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- What Maisie Knew - 6/53 -


"Younger than you?"

Miss Overmore laughed again; it was the first time Maisie had seen her approach so nearly to a giggle.

"Younger than--no matter whom. I don't know anything about him and don't want to," she rather inconsequently added. "He's not my sort, and I'm sure, my own darling, he's not yours." And she repeated the free caress into which her colloquies with Maisie almost always broke and which made the child feel that her affection at least was a gage of safety. Parents had come to seem vague, but governesses were evidently to be trusted. Maisie's faith in Mrs. Wix for instance had suffered no lapse from the fact that all communication with her had temporarily dropped. During the first weeks of their separation Clara Matilda's mamma had repeatedly and dolefully written to her, and Maisie had answered with an enthusiasm controlled only by orthographical doubts; but the correspondence had been duly submitted to Miss Overmore, with the final effect of its not suiting her. It was this lady's view that Mr. Farange wouldn't care for it at all, and she ended by confessing--since her pupil pushed her--that she didn't care for it herself. She was furiously jealous, she said; and that weakness was but a new proof of her disinterested affection. She pronounced Mrs. Wix's effusions moreover illiterate and unprofitable; she made no scruple of declaring it monstrous that a woman in her senses should have placed the formation of her daughter's mind in such ridiculous hands. Maisie was well aware that the proprietress of the old brown dress and the old odd headgear was lower in the scale of "form" than Miss Overmore; but it was now brought home to her with pain that she was educationally quite out of the question. She was buried for the time beneath a conclusive remark of her critic's: "She's really beyond a joke!" This remark was made as that charming woman held in her hand the last letter that Maisie was to receive from Mrs. Wix; it was fortified by a decree proscribing the preposterous tie. "Must I then write and tell her?" the child bewilderedly asked: she grew pale at the dreadful things it appeared involved for her to say. "Don't dream of it, my dear-- I'll write: you may trust me!" cried Miss Overmore; who indeed wrote to such purpose that a hush in which you could have heard a pin drop descended upon poor Mrs. Wix. She gave for weeks and weeks no sign whatever of life: it was as if she had been as effectually disposed of by Miss Overmore's communication as her little girl, in the Harrow Road, had been disposed of by the terrible hansom. Her very silence became after this one of the largest elements of Maisie's consciousness; it proved a warm and habitable air, into which the child penetrated further than she dared ever to mention to her companions. Somewhere in the depths of it the dim straighteners were fixed upon her; somewhere out of the troubled little current Mrs. Wix intensely waited.

VII

It quite fell in with this intensity that one day, on returning from a walk with the housemaid, Maisie should have found her in the hall, seated on the stool usually occupied by the telegraph- boys who haunted Beale Farange's door and kicked their heels while, in his room, answers to their missives took form with the aid of smoke-puffs and growls. It had seemed to her on their parting that Mrs. Wix had reached the last limits of the squeeze, but she now felt those limits to be transcended and that the duration of her visitor's hug was a direct reply to Miss Overmore's veto. She understood in a flash how the visit had come to be possible--that Mrs. Wix, watching her chance, must have slipped in under protection of the fact that papa, always tormented in spite of arguments with the idea of a school, had, for a three days' excursion to Brighton, absolutely insisted on the attendance of her adversary. It was true that when Maisie explained their absence and their important motive Mrs. Wix wore an expression so peculiar that it could only have had its origin in surprise. This contradiction indeed peeped out only to vanish, for at the very moment that, in the spirit of it, she threw herself afresh upon her young friend a hansom crested with neat luggage rattled up to the door and Miss Overmore bounded out. The shock of her encounter with Mrs. Wix was less violent than Maisie had feared on seeing her and didn't at all interfere with the sociable tone in which, under her rival's eyes, she explained to her little charge that she had returned, for a particular reason, a day sooner than she first intended. She had left papa--in such nice lodgings--at Brighton; but he would come back to his dear little home on the morrow. As for Mrs. Wix, papa's companion supplied Maisie in later converse with the right word for the attitude of this personage: Mrs. Wix "stood up" to her in a manner that the child herself felt at the time to be astonishing. This occurred indeed after Miss Overmore had so far raised her interdict as to make a move to the dining-room, where, in the absence of any suggestion of sitting down, it was scarcely more than natural that even poor Mrs. Wix should stand up. Maisie at once enquired if at Brighton, this time, anything had come of the possibility of a school; to which, much to her surprise, Miss Overmore, who had always grandly repudiated it, replied after an instant, but quite as if Mrs. Wix were not there:

"It may be, darling, that something WILL come. The objection, I must tell you, has been quite removed."

At this it was still more startling to hear Mrs. Wix speak out with great firmness. "I don't think, if you'll allow me to say so, that there's any arrangement by which the objection can be 'removed.' What has brought me here to-day is that I've a message for Maisie from dear Mrs. Farange."

The child's heart gave a great thump. "Oh mamma's come back?"

"Not yet, sweet love, but she's coming," said Mrs. Wix, "and she has--most thoughtfully, you know--sent me on to prepare you."

"To prepare her for what, pray?" asked Miss Overmore, whose first smoothness began, with this news, to be ruffled.

Mrs. Wix quietly applied her straighteners to Miss Overmore's flushed beauty. "Well, miss, for a very important communication."

"Can't dear Mrs. Farange, as you so oddly call her, make her communications directly? Can't she take the trouble to write to her only daughter?" the younger lady demanded. "Maisie herself will tell you that it's months and months since she has had so much as a word from her."

"Oh but I've written to mamma!" cried the child as if this would do quite as well.

"That makes her treatment of you all the greater scandal," the governess in possession promptly declared.

"Mrs. Farange is too well aware," said Mrs. Wix with sustained spirit, "of what becomes of her letters in this house."

Maisie's sense of fairness hereupon interposed for her visitor. "You know, Miss Overmore, that papa doesn't like everything of mamma's."

"No one likes, my dear, to be made the subject of such language as your mother's letters contain. They were not fit for the innocent child to see," Miss Overmore observed to Mrs. Wix.

"Then I don't know what you complain of, and she's better without them. It serves every purpose that I'm in Mrs. Farange's confidence."

Miss Overmore gave a scornful laugh. "Then you must be mixed up with some extraordinary proceedings!"

"None so extraordinary," cried Mrs. Wix, turning very pale, "as to say horrible things about the mother to the face of the helpless daughter!"

"Things not a bit more horrible, I think," Miss Overmore returned, "than those you, madam, appear to have come here to say about the father!"

Mrs. Wix looked for a moment hard at Maisie, and then, turning again to this witness, spoke with a trembling voice. "I came to say nothing about him, and you must excuse Mrs. Farange and me if we're not so above all reproach as the companion of his travels."

The young woman thus described stared at the apparent breadth of the description--she needed a moment to take it in. Maisie, however, gazing solemnly from one of the disputants to the other, noted that her answer, when it came, perched upon smiling lips. "It will do quite as well, no doubt, if you come up to the requirements of the companion of Mrs. Farange's!"

Mrs. Wix broke into a queer laugh; it sounded to Maisie an unsuccessful imitation of a neigh. "That's just what I'm here to make known--how perfectly the poor lady comes up to them herself." She held up her head at the child. "You must take your mamma's message, Maisie, and you must feel that her wishing me to come to you with it this way is a great proof of interest and affection. She sends you her particular love and announces to you that she's engaged to be married to Sir Claude."

"Sir Claude?" Maisie wonderingly echoed. But while Mrs. Wix explained that this gentleman was a dear friend of Mrs. Farange's, who had been of great assistance to her in getting to Florence and in making herself comfortable there for the winter, she was not too violently shaken to perceive her old friend's enjoyment of the effect of this news on Miss Overmore. That young lady opened her eyes very wide; she immediately remarked that Mrs. Farange's marriage would of course put an end to any further pretension to take her daughter back. Mrs. Wix enquired with astonishment why it should do anything of the sort, and Miss Overmore gave as an instant reason that it was clearly but another dodge in a system of dodges. She wanted to get out of the bargain: why else had she now left Maisie on her father's hands weeks and weeks beyond the time about which she had originally made such a fuss? It was vain for Mrs. Wix to represent--as she speciously proceeded to do--that all this time would be made up as soon as Mrs. Farange returned: she, Miss Overmore, knew nothing, thank heaven, about her confederate, but was very sure any person capable of forming that sort of relation with the lady in Florence would easily agree to object to the presence in his house of the fruit of a union that his dignity must ignore. It was a game like another, and Mrs. Wix's visit was clearly the first move in it. Maisie found in this exchange of asperities a fresh incitement to the unformulated fatalism in which her sense of her own career had long since taken refuge; and it was the


What Maisie Knew - 6/53

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