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- What Maisie Knew - 50/53 -
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 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!"
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 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 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!"
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.
Sir Claude turned back to her. "Veux-tu lieu quil 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 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
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