Chapter 28




Mrs. Beale, at table between the pair, plainly attracted the attention
Mrs. Wix had foretold. No other lady present was nearly so handsome,
nor did the beauty of any other accommodate itself with such art to the
homage it produced. She talked mainly to her other neighbour, and that
left Maisie leisure both to note the manner in which eyes were riveted
and nudges interchanged, and to lose herself in the meanings that, dimly
as yet and disconnectedly, but with a vividness that fed apprehension,
she could begin to read into her stepmother's independent move. Mrs. Wix
had helped her by talking of a game; it was a connexion in which the
move could put on a strategic air. Her notions of diplomacy were thin,
but it was a kind of cold diplomatic shoulder and an elbow of more than
usual point that, temporarily at least, were presented to her by the
averted inclination of Mrs. Beale's head. There was a phrase familiar to
Maisie, so often was it used by this lady to express the idea of one's
getting what one wanted: one got it--Mrs. Beale always said SHE at all
events always got it or proposed to get it--by "making love." She was
at present making love, singular as it appeared, to Mrs. Wix, and her
young friend's mind had never moved in such freedom as on thus finding
itself face to face with the question of what she wanted to get. This
period of the _omelette aux rognons_ and the poulet sauté, while her sole
surviving parent, her fourth, fairly chattered to her governess, left
Maisie rather wondering if her governess would hold out. It was strange,
but she became on the spot quite as interested in Mrs. Wix's moral
sense as Mrs. Wix could possibly be in hers: it had risen before her so
pressingly that this was something new for Mrs. Wix to resist. Resisting
Mrs. Beale herself promised at such a rate to become a very different
business from resisting Sir Claude's view of her. More might come of
what had happened--whatever it was--than Maisie felt she could have
expected. She put it together with a suspicion that, had she ever in
her life had a sovereign changed, would have resembled an impression,
baffled by the want of arithmetic, that her change was wrong: she groped
about in it that she was perhaps playing the passive part in a case of
violent substitution. A victim was what she should surely be if the
issue between her step-parents had been settled by Mrs. Beale's saying:
"Well, if she can live with but one of us alone, with which in the world
should it be but me?" That answer was far from what, for days, she had
nursed herself in, and the desolation of it was deepened by the absence
of anything from Sir Claude to show he had not had to take it as
triumphant. Had not Mrs. Beale, upstairs, as good as given out that
she had quitted him with the snap of a tension, left him, dropped him
in London, after some struggle as a sequel to which her own advent
represented that she had practically sacrificed him? Maisie assisted in
fancy at the probable episode in the Regent's Park, finding elements
almost of terror in the suggestion that Sir Claude had not had fair
play. They drew something, as she sat there, even from the pride of an
association with such beauty as Mrs. Beale's; and the child quite forgot
that, though the sacrifice of Mrs. Beale herself was a solution she had
not invented, she would probably have seen Sir Claude embark upon it
without a direct remonstrance.

What her stepmother had clearly now promised herself to wring from Mrs.
Wix was an assent to the great modification, the change, as smart as a
juggler's trick, in the interest of which nothing so much mattered as
the new convenience of Mrs. Beale. Maisie could positively seize the
moral that her elbow seemed to point in ribs thinly defended--the moral
of its not mattering a straw which of the step-parents was the guardian.
The essence of the question was that a girl wasn't a boy: if Maisie had
been a mere rough trousered thing, destined at the best probably to grow
up a scamp, Sir Claude would have been welcome. As the case stood he had
simply tumbled out of it, and Mrs. Wix would henceforth find herself in
the employ of the right person. These arguments had really fallen into
their place, for our young friend, at the very touch of that tone in
which she had heard her new title declared. She was still, as a result
of so many parents, a daughter to somebody even after papa and mamma
were to all intents dead. If her father's wife and her mother's husband,
by the operation of a natural or, for all she knew, a legal rule, were
in the shoes of their defunct partners, then Mrs. Beale's partner was
exactly as defunct as Sir Claude's and her shoes the very pair to which,
in "Farange _v._ Farange and Others," the divorce court had given
priority. The subject of that celebrated settlement saw the rest of
her day really filled out with the pomp of all that Mrs. Beale assumed.
The assumption rounded itself there between this lady's entertainers,
flourished in a way that left them, in their bottomless element, scarce
a free pair of eyes to exchange signals. It struck Maisie even a little
that there was a rope or two Mrs. Wix might have thrown out if she
would, a rocket or two she might have sent up. They had at any rate
never been so long together without communion or telegraphy, and their
companion kept them apart by simply keeping them with her. From this
situation they saw the grandeur of their intenser relation to her pass
and pass like an endless procession. It was a day of lively movement
and of talk on Mrs. Beale's part so brilliant and overflowing as to
represent music and banners. She took them out with her promptly to walk
and to drive, and even--towards night--sketched a plan for carrying them
to the Etablissement, where, for only a franc apiece, they should listen
to a concert of celebrities. It reminded Maisie, the plan, of the
side-shows at Earl's Court, and the franc sounded brighter than the
shillings which had at that time failed; yet this too, like the other,
was a frustrated hope: the francs failed like the shillings and the
side-shows had set an example to the concert. The Etablissement in short
melted away, and it was little wonder that a lady who from the moment of
her arrival had been so gallantly in the breach should confess herself
it last done up. Maisie could appreciate her fatigue; the day had not
passed without such an observer's discovering that she was excited and
even mentally comparing her state to that of the breakers after a gale.
It had blown hard in London, and she would take time to go down. It was
of the condition known to the child by report as that of talking against
time that her emphasis, her spirit, her humour, which had never dropped,
now gave the impression.

She too was delighted with foreign manners; but her daughter's
opportunities of explaining them to her were unexpectedly forestalled
by her own tone of large acquaintance with them. One of the things that
nipped in the bud all response to her volubility was Maisie's surprised
retreat before the fact that Continental life was what she had been
almost brought up on. It was Mrs. Beale, disconcertingly, who began to
explain it to her friends; it was she who, wherever they turned, was the
interpreter, the historian and the guide. She was full of reference to
her early travels--at the age of eighteen: she had at that period made,
with a distinguished Dutch family, a stay on the Lake of Geneva. Maisie
had in the old days been regaled with anecdotes of these adventures,
but they had with time become phantasmal, and the heroine's quite showy
exemption from bewilderment at Boulogne, her acuteness on some of the
very subjects on which Maisie had been acute to Mrs. Wix, were a high
note of the majesty, of the variety of advantage, with which she had
alighted. It was all a part of the wind in her sails and of the weight
with which her daughter was now to feel her hand. The effect of it on
Maisie was to add already the burden of time to her separation from Sir
Claude. This might, to her sense, have lasted for days; it was as if,
with their main agitation transferred thus to France and with neither
mamma now nor Mrs. Beale nor Mrs. Wix nor herself at his side, he must
be fearfully alone in England. Hour after hour she felt as if she were
waiting; yet she couldn't have said exactly for what. There were moments
when Mrs. Beale's flow of talk was a mere rattle to smother a knock.
At no part of the crisis had the rattle so public a purpose as when,
instead of letting Maisie go with Mrs. Wix to prepare for dinner, she
pushed her--with a push at last incontestably maternal--straight into
the room inherited from Sir Claude. She titivated her little charge with
her own brisk hands; then she brought out: "I'm going to divorce your
father."

This was so different from anything Maisie had expected that it took
some time to reach her mind. She was aware meanwhile that she probably
looked rather wan. "To marry Sir Claude?"

Mrs. Beale rewarded her with a kiss. "It's sweet to hear you put it so."

This was a tribute, but it left Maisie balancing for an objection. "How
CAN you when he's married?"

"He isn't--practically. He's free, you know."

"Free to marry?"

"Free, first, to divorce his own fiend."

The benefit that, these last days, she had felt she owed a certain
person left Maisie a moment so ill-prepared for recognising this lurid
label that she hesitated long enough to risk: "Mamma?"

"She isn't your mamma any longer," Mrs. Beale returned. "Sir Claude has
paid her money to cease to be." Then as if remembering how little, to
the child, a pecuniary transaction must represent: "She lets him off
supporting her if he'll let her off supporting you."

Mrs. Beale appeared, however, to have done injustice to her daughter's
financial grasp. "And support me himself?" Maisie asked.

"Take the whole bother and burden of you and never let her hear of you
again. It's a regular signed contract."

"Why that's lovely of her!" Maisie cried.

"It's not so lovely, my dear, but that he'll get his divorce."

Maisie was briefly silent; after which, "No--he won't get it," she said.
Then she added still more boldly: "And you won't get yours."

Mrs. Beale, who was at the dressing-glass, turned round with amusement
and surprise. "How do you know that?"

"Oh I know!" cried Maisie.

"From Mrs. Wix?"

Maisie debated, then after an instant took her cue from Mrs. Beale's
absence of anger, which struck her the more as she had felt how much of
her courage she needed. "From Mrs. Wix," she admitted.

Mrs. Beale, at the glass again, made play with a powder-puff. "My own
sweet, she's mistaken!" was all she said.

There was a certain force in the very amenity of this, but our young
lady reflected long enough to remember that it was not the answer Sir
Claude himself had made. The recollection nevertheless failed to prevent
her saying: "Do you mean then that he won't come till he has got it?"

Mrs. Beale gave a last touch; she was ready; she stood there in all her
elegance. "I mean, my dear, that it's because he HASN'T got it that I
left him."

This opened a view that stretched further than Maisie could reach. She
turned away from it, but she spoke before they went out again. "Do you
like Mrs. Wix now?"

"Why, my chick, I was just going to ask you if you think she has come at
all to like poor bad me!"

Maisie thought, at this hint; but unsuccessfully. "I haven't the least
idea. But I'll find out."

"Do!" said Mrs. Beale, rustling out with her in a scented air and as if
it would be a very particular favour.

The child tried promptly at bed-time, relieved now of the fear that
their visitor would wish to separate her for the night from her
attendant. "Have you held out?" she began as soon as the two doors at
the end of the passage were again closed on them.

Mrs. Wix looked hard at the flame of the candle. "Held out--?"

"Why, she has been making love to you. Has she won you over?"

Mrs. Wix transferred her intensity to her pupil's face. "Over to what?"

"To HER keeping me instead."

"Instead of Sir Claude?" Mrs. Wix was distinctly gaining time.

"Yes; who else? since it's not instead of you."

Mrs. Wix coloured at this lucidity. "Yes, that IS what she means."

"Well, do you like it?" Maisie asked.

She actually had to wait, for oh her friend was embarrassed! "My
opposition to the connexion--theirs--would then naturally to some extent
fall. She has treated me to-day as if I weren't after all quite such a
worm; not that I don't know very well where she got the pattern of her
politeness. But of course," Mrs. Wix hastened to add, "I shouldn't like
her as THE one nearly so well as him."

"'Nearly so well!'" Maisie echoed. "I should hope indeed not." She spoke
with a firmness under which she was herself the first to quiver. "I
thought you 'adored' him."

"I do," Mrs. Wix sturdily allowed.

"Then have you suddenly begun to adore her too?"

Mrs. Wix, instead of directly answering, only blinked in support of her
sturdiness. "My dear, in what a tone you ask that! You're coming out."

"Why shouldn't I? YOU'VE come out. Mrs. Beale has come out. We each have
our turn!" And Maisie threw off the most extraordinary little laugh that
had ever passed her young lips.

There passed Mrs. Wix's indeed the next moment a sound that more than
matched it. "You're most remarkable!" she neighed.

Her pupil, though wholly without aspirations to pertness, barely
faltered. "I think you've done a great deal to make me so."

"Very true, I have." She dropped to humility, as if she recalled her so
recent self-arraignment.

"Would you accept her then? That's what I ask," said Maisie.

"As a substitute?" Mrs. Wix turned it over; she met again the child's
eyes. "She has literally almost fawned upon me."

"She hasn't fawned upon HIM. She hasn't even been kind to him."

Mrs. Wix looked as if she had now an advantage. "Then do you propose to
'kill' her?"

"You don't answer my question," Maisie persisted. "I want to know if you
accept her."

Mrs. Wix continued to hedge. "I want to know if YOU do!"

Everything in the child's person, at this, announced that it was easy to
know. "Not for a moment."

"Not the two now?" Mrs. Wix had caught on; she flushed with it. "Only
him alone?"

"Him alone or nobody."

"Not even ME?" cried Mrs. Wix.

Maisie looked at her a moment, then began to undress. "Oh you're
nobody!"



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