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Chapter 21

A good deal of the rest of Ida's visit was devoted to explaining, as it
were, so extraordinary a statement. This explanation was more copious
than any she had yet indulged in, and as the summer twilight gathered
and she kept her child in the garden she was conciliatory to a degree
that let her need to arrange things a little perceptibly peep out. It
was not merely that she explained; she almost conversed; all that was
wanting was that she should have positively chattered a little less. It
was really the occasion of Maisie's life on which her mother was to have
most to say to her. That alone was an implication of generosity and
virtue, and no great stretch was required to make our young lady feel
that she should best meet her and soonest have it over by simply seeming
struck with the propriety of her contention. They sat together while
the parent's gloved hand sometimes rested sociably on the child's and
sometimes gave a corrective pull to a ribbon too meagre or a tress too
thick; and Maisie was conscious of the effort to keep out of her eyes
the wonder with which they were occasionally moved to blink. Oh there
would have been things to blink at if one had let one's self go; and
it was lucky they were alone together, without Sir Claude or Mrs. Wix
or even Mrs. Beale to catch an imprudent glance. Though profuse and
prolonged her ladyship was not exhaustively lucid, and her account of
her situation, so far as it could be called descriptive, was a muddle
of inconsequent things, bruised fruit of an occasion she had rather too
lightly affronted. None of them were really thought out and some were
even not wholly insincere. It was as if she had asked outright what
better proof could have been wanted of her goodness and her greatness
than just this marvellous consent to give up what she had so cherished.
It was as if she had said in so many words: "There have been things
between us--between Sir Claude and me--which I needn't go into, you
little nuisance, because you wouldn't understand them." It suited her
to convey that Maisie had been kept, so far as SHE was concerned or
could imagine, in a holy ignorance and that she must take for granted a
supreme simplicity. She turned this way and that in the predicament she
had sought and from which she could neither retreat with grace nor
emerge with credit: she draped herself in the tatters of her impudence,
postured to her utmost before the last little triangle of cracked glass
to which so many fractures had reduced the polished plate of filial
superstition. If neither Sir Claude nor Mrs. Wix was there this was
perhaps all the more a pity: the scene had a style of its own that would
have qualified it for presentation, especially at such a moment as that
of her letting it betray that she quite did think her wretched offspring
better placed with Sir Claude than in her own soiled hands. There was at
any rate nothing scant either in her admissions or her perversions, the
mixture of her fear of what Maisie might undiscoverably think and of the
support she at the same time gathered from a necessity of selfishness
and a habit of brutality. This habit flushed through the merit she now
made, in terms explicit, of not having come to Folkestone to kick up a
vulgar row. She had not come to box any ears or to bang any doors or
even to use any language: she had come at the worst to lose the thread
of her argument in an occasional dumb disgusted twitch of the toggery in
which Mrs. Beale's low domestic had had the impudence to serve up Miss
Farange. She checked all criticism, not committing herself even so far
as for those missing comforts of the schoolroom on which Mrs. Wix had
presumed.

"I AM good--I'm crazily, I'm criminally good. But it won't do for YOU
any more, and if I've ceased to contend with him, and with you too, who
have made most of the trouble between us, it's for reasons that you'll
understand one of these days but too well--one of these days when I
hope you'll know what it is to have lost a mother. I'm awfully ill, but
you mustn't ask me anything about it. If I don't get off somewhere my
doctor won't answer for the consequences. He's stupefied at what I've
borne--he says it has been put on me because I was formed to suffer. I'm
thinking of South Africa, but that's none of your business. You must
take your choice--you can't ask me questions if you're so ready to
give me up. No, I won't tell you; you can find out for yourself. South
Africa's wonderful, they say, and if I do go it must be to give it a
fair trial. It must be either one thing or the other; if he takes you,
you know, he takes you. I've struck my last blow for you; I can follow
you no longer from pillar to post. I must live for myself at last, while
there's still a handful left of me. I'm very, very ill; I'm very, very
tired; I'm very, very determined. There you have it. Make the most of
it. Your frock's too filthy; but I came to sacrifice myself." Maisie
looked at the peccant places; there were moments when it was a relief to
her to drop her eyes even on anything so sordid. All her interviews, all
her ordeals with her mother had, as she had grown older, seemed to have,
before any other, the hard quality of duration; but longer than any,
strangely, were these minutes offered to her as so pacific and so
agreeably winding up the connexion. It was her anxiety that made them
long, her fear of some hitch, some check of the current, one of her
ladyship's famous quick jumps. She held her breath; she only wanted,
by playing into her visitor's hands, to see the thing through. But her
impatience itself made at instants the whole situation swim; there were
things Ida said that she perhaps didn't hear, and there were things
she heard that Ida perhaps didn't say. "You're all I have, and yet I'm
capable of this. Your father wishes you were dead--that, my dear, is
what your father wishes. You'll have to get used to it as I've done--I
mean to his wishing that I'M dead. At all events you see for yourself
how wonderful I am to Sir Claude. He wishes me dead quite as much; and
I'm sure that if making me scenes about YOU could have killed me--!" It
was the mark of Ida's eloquence that she started more hares than she
followed, and she gave but a glance in the direction of this one; going
on to say that the very proof of her treating her husband like an angel
was that he had just stolen off not to be fairly shamed. She spoke as
if he had retired on tiptoe, as he might have withdrawn from a place
of worship in which he was not fit to be present. "You'll never know
what I've been through about you--never, never, never. I spare you
everything, as I always have; though I dare say you know things that,
if I did (I mean if I knew them) would make me--well, no matter! You're
old enough at any rate to know there are a lot of things I don't say
that I easily might; though it would do me good, I assure you, to have
spoken my mind for once in my life. I don't speak of your father's
infamous wife: that may give you a notion of the way I'm letting you
off. When I say 'you' I mean your precious friends and backers. If you
don't do justice to my forbearing, out of delicacy, to mention, just as
a last word, about your stepfather, a little fact or two of a kind that
really I should only HAVE to mention to shine myself in comparison, and
after every calumny, like pure gold: if you don't do me THAT justice
you'll never do me justice at all!"

Maisie's desire to show what justice she did her had by this time become
so intense as to have brought with it an inspiration. The great effect
of their encounter had been to confirm her sense of being launched with
Sir Claude, to make it rich and full beyond anything she had dreamed,
and everything now conspired to suggest that a single soft touch of her
small hand would complete the good work and set her ladyship so promptly
and majestically afloat as to leave the great seaway clear for the
morrow. This was the more the case as her hand had for some moments been
rendered free by a marked manoeuvre of both of her mother's. One of
these capricious members had fumbled with visible impatience in some
backward depth of drapery and had presently reappeared with a small
article in its grasp. The act had a significance for a little person
trained, in that relation, from an early age, to keep an eye on manual
motions, and its possible bearing was not darkened by the memory of the
handful of gold that Susan Ash would never, never believe Mrs. Beale had
sent back--"not she; she's too false and too greedy!"--to the munificent
Countess. To have guessed, none the less, that her ladyship's purse
might be the real figure of the object extracted from the rustling
covert at her rear--this suspicion gave on the spot to the child's eyes
a direction carefully distant. It added moreover to the optimism that
for an hour could ruffle the surface of her deep diplomacy, ruffle it
to the point of making her forget that she had never been safe unless
she had also been stupid. She in short forgot her habitual caution in
her impulse to adopt her ladyship's practical interests and show her
ladyship how perfectly she understood them. She saw without looking
that her mother pressed a little clasp; heard, without wanting to,
the sharp click that marked the closing portemonnaie from which
something had been taken. What this was she just didn't see; it was not
too substantial to be locked with ease in the fold of her ladyship's
fingers. Nothing was less new to Maisie than the art of not thinking
singly, so that at this instant she could both bring out what was on
her tongue's end and weigh, as to the object in her mother's palm, the
question of its being a sovereign against the question of its being a
shilling. No sooner had she begun to speak than she saw that within a
few seconds this question would have been settled: she had foolishly
checked the rising words of the little speech of presentation to which,
under the circumstances, even such a high pride as Ida's had had to give
some thought. She had checked it completely--that was the next thing she
felt: the note she sounded brought into her companion's eyes a look that
quickly enough seemed at variance with presentations.

"That was what the Captain said to me that day, mamma. I think it would
have given you pleasure to hear the way he spoke of you."

The pleasure, Maisie could now in consternation reflect, would have been
a long time coming if it had come no faster than the response evoked by
her allusion to it. Her mother gave her one of the looks that slammed
the door in her face; never in a career of unsuccessful experiments had
Maisie had to take such a stare. It reminded her of the way that once,
at one of the lectures in Glower Street, something in a big jar that,
amid an array of strange glasses and bad smells, had been promised as a
beautiful yellow was produced as a beautiful black. She had been sorry
on that occasion for the lecturer, but she was at this moment sorrier
for herself. Oh nothing had ever made for twinges like mamma's manner of
saying: "The Captain? What Captain?"

"Why when we met you in the Gardens--the one who took me to sit with
him. That was exactly what HE said."

Ida let it come on so far as to appear for an instant to pick up a lost
thread. "What on earth did he say?"

Maisie faltered supremely, but supremely she brought it out. "What you
say, mamma--that you're so good."

"What 'I' say?" Ida slowly rose, keeping her eyes on her child, and the
hand that had busied itself in her purse conformed at her side and amid
the folds of her dress to a certain stiffening of the arm. "I say you're
a precious idiot, and I won't have you put words into my mouth!" This
was much more peremptory than a mere contradiction. Maisie could only
feel on the spot that everything had broken short off and that their
communication had abruptly ceased. That was presently proved. "What
business have you to speak to me of him?"

Her daughter turned scarlet. "I thought you liked him."

"Him!--the biggest cad in London!" Her ladyship towered again, and in
the gathering dusk the whites of her eyes were huge.

Maisie's own, however, could by this time pretty well match them; and
she had at least now, with the first flare of anger that had ever yet
lighted her face for a foe, the sense of looking up quite as hard as any
one could look down. "Well, he was kind about you then; he WAS, and it
made me like him. He said things--they were beautiful, they were, they
were!" She was almost capable of the violence of forcing this home, for
even in the midst of her surge of passion--of which in fact it was a
part--there rose in her a fear, a pain, a vision ominous, precocious,
of what it might mean for her mother's fate to have forfeited such a

loyalty as that. There was literally an instant in which Maisie fully
saw--saw madness and desolation, saw ruin and darkness and death. "I've
thought of him often since, and I hoped it was with him--with him--"
Here, in her emotion, it failed her, the breath of her filial hope.

But Ida got it out of her. "You hoped, you little horror--?"

"That it was he who's at Dover, that it was he who's to take you. I mean
to South Africa," Maisie said with another drop.

Ida's stupefaction, on this, kept her silent unnaturally long, so long
that her daughter could not only wonder what was coming, but perfectly
measure the decline of every symptom of her liberality. She loomed there
in her grandeur, merely dark and dumb; her wrath was clearly still, as
it had always been, a thing of resource and variety. What Maisie least
expected of it was by this law what now occurred. It melted, in the
summer twilight, gradually into pity, and the pity after a little found
a cadence to which the renewed click of her purse gave an accent.
She had put back what she had taken out. "You're a dreadful dismal
deplorable little thing," she murmured. And with this she turned back
and rustled away over the lawn.

After she had disappeared, Maisie dropped upon the bench again and for
some time, in the empty garden and the deeper dusk, sat and stared at
the image her flight had still left standing. It had ceased to be her
mother only, in the strangest way, that it might become her father, the
father of whose wish that she were dead the announcement still lingered
in the air. It was a presence with vague edges--it continued to front
her, to cover her. But what reality that she need reckon with did it
represent if Mr. Farange were, on his side, also going off--going off to
America with the Countess, or even only to Spa? That question had, from
the house, a sudden gay answer in the great roar of a gong, and at the
same moment she saw Sir Claude look out for her from the wide lighted
doorway. At this she went to him and he came forward and met her on the
lawn. For a minute she was with him there in silence as, just before, at
the last, she had been with her mother.

"She's gone?"

"She's gone."

Nothing more, for the instant, passed between them but to move together
to the house, where, in the hall, he indulged in one of those sudden
pleasantries with which, to the delight of his stepdaughter, his native
animation overflowed. "Will Miss Farange do me the honour to accept my
arm?"

There was nothing in all her days that Miss Farange had accepted with
such bliss, a bright rich element that floated them together to their
feast; before they reached which, however, she uttered, in the spirit
of a glad young lady taken in to her first dinner, a sociable word that
made him stop short. "She goes to South Africa."

"To South Africa?" His face, for a moment, seemed to swing for a jump;
the next it took its spring into the extreme of hilarity. "Is that what
she said?"

"Oh yes, I didn't MISTAKE!" Maisie took to herself THAT credit. "For the
climate."

Sir Claude was now looking at a young woman with black hair, a red frock
and a tiny terrier tucked under her elbow. She swept past them on her
way to the dining-room, leaving an impression of a strong scent which
mingled, amid the clatter of the place, with the hot aroma of food. He
had become a little graver; he still stopped to talk. "I see--I see."
Other people brushed by; he was not too grave to notice them. "Did she
say anything else?"

"Oh yes, a lot more."

On this he met her eyes again with some intensity, but only repeating:
"I see--I see."

Maisie had still her own vision, which she brought out. "I thought she
was going to give me something."

"What kind of a thing?"

"Some money that she took out of her purse and then put back."

Sir Claude's amusement reappeared. "She thought better of it. Dear
thrifty soul! How much did she make by that manoeuvre?"

Maisie considered. "I didn't see. It was very small."

Sir Claude threw back his head. "Do you mean very little? Sixpence?"

Maisie resented this almost as if, at dinner, she were already bandying
jokes with an agreeable neighbour. "It may have been a sovereign."

"Or even," Sir Claude suggested, "a ten-pound note." She flushed at this
sudden picture of what she perhaps had lost, and he made it more vivid
by adding: "Rolled up in a tight little ball, you know--her way of
treating banknotes as if they were curl-papers!" Maisie's flush deepened
both with the immense plausibility of this and with a fresh wave of the
consciousness that was always there to remind her of his cleverness--the
consciousness of how immeasurably more after all he knew about mamma
than she. She had lived with her so many times without discovering the
material of her curl-papers or assisting at any other of her dealings
with banknotes. The tight little ball had at any rate rolled away from
her for ever--quite like one of the other balls that Ida's cue used to
send flying. Sir Claude gave her his arm again, and by the time she was
seated at table she had perfectly made up her mind as to the amount of
the sum she had forfeited. Everything about her, however--the crowded
room, the bedizened banquet, the savour of dishes, the drama of
figures--ministered to the joy of life. After dinner she smoked with her
friend--for that was exactly what she felt she did--on a porch, a kind
of terrace, where the red tips of cigars and the light dresses of ladies
made, under the happy stars, a poetry that was almost intoxicating.
They talked but little, and she was slightly surprised at his asking
for no more news of what her mother had said; but she had no need of
talk--there were a sense and a sound in everything to which words had
nothing to add. They smoked and smoked, and there was a sweetness in her
stepfather's silence. At last he said: "Let us take another turn--but
you must go to bed soon. Oh you know, we're going to have a system!"
Their turn was back into the garden, along the dusky paths from which
they could see the black masts and the red lights of boats and hear the
calls and cries that evidently had to do with happy foreign travel; and
their system was once more to get on beautifully in this further lounge
without a definite exchange. Yet he finally spoke--he broke out as he
tossed away the match from which he had taken a fresh light: "I must go
for a stroll. I'm in a fidget--I must walk it off." She fell in with
this as she fell in with everything; on which he went on: "You go up to
Miss Ash"--it was the name they had started; "you must see she's not in
mischief. Can you find your way alone?"

"Oh yes; I've been up and down seven times." She positively enjoyed the
prospect of an eighth.

Still they didn't separate; they stood smoking together under the stars.
Then at last Sir Claude produced it. "I'm free--I'm free."

She looked up at him; it was the very spot on which a couple of hours
before she had looked up at her mother. "You're free--you're free."

"To-morrow we go to France." He spoke as if he hadn't heard her; but it
didn't prevent her again concurring.

"To-morrow we go to France."

Again he appeared not to have heard her; and after a moment--it was an
effect evidently of the depth of his reflexions and the agitation of
his soul--he also spoke as if he had not spoken before. "I'm free--I'm
free!"

She repeated her form of assent. "You're free--you're free."

This time he did hear her; he fixed her through the darkness with a
grave face. But he said nothing more; he simply stooped a little and
drew her to him--simply held her a little and kissed her goodnight;
after which, having given her a silent push upstairs to Miss Ash, he
turned round again to the black masts and the red lights. Maisie mounted
as if France were at the top.

Henry James