What Maisie Knew/Chapter XX
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 manœuvres 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 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 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 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 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 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.
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 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, 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'hôte 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 shewed the particular void 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.
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. 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 parlourmaid. 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 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 éclairage 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. 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 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 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 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."
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.