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Chapter 17

If for reasons of her own she could bear the sense of Sir Claude's
displeasure her young endurance might have been put to a serious test.
The days went by without his knocking at her father's door, and the
time would have turned sadly to waste if something hadn't conspicuously
happened to give it a new difference. What took place was a marked
change in the attitude of Mrs. Beale--a change that somehow, even
in his absence, seemed to bring Sir Claude again into the house. It
began practically with a conversation that occurred between them the
day Maisie, came home alone in the cab. Mrs. Beale had by that time
returned, and she was more successful than their friend in extracting
from our young lady an account of the extraordinary passage with the
Captain. She came back to it repeatedly, and on the very next day it
grew distinct to the child that she was already in full possession of
what at the same moment had been enacted between her ladyship and Sir
Claude. This was the real origin of her final perception that though he
didn't come to the house her stepmother had some rare secret for not
being quite without him. This led to some rare passages with Mrs. Beale,
the promptest of which had been--not on Maisie's part--a wonderful
outbreak of tears. Mrs. Beale was not, as she herself said, a crying
creature: she hadn't cried, to Maisie's knowledge, since the lowly
governess days, the grey dawn of their connexion. But she wept now with
passion, professing loudly that it did her good and saying remarkable
things to her charge, for whom the occasion was an equal benefit, an
addition to all the fine precautionary wisdom stored away. It somehow
hadn't violated that wisdom, Maisie felt, for her to have told Mrs.
Beale what she had not told Sir Claude, inasmuch as the greatest strain,
to her sense, was between Sir Claude and Sir Claude's wife, and his wife
was just what Mrs. Beale was unfortunately not. He sent his stepdaughter
three days after the incident in Kensington Gardens a message as frank
as it was tender, and that was how Mrs. Beale had had to bring out in
a manner that seemed half an appeal, half a defiance: "Well yes, hang
it--I DO see him!"

How and when and where, however, were just what Maisie was not to
know--an exclusion moreover that she never questioned in the light of
a participation large enough to make him, while she shared the ample
void of Mrs. Beale's rather blank independence, shine in her yearning
eye like the single, the sovereign window-square of a great dim
disproportioned room. As far as her father was concerned such hours
had no interruption; and then it was clear between them that each
was thinking of the absent and thinking the other thought, so that he
was an object of conscious reference in everything they said or did.
The wretched truth, Mrs. Beale had to confess, was that she had hoped
against hope and that in the Regent's Park it was impossible Sir Claude
should really be in and out. Hadn't they at last to look the fact in the
face?--it was too disgustingly evident that no one after all had been
squared. Well, if no one had been squared it was because every one had
been vile. No one and every one were of course Beale and Ida, the extent
of whose power to be nasty was a thing that, to a little girl, Mrs.
Beale simply couldn't give chapter and verse for. Therefore it was that
to keep going at all, as she said, that lady had to make, as she also
said, another arrangement--the arrangement in which Maisie was included
only to the point of knowing it existed and wondering wistfully what it
was. Conspicuously at any rate it had a side that was responsible for
Mrs. Beale's sudden emotion and sudden confidence--a demonstration
this, however, of which the tearfulness was far from deterrent to our
heroine's thought of how happy she should be if she could only make an
arrangement for herself. Mrs. Beale's own operated, it appeared, with
regularity and frequency; for it was almost every day or two that she
was able to bring Maisie a message and to take one back. It had been
over the vision of what, as she called it, he did for her that she
broke down; and this vision was kept in a manner before Maisie by a
subsequent increase not only of the gaiety, but literally--it seemed not
presumptuous to perceive--of the actual virtue of her friend. The friend
was herself the first to proclaim it: he had pulled her up immensely--he
had quite pulled her round. She had charming tormenting words about him:
he was her good fairy, her hidden spring--above all he was just her
"higher" conscience. That was what had particularly come out with her
startling tears: he had made her, dear man, think ever so much better of
herself. It had been thus rather surprisingly revealed that she had been
in a way to think ill, and Maisie was glad to hear of the corrective at
the same time that she heard of the ailment.

She presently found herself supposing, and in spite of her envy even
hoping, that whenever Mrs. Beale was out of the house Sir Claude had
in some manner the satisfaction of it. This was now of more frequent
occurrence than ever before--so much so that she would have thought of
her stepmother as almost extravagantly absent had it not been that, in
the first place, her father was a superior specimen of that habit: it
was the frequent remark of his present wife, as it had been, before the
tribunals of their country, a prominent plea of her predecessor, that
he scarce came home even to sleep. In the second place Mrs. Beale, when
she WAS on the spot, had now a beautiful air of longing to make up for
everything. The only shadow in such bright intervals was that, as Maisie
put it to herself, she could get nothing by questions. It was in the
nature of things to be none of a small child's business, even when a
small child had from the first been deluded into a fear that she might
be only too much initiated. Things then were in Maisie's experience so
true to their nature that questions were almost always improper; but
she learned on the other hand soon to recognise how at last, sometimes,
patient little silences and intelligent little looks could be rewarded
by delightful little glimpses. There had been years at Beale Farange's
when the monosyllable "he" meant always, meant almost violently, the
master; but all that was changed at a period at which Sir Claude's
merits were of themselves so much in the air that it scarce took even
two letters to name him. "He keeps me up splendidly--he does, my own
precious," Mrs. Beale would observe to her comrade; or else she would
say that the situation at the other establishment had reached a point
that could scarcely be believed--the point, monstrous as it sounded,
of his not having laid eyes upon her for twelve days. "She" of course
at Beale Farange's had never meant any one but Ida, and there was the
difference in this case that it now meant Ida with renewed intensity.
Mrs. Beale--it was striking--was in a position to animadvert more and
more upon her dreadfulness, the moral of all which appeared to be how
abominably yet blessedly little she had to do with her husband. This
flow of information came home to our two friends because, truly, Mrs.
Beale had not much more to do with her own; but that was one of the
reflexions that Maisie could make without allowing it to break the
spell of her present sympathy. How could such a spell be anything but
deep when Sir Claude's influence, operating from afar, at last really
determined the resumption of his stepdaughter's studies? Mrs. Beale
again took fire about them and was quite vivid for Maisie as to their
being the great matter to which the dear absent one kept her up.

This was the second source--I have just alluded to the first--of the
child's consciousness of something that, very hopefully, she described
to herself as a new phase; and it also presented in the brightest light
the fresh enthusiasm with which Mrs. Beale always reappeared and which
really gave Maisie a happier sense than she had yet had of being very
dear at least to two persons. That she had small remembrance at present
of a third illustrates, I am afraid, a temporary oblivion of Mrs. Wix,
an accident to be explained only by a state of unnatural excitement. For
what was the form taken by Mrs. Beale's enthusiasm and acquiring relief
in the domestic conditions still left to her but the delightful form of
"reading" with her little charge on lines directly prescribed and in
works profusely supplied by Sir Claude? He had got hold of an awfully
good list--"mostly essays, don't you know?" Mrs. Beale had said; a word
always august to Maisie, but henceforth to be softened by hazy, in fact
by quite languorous edges. There was at any rate a week in which no less
than nine volumes arrived, and the impression was to be gathered from
Mrs. Beale that the obscure intercourse she enjoyed with Sir Claude not
only involved an account and a criticism of studies, but was organised
almost for the very purpose of report and consultation. It was for
Maisie's education in short that, as she often repeated, she closed her
door--closed it to the gentlemen who used to flock there in such numbers
and whom her husband's practical desertion of her would have made it a
course of the highest indelicacy to receive. Maisie was familiar from of
old with the principle at least of the care that a woman, as Mrs. Beale
phrased it, attractive and exposed must take of her "character," and was
duly impressed with the rigour of her stepmother's scruples. There was
literally no one of the other sex whom she seemed to feel at liberty to
see at home, and when the child risked an enquiry about the ladies who,
one by one, during her own previous period, had been made quite loudly
welcome, Mrs. Beale hastened to inform her that, one by one, they had,
the fiends, been found out, after all, to be awful. If she wished to
know more about them she was recommended to approach her father.

Maisie had, however, at the very moment of this injunction much livelier
curiosities, for the dream of lectures at an institution had at last
become a reality, thanks to Sir Claude's now unbounded energy in
discovering what could be done. It stood out in this connexion that when
you came to look into things in a spirit of earnestness an immense deal
could be done for very little more than your fare in the Underground.
The institution--there was a splendid one in a part of the town but
little known to the child--became, in the glow of such a spirit, a
thrilling place, and the walk to it from the station through Glower
Street (a pronunciation for which Mrs. Beale once laughed at her little
friend) a pathway literally strewn with "subjects." Maisie imagined
herself to pluck them as she went, though they thickened in the great
grey rooms where the fountain of knowledge, in the form usually of a
high voice that she took at first to be angry, plashed in the stillness
of rows of faces thrust out like empty jugs. "It MUST do us good--it's
all so hideous," Mrs. Beale had immediately declared; manifesting a
purity of resolution that made these occasions quite the most harmonious
of all the many on which the pair had pulled together. Maisie certainly
had never, in such an association, felt so uplifted, and never above
all been so carried off her feet, as at the moments of Mrs. Beale's
breathlessly re-entering the house and fairly shrieking upstairs to
know if they should still be in time for a lecture. Her stepdaughter,
all ready from the earliest hours, almost leaped over the banister to
respond, and they dashed out together in quest of learning as hard as
they often dashed back to release Mrs. Beale for other preoccupations.
There had been in short no bustle like these particular spasms, once
they had broken out, since that last brief flurry when Mrs. Wix, blowing
as if she were grooming her, "made up" for everything previously lost at
her father's.

These weeks as well were too few, but they were flooded with a new
emotion, part of which indeed came from the possibility that, through
the long telescope of Glower Street, or perhaps between the pillars of
the institution--which impressive objects were what Maisie thought most
made it one--they should some day spy Sir Claude. That was what Mrs.
Beale, under pressure, had said--doubtless a little impatiently: "Oh
yes, oh yes, some day!" His joining them was clearly far less of a
matter of course than was to have been gathered from his original
profession of desire to improve in their company his own mind; and
this sharpened our young lady's guess that since that occasion either
something destructive had happened or something desirable hadn't. Mrs.
Beale had thrown but a partial light in telling her how it had turned
out that nobody had been squared. Maisie wished at any rate that
somebody WOULD be squared. However, though in every approach to the
temple of knowledge she watched in vain for Sir Claude, there was
no doubt about the action of his loved image as an incentive and a
recompense. When the institution was most on pillars--or, as Mrs. Beale
put it, on stilts--when the subject was deepest and the lecture longest
and the listeners ugliest, then it was they both felt their patron in
the background would be most pleased with them. One day, abruptly, with
a glance at this background, Mrs. Beale said to her companion: "We'll
go to-night to the thingumbob at Earl's Court"; an announcement putting
forth its full lustre when she had made known that she referred to
the great Exhibition just opened in that quarter, a collection of
extraordinary foreign things in tremendous gardens, with illuminations,
bands, elephants, switchbacks and side-shows, as well as crowds of
people among whom they might possibly see some one they knew. Maisie
flew in the same bound at the neck of her friend and at the name of Sir
Claude, on which Mrs. Beale confessed that--well, yes, there was just a
chance that he would be able to meet them. He never of course, in his
terrible position, knew what might happen from hour to hour; but he
hoped to be free and he had given Mrs. Beale the tip. "Bring her there
on the quiet and I'll try to turn up"--this was clear enough on what
so many weeks of privation had made of his desire to see the child: it
even appeared to represent on his part a yearning as constant as her
own. That in turn was just puzzling enough to make Maisie express a
bewilderment. She couldn't see, if they were so intensely of the same
mind, why the theory on which she had come back to Mrs. Beale, the
general reunion, the delightful trio, should have broken down so in
fact. Mrs. Beale furthermore only gave her more to think about in saying
that their disappointment was the result of his having got into his head
a kind of idea.

"What kind of idea?"

"Oh goodness knows!" She spoke with an approach to asperity. "He's so
awfully delicate."

"Delicate?"--that was ambiguous.

"About what he does, don't you know?" said Mrs. Beale. She fumbled.
"Well, about what WE do."

Maisie wondered. "You and me?"

"Me and HIM, silly!" cried Mrs. Beale with, this time, a real giggle.

"But you don't do any harm--YOU don't," said Maisie, wondering afresh
and intending her emphasis as a decorous allusion to her parents.

"Of course we don't, you angel--that's just the ground _I_ take!" her
companion exultantly responded. "He says he doesn't want you mixed up."

"Mixed up with what?"

"That's exactly what _I_ want to know: mixed up with what, and how you
are any more mixed--?" Mrs. Beale paused without ending her question.
She ended after an instant in a different way. "All you can say is that
it's his fancy."

The tone of this, in spite of its expressing a resignation, the fruit of
weariness, that dismissed the subject, conveyed so vividly how much such
a fancy was not Mrs. Beale's own that our young lady was led by the mere
fact of contact to arrive at a dim apprehension of the unuttered and the
unknown. The relation between her step-parents had then a mysterious
residuum; this was the first time she really had reflected that except
as regards herself it was not a relationship. To each other it was only
what they might have happened to make it, and she gathered that this,
in the event, had been something that led Sir Claude to keep away from
her. Didn't he fear she would be compromised? The perception of such a
scruple endeared him the more, and it flashed over her that she might
simplify everything by showing him how little she made of such a danger.
Hadn't she lived with her eyes on it from her third year? It was the
condition most frequently discussed at the Faranges', where the word was
always in the air and where at the age of five, amid rounds of applause,
she could gabble it off. She knew as well in short that a person could
be compromised as that a person could be slapped with a hair-brush or
left alone in the dark, and it was equally familiar to her that each of
these ordeals was in general held to have too little effect. But the
first thing was to make absolutely sure of Mrs. Beale. This was done by
saying to her thoughtfully: "Well, if you don't mind--and you really
don't, do you?"

Mrs. Beale, with a dawn of amusement, considered. "Mixing you up? Not a
bit. For what does it mean?"

"Whatever it means I don't in the least mind BEING mixed. Therefore if
you don't and I don't," Maisie concluded, "don't you think that when I
see him this evening I had better just tell him we don't and ask him why
in the world HE should?"

Henry James