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Chapter 27

The greatest wonder of all was the way Mrs. Beale addressed her
announcement, so far as could be judged, equally to Mrs. Wix, who, as
if from sudden failure of strength, sank into a chair while Maisie
surrendered to the visitor's embrace. As soon as the child was liberated
she met with profundity Mrs. Wix's stupefaction and actually was able to
see that while in a manner sustaining the encounter her face yet seemed
with intensity to say: "Now, for God's sake, don't crow 'I told you
so!'" Maisie was somehow on the spot aware of an absence of disposition
to crow; it had taken her but an extra minute to arrive at such a quick
survey of the objects surrounding Mrs. Beale as showed that among them
was no appurtenance of Sir Claude's. She knew his dressing-bag now--oh
with the fondest knowledge!--and there was an instant during which its
not being there was a stroke of the worst news. She was yet to learn
what it could be to recognise in some lapse of a sequence the proof of
an extinction, and therefore remained unaware that this momentary pang
was a foretaste of the experience of death. It of course yielded in
a flash to Mrs. Beale's brightness, it gasped itself away in her own
instant appeal. "You've come alone?"

"Without Sir Claude?" Strangely, Mrs. Beale looked even brighter. "Yes;
in the eagerness to get at you. You abominable little villain!"--and her
stepmother, laughing clear, administered to her cheek a pat that was
partly a pinch. "What were you up to and what did you take me for? But
I'm glad to be abroad, and after all it's you who have shown me the way.
I mightn't, without you, have been able to come--to come, that is, so
soon. Well, here I am at any rate and in a moment more I should have
begun to worry about you. This will do very well"--she was good-natured
about the place and even presently added that it was charming. Then with
a rosier glow she made again her great point: "I'm free, I'm free!"
Maisie made on her side her own: she carried back her gaze to Mrs. Wix,
whom amazement continued to hold; she drew afresh her old friend's
attention to the superior way she didn't take that up. What she did take
up the next minute was the question of Sir Claude. "Where is he? Won't
he come?"

Mrs. Beale's consideration of this oscillated with a smile between the
two expectancies with which she was flanked: it was conspicuous, it
was extraordinary, her unblinking acceptance of Mrs. Wix, a miracle of
which Maisie had even now begun to read a reflexion in that lady's long
visage. "He'll come, but we must MAKE him!" she gaily brought forth.

"Make him?" Maisie echoed.

"We must give him time. We must play our cards."

"But he promised us awfully," Maisie replied.

"My dear child, he has promised ME awfully; I mean lots of things, and
not in every case kept his promise to the letter." Mrs. Beale's good
humour insisted on taking for granted Mrs. Wix's, to whom her attention
had suddenly grown prodigious. "I dare say he has done the same with
you, and not always come to time. But he makes it up in his own way--and
it isn't as if we didn't know exactly what he is. There's one thing he
is," she went on, "which makes everything else only a question, for us,
of tact." They scarce had time to wonder what this was before, as they
might have said, it flew straight into their face. "He's as free as I
am!"

"Yes, I know," said Maisie; as if, however, independently weighing the
value of that. She really weighed also the oddity of her stepmother's
treating it as news to HER, who had been the first person literally to
whom Sir Claude had mentioned it. For a few seconds, as if with the
sound of it in her ears, she stood with him again, in memory and in the
twilight, in the hotel garden at Folkestone.

Anything Mrs. Beale overlooked was, she indeed divined, but the effect
of an exaltation of high spirits, a tendency to soar that showed even
when she dropped--still quite impartially--almost to the confidential.
"Well, then--we've only to wait. He can't do without us long. I'm sure,
Mrs. Wix, he can't do without YOU! He's devoted to you; he has told me
so much about you. The extent I count on you, you know, count on you to
help me--" was an extent that even all her radiance couldn't express.
What it couldn't express quite as much as what it could made at any rate
every instant her presence and even her famous freedom loom larger; and
it was this mighty mass that once more led her companions, bewildered
and disjoined, to exchange with each other as through a thickening veil
confused and ineffectual signs. They clung together at least on the
common ground of unpreparedness, and Maisie watched without relief the
havoc of wonder in Mrs. Wix. It had reduced her to perfect impotence,
and, but that gloom was black upon her, she sat as if fascinated by Mrs.
Beale's high style. It had plunged her into a long deep hush; for what
had happened was the thing she had least allowed for and before which
the particular rigour she had worked up could only grow limp and sick.
Sir Claude was to have reappeared with his accomplice or without
her; never, never his accomplice without HIM. Mrs. Beale had gained
apparently by this time an advantage she could pursue: she looked at the
droll dumb figure with jesting reproach. "You really won't shake hands
with me? Never mind; you'll come round!" She put the matter to no test,
going on immediately and, instead of offering her hand, raising it, with
a pretty gesture that her bent head met, to a long black pin that played
a part in her back hair. "Are hats worn at luncheon? If you're as hungry
as I am we must go right down."

Mrs. Wix stuck fast, but she met the question in a voice her pupil
scarce recognised. "I wear mine."

Mrs. Beale, swallowing at one glance her brand-new bravery, which she
appeared at once to refer to its origin and to follow in its flights,
accepted this as conclusive. "Oh but I've not such a beauty!" Then she
turned rejoicingly to Maisie. "I've got a beauty for YOU my dear."

"A beauty?"

"A love of a hat--in my luggage. I remembered THAT"--she nodded at the
object on her stepdaughter's head--"and I've brought you one with a
peacock's breast. It's the most gorgeous blue!"

It was too strange, this talking with her there already not about
Sir Claude but about peacocks--too strange for the child to have the
presence of mind to thank her. But the felicity in which she had arrived
was so proof against everything that Maisie felt more and more the depth
of the purpose that must underlie it. She had a vague sense of its being
abysmal, the spirit with which Mrs. Beale carried off the awkwardness,
in the white and gold salon, of such a want of breath and of welcome.
Mrs. Wix was more breathless than ever; the embarrassment of Mrs.
Beale's isolation was as nothing to the embarrassment of her grace. The
perception of this dilemma was the germ on the child's part of a new
question altogether. What if WITH this indulgence--? But the idea lost
itself in something too frightened for hope and too conjectured for
fear; and while everything went by leaps and bounds one of the waiters
stood at the door to remind them that the _table d'hôte_ was half over.

"Had you come up to wash hands?" Mrs. Beale hereupon asked them. "Go and
do it quickly and I'll be with you: they've put my boxes in that nice
room--it was Sir Claude's. Trust him," she laughed, "to have a nice
one!" The door of a neighbouring room stood open, and now from the
threshold, addressing herself again to Mrs. Wix, she launched a note
that gave the very key of what, as she would have said, she was up to.
"Dear lady, please attend to my daughter."

She was up to a change of deportment so complete that it represented--oh
for offices still honourably subordinate if not too explicitly
menial--an absolute coercion, an interested clutch of the old woman's
respectability. There was response, to Maisie's view, I may say at once,
in the jump of that respectability to its feet: it was itself capable of
one of the leaps, one of the bounds just mentioned, and it carried its
charge, with this momentum and while Mrs. Beale popped into Sir Claude's
chamber, straight away to where, at the end of the passage, pupil and
governess were quartered. The greatest stride of all, for that matter,
was that within a few seconds the pupil had, in another relation, been
converted into a daughter. Maisie's eyes were still following it when,
after the rush, with the door almost slammed and no thought of soap and
towels, the pair stood face to face. Mrs. Wix, in this position, was the
first to gasp a sound. "Can it ever be that SHE has one?"

Maisie felt still more bewildered. "One what?"

"Why moral sense."

They spoke as if you might have two, but Mrs. Wix looked as if it were
not altogether a happy thought, and Maisie didn't see how even an
affirmative from her own lips would clear up what had become most of a
mystery. It was to this larger puzzle she sprang pretty straight. "IS
she my mother now?"

It was a point as to which an horrific glimpse of the responsibility of
an opinion appeared to affect Mrs. Wix like a blow in the stomach. She
had evidently never thought of it; but she could think and rebound. "If
she is, he's equally your father."

Maisie, however, thought further. "Then my father and my mother--!"

But she had already faltered and Mrs. Wix had already glared back:
"Ought to live together? Don't begin it AGAIN!" She turned away with
a groan, to reach the washing-stand, and Maisie could by this time
recognise with a certain ease that that way verily madness did lie. Mrs.
Wix gave a great untidy splash, but the next instant had faced round.
"She has taken a new line."

"She was nice to you," Maisie concurred.

"What SHE thinks so--'go and dress the young lady!' But it's something!"
she panted. Then she thought out the rest. "If he won't have her, why
she'll have YOU. She'll be the one."

"The one to keep me abroad?"

"The one to give you a home." Mrs. Wix saw further; she mastered all the
portents. "Oh she's cruelly clever! It's not a moral sense." She reached
her climax: "It's a game!"

"A game?"

"Not to lose him. She has sacrificed him--to her duty."

"Then won't he come?" Maisie pleaded.

Mrs. Wix made no answer; her vision absorbed her. "He has fought. But
she has won."

"Then won't he come?" the child repeated.

Mrs. Wix made it out. "Yes, hang him!" She had never been so profane.

For all Maisie minded! "Soon--to-morrow?"

"Too soon--whenever. Indecently soon."

"But then we SHALL be together!" the child went on. It made Mrs. Wix
look at her as if in exasperation; but nothing had time to come before
she precipitated: "Together with YOU!" The air of criticism continued,
but took voice only in her companion's bidding her wash herself and come
down. The silence of quick ablutions fell upon them, presently broken,
however, by one of Maisie's sudden reversions. "Mercy, isn't she
handsome?"

Mrs. Wix had finished; she waited. "She'll attract attention." They
were rapid, and it would have been noticed that the shock the beauty
had given them acted, incongruously, as a positive spur to their
preparations for rejoining her. She had none the less, when they
returned to the sitting-room, already descended; the open door of her
room showed it empty and the chambermaid explained. Here again they were
delayed by another sharp thought of Mrs. Wix's. "But what will she live
on meanwhile?"

Maisie stopped short. "Till Sir Claude comes?"

It was nothing to the violence with which her friend had been arrested.
"Who'll pay the bills?"

Maisie thought. "Can't SHE?"

"She? She hasn't a penny."

The child wondered. "But didn't papa--?"

"Leave her a fortune?" Mrs. Wix would have appeared to speak of papa as
dead had she not immediately added: "Why he lives on other women!"

Oh yes, Maisie remembered. "Then can't he send--" She faltered again;
even to herself it sounded queer.

"Some of their money to his wife?" Mrs. Wix pave a laugh still stranger
than the weird suggestion. "I dare say she'd take it!"

They hurried on again; yet again, on the stairs, Maisie pulled up.
"Well, if she had stopped in England--!" she threw out.

Mrs. Wix considered. "And he had come over instead?"

"Yes, as we expected." Maisie launched her speculation. "What then would
she have lived on?"

Mrs. Wix hung fire but an instant. "On other men!" And she marched
downstairs.

Henry James