Les tartines sont la." Their cups were replenished and, while he watched almost musingly the bubbles in the fragrant mixture, "Just so--just so," Sir Claude said again and again. "It's awfully awkward!" he exclaimed when the waiter had gone.
"That she won't go?"
"Well--everything! Well, well, well!" But he pulled himself together; he began again to eat. "I came back to ask you something. That's what I came back for."
"I know what you want to ask me," Maisie said.
"Are you very sure?"
"I'm ALMOST very."
"Well then risk it. You mustn't make ME risk everything."
She was struck with the force of this. "You want to know if I should be happy with THEM."
"With those two ladies only? No, no, old man: vous n'y etes pas. So now--there!" Sir Claude laughed.
"Well then what is it?"
The next minute, instead of telling her what it was, (331) he laid his hand across the table on her own and held her as if under the prompting of a thought. "Mrs. Wix would stay with HER?"
"Without you? Oh yes--now."
"On account, as you just intimated, of Mrs. Beale's changed manner?"
Maisie, with her sense of responsibility, weighed both Mrs. Beale's changed manner and Mrs. Wix's human weakness. "I think she talked her round."
Sir Claude thought a moment. "Ah poor dear!"
"Do you mean Mrs. Beale?"
"Oh no--Mrs. Wix."
"She likes being talked round--treated like any one else. Oh she likes great politeness," Maisie expatiated. "It affects her very much."
Sir Claude, to her surprise, demurred a little to this. "Very much--up to a certain point."
"Oh up to any point!" Maisie returned with emphasis.
"Well, haven't I been polite to her?"
"Lovely--and she perfectly worships you."
"Then, my dear child, why can't she let me alone?"--this time Sir Claude unmistakeably blushed. Before Maisie, however, could answer his question, which would indeed have taken her long, he went on in another tone: "Mrs. Beale thinks she has probably quite broken her down. But she hasn't."
Though he spoke as if he were sure, Maisie was strong in the impression she had just uttered and that she now again produced. "She has talked her round."
"Ah yes; round to herself, but not round to me."
(332) Oh she couldn't bear to hear him say that! "To you? Don't you really believe how she loves you?"
Sir Claude examined his belief. "Of course I know she's wonderful."
"She's just every bit as fond of you as i am," said Maisie. "She told me so yesterday."
"Ah then," he promptly exclaimed, "she HAS tried to affect you! I don't love HER, don't you see? I do her perfect justice," he pursued, "but I mean I don't love her as I do you, and I'm sure you wouldn't seriously expect it. She's not my daughter--come, old chap! She's not even my mother, though I dare say it would have been better for me if she had been. I'll do for her what I'd do for my mother, but I won't do more." His real excitement broke out in a need to explain and justify himself, though he kept trying to correct and conceal it with laughs and mouthfuls and other vain familiarities. Suddenly he broke off, wiping his moustache with sharp pulls and coming back to Mrs. Beale. "Did she try to talk YOU over?"
"No--to me she said very little. Very little indeed," Maisie continued.
Sir Claude seemed struck with this. "She was only sweet to Mrs. Wix?"
"As sweet as sugar!" cried Maisie.
He looked amused at her comparison, but he didn't contest it; he uttered on the contrary, in an assenting way, a little inarticulate sound. "I know what she CAN be. But much good may it have done her! Mrs. Wix won't COME 'round.' That's what makes it so fearfully awkward."
Maisie knew it was fearfully awkward; she had (333) known this now, she felt, for some time, and there was something else it more pressingly concerned her to learn. "What is it you meant you came over to ask me?"
"Well," said Sir Claude, "I was just going to say. Let me tell you it will surprise you." She had finished breakfast now and she sat back in her chair again: she waited in silence to hear. He had pushed the things before him a little way and had his elbows on the table. This time, she was convinced, she knew what was coming, and once more, for the crash, as with Mrs. Wix lately in her room, she held her breath and drew together her eyelids. He was going to say she must give him up. He looked hard at her again; then he made his effort. "Should you see your way to let her go?"
She was bewildered. "To let who--?"
"Mrs. Wix simply. I put it at the worst. Should you see your way to sacrifice her? Of course I know what I'm asking."
Maisie's eyes opened wide again; this was so different from what she had expected. "And stay with you alone?"
He gave another push to his coffee-cup. "With me and Mrs. Beale. Of course it would be rather rum; but everything in our whole story is rather rum, you know. What's more unusual than for any one to be given up, like you, by her parents?"
"Oh nothing is more unusual than THAT!" Maisie concurred, relieved at the contact of a proposition as to which concurrence could have lucidity.
"Of course it would be quite unconventional," (334) Sir Claude went on--"I mean the little household we three should make together; but things have got beyond that, don't you see? They got beyond that long ago. We shall stay abroad at any rate--it's ever so much easier and it's our affair and nobody else's: it's no one's business but ours on all the blessed earth. I don't say that for Mrs. Wix, poor dear--I do her absolute justice. I respect her; I see what she means; she has done me a lot of good. But there are the facts. There they are, simply. And here am I, and here are you. And she won't come round. She's right from her point of view. I'm talking to you in the most extraordinary way--I'm always talking to you in the most extraordinary way, ain't I? One would think you were about sixty and that I--I don't know what any one would think i am. Unless a beastly cad!" he suggested. "I've been awfully worried, and this's what it has come to. You've done us the most tremendous good, and you'll do it still and always, don't you see? We can't let you go--you're everything. There are the facts as I say. She IS your mother now, Mrs. Beale, by what has happened, and I, in the same way, I'm your father. No one can contradict that, and we can't get out of it. My idea would be a nice little place--somewhere in the South--where she and you would be together and as good as any one else. And I should be as good too, don't you see? for I shouldn't live with you, but I should be close to you--just round the corner, and it would be just the same. My idea would be that it should all be perfectly open and frank. Honi soit qui mal y pense, don't you know? You're the best (335) thing--you and what we can do for you--that either of us has ever known:" he came back to that. "When I say to her 'Give her up, come,' she lets me have it bang in the face: 'Give her up yourself!' It's the same old vicious circle--and when I say vicious I don't mean a pun, a what-d'-ye-call-'em. Mrs. Wix is the obstacle; I mean, you know, if she has affected you. She has affected ME, and yet here I am. I never was in such a tight place: please believe it's only that that makes me put it to you as I do. My dear child, isn't that--to put it so--just the way out of it? That came to me yesterday, in London, after Mrs. Beale had gone: I had the most infernal atrocious day. 'Go straight over and put it to her: let her choose, freely, her own self.' So I do, old girl--I put it to you. CAN you choose freely?"
This long address, slowly and brokenly uttered, with fidgets and falterings, with lapses and recoveries, with a mottled face and embarrassed but supplicating eyes, reached the child from a quarter so close that after the shock of the first sharpness she could see intensely its direction and follow it from point to point; all the more that it came back to the point at which it had started. There was a word that had hummed all through it. "Do you call it a 'sacrifice'?"
"Of Mrs. Wix? I'll call it whatever YOU call it. I won't funk it--I haven't, have I? I'll face it in all its baseness. Does it strike you it IS base for me to get you well away from her, to smuggle you off here into a corner and bribe you with sophistries and buttered rolls to betray her?"
"To betray her?"
(336) "Well--to part with her."
Maisie let the question wait; the concrete image it presented was the most vivid side of it. "If I part with her where will she go?"
"Back to London."
"But I mean what will she do?"
"Oh as for that I won't pretend I know. I don't. We all have our difficulties."
That, to Maisie, was at this moment more striking than it had ever been. "Then who'll teach me?"
Sir Claude laughed out. "What Mrs. Wix teaches?"
She smiled dimly; she saw what he meant. "It isn't so very very much."
"It's so very very little," he returned, "that that's a thing we've positively to consider. We probably shouldn't give you another governess. To begin with we shouldn't be able to get one--not of the only kind that would do. It wouldn't do--the kind that WOULD do," he queerly enough explained. "I mean they wouldn't stay--heigh-ho! We'd do you ourselves. Particularly me. You see I CAN now; I haven't got to mind--what I used to. I won't fight shy as I did--she can show out WITH me. Our relation, all round, is more regular."
It seemed wonderfully regular, the way he put it; yet none the less, while she looked at it as judiciously as she could, the picture it made persisted somehow in being a combination quite distinct--an old woman and a little girl seated in deep silence on a battered old bench by the rampart of the haute ville. It was just at that hour yesterday; they were hand in hand; they had melted together. "I don't think you (337) yet understand how she clings to you," Maisie said at last.
"I do--I do. But for all that--!" And he gave, turning in his conscious exposure, an oppressed impatient sigh; the sigh, even his companion could recognise, of the man naturally accustomed to that argument, the man who wanted thoroughly to be reasonable, but who, if really he had to mind so many things, would be always impossibly hampered. What it came to indeed was that he understood quite perfectly. If Mrs. Wix clung it was all the more reason for shaking Mrs. Wix off.
This vision of what she had brought him to occupied our young lady while, to ask what he owed, he called the waiter and put down a gold piece that the man carried off for change. Sir Claude looked after him, then went on: "How could a woman have less to reproach a fellow with? I mean as regards herself."
Maisie entertained the question. "Yes. How COULD she have less? So why are you so sure she'll go?"
"Surely you heard why--you heard her come out three nights ago? How can she do anything but go--after what she then said? I've done what she warned me of--she was absolutely right. So here we are. Her liking Mrs. Beale, as you call it now, is a motive sufficient, with other things, to make her, for your sake, stay on without me; it's not a motive sufficient to make her, even for yours, stay on WITH me--swallow, don't you see? what she can't swallow. And when you say she's as fond of me as you are I think I can, if that's the case, challenge you a little on it. Would YOU, only with those two, stay on without me?" (338) The waiter came back with the change, and that gave her, under this appeal, a moment's respite. But when he had retreated again with the "tip" gathered in with graceful thanks on a subtle hint from Sir Claude's forefinger, the latter, while pocketing the money, followed the appeal up. "Would you let her make you live with Mrs. Beale?"
"Without you? Never," Maisie then answered. "Never," she said again.
It made him quite triumph, and she was indeed herself shaken by the mere sound of it. "So you see you're not, like her," he exclaimed, "so ready to give me away!" Then he came back to his original question. "CAN you choose? I mean can you settle it by a word yourself? Will you stay on with us without her?"
Now in truth she felt the coldness of her terror, and it seemed to her that suddenly she knew, as she knew it about Sir Claude, what she was afraid of. She was afraid of herself. She looked at him in such a way that it brought, she could see, wonder into his face, a wonder held in check, however, by his frank pretension to play fair with her, not to use advantages, not to hurry nor hustle her--only to put her chance clearly and kindly before her. "May I think?" she finally asked.
"Certainly, certainly. But how long?"
"Oh only a little while," she said meekly.
He had for a moment the air of wishing to look at it as if it were the most cheerful prospect in the world. "But what shall we do while you're thinking?" He spoke as if thought were compatible with almost any distraction.
There was but one thing Maisie wished to do, and after an instant she expressed it. "Have we got to go back to the hotel?"
"Do you want to?"
"There's not the least necessity for it." He bent his eyes on his watch; his face was now very grave. "We can do anything else in the world." He looked at her again almost as if he were on the point of saying that they might for instance start off for Paris. But even while she wondered if that were not coming he had a sudden drop. "We can take a walk."
She was all ready, but he sat there as if he had still something more to say. This too, however, didn't come; so she herself spoke. "I think I should like to see Mrs. Wix first."
"Before you decide? All right--all right." He had put on his hat, but he had still to light a cigarette. He smoked a minute, with his head thrown back, looking at the ceiling; then he said: "There's one thing to remember--I've a right to impress it on you: we stand absolutely in the place of your parents. It's their defection, their extraordinary baseness, that has made our responsibility. Never was a young person more directly committed and confided." He appeared to say this over, at the ceiling, through his smoke, a little for his own illumination. It carried him after a pause somewhat further. "Though I admit it was to each of us separately."
He gave her so at that moment and in that attitude the sense of wanting, as it were, to be on her side--on the side of what would be in every way most right (340) and wise and charming for her--that she felt a sudden desire to prove herself not less delicate and magnanimous, not less solicitous for his own interests. What were these but that of the "regularity" he had just before spoken of? "It WAS to each of you separately," she accordingly with much earnestness remarked. "But don't you remember? I brought you together."
He jumped up with a delighted laugh. "Remember? Rather! You brought us together, you brought us together. Come!"
(341) Chapter 31
She remained out with him for a time of which she could take no measure save that it was too short for what she wished to make of it--an interval, a barrier indefinite, insurmountable. They walked about, they dawdled, they looked in shop-windows; they did all the old things exactly as if to try to get back all the old safety, to get something out of them that they had always got before. This had come before, whatever it was, without their trying, and nothing came now but the intenser consciousness of their quest and their subterfuge. The strangest thing of all was what had really happened to the old safety. What had really happened was that Sir Claude was "free" and that Mrs. Beale was "free," and yet that the new medium was somehow still more oppressive than the old. She could feel that Sir Claude concurred with her in the sense that the oppression would be worst at the inn, where, till something should be settled, they would feel the want of something--of what could they call it but a footing? The question of the settlement loomed larger to her now: it depended, she had learned, so completely on herself. Her choice, as her friend had called it, was there before her like an impossible sum on a slate, a sum that in spite of her plea for consideration she simply got off from doing while she walked about with him. She must see Mrs. Wix before she could do her sum; therefore the longer before she saw (342) her the more distant would be the ordeal. She met at present no demand whatever of her obligation; she simply plunged, to avoid it, deeper into the company of Sir Claude. She saw nothing that she had seen hitherto--no touch in the foreign picture that had at first been always before her. The only touch was that of Sir Claude's hand, and to feel her own in it was her mute resistance to time. She went about as sightlessly as if he had been leading her blindfold. If they were afraid of themselves it was themselves they would find at the inn. She was certain now that what awaited them there would be to lunch with Mrs. Beale. All her instinct was to avoid that, to draw out their walk, to find pretexts, to take him down upon the beach, to take him to the end of the pier. He said no other word to her about what they had talked of at breakfast, and she had a dim vision of how his way of not letting her see him definitely wait for anything from her would make any one who should know of it, would make Mrs. Wix for instance, think him more than ever a gentleman. It was true that once or twice, on the jetty, on the sands, he looked at her for a minute with eyes that seemed to propose to her to come straight off with him to Paris. That, however, was not to give her a nudge about her responsibility. He evidently wanted to procrastinate quite as much as she did; he was not a bit more in a hurry to get back to the others. Maisie herself at this moment could be secretly merciless to Mrs. Wix--to the extent at any rate of not caring if her continued disappearance did make that lady begin to worry about what had become of her, even begin to wonder perhaps if the (343) truants hadn't found their remedy. Her want of mercy to Mrs. Beale indeed was at least as great; for Mrs. Beale's worry and wonder would be as much greater as the object at which they were directed. When at last Sir Claude, at the far end of the plage, which they had already, in the many-coloured crowd, once traversed, suddenly, with a look at his watch, remarked that it was time, not to get back to the table d'hote, but to get over to the station and meet the Paris papers--when he did this she found herself thinking quite with intensity what Mrs. Beale and Mrs. Wix WOULD say. On the way over to the station she had even a mental picture of the stepfather and the pupil established in a little place in the South while the governess and the stepmother, in a little place in the North, remained linked by a community of blankness and by the endless series of remarks it would give birth to. The Paris papers had come in and her companion, with a strange extravagance, purchased no fewer than eleven: it took up time while they hovered at the bookstall on the restless platform, where the little volumes in a row were all yellow and pink and one of her favourite old women in one of her favourite old caps absolutely wheedled him into the purchase of three. They had thus so much to carry home that it would have seemed simpler, with such a provision for a nice straight journey through France, just to "nip," as she phrased it to herself, into the coupe of the train that, a little further along, stood waiting to start. She asked Sir Claude where it was going.
"To Paris. Fancy!"
(344) She could fancy well enough. They stood there and smiled, he with all the newspapers under his arm and she with the three books, one yellow and two pink. He had told her the pink were for herself and the yellow one for Mrs. Beale, implying in an interesting way that these were the natural divisions in France of literature for the young and for the old. She knew how prepared they looked to pass into the train, and she presently brought out to her companion: "I wish we could go. Won't you take me?"
He continued to smile. "Would you really come?"
"Oh yes, oh yes. Try."
"Do you want me to take our tickets?"
"Yes, take them."
"Without any luggage?"
She showed their two armfuls, smiling at him as he smiled at her, but so conscious of being more frightened than she had ever been in her life that she seemed to see her whiteness as in a glass. Then she knew that what she saw was Sir Claude's whiteness: he was as frightened as herself. "Haven't we got plenty of luggage?" she asked. "Take the tickets--haven't you time? When does the train go?"
Sir Claude turned to a porter. "When does the train go?"
The man looked up at the station-clock. "In two minutes. Monsieur est place?"
"Et vos billets?--vous n'avez que le temps." Then after a look at Maisie, "Monsieur veut-il que je les prenne?" the man said.
(345) Sir Claude turned back to her. "Veux-tu bien qu'il en prenne?"
It was the most extraordinary thing in the world: in the intensity of her excitement she not only by illumination understood all their French, but fell into it with an active perfection. She addressed herself straight to the porter. "Prenny, prenny. Oh prenny!"
"Ah si mademoiselle le veut!--" He waited there for the money.
But Sir Claude only stared--stared at her with his white face. "You HAVE chosen then? You'll let her go?"
Maisie carried her eyes wistfully to the train, where, amid cries of "En voiture, en voiture!" heads were at windows and doors banging loud. The porter was pressing. "Ah vous n'avez plus le temps!"
"It's going--it's going!" cried Maisie.
They watched it move, they watched it start; then the man went his way with a shrug. "It's gone!" Sir Claude said.
Maisie crept some distance up the platform; she stood there with her back to her companion, following it with her eyes, keeping down tears, nursing her pink and yellow books. She had had a real fright but had fallen back to earth. The odd thing was that in her fall her fear too had been dashed down and broken. It was gone. She looked round at last, from where she had paused, at Sir Claude's, and then saw that his wasn't. It sat there with him on the bench to which, against the wall of the station, he had retreated, and where, leaning back and, as she thought, rather queer, he still waited. She came down to him and he (346) continued to offer his ineffectual intention of pleasantry. "Yes, I've chosen," she said to him. "I'll let her go if you--if you--"
She faltered; he quickly took her up. "If I, if I--?"
"If you'll give up Mrs. Beale."
"Oh!" he exclaimed; on which she saw how much, how hopelessly he was afraid. She had supposed at the cafe that it was of his rebellion, of his gathering motive; but how could that be when his temptations--that temptation for example of the train they had just lost--were after all so slight? Mrs. Wix was right. He was afraid of his weakness--of his weakness.
She couldn't have told you afterwards how they got back to the inn: she could only have told you that even from this point they had not gone straight, but once more had wandered and loitered and, in the course of it, had found themselves on the edge of the quay where--still apparently with half an hour to spare--the boat prepared for Folkestone was drawn up. Here they hovered as they had done at the station; here they exchanged silences again, but only exchanged silences. There were punctual people on the deck, choosing places, taking the best; some of them already contented, all established and shawled, facing to England and attended by the steward, who, confined on such a day to the lighter offices, tucked up the ladies' feet or opened bottles with a pop. They looked down at these things without a word; they even picked out a good place for two that was left in the lee of a lifeboat; and if they lingered rather (347) stupidly, neither deciding to go aboard nor deciding to come away, it was Sir Claude quite as much as she who wouldn't move. It was Sir Claude who cultivated the supreme stillness by which she knew best what he meant. He simply meant that he knew all she herself meant. But there was no pretence of pleasantry now: their faces were grave and tired. When at last they lounged off it was as if his fear, his fear of his weakness, leaned upon her heavily as they followed the harbour. In the hall of the hotel as they passed in she saw a battered old box that she recognised, an ancient receptacle with dangling labels that she knew and a big painted W, lately done over and intensely personal, that seemed to stare at her with a recognition and even with some suspicion of its own. Sir Claude caught it too, and there was agitation for both of them in the sight of this object on the move. Was Mrs. Wix going and was the responsibility of giving her up lifted, at a touch, from her pupil? Her pupil and her pupil's companion, transfixed a moment, held, in the presence of the omen, communication more intense than in the presence either of the Paris train or of the Channel steamer; then, and still without a word, they went straight upstairs. There, however, on the landing, out of sight of the people below, they collapsed so that they had to sink down together for support: they simply seated themselves on the uppermost step while Sir Claude grasped the hand of his stepdaughter with a pressure that at another moment would probably have made her squeal. Their books and papers were all scattered. "She thinks you've given her up!"
(348) "Then I must see her--I must see her," Maisie said.
"To bid her good-bye?"
"I must see her--I must see her," the child only repeated.
They sat a minute longer, Sir Claude, with his tight grip of her hand and looking away from her, looking straight down the staircase to where, round the turn, electric bells rattled and the pleasant sea-draught blew. At last, loosening his grasp, he slowly got up while she did the same. They went together along the lobby, but before they reached the salon he stopped again. "If I give up Mrs. Beale--?"
"I'll go straight out with you again and not come back till she has gone."
He seemed to wonder. "Till Mrs. Beale--?"
He had made it sound like a bad joke. "I mean till Mrs. Wix leaves--in that boat."
Sir Claude looked almost foolish. "Is she going in that boat?"
"I suppose so. I won't even bid her good-bye," Maisie continued. "I'll stay out till the boat has gone. I'll go up to the old rampart."
"The old rampart?"
"I'll sit on that old bench where you see the gold Virgin."
"The gold Virgin?" he vaguely echoed. But it brought his eyes back to her as if after an instant he could see the place and the thing she named--could see her sitting there alone. "While I break with Mrs. Beale?"
"While you break with Mrs. Beale."
(349) He gave a long deep smothered sigh. "I must see her first."
"You won't do as I do? Go out and wait?"
"Wait?"--once more he appeared at a loss.
"Till they both have gone," Maisie said.
"Giving US up?"
"Giving US up."
Oh with what a face for an instant he wondered if that could be! But his wonder the next moment only made him go to the door and, with his hand on the knob, stand as if listening for voices. Maisie listened, but she heard none. All she beard presently was Sir Claude's saying with speculation quite choked off, but so as not to be heard in the salon: "Mrs. Beale will never go." On this he pushed open the door and she went in with him. The salon was empty, but as an effect of their entrance the lady he had just mentioned appeared at the door of the bedroom. "Is she going?" he then demanded.
Mrs. Beale came forward, closing her door behind her. "I've had the most extraordinary scene with her. She told me yesterday she'd stay."
"And my arrival has altered it?"
"Oh we took that into account!" Mrs. Beale was flushed, which was never quite becoming to her, and her face visibly testified to the encounter to which she alluded. Evidently, however, she had not been worsted, and she held up her head and smiled and rubbed her hands as if in sudden emulation of the patronne. "She promised she'd stay even if you should come."
"Then why has she changed?"
(350) "Because she's a hound. The reason she herself gives is that you've been out too long."
Sir Claude stared. "What has that to do with it?"
"You've been out an age," Mrs. Beale continued; "I myself couldn't imagine what had become of you. The whole morning," she exclaimed, "and luncheon long since over!"
Sir Claude appeared indifferent to that. "Did Mrs. Wix go down with you?" he only asked.
"Not she; she never budged!"--and Mrs. Beale's flush, to Maisie's vision, deepened. "She moped there--she didn't so much as come out to me; and when I sent to invite her she simply declined to appear. She said she wanted nothing, and I went down alone. But when I came up, fortunately a little primed"--and Mrs. Beale smiled a fine smile of battle--"she WAS in the field!"
"And you had a big row?"
"We had a big row"--she assented with a frankness as large. "And while you left me to that sort of thing I should like to know where you were!" She paused for a reply, but Sir Claude merely looked at Maisie; a movement that promptly quickened her challenge. "Where the mischief have you been?"
"You seem to take it as hard as Mrs. Wix," Sir Claude returned.
"I take it as I choose to take it, and you don't answer my question."
He looked again at Maisie--as if for an aid to this effort; whereupon she smiled at her stepmother and offered: "We've been everywhere."
Mrs. Beale, however, made her no response, thereby (351) adding to a surprise of which our young lady had already felt the light brush. She had received neither a greeting nor a glance, but perhaps this was not more remarkable than the omission, in respect to Sir Claude, parted with in London two days before, of any sign of a sense of their reunion. Most remarkable of all was Mrs. Beale's announcement of the pledge given by Mrs. Wix and not hitherto revealed to her pupil. Instead of heeding this witness she went on with acerbity: "It might surely have occurred to you that something would come up."
Sir Claude looked at his watch. "I had no idea it was so late, nor that we had been out so long. We weren't hungry. It passed like a flash. What HAS come up?"
"Oh that she's disgusted," said Mrs. Beale.
"With whom then?"
"With Maisie." Even now she never looked at the child, who stood there equally associated and disconnected. "For having no moral sense."
"How SHOULD she have?" Sir Claude tried again to shine a little at the companion of his walk. "How at any rate is it proved by her going out with me?"
"Don't ask ME; ask that woman. She drivels when she doesn't rage," Mrs. Beale declared.
"And she leaves the child?"
"She leaves the child," said Mrs. Beale with great emphasis and looking more than ever over Maisie's head.
In this position suddenly a change came into her face, caused, as the others could the next thing see, by the reappearance of Mrs. Wix in the doorway (352) which, on coming in at Sir Claude's heels, Maisie had left gaping. "I DON'T leave the child--I don't, I don't!" she thundered from the threshold, advancing upon the opposed three but addressing herself directly to Maisie. She was girded--positively harnessed--for departure, arrayed as she had been arrayed on her advent and armed with a small fat rusty reticule which, almost in the manner of a battle-axe, she brandished in support of her words. She had clearly come straight from her room, where Maisie in an instant guessed she had directed the removal of her minor effects. "I don't leave you till I've given you another chance. Will you come WITH me?"
Maisie turned to Sir Claude, who struck her as having been removed to a distance of about a mile. To Mrs. Beale she turned no more than Mrs. Beale had turned: she felt as if already their difference had been disclosed. What had come out about that in the scene between the two women? Enough came out now, at all events, as she put it practically to her stepfather. "Will YOU come? Won't you?" she enquired as if she had not already seen that she should have to give him up. It was the last flare of her dream. By this time she was afraid of nothing.
"I should think you'd be too proud to ask!" Mrs. Wix interposed. Mrs. Wix was herself conspicuously too proud.
But at the child's words Mrs. Beale had fairly bounded. "Come away from ME, Maisie?" It was a wail of dismay and reproach, in which her stepdaughter was astonished to read that she had had no hostile consciousness and that if she had been so (353) actively grand it was not from suspicion, but from strange entanglements of modesty.
Sir Claude presented to Mrs. Beale an expression positively sick. "Don't put it to her THAT way!" There had indeed been something in Mrs. Beale's tone, and for a moment our young lady was reminded of the old days in which so many of her friends had been "compromised."
This friend blushed; she was before Mrs. Wix, and though she bridled she took the hint. "No--it isn't the way." Then she showed she knew the way. "Don't be a still bigger fool, dear, but go straight to your room and wait there till I can come to you."
Maisie made no motion to obey, but Mrs. Wix raised a hand that forestalled every evasion. "Don't move till you've heard me. I'M going, but I must first understand. Have you lost it again?"
Maisie surveyed--for the idea of a describable loss--the immensity of space. Then she replied lamely enough: "I feel as if I had lost everything."
Mrs. Wix looked dark. "Do you mean to say you HAVE lost what we found together with so much difficulty two days ago?" As her pupil failed of response she continued: "Do you mean to say you've already forgotten what we found together?"
Maisie dimly remembered. "My moral sense?"
"Your moral sense. HAVEN'T I, after all, brought it out?" She spoke as she had never spoken even in the schoolroom and with the book in her hand.
It brought back to the child's recollection how she sometimes couldn't repeat on Friday the sentence that had been glib on Wednesday, and she dealt all (354) feebly and ruefully with the present tough passage. Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale stood there like visitors at an "exam." She had indeed an instant a whiff of the faint flower that Mrs. Wix pretended to have plucked and now with such a peremptory hand thrust at her nose. Then it left her, and, as if she were sinking with a slip from a foothold, her arms made a short jerk. What this jerk represented was the spasm within her of something still deeper than a moral sense. She looked at her examiner; she looked at the visitors; she felt the rising of the tears she had kept down at the station. They had nothing--no, distinctly nothing--to do with her moral sense. The only thing was the old flat shameful schoolroom plea. "I don't know--I don't know."
"Then you've lost it." Mrs. Wix seemed to close the book as she fixed the straighteners on Sir Claude. "You've nipped it in the bud. You've killed it when it had begun to live."
She was a newer Mrs. Wix than ever, a Mrs. Wix high and great; but Sir Claude was not after all to be treated as a little boy with a missed lesson. "I've not killed anything," he said; "on the contrary I think I've produced life. I don't know what to call it--I haven't even known how decently to deal with it, to approach it; but, whatever it is, it's the most beautiful thing I've ever met--it's exquisite, it's sacred." He had his hands in his pockets and, though a trace of the sickness he had just shown perhaps lingered there, his face bent itself with extraordinary gentleness on both the friends he was about to lose. "Do you know what I came back for?" he asked of the elder.
(355) "I think I do!" cried Mrs. Wix, surprisingly unmollified and with the heat of her late engagement with Mrs. Beale still on her brow. That lady, as if a little besprinkled by such turns of the tide, uttered a loud inarticulate protest and, averting herself, stood a moment at the window.
"I came back with a proposal," said Sir Claude.
"To me?" Mrs. Wix asked.
"To Maisie. That she should give you up."
"And does she?"
Sir Claude wavered. "Tell her!" he then exclaimed to the child, also turning away as if to give her the chance. But Mrs. Wix and her pupil stood confronted in silence, Maisie whiter than ever--more awkward, more rigid and yet more dumb. They looked at each other hard, and as nothing came from them Sir Claude faced about again. "You won't tell her?--you can't?" Still she said nothing; whereupon, addressing Mrs. Wix, he broke into a kind of ecstasy. "She refused--she refused!"
Maisie, at this, found her voice. "I didn't refuse. I didn't," she repeated.
It brought Mrs. Beale straight back to her. "You accepted, angel--you accepted!" She threw herself upon the child and, before Maisie could resist, had sunk with her upon the sofa, possessed of her, encircling her. "You've given her up already, you've given her up for ever, and you're ours and ours only now, and the sooner she's off the better!"
Maisie had shut her eyes, but at a word of Sir Claude's they opened. "Let her go!" he said to Mrs. Beale.
(356) "Never, never, never!" cried Mrs. Beale. Maisie felt herself more compressed.
"Let her go!" Sir Claude more intensely repeated. He was looking at Mrs. Beale and there was something in his voice. Maisie knew from a loosening of arms that she had become conscious of what it was; she slowly rose from the sofa, and the child stood there again dropped and divided. "You're free--you're free," Sir Claude went on; at which Maisie's back became aware of a push that vented resentment and that placed her again in the centre of the room, the cynosure of every eye and not knowing which way to turn.
She turned with an effort to Mrs. Wix. "I didn't refuse to give you up. I said I would if HE'D give up--!"
"Give up Mrs. Beale?" burst from Mrs. Wix.
"Give up Mrs. Beale. What do you call that but exquisite?" Sir Claude demanded of all of them, the lady mentioned included; speaking with a relish as intense now as if some lovely work of art or of nature had suddenly been set down among them. He was rapidly recovering himself on this basis of fine appreciation. "She made her condition--with such a sense of what it should be! She made the only right one."
"The only right one?"--Mrs. Beale returned to the charge. She had taken a moment before a snub from him, but she was not to be snubbed on this. "How can you talk such rubbish and how can you back her up in such impertinence? What in the world have you done to her to make her think of such stuff?" She stood there in righteous wrath; she flashed her (357) eyes round the circle. Maisie took them full in her own, knowing that here at last was the moment she had had most to reckon with. But as regards her stepdaughter Mrs. Beale subdued herself to a question deeply mild. "HAVE you made, my own love, any such condition as that?"
Somehow, now that it was there, the great moment was not so bad. What helped the child was that she knew what she wanted. All her learning and learning had made her at last learn that; so that if she waited an instant to reply it was only from the desire to be nice. Bewilderment had simply gone or at any rate was going fast. Finally she answered. "Will you give HIM up? Will you?"
"Ah leave her alone--leave her, leave her!" Sir Claude in sudden supplication murmured to Mrs. Beale.
Mrs. Wix at the same instant found another apostrophe. "Isn't it enough for you, madam, to have brought her to discussing your relations?"
Mrs. Beale left Sir Claude unheeded, but Mrs. Wix could make her flame. "My relations? What do you know, you hideous creature, about my relations, and what business on earth have you to speak of them? Leave the room this instant, you horrible old woman!"
"I think you had better go--you must really catch your boat," Sir Claude said distressfully to Mrs. Wix. He was out of it now, or wanted to be; he knew the worst and had accepted it: what now concerned him was to prevent, to dissipate vulgarities. "Won't you go--won't you just get off quickly?"
(358) "With the child as quickly as you like. Not without her." Mrs. Wix was adamant.
"Then why did you lie to me, you fiend?" Mrs. Beale almost yelled. "Why did you tell me an hour ago that you had given her up?"
"Because I despaired of her--because I thought she had left me." Mrs. Wix turned to Maisie. "You were WITH them--in their connexion. But now your eyes are open, and I take you!"
"No you don't!" and Mrs. Beale made, with a great fierce jump, a wild snatch at her stepdaughter. She caught her by the arm and, completing an instinctive movement, whirled her round in a further leap to the door, which had been closed by Sir Claude the instant their voices had risen. She fell back against it and, even while denouncing and waving off Mrs. Wix, kept it closed in an incoherence of passion. "You don't take her, but you bundle yourself: she stays with her own people and she's rid of you! I never heard anything so monstrous!" Sir Claude had rescued Maisie and kept hold of her; he held her in front of him, resting his hands very lightly on her shoulders and facing the loud adversaries. Mrs. Beale's flush had dropped; she had turned pale with a splendid wrath. She kept protesting and dismissing Mrs. Wix; she glued her back to the door to prevent Maisie's flight; she drove out Mrs. Wix by the window or the chimney. "You're a nice one--'discussing relations'--with your talk of our 'connexion' and your insults! What in the world's our connexion but the love of the child who's our duty and our life (359) and who holds us together as closely as she originally brought us?"
"I know, I know!" Maisie said with a burst of eagerness. "I did bring you."
The strangest of laughs escaped from Sir Claude. "You did bring us--you did!" His hands went up and down gently on her shoulders.
Mrs. Wix so dominated the situation that she had something sharp for every one. "There you have it, you see!" she pregnantly remarked to her pupil.
"WILL you give him up?" Maisie persisted to Mrs. Beale.
"To YOU, you abominable little horror?" that lady indignantly enquired, "and to this raving old demon who has filled your dreadful little mind with her wickedness? Have you been a hideous little hypocrite all these years that I've slaved to make you love me and deludedly believed you did?"
"I love Sir Claude--I love HIM," Maisie replied with an awkward sense that she appeared to offer it as something that would do as well. Sir Claude had continued to pat her, and it was really an answer to his pats.
"She hates you--she hates you," he observed with the oddest quietness to Mrs. Beale.
His quietness made her blaze. "And you back her up in it and give me up to outrage?"
"No; I only insist that she's free--she's free."
Mrs. Beale stared--Mrs. Beale glared. "Free to starve with this pauper lunatic?"
"I'll do more for her than YOU ever did!" Mrs. Wix retorted. "I'll work my fingers to the bone."
(360) Maisie, with Sir Claude's hands still on her shoulders, felt, just as she felt the fine surrender in them, that over her head he looked in a certain way at Mrs. Wix. "You needn't do that," she heard him say. "She has means."
"Means?--Maisie?" Mrs. Beale shrieked. "Means that her vile father has stolen!"
"I'll get them back--I'll get them back. I'll look into it." He smiled and nodded at Mrs. Wix.
This had a fearful effect on his other friend. "Haven't i looked into it, I should like to know, and haven't I found an abyss? It's too inconceivable--your cruelty to me!" she wildly broke out. She had hot tears in her eyes.
He spoke to her very kindly, almost coaxingly. "We'll look into it again; we'll look into it together. It IS an abyss, but he CAN be made--or Ida can. Think of the money they're getting now!" he laughed. "It's all right, it's all right," he continued. "It wouldn't do--it wouldn't do. We CAN'T work her in. It's perfectly true--she's unique. We're not good enough--oh no!" and, quite exuberantly, he laughed again.
"Not good enough, and that beast IS?" Mrs. Beale shouted.
At this for a moment there was a hush in the room, and in the midst of it Sir Claude replied to the question by moving with Maisie to Mrs. Wix. The next thing the child knew she was at that lady's side with an arm firmly grasped. Mrs. Beale still guarded the door. "Let them pass," said Sir Claude at last.
She remained there, however; Maisie saw the pair (361) look at each other. Then she saw Mrs. Beale turn to her. "I'm your mother now, Maisie. And he's your father."
"That's just where it is!" sighed Mrs. Wix with an effect of irony positively detached and philosophic.
Mrs. Beale continued to address her young friend, and her effort to be reasonable and tender was in its way remarkable. "We're representative, you know, of Mr. Farange and his former wife. This person represents mere illiterate presumption. We take our stand on the law."
"Oh the law, the law!" Mrs. Wix superbly jeered. "You had better indeed let the law have a look at you!"
"Let them pass--let them pass!" Sir Claude pressed his friend hard--he pleaded.
But she fastened herself still to Maisie. "DO you hate me, dearest?"
Maisie looked at her with new eyes, but answered as she had answered before. "Will you give him up?"
Mrs. Beale's rejoinder hung fire, but when it came it was noble. "You shouldn't talk to me of such things!" She was shocked, she was scandalised to tears.
For Mrs. Wix, however, it was her discrimination that was indelicate. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" she roundly cried.
Sir Claude made a supreme appeal. "Will you be so good as to allow these horrors to terminate?"
Mrs. Beale fixed her eyes on him, and again Maisie watched them. "You should do him justice," Mrs. Wix went on to Mrs. Beale. "We've always been (362) devoted to him, Maisie and I--and he has shown how much he likes us. He would like to please her; he would like even, I think, to please me. But he hasn't given you up."
They stood confronted, the step-parents, still under Maisie's observation. That observation had never sunk so deep as at this particular moment. "Yes, my dear, I haven't given you up," Sir Claude said to Mrs. Beale at last, "and if you'd like me to treat our friends here as solemn witnesses I don't mind giving you my word for it that I never never will. There!" he dauntlessly exclaimed.
"He can't!" Mrs. Wix tragically commented.
Mrs. Beale, erect and alive in her defeat, jerked her handsome face about. "He can't!" she literally mocked.
"He can't, he can't, he can't!" Sir Claude's gay emphasis wonderfully carried it off.
Mrs. Beale took it all in, yet she held her ground; on which Maisie addressed Mrs. Wix. "Shan't we lose the boat?"
"Yes, we shall lose the boat," Mrs. Wix remarked to Sir Claude.
Mrs. Beale meanwhile faced full at Maisie. "I don't know what to make of you!" she launched.
"Good-bye," said Maisie to Sir Claude.
"Good-bye, Maisie," Sir Claude answered.
Mrs. Beale came away from the door. "Goodbye!" she hurled at Maisie; then passed straight across the room and disappeared in the adjoining one.
Sir Claude had reached the other door and opened (363) it. Mrs. Wix was already out. On the threshold Maisie paused; she put out her hand to her stepfather. He took it and held it a moment, and their eyes met as the eyes of those who have done for each other what they can. "Good-bye," he repeated.
"Good-bye." And Maisie followed Mrs. Wix.
They caught the steamer, which was just putting off, and, hustled across the gulf, found themselves on the deck so breathless and so scared that they gave up half the voyage to letting their emotion sink. It sank slowly and imperfectly; but at last, in mid-channel, surrounded by the quiet sea, Mrs. Wix had courage to revert. "I didn't look back, did you?"
"Yes. He wasn't there," said Maisie.
"Not on the balcony?"
Maisie waited a moment; then "He wasn't there" she simply said again.
Mrs. Wix also was silent a while. "He went to HER," she finally observed.
"Oh I know!" the child replied.
Mrs. Wix gave a sidelong look. She still had room for wonder at what Maisie knew.
The end of _What Maisie Knew_
Go to Preface and text through Chapter 18