Chapter 30




After they were seated there it was different: the place was not below
the hotel, but further along the quay; with wide, clear windows and a
floor sprinkled with bran in a manner that gave it for Maisie something
of the added charm of a circus. They had pretty much to themselves the
painted spaces and the red plush benches; these were shared by a few
scattered gentlemen who picked teeth, with facial contortions, behind
little bare tables, and by an old personage in particular, a very old
personage with a red ribbon in his buttonhole, whose manner of soaking
buttered rolls in coffee and then disposing of them in the little that
was left of the interval between his nose and chin might at a less
anxious hour have cast upon Maisie an almost envious spell. They too
had their _café au lait_ and their buttered rolls, determined by Sir
Claude's asking her if she could with that light aid wait till the hour
of déjeuner. His allusion to this meal gave her, in the shaded sprinkled
coolness, the scene, as she vaguely felt, of a sort of ordered mirrored
licence, the haunt of those--the irregular, like herself--who went to
bed or who rose too late, something to think over while she watched
the white-aproned waiter perform as nimbly with plates and saucers as
a certain conjurer her friend had in London taken her to a music-hall
to see. Sir Claude had presently begun to talk again, to tell her how
London had looked and how long he had felt himself, on either side, to
have been absent; all about Susan Ash too and the amusement as well as
the difficulty he had had with her; then all about his return journey
and the Channel in the night and the crowd of people coming over and
the way there were always too many one knew. He spoke of other matters
beside, especially of what she must tell him of the occupations, while
he was away, of Mrs. Wix and her pupil. Hadn't they had the good time he
had promised?--had he exaggerated a bit the arrangements made for their
pleasure? Maisie had something--not all there was--to say of his success
and of their gratitude: she had a complication of thought that grew
every minute, grew with the consciousness that she had never seen him in
this particular state in which he had been given back.

Mrs. Wix had once said--it was once or fifty times; once was enough for
Maisie, but more was not too much--that he was wonderfully various.
Well, he was certainly so, to the child's mind, on the present occasion:
he was much more various than he was anything else. Besides, the fact
that they were together in a shop, at a nice little intimate table as
they had so often been in London, only made greater the difference of
what they were together about. This difference was in his face, in his
voice, in every look he gave her and every movement he made. They were
not the looks and the movements he really wanted to show, and she could
feel as well that they were not those she herself wanted. She had
seen him nervous, she had seen every one she had come in contact with
nervous, but she had never seen him so nervous as this. Little by little
it gave her a settled terror, a terror that partook of the coldness she
had felt just before, at the hotel, to find herself, on his answer about
Mrs. Beale, disbelieve him. She seemed to see at present, to touch
across the table, as if by laying her hand on it, what he had meant when
he confessed on those several occasions to fear. Why was such a man so
often afraid? It must have begun to come to her now that there was one
thing just such a man above all could be afraid of. He could be afraid
of himself. His fear at all events was there; his fear was sweet to her,
beautiful and tender to her, was having coffee and buttered rolls and
talk and laughter that were no talk and laughter at all with her; his
fear was in his jesting postponing perverting voice; it was just in
this make-believe way he had brought her out to imitate the old London
playtimes, to imitate indeed a relation that had wholly changed, a
relation that she had with her very eyes seen in the act of change when,
the day before in the salon, Mrs. Beale rose suddenly before her. She
rose before her, for that matter, now, and even while their refreshment
delayed Maisie arrived at the straight question for which, on their
entrance, his first word had given opportunity. "Are we going to have
déjeuner with Mrs. Beale?"

His reply was anything but straight. "You and I?"

Maisie sat back in her chair. "Mrs. Wix and me."

Sir Claude also shifted. "That's an enquiry, my dear child, that Mrs.
Beale herself must answer." Yes, he had shifted; but abruptly, after a
moment during which something seemed to hang there between them and, as
it heavily swayed, just fan them with the air of its motion, she felt
that the whole thing was upon them. "Do you mind," he broke out, "my
asking you what Mrs. Wix has said to you?"

"Said to me?"

"This day or two--while I was away."

"Do you mean about you and Mrs. Beale?"

Sir Claude, resting on his elbows, fixed his eyes a moment on the white
marble beneath them. "No; I think we had a good deal of that--didn't
we?--before I left you. It seems to me we had it pretty well all out. I
mean about yourself, about your--don't you know?--associating with us,
as I might say, and staying on with us. While you were alone with our
friend what did she say?"

Maisie felt the weight of the question; it kept her silent for a space
during which she looked at Sir Claude, whose eyes remained bent.
"Nothing," she returned at last.

He showed incredulity. "Nothing?"

"Nothing," Maisie repeated; on which an interruption descended in the
form of a tray bearing the preparations for their breakfast. These
preparations were as amusing as everything else; the waiter poured their
coffee from a vessel like a watering-pot and then made it froth with the
curved stream of hot milk that dropped from the height of his raised
arm; but the two looked across at each other through the whole play of
French pleasantness with a gravity that had now ceased to dissemble.
Sir Claude sent the waiter off again for something and then took up her
answer. "Hasn't she tried to affect you?"

Face to face with him thus it seemed to Maisie that she had tried so
little as to be scarce worth mentioning; again therefore an instant she
shut herself up. Presently she found her middle course. "Mrs. Beale
likes her now; and there's one thing I've found out--a great thing.
Mrs. Wix enjoys her being so kind. She was tremendously kind all day
yesterday."

"I see. And what did she do?" Sir Claude asked.

Maisie was now busy with her breakfast, and her companion attacked his
own; so that it was all, in form at least, even more than their old
sociability. "Everything she could think of. She was as nice to her as
you are," the child said. "She talked to her all day."

"And what did she say to her?"

"Oh I don't know." Maisie was a little bewildered with his pressing her
so for knowledge; it didn't fit into the degree of intimacy with Mrs.
Beale that Mrs. Wix had so denounced and that, according to that lady,
had now brought him back in bondage. Wasn't he more aware than his
stepdaughter of what would be done by the person to whom he was bound?
In a moment, however, she added: "She made love to her."

Sir Claude looked at her harder, and it was clearly something in her
tone that made him quickly say: "You don't mind my asking you, do you?"

"Not at all; only I should think you'd know better than I."

"What Mrs. Beale did yesterday?"

She thought he coloured a trifle; but almost simultaneously with that
impression she found herself answering: "Yes--if you have seen her."

He broke into the loudest of laughs. "Why, my dear boy, I told you just
now I've absolutely not. I say, don't you believe me?"

There was something she was already so afraid of that it covered up
other fears. "Didn't you come back to see her?" she enquired in a
moment. "Didn't you come back because you always want to so much?"

He received her enquiry as he had received her doubt--with an
extraordinary absence of resentment. "I can imagine of course why you
think that. But it doesn't explain my doing what I have. It was, as I
said to you just now at the inn, really and truly you I wanted to see."

She felt an instant as she used to feel when, in the back garden at her
mother's, she took from him the highest push of a swing--high, high,
high--that he had had put there for her pleasure and that had finally
broken down under the weight and the extravagant patronage of the cook.
"Well, that's beautiful. But to see me, you mean, and go away again?"

"My going away again is just the point. I can't tell yet--it all
depends."

"On Mrs. Beale?" Maisie asked. "SHE won't go away." He finished emptying
his coffee-cup and then, when he had put it down, leaned back in his
chair, where she could see that he smiled on her. This only added to her
idea that he was in trouble, that he was turning somehow in his pain and
trying different things. He continued to smile and she went on: "Don't
you know that?"

"Yes, I may as well confess to you that as much as that I do know. SHE
won't go away. She'll stay."

"She'll stay. She'll stay," Maisie repeated.

"Just so. Won't you have some more coffee?"

"Yes, please."

"And another buttered roll?"

"Yes, please."

He signed to the hovering waiter, who arrived with the shining spout of
plenty in either hand and with the friendliest interest in mademoiselle.
_"Les tartines sont là."_ Their cups were replenished and, while he
watched almost musingly the bubbles in the fragrant mixture, "Just
so--just so," Sir Claude said again and again. "It's awfully awkward!"
he exclaimed when the waiter had gone.

"That she won't go?"

"Well--everything! Well, well, well!" But he pulled himself together;
he began again to eat. "I came back to ask you something. That's what
I came back for."

"I know what you want to ask me," Maisie said.

"Are you very sure?"

"I'm ALMOST very."

"Well then risk it. You mustn't make ME risk everything."

She was struck with the force of this. "You want to know if I should be
happy with THEM."

"With those two ladies only? No, no, old man: _vous n'y êtes pas_. So
now--there!" Sir Claude laughed.

"Well then what is it?"

The next minute, instead of telling her what it was, he laid his hand
across the table on her own and held her as if under the prompting of a
thought. "Mrs. Wix would stay with HER?"

"Without you? Oh yes--now."

"On account, as you just intimated, of Mrs. Beale's changed manner?"

Maisie, with her sense of responsibility, weighed both Mrs. Beale's
changed manner and Mrs. Wix's human weakness. "I think she talked her
round."

Sir Claude thought a moment. "Ah poor dear!"

"Do you mean Mrs. Beale?"

"Oh no--Mrs. Wix."

"She likes being talked round--treated like any one else. Oh she likes
great politeness," Maisie expatiated. "It affects her very much."

Sir Claude, to her surprise, demurred a little to this. "Very much--up
to a certain point."

"Oh up to any point!" Maisie returned with emphasis.

"Well, haven't I been polite to her?"

"Lovely--and she perfectly worships you."

"Then, my dear child, why can't she let me alone?"--this time Sir
Claude unmistakeably blushed. Before Maisie, however, could answer his
question, which would indeed have taken her long, he went on in another
tone: "Mrs. Beale thinks she has probably quite broken her down. But she
hasn't."

Though he spoke as if he were sure, Maisie was strong in the impression
she had just uttered and that she now again produced. "She has talked
her round."

"Ah yes; round to herself, but not round to me."

Oh she couldn't bear to hear him say that! "To you? Don't you really
believe how she loves you?"

Sir Claude examined his belief. "Of course I know she's wonderful."

"She's just every bit as fond of you as _I_ am," said Maisie. "She told
me so yesterday."

"Ah then," he promptly exclaimed, "she HAS tried to affect you! I don't
love HER, don't you see? I do her perfect justice," he pursued, "but I
mean I don't love her as I do you, and I'm sure you wouldn't seriously
expect it. She's not my daughter--come, old chap! She's not even my
mother, though I dare say it would have been better for me if she had
been. I'll do for her what I'd do for my mother, but I won't do more."
His real excitement broke out in a need to explain and justify himself,
though he kept trying to correct and conceal it with laughs and
mouthfuls and other vain familiarities. Suddenly he broke off, wiping
his moustache with sharp pulls and coming back to Mrs. Beale. "Did she
try to talk YOU over?"

"No--to me she said very little. Very little indeed," Maisie continued.

Sir Claude seemed struck with this. "She was only sweet to Mrs. Wix?"

"As sweet as sugar!" cried Maisie.

He looked amused at her comparison, but he didn't contest it; he uttered
on the contrary, in an assenting way, a little inarticulate sound. "I
know what she CAN be. But much good may it have done her! Mrs. Wix won't
COME 'round.' That's what makes it so fearfully awkward."

Maisie knew it was fearfully awkward; she had known this now, she felt,
for some time, and there was something else it more pressingly concerned
her to learn. "What is it you meant you came over to ask me?"

"Well," said Sir Claude, "I was just going to say. Let me tell you it
will surprise you." She had finished breakfast now and she sat back in
her chair again: she waited in silence to hear. He had pushed the things
before him a little way and had his elbows on the table. This time, she
was convinced, she knew what was coming, and once more, for the crash,
as with Mrs. Wix lately in her room, she held her breath and drew
together her eyelids. He was going to say she must give him up. He
looked hard at her again; then he made his effort. "Should you see your
way to let her go?"

She was bewildered. "To let who--?"

"Mrs. Wix simply. I put it at the worst. Should you see your way to
sacrifice her? Of course I know what I'm asking."

Maisie's eyes opened wide again; this was so different from what she had
expected. "And stay with you alone?"

He gave another push to his coffee-cup. "With me and Mrs. Beale. Of
course it would be rather rum; but everything in our whole story is
rather rum, you know. What's more unusual than for any one to be given
up, like you, by her parents?"

"Oh nothing is more unusual than THAT!" Maisie concurred, relieved at
the contact of a proposition as to which concurrence could have
lucidity.

"Of course it would be quite unconventional," Sir Claude went on--"I
mean the little household we three should make together; but things have
got beyond that, don't you see? They got beyond that long ago. We shall
stay abroad at any rate--it's ever so much easier and it's our affair
and nobody else's: it's no one's business but ours on all the blessed
earth. I don't say that for Mrs. Wix, poor dear--I do her absolute
justice. I respect her; I see what she means; she has done me a lot of
good. But there are the facts. There they are, simply. And here am I,
and here are you. And she won't come round. She's right from her point
of view. I'm talking to you in the most extraordinary way--I'm always
talking to you in the most extraordinary way, ain't I? One would think
you were about sixty and that I--I don't know what any one would think
_I_ am. Unless a beastly cad!" he suggested. "I've been awfully worried,
and this's what it has come to. You've done us the most tremendous good,
and you'll do it still and always, don't you see? We can't let you
go--you're everything. There are the facts as I say. She IS your mother
now, Mrs. Beale, by what has happened, and I, in the same way, I'm your
father. No one can contradict that, and we can't get out of it. My idea
would be a nice little place--somewhere in the South--where she and you
would be together and as good as any one else. And I should be as good
too, don't you see? for I shouldn't live with you, but I should be close
to you--just round the corner, and it would be just the same. My idea
would be that it should all be perfectly open and frank. _Honi soit qui
mal y pense_, don't you know? You're the best thing--you and what we can
do for you--that either of us has ever known," he came back to that.
"When I say to her 'Give her up, come,' she lets me have it bang in the
face: 'Give her up yourself!' It's the same old vicious circle--and when
I say vicious I don't mean a pun, a what-d'-ye-call-'em. Mrs. Wix is the
obstacle; I mean, you know, if she has affected you. She has affected
ME, and yet here I am. I never was in such a tight place: please believe
it's only that that makes me put it to you as I do. My dear child, isn't
that--to put it so--just the way out of it? That came to me yesterday,
in London, after Mrs. Beale had gone: I had the most infernal atrocious
day. 'Go straight over and put it to her: let her choose, freely, her
own self.' So I do, old girl--I put it to you. CAN you choose freely?"

This long address, slowly and brokenly uttered, with fidgets and
falterings, with lapses and recoveries, with a mottled face and
embarrassed but supplicating eyes, reached the child from a quarter
so close that after the shock of the first sharpness she could see
intensely its direction and follow it from point to point; all the more
that it came back to the point at which it had started. There was a word
that had hummed all through it. "Do you call it a 'sacrifice'?"

"Of Mrs. Wix? I'll call it whatever YOU call it. I won't funk it--I
haven't, have I? I'll face it in all its baseness. Does it strike you it
IS base for me to get you well away from her, to smuggle you off here
into a corner and bribe you with sophistries and buttered rolls to
betray her?"

"To betray her?"

"Well--to part with her."

Maisie let the question wait; the concrete image it presented was the
most vivid side of it. "If I part with her where will she go?"

"Back to London."

"But I mean what will she do?"

"Oh as for that I won't pretend I know. I don't. We all have our
difficulties."

That, to Maisie, was at this moment more striking than it had ever been.
"Then who'll teach me?"

Sir Claude laughed out. "What Mrs. Wix teaches?"

She smiled dimly; she saw what he meant. "It isn't so very very much."

"It's so very very little," he returned, "that that's a thing we've
positively to consider. We probably shouldn't give you another
governess. To begin with we shouldn't be able to get one--not of the
only kind that would do. It wouldn't do--the kind that WOULD do," he
queerly enough explained. "I mean they wouldn't stay--heigh-ho! We'd
do you ourselves. Particularly me. You see I CAN now; I haven't got to
mind--what I used to. I won't fight shy as I did--she can show out WITH
me. Our relation, all round, is more regular."

It seemed wonderfully regular, the way he put it; yet none the less,
while she looked at it as judiciously as she could, the picture it made
persisted somehow in being a combination quite distinct--an old woman
and a little girl seated in deep silence on a battered old bench by the
rampart of the _haute ville_. It was just at that hour yesterday; they
were hand in hand; they had melted together. "I don't think you yet
understand how she clings to you," Maisie said at last.

"I do--I do. But for all that--" And he gave, turning in his conscious
exposure, an oppressed impatient sigh; the sigh, even his companion
could recognise, of the man naturally accustomed to that argument, the
man who wanted thoroughly to be reasonable, but who, if really he had to
mind so many things, would be always impossibly hampered. What it came
to indeed was that he understood quite perfectly. If Mrs. Wix clung it
was all the more reason for shaking Mrs. Wix off.

This vision of what she had brought him to occupied our young lady
while, to ask what he owed, he called the waiter and put down a gold
piece that the man carried off for change. Sir Claude looked after him,
then went on: "How could a woman have less to reproach a fellow with? I
mean as regards herself."

Maisie entertained the question. "Yes. How COULD she have less? So why
are you so sure she'll go?"

"Surely you heard why--you heard her come out three nights ago? How can
she do anything but go--after what she then said? I've done what she
warned me of--she was absolutely right. So here we are. Her liking Mrs.
Beale, as you call it now, is a motive sufficient, with other things,
to make her, for your sake, stay on without me; it's not a motive
sufficient to make her, even for yours, stay on WITH me--swallow, don't
you see? what she can't swallow. And when you say she's as fond of me as
you are I think I can, if that's the case, challenge you a little on it.
Would YOU, only with those two, stay on without me?"

The waiter came back with the change, and that gave her, under this
appeal, a moment's respite. But when he had retreated again with the
"tip" gathered in with graceful thanks on a subtle hint from Sir
Claude's forefinger, the latter, while pocketing the money, followed
the appeal up. "Would you let her make you live with Mrs. Beale?"

"Without you? Never," Maisie then answered. "Never," she said again.

It made him quite triumph, and she was indeed herself shaken by the mere
sound of it. "So you see you're not, like her," he exclaimed, "so ready
to give me away!" Then he came back to his original question. "CAN you
choose? I mean can you settle it by a word yourself? Will you stay on
with us without her?" Now in truth she felt the coldness of her terror,
and it seemed to her that suddenly she knew, as she knew it about Sir
Claude, what she was afraid of. She was afraid of herself. She looked at
him in such a way that it brought, she could see, wonder into his face,
a wonder held in check, however, by his frank pretension to play fair
with her, not to use advantages, not to hurry nor hustle her--only to
put her chance clearly and kindly before her. "May I think?" she finally
asked.

"Certainly, certainly. But how long?"

"Oh only a little while," she said meekly.

He had for a moment the air of wishing to look at it as if it were the
most cheerful prospect in the world. "But what shall we do while you're
thinking?" He spoke as if thought were compatible with almost any
distraction.

There was but one thing Maisie wished to do, and after an instant she
expressed it. "Have we got to go back to the hotel?"

"Do you want to?"

"Oh no."

"There's not the least necessity for it." He bent his eyes on his watch;
his face was now very grave. "We can do anything else in the world." He
looked at her again almost as if he were on the point of saying that
they might for instance start off for Paris. But even while she wondered
if that were not coming he had a sudden drop. "We can take a walk."

She was all ready, but he sat there as if he had still something more to
say. This too, however, didn't come; so she herself spoke. "I think I
should like to see Mrs. Wix first."

"Before you decide? All right--all right." He had put on his hat, but
he had still to light a cigarette. He smoked a minute, with his head
thrown back, looking at the ceiling; then he said: "There's one thing
to remember--I've a right to impress it on you: we stand absolutely in
the place of your parents. It's their defection, their extraordinary
baseness, that has made our responsibility. Never was a young person
more directly committed and confided." He appeared to say this over, at
the ceiling, through his smoke, a little for his own illumination. It
carried him after a pause somewhat further. "Though I admit it was to
each of us separately."

He gave her so at that moment and in that attitude the sense of wanting,
as it were, to be on her side--on the side of what would be in every way
most right and wise and charming for her--that she felt a sudden desire
to prove herself not less delicate and magnanimous, not less solicitous
for his own interests. What were these but that of the "regularity"
he had just before spoken of? "It WAS to each of you separately," she
accordingly with much earnestness remarked. "But don't you remember? I
brought you together."

He jumped up with a delighted laugh. "Remember? Rather! You brought us
together, you brought us together. Come!"



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