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- What Maisie Knew - 30/53 -


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'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 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 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. 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


What Maisie Knew - 30/53

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