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Chapter 24

It continued to rain so hard that our young lady's private dream of
explaining the Continent to their visitor had to contain a provision for
some adequate treatment of the weather. At the _table d'hôte_ that evening
she threw out a variety of lights: this was the second ceremony of the
sort she had sat through, and she would have neglected her privilege
and dishonoured her vocabulary--which indeed consisted mainly of the
names of dishes--if she had not been proportionately ready to dazzle
with interpretations. Preoccupied and overawed, Mrs. Wix was apparently
dim: she accepted her pupil's version of the mysteries of the menu in a
manner that might have struck the child as the depression of a credulity
conscious not so much of its needs as of its dimensions. Maisie was soon
enough--though it scarce happened before bedtime--confronted again with
the different sort of programme for which she reserved her criticism.
They remounted together to their sitting-room while Sir Claude, who said
he would join them later, remained below to smoke and to converse with
the old acquaintances that he met wherever he turned. He had proposed
his companions, for coffee, the enjoyment of the _salon de lecture_,
but Mrs. Wix had replied promptly and with something of an air that it
struck her their own apartments offered them every convenience. They
offered the good lady herself, Maisie could immediately observe, not
only that of this rather grand reference, which, already emulous, so
far as it went, of her pupil, she made as if she had spent her life in
salons; but that of a stiff French sofa where she could sit and stare at
the faint French lamp, in default of the French clock that had stopped,
as for some account of the time Sir Claude would so markedly interpose.
Her demeanour accused him so directly of hovering beyond her reach that
Maisie sought to divert her by a report of Susan's quaint attitude on
the matter of their conversation after lunch. Maisie had mentioned to
the young woman for sympathy's sake the plan for her relief, but her
disapproval of alien ways appeared, strange to say, only to prompt her
to hug her gloom; so that between Mrs. Wix's effect of displacing her
and the visible stiffening of her back the child had the sense of a
double office and enlarged play for pacific powers.

These powers played to no great purpose, it was true, in keeping before
Mrs. Wix the vision of Sir Claude's perversity, which hung there in the
pauses of talk and which he himself, after unmistakeable delays, finally
made quite lurid by bursting in--it was near ten o'clock--with an object
held up in his hand. She knew before he spoke what it was; she knew at
least from the underlying sense of all that, since the hour spent after
the Exhibition with her father, had not sprung up to reinstate Mr.
Farange--she knew it meant a triumph for Mrs. Beale. The mere present
sight of Sir Claude's face caused her on the spot to drop straight
through her last impression of Mr. Farange a plummet that reached still
deeper down than the security of these days of flight. She had wrapped
that impression in silence--a silence that had parted with half its veil
to cover also, from the hour of Sir Claude's advent, the image of Mr.
Farange's wife. But if the object in Sir Claude's hand revealed itself
as a letter which he held up very high, so there was something in his
mere motion that laid Mrs. Beale again bare. "Here we are!" he cried
almost from the door, shaking his trophy at them and looking from one to
the other. Then he came straight to Mrs. Wix; he had pulled two papers
out of the envelope and glanced at them again to see which was which. He
thrust one out open to Mrs. Wix. "Read that." She looked at him hard,
as if in fear: it was impossible not to see he was excited. Then she
took the letter, but it was not her face that Maisie watched while she
read. Neither, for that matter, was it this countenance that Sir Claude
scanned: he stood before the fire and, more calmly, now that he had
acted, communed in silence with his stepdaughter.

The silence was in truth quickly broken; Mrs. Wix rose to her feet with
the violence of the sound she emitted. The letter had dropped from her
and lay upon the floor; it had made her turn ghastly white and she was
speechless with the effect of it. "It's too abominable--it's too
unspeakable!" she then cried.

"Isn't it a charming thing?" Sir Claude asked. "It has just arrived,
enclosed in a word of her own. She sends it on to me with the remark
that comment's superfluous. I really think it is. That's all you can
say."

"She oughtn't to pass such a horror about," said Mrs. Wix. "She ought
to put it straight in the fire."

"My dear woman, she's not such a fool! It's much too precious." He had
picked the letter up and he gave it again a glance of complacency which
produced a light in his face. "Such a document"--he considered, then
concluded with a slight drop--"such a document is, in fine, a basis!"

"A basis for what?"

"Well--for proceedings."

"Hers?" Mrs. Wix's voice had become outright the voice of derision. "How
can SHE proceed?"

Sir Claude turned it over. "How can she get rid of him? Well--she IS rid
of him."

"Not legally." Mrs. Wix had never looked to her pupil so much as if she
knew what she was talking about.

"I dare say," Sir Claude laughed; "but she's not a bit less deprived
than I!"

"Of the power to get a divorce? It's just your want of the power that
makes the scandal of your connexion with her. Therefore it's just her
want of it that makes that of hers with you. That's all I contend!" Mrs.
Wix concluded with an unparalleled neigh of battle. Oh she did know what
she was talking about!

Maisie had meanwhile appealed mutely to Sir Claude, who judged it easier
to meet what she didn't say than to meet what Mrs. Wix did.

"It's a letter to Mrs. Beale from your father, my dear, written from
Spa and making the rupture between them perfectly irrevocable. It lets
her know, and not in pretty language, that, as we technically say, he
deserts her. It puts an end for ever to their relations." He ran his
eyes over it again, then appeared to make up his mind. "In fact it
concerns you, Maisie, so nearly and refers to you so particularly that
I really think you ought to see the terms in which this new situation
is created for you." And he held out the letter.

Mrs. Wix, at this, pounced upon it; she had grabbed it too soon even
for Maisie to become aware of being rather afraid of it. Thrusting it
instantly behind her she positively glared at Sir Claude. "See it,
wretched man?--the innocent child SEE such a thing? I think you must be
mad, and she shall not have a glimpse of it while I'm here to prevent!"

The breadth of her action had made Sir Claude turn red--he even looked a
little foolish. "You think it's too bad, eh? But it's precisely because
it's bad that it seemed to me it would have a lesson and a virtue for
her."

Maisie could do a quick enough justice to his motive to be able clearly
to interpose. She fairly smiled at him. "I assure you I can quite
believe how bad it is!" She thought of something, kept it back a moment,
and then spoke. "I know what's in it!"

He of course burst out laughing and, while Mrs. Wix groaned an "Oh
heavens!" replied: "You wouldn't say that, old boy, if you did! The
point I make is," he continued to Mrs. Wix with a blandness now
re-established--"the point I make is simply that it sets Mrs. Beale
free."

She hung fire but an instant. "Free to live with YOU?"

"Free not to live, not to pretend to live, with her husband."

"Ah they're mighty different things!"--a truth as to which her
earnestness could now with a fine inconsequent look invite the
participation of the child.

Before Maisie could commit herself, however, the ground was occupied by
Sir Claude, who, as he stood before their visitor with an expression
half rueful, half persuasive, rubbed his hand sharply up and down the
back of his head. "Then why the deuce do you grant so--do you, I may
even say, rejoice so--that by the desertion of my own precious partner
I'm free?"

Mrs. Wix met this challenge first with silence, then with a
demonstration the most extraordinary, the most unexpected. Maisie could
scarcely believe her eyes as she saw the good lady, with whom she had
associated no faintest shade of any art of provocation, actually, after
an upward grimace, give Sir Claude a great giggling insinuating naughty
slap. "You wretch--you KNOW why!" And she turned away. The face that
with this movement she left him to present to Maisie was to abide with
his stepdaughter as the very image of stupefaction; but the pair lacked
time to communicate either amusement or alarm before their admonisher
was upon them again. She had begun in fact to show infinite variety and
she flashed about with a still quicker change of tone. "Have you brought
me that thing as a pretext for your going over?"

Sir Claude braced himself. "I can't, after such news, in common decency
not go over. I mean, don't you know, in common courtesy and humanity.
My dear lady, you can't chuck a woman that way, especially taking the
moment when she has been most insulted and wronged. A fellow must behave
like a gentleman, damn it, dear good Mrs. Wix. We didn't come away, we
two, to hang right on, you know: it was only to try our paces and just
put in a few days that might prove to every one concerned that we're in
earnest. It's exactly because we're in earnest that, dash it, we needn't
be so awfully particular. I mean, don't you know, we needn't be so
awfully afraid." He showed a vivacity, an intensity of argument, and if
Maisie counted his words she was all the more ready to swallow after a
single swift gasp those that, the next thing, she became conscious he
paused for a reply to. "We didn't come, old girl, did we," he pleaded
straight, "to stop right away for ever and put it all in NOW?"

Maisie had never doubted she could be heroic for him. "Oh no!" It was as
if she had been shocked at the bare thought. "We're just taking it as
we find it." She had a sudden inspiration, which she backed up with a
smile. "We're just seeing what we can afford." She had never yet in her
life made any claim for herself, but she hoped that this time, frankly,
what she was doing would somehow be counted to her. Indeed she felt Sir
Claude WAS counting it, though she was afraid to look at him--afraid she
should show him tears. She looked at Mrs. Wix; she reached her maximum.
"I don't think I ought to be bad to Mrs. Beale."

She heard, on this, a deep sound, something inarticulate and sweet,
from Sir Claude; but tears were what Mrs. Wix didn't scruple to show.
"Do you think you ought to be bad to ME?" The question was the more
disconcerting that Mrs. Wix's emotion didn't deprive her of the
advantage of her effect. "If you see that woman again you're lost!" she
declared to their companion.

Sir Claude looked at the moony globe of the lamp; he seemed to see
for an instant what seeing Mrs. Beale would consist of. It was also
apparently from this vision that he drew strength to return: "Her
situation, by what has happened, is completely changed; and it's no
use your trying to prove to me that I needn't take any account of
that."

"If you see that woman you're lost!" Mrs. Wix with greater force
repeated.

"Do you think she'll not let me come back to you? My dear lady, I leave
you here, you and Maisie, as a hostage to fortune, and I promise you by
all that's sacred that I shall be with you again at the very latest on
Saturday. I provide you with funds; I install you in these lovely rooms;
I arrange with the people here that you be treated with every attention
and supplied with every luxury. The weather, after this, will mend; it
will be sure to be exquisite. You'll both be as free as air and you can
roam all over the place and have tremendous larks. You shall have a
carriage to drive you; the whole house shall be at your call. You'll
have a magnificent position." He paused, he looked from one of his
companions to the other as to see the impression he had made. Whether or
no he judged it adequate he subjoined after a moment: "And you'll oblige
me above all by not making a fuss."

Maisie could only answer for the impression on herself, though indeed
from the heart even of Mrs. Wix's rigour there floated to her sense a
faint fragrance of depraved concession. Maisie had her dumb word for the
show such a speech could make, for the irresistible charm it could take
from his dazzling sincerity; and before she could do anything but blink
at excess of light she heard this very word sound on Mrs. Wix's lips,
just as if the poor lady had guessed it and wished, snatching it from
her, to blight it like a crumpled flower. "You're dreadful, you're
terrible, for you know but too well that it's not a small thing to me
that you should address me in terms that are princely!" Princely was
what he stood there and looked and sounded; that was what Maisie for the
occasion found herself reduced to simple worship of him for being. Yet
strange to say too, as Mrs. Wix went on, an echo rang within her that
matched the echo she had herself just produced. "How much you must WANT
to see her to say such things as that and to be ready to do so much for
the poor little likes of Maisie and me! She has a hold on you, and you
know it, and you want to feel it again and--God knows, or at least _I_
do, what's your motive and desire--enjoy it once more and give yourself
up to it! It doesn't matter if it's one day or three: enough is as good
as a feast and the lovely time you'll have with her is something you're
willing to pay for! I dare say you'd like me to believe that your pay is
to get her to give you up; but that's a matter on which I strongly urge
you not to put down your money in advance. Give HER up first. Then pay
her what you please!"

Sir Claude took this to the end, though there were things in it that
made him colour, called into his face more of the apprehension than
Maisie had ever perceived there of a particular sort of shock. She had
an odd sense that it was the first time she had seen any one but Mrs.
Wix really and truly scandalised, and this fed her inference, which grew
and grew from moment to moment, that Mrs. Wix was proving more of a
force to reckon with than either of them had allowed so much room for.
It was true that, long before, she had obtained a "hold" of him, as
she called it, different in kind from that obtained by Mrs. Beale and
originally by her ladyship. But Maisie could quite feel with him now
that he had really not expected this advantage to be driven so home. Oh
they hadn't at all got to where Mrs. Wix would stop, for the next minute
she was driving harder than ever. It was the result of his saying with a
certain dryness, though so kindly that what most affected Maisie in it
was his patience: "My dear friend, it's simply a matter in which I must
judge for myself. You've judged FOR me, I know, a good deal, of late, in
a way that I appreciate, I assure you, down to the ground. But you can't
do it always; no one can do that for another, don't you see, in every
case. There are exceptions, particular cases that turn up and that are
awfully delicate. It would be too easy if I could shift it all off on
you: it would be allowing you to incur an amount of responsibility that
I should simply become quite ashamed of. You'll find, I'm sure, that
you'll have quite as much as you'll enjoy if you'll be so good as to
accept the situation as circumstances happen to make it for you and to
stay here with our friend, till I rejoin you, on the footing of as much
pleasantness and as much comfort--and I think I have a right to add, to
both of you, of as much faith in ME--as possible."

Oh he was princely indeed: that came out more and more with every word
he said and with the particular way he said it, and Maisie could feel
his monitress stiffen almost with anguish against the increase of his
spell and then hurl herself as a desperate defence from it into the
quite confessed poorness of violence, of iteration. "You're afraid
of her--afraid, afraid, afraid! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!" Mrs. Wix
wailed it with a high quaver, then broke down into a long shudder of
helplessness and woe. The next minute she had flung herself again on
the lean sofa and had burst into a passion of tears.

Sir Claude stood and looked at her a moment; he shook his head slowly,
altogether tenderly. "I've already admitted it--I'm in mortal terror;
so we'll let that settle the question. I think you had best go to bed,"
he added; "you've had a tremendous day and you must both be tired to
death. I shall not expect you to concern yourselves in the morning
with my movements. There's an early boat on; I shall have cleared out
before you're up; and I shall moreover have dealt directly and most
effectively, I assure you, with the haughty but not quite hopeless Miss
Ash." He turned to his stepdaughter as if at once to take leave of her
and give her a sign of how, through all tension and friction, they were
still united in such a way that she at least needn't worry. "Maisie
boy!"--he opened his arms to her. With her culpable lightness she flew
into them and, while he kissed her, chose the soft method of silence to
satisfy him, the silence that after battles of talk was the best balm
she could offer his wounds. They held each other long enough to reaffirm
intensely their vows; after which they were almost forced apart by Mrs.
Wix's jumping to her feet.

Her jump, either with a quick return or with a final lapse of courage,
was also to supplication almost abject. "I beseech you not to take a
step so miserable and so fatal. I know her but too well, even if you
jeer at me for saying it; little as I've seen her I know her, I know
her. I know what she'll do--I see it as I stand here. Since you're
afraid of her it's the mercy of heaven. Don't, for God's sake, be afraid
to show it, to profit by it and to arrive at the very safety that it
gives you. I'M not afraid of her, I assure you; you must already have
seen for yourself that there's nothing I'm afraid of now. Let me go to
her--I'LL settle her and I'll take that woman back without a hair of
her touched. Let me put in the two or three days--let me wind up the
connexion. You stay here with Maisie, with the carriage and the larks
and the luxury; then I'll return to you and we'll go off together--we'll
live together without a cloud. Take me, take me," she went on and
on--the tide of her eloquence was high. "Here I am; I know what I am
and what I ain't; but I say boldly to the face of you both that I'll do
better for you, far, than ever she'll even try to. I say it to yours,
Sir Claude, even though I owe you the very dress on my back and the very
shoes on my feet. I owe you everything--that's just the reason; and to
pay it back, in profusion, what can that be but what I want? Here I am,
here I am!"--she spread herself into an exhibition that, combined with
her intensity and her decorations, appeared to suggest her for strange
offices and devotions, for ridiculous replacements and substitutions.
She manipulated her gown as she talked, she insisted on the items of
her debt. "I have nothing of my own, I know--no money, no clothes, no
appearance, no anything, nothing but my hold of this little one truth,
which is all in the world I can bribe you with: that the pair of you are
more to me than all besides, and that if you'll let me help you and save
you, make what you both want possible in the one way it CAN be, why,
I'll work myself to the bone in your service!"

Sir Claude wavered there without an answer to this magnificent appeal;
he plainly cast about for one, and in no small agitation and pain. He
addressed himself in his quest, however, only to vague quarters until he
met again, as he so frequently and actively met it, the more than filial
gaze of his intelligent little charge. That gave him--poor plastic and
dependent male--his issue. If she was still a child she was yet of
the sex that could help him out. He signified as much by a renewed
invitation to an embrace. She freshly sprang to him and again they
inaudibly conversed. "Be nice to her, be nice to her," he at last
distinctly articulated; "be nice to her as you've not even been to ME!"
On which, without another look at Mrs. Wix, he somehow got out of the
room, leaving Maisie under the slight oppression of these words as well
as of the idea that he had unmistakeably once more dodged.

Henry James