What Maisie Knew, by Henry James

XXXI

She remained out with him for a time of which she could take no measure save that it was too short for what she wished to make of it — an interval, a barrier indefinite, insurmountable. They walked about, they dawdled, they looked in shop-windows; they did all the old things exactly as if to try to get back all the old safety, to get something out of them that they had always got before. This had come before, whatever it was, without their trying, and nothing came now but the intenser consciousness of their quest and their subterfuge. The strangest thing of all was what had really happened to the old safety. What had really happened was that Sir Claude was “free” and that Mrs. Beale was “free,” and yet that the new medium was somehow still more oppressive than the old. She could feel that Sir Claude concurred with her in the sense that the oppression would be worst at the inn, where, till something should be settled, they would feel the want of something — of what could they call it but a footing? The question of the settlement loomed larger to her now: it depended, she had learned, so completely on herself. Her choice, as her friend had called it, was there before her like an impossible sum on a slate, a sum that in spite of her plea for consideration she simply got off from doing while she walked about with him. She must see Mrs. Wix before she could do her sum; therefore the longer before she saw her the more distant would be the ordeal. She met at present no demand whatever of her obligation; she simply plunged, to avoid it, deeper into the company of Sir Claude. She saw nothing that she had seen hitherto — no touch in the foreign picture that had at first been always before her. The only touch was that of Sir Claude’s hand, and to feel her own in it was her mute resistance to time. She went about as sightlessly as if he had been leading her blindfold. If they were afraid of themselves it was themselves they would find at the inn. She was certain now that what awaited them there would be to lunch with Mrs. Beale. All her instinct was to avoid that, to draw out their walk, to find pretexts, to take him down upon the beach, to take him to the end of the pier. He said no other word to her about what they had talked of at breakfast, and she had a dim vision of how his way of not letting her see him definitely wait for anything from her would make any one who should know of it, would make Mrs. Wix for instance, think him more than ever a gentleman. It was true that once or twice, on the jetty, on the sands, he looked at her for a minute with eyes that seemed to propose to her to come straight off with him to Paris. That, however, was not to give her a nudge about her responsibility. He evidently wanted to procrastinate quite as much as she did; he was not a bit more in a hurry to get back to the others. Maisie herself at this moment could be secretly merciless to Mrs. Wix — to the extent at any rate of not caring if her continued disappearance did make that lady begin to worry about what had become of her, even begin to wonder perhaps if the truants hadn’t found their remedy. Her want of mercy to Mrs. Beale indeed was at least as great; for Mrs. Beale’s worry and wonder would be as much greater as the object at which they were directed. When at last Sir Claude, at the far end of the plage, which they had already, in the many-coloured crowd, once traversed, suddenly, with a look at his watch, remarked that it was time, not to get back to the table d’hôte, but to get over to the station and meet the Paris papers — when he did this she found herself thinking quite with intensity what Mrs. Beale and Mrs. Wix WOULD say. On the way over to the station she had even a mental picture of the stepfather and the pupil established in a little place in the South while the governess and the stepmother, in a little place in the North, remained linked by a community of blankness and by the endless series of remarks it would give birth to. The Paris papers had come in and her companion, with a strange extravagance, purchased no fewer than eleven: it took up time while they hovered at the bookstall on the restless platform, where the little volumes in a row were all yellow and pink and one of her favourite old women in one of her favourite old caps absolutely wheedled him into the purchase of three. They had thus so much to carry home that it would have seemed simpler, with such a provision for a nice straight journey through France, just to “nip,” as she phrased it to herself, into the coupé of the train that, a little further along, stood waiting to start. She asked Sir Claude where it was going.

“To Paris. Fancy!”

She could fancy well enough. They stood there and smiled, he with all the newspapers under his arm and she with the three books, one yellow and two pink. He had told her the pink were for herself and the yellow one for Mrs. Beale, implying in an interesting way that these were the natural divisions in France of literature for the young and for the old. She knew how prepared they looked to pass into the train, and she presently brought out to her companion: “I wish we could go. Won’t you take me?”

He continued to smile. “Would you really come?”

“Oh yes, oh yes. Try.”

“Do you want me to take our tickets?”

“Yes, take them.”

“Without any luggage?”

She showed their two armfuls, smiling at him as he smiled at her, but so conscious of being more frightened than she had ever been in her life that she seemed to see her whiteness as in a glass. Then she knew that what she saw was Sir Claude’s whiteness: he was as frightened as herself. “Haven’t we got plenty of luggage?” she asked. “Take the tickets — haven’t you time? When does the train go?”

Sir Claude turned to a porter. “When does the train go?”

The man looked up at the station-clock. “In two minutes. Monsieur est placé?

“Pas encore.“

“Et vos billets? — vous n’avez que le temps.“ Then after a look at Maisie, “Monsieur veut-il que je les prenne?“ the man said.

Sir Claude turned back to her. “Veux-tu lieu qu’il en prenne?“

It was the most extraordinary thing in the world: in the intensity of her excitement she not only by illumination understood all their French, but fell into it with an active perfection. She addressed herself straight to the porter. “Prenny, prenny. Oh prenny!“

“Ah si mademoiselle le veut —!“ He waited there for the money.

But Sir Claude only stared — stared at her with his white face. “You HAVE chosen then? You’ll let her go?”

Maisie carried her eyes wistfully to the train, where, amid cries of “En voiture, en voiture!“ heads were at windows and doors banging loud. The porter was pressing. “Ah vous n’avez plus le temps!“

“It’s going — it’s going!” cried Maisie.

They watched it move, they watched it start; then the man went his way with a shrug. “It’s gone!” Sir Claude said.

Maisie crept some distance up the platform; she stood there with her back to her companion, following it with her eyes, keeping down tears, nursing her pink and yellow books. She had had a real fright but had fallen back to earth. The odd thing was that in her fall her fear too had been dashed down and broken. It was gone. She looked round at last, from where she had paused, at Sir Claude’s, and then saw that his wasn’t. It sat there with him on the bench to which, against the wall of the station, he had retreated, and where, leaning back and, as she thought, rather queer, he still waited. She came down to him and he continued to offer his ineffectual intention of pleasantry. “Yes, I’ve chosen,” she said to him. “I’ll let her go if you — if you —”

She faltered; he quickly took her up. “If I, if I—”

“If you’ll give up Mrs. Beale.”

“Oh!” he exclaimed; on which she saw how much, how hopelessly he was afraid. She had supposed at the café that it was of his rebellion, of his gathering motive; but how could that be when his temptations — that temptation for example of the train they had just lost — were after all so slight? Mrs. Wix was right. He was afraid of his weakness — of his weakness.

She couldn’t have told you afterwards how they got back to the inn: she could only have told you that even from this point they had not gone straight, but once more had wandered and loitered and, in the course of it, had found themselves on the edge of the quay where — still apparently with half an hour to spare — the boat prepared for Folkestone was drawn up. Here they hovered as they had done at the station; here they exchanged silences again, but only exchanged silences. There were punctual people on the deck, choosing places, taking the best; some of them already contented, all established and shawled, facing to England and attended by the steward, who, confined on such a day to the lighter offices, tucked up the ladies’ feet or opened bottles with a pop. They looked down at these things without a word; they even picked out a good place for two that was left in the lee of a lifeboat; and if they lingered rather stupidly, neither deciding to go aboard nor deciding to come away, it was Sir Claude quite as much as she who wouldn’t move. It was Sir Claude who cultivated the supreme stillness by which she knew best what he meant. He simply meant that he knew all she herself meant. But there was no pretence of pleasantry now: their faces were grave and tired. When at last they lounged off it was as if his fear, his fear of his weakness, leaned upon her heavily as they followed the harbour. In the hall of the hotel as they passed in she saw a battered old box that she recognised, an ancient receptacle with dangling labels that she knew and a big painted W, lately done over and intensely personal, that seemed to stare at her with a recognition and even with some suspicion of its own. Sir Claude caught it too, and there was agitation for both of them in the sight of this object on the move. Was Mrs. Wix going and was the responsibility of giving her up lifted, at a touch, from her pupil? Her pupil and her pupil’s companion, transfixed a moment, held, in the presence of the omen, communication more intense than in the presence either of the Paris train or of the Channel steamer; then, and still without a word, they went straight upstairs. There, however, on the landing, out of sight of the people below, they collapsed so that they had to sink down together for support: they simply seated themselves on the uppermost step while Sir Claude grasped the hand of his stepdaughter with a pressure that at another moment would probably have made her squeal. Their books and papers were all scattered. “She thinks you’ve given her up!”

“Then I must see her — I must see her,” Maisie said.

“To bid her good-bye?”

“I must see her — I must see her,” the child only repeated.

They sat a minute longer, Sir Claude, with his tight grip of her hand and looking away from her, looking straight down the staircase to where, round the turn, electric bells rattled and the pleasant sea-draught blew. At last, loosening his grasp, he slowly got up while she did the same. They went together along the lobby, but before they reached the salon he stopped again. “If I give up Mrs. Beale —?”

“I’ll go straight out with you again and not come back till she has gone.”

He seemed to wonder. “Till Mrs. Beale —?” He had made it sound like a bad joke.

“I mean till Mrs. Wix leaves — in that boat.”

Sir Claude looked almost foolish. “Is she going in that boat?”

“I suppose so. I won’t even bid her good-bye,” Maisie continued. “I’ll stay out till the boat has gone. I’ll go up to the old rampart.”

“The old rampart?”

“I’ll sit on that old bench where you see the gold Virgin.”

“The gold Virgin?” he vaguely echoed. But it brought his eyes back to her as if after an instant he could see the place and the thing she named — could see her sitting there alone. “While I break with Mrs. Beale?”

“While you break with Mrs. Beale.”

He gave a long deep smothered sigh. “I must see her first.”

“You won’t do as I do? Go out and wait?”

“Wait?”— once more he appeared at a loss.

“Till they both have gone,” Maisie said.

“Giving US up?”

“Giving US up.”

Oh with what a face for an instant he wondered if that could be! But his wonder the next moment only made him go to the door and, with his hand on the knob, stand as if listening for voices. Maisie listened, but she heard none. All she heard presently was Sir Claude’s saying with speculation quite choked off, but so as not to be heard in the salon: “Mrs. Beale will never go.” On this he pushed open the door and she went in with him. The salon was empty, but as an effect of their entrance the lady he had just mentioned appeared at the door of the bedroom. “Is she going?” he then demanded.

Mrs. Beale came forward, closing her door behind her. “I’ve had the most extraordinary scene with her. She told me yesterday she’d stay.”

“And my arrival has altered it?”

“Oh we took that into account!” Mrs. Beale was flushed, which was never quite becoming to her, and her face visibly testified to the encounter to which she alluded. Evidently, however, she had not been worsted, and she held up her head and smiled and rubbed her hands as if in sudden emulation of the patronne. “She promised she’d stay even if you should come.”

“Then why has she changed?”

“Because she’s a hound. The reason she herself gives is that you’ve been out too long.”

Sir Claude stared. “What has that to do with it?”

“You’ve been out an age,” Mrs. Beale continued; “I myself couldn’t imagine what had become of you. The whole morning,” she exclaimed, “and luncheon long since over!”

Sir Claude appeared indifferent to that. “Did Mrs. Wix go down with you?” he only asked.

“Not she; she never budged!”— and Mrs. Beale’s flush, to Maisie’s vision, deepened. “She moped there — she didn’t so much as come out to me; and when I sent to invite her she simply declined to appear. She said she wanted nothing, and I went down alone. But when I came up, fortunately a little primed”— and Mrs. Beale smiled a fine smile of battle —“she WAS in the field!”

“And you had a big row?”

“We had a big row”— she assented with a frankness as large. “And while you left me to that sort of thing I should like to know where you were!” She paused for a reply, but Sir Claude merely looked at Maisie; a movement that promptly quickened her challenge. “Where the mischief have you been?”

“You seem to take it as hard as Mrs. Wix,” Sir Claude returned.

“I take it as I choose to take it, and you don’t answer my question.”

He looked again at Maisie — as if for an aid to this effort; whereupon she smiled at her stepmother and offered: “We’ve been everywhere.”

Mrs. Beale, however, made her no response, thereby adding to a surprise of which our young lady had already felt the light brush. She had received neither a greeting nor a glance, but perhaps this was not more remarkable than the omission, in respect to Sir Claude, parted with in London two days before, of any sign of a sense of their reunion. Most remarkable of all was Mrs. Beale’s announcement of the pledge given by Mrs. Wix and not hitherto revealed to her pupil. Instead of heeding this witness she went on with acerbity: “It might surely have occurred to you that something would come up.”

Sir Claude looked at his watch. “I had no idea it was so late, nor that we had been out so long. We weren’t hungry. It passed like a flash. What HAS come up?”

“Oh that she’s disgusted,” said Mrs. Beale.

“With whom then?”

“With Maisie.” Even now she never looked at the child, who stood there equally associated and disconnected. “For having no moral sense.”

“How SHOULD she have?” Sir Claude tried again to shine a little at the companion of his walk. “How at any rate is it proved by her going out with me?”

“Don’t ask ME; ask that woman. She drivels when she doesn’t rage,” Mrs. Beale declared.

“And she leaves the child?”

“She leaves the child,” said Mrs. Beale with great emphasis and looking more than ever over Maisie’s head.

In this position suddenly a change came into her face, caused, as the others could the next thing see, by the reappearance of Mrs. Wix in the doorway which, on coming in at Sir Claude’s heels, Maisie had left gaping. “I DON’T leave the child — I don’t, I don’t!” she thundered from the threshold, advancing upon the opposed three but addressing herself directly to Maisie. She was girded — positively harnessed — for departure, arrayed as she had been arrayed on her advent and armed with a small fat rusty reticule which, almost in the manner of a battle-axe, she brandished in support of her words. She had clearly come straight from her room, where Maisie in an instant guessed she had directed the removal of her minor effects. “I don’t leave you till I’ve given you another chance. Will you come WITH me?”

Maisie turned to Sir Claude, who struck her as having been removed to a distance of about a mile. To Mrs. Beale she turned no more than Mrs. Beale had turned: she felt as if already their difference had been disclosed. What had come out about that in the scene between the two women? Enough came out now, at all events, as she put it practically to her stepfather. “Will YOU come? Won’t you?” she enquired as if she had not already seen that she should have to give him up. It was the last flare of her dream. By this time she was afraid of nothing.

“I should think you’d be too proud to ask!” Mrs. Wix interposed. Mrs. Wix was herself conspicuously too proud.

But at the child’s words Mrs. Beale had fairly bounded. “Come away from ME, Maisie?” It was a wail of dismay and reproach, in which her stepdaughter was astonished to read that she had had no hostile consciousness and that if she had been so actively grand it was not from suspicion, but from strange entanglements of modesty.

Sir Claude presented to Mrs. Beale an expression positively sick. “Don’t put it to her THAT way!” There had indeed been something in Mrs. Beale’s tone, and for a moment our young lady was reminded of the old days in which so many of her friends had been “compromised.”

This friend blushed; she was before Mrs. Wix, and though she bridled she took the hint. “No — it isn’t the way.” Then she showed she knew the way. “Don’t be a still bigger fool, dear, but go straight to your room and wait there till I can come to you.”

Maisie made no motion to obey, but Mrs. Wix raised a hand that forestalled every evasion. “Don’t move till you’ve heard me. I’M going, but I must first understand. Have you lost it again?”

Maisie surveyed — for the idea of a describable loss — the immensity of space. Then she replied lamely enough: “I feel as if I had lost everything.”

Mrs. Wix looked dark. “Do you mean to say you HAVE lost what we found together with so much difficulty two days ago?” As her pupil failed of response she continued: “Do you mean to say you’ve already forgotten what we found together?”

Maisie dimly remembered. “My moral sense?”

“Your moral sense. HAVEN’T I, after all, brought it out?” She spoke as she had never spoken even in the schoolroom and with the book in her hand.

It brought back to the child’s recollection how she sometimes couldn’t repeat on Friday the sentence that had been glib on Wednesday, and she dealt all feebly and ruefully with the present tough passage. Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale stood there like visitors at an “exam.” She had indeed an instant a whiff of the faint flower that Mrs. Wix pretended to have plucked and now with such a peremptory hand thrust at her nose. Then it left her, and, as if she were sinking with a slip from a foothold, her arms made a short jerk. What this jerk represented was the spasm within her of something still deeper than a moral sense. She looked at her examiner; she looked at the visitors; she felt the rising of the tears she had kept down at the station. They had nothing — no, distinctly nothing — to do with her moral sense. The only thing was the old flat shameful schoolroom plea. “I don’t know — I don’t know.”

“Then you’ve lost it.” Mrs. Wix seemed to close the book as she fixed the straighteners on Sir Claude. “You’ve nipped it in the bud. You’ve killed it when it had begun to live.”

She was a newer Mrs. Wix than ever, a Mrs. Wix high and great; but Sir Claude was not after all to be treated as a little boy with a missed lesson. “I’ve not killed anything,” he said; “on the contrary I think I’ve produced life. I don’t know what to call it — I haven’t even known how decently to deal with it, to approach it; but, whatever it is, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever met — it’s exquisite, it’s sacred.” He had his hands in his pockets and, though a trace of the sickness he had just shown perhaps lingered there, his face bent itself with extraordinary gentleness on both the friends he was about to lose. “Do you know what I came back for?” he asked of the elder.

“I think I do!” cried Mrs. Wix, surprisingly unmollified and with the heat of her late engagement with Mrs. Beale still on her brow. That lady, as if a little besprinkled by such turns of the tide, uttered a loud inarticulate protest and, averting herself, stood a moment at the window.

“I came back with a proposal,” said Sir Claude.

“To me?” Mrs. Wix asked.

“To Maisie. That she should give you up.”

“And does she?”

Sir Claude wavered. “Tell her!” he then exclaimed to the child, also turning away as if to give her the chance. But Mrs. Wix and her pupil stood confronted in silence, Maisie whiter than ever — more awkward, more rigid and yet more dumb. They looked at each other hard, and as nothing came from them Sir Claude faced about again. “You won’t tell her? — you can’t?” Still she said nothing; whereupon, addressing Mrs. Wix, he broke into a kind of ecstasy. “She refused — she refused!”

Maisie, at this, found her voice. “I didn’t refuse. I didn’t,” she repeated.

It brought Mrs. Beale straight back to her. “You accepted, angel — you accepted!” She threw herself upon the child and, before Maisie could resist, had sunk with her upon the sofa, possessed of her, encircling her. “You’ve given her up already, you’ve given her up for ever, and you’re ours and ours only now, and the sooner she’s off the better!”

Maisie had shut her eyes, but at a word of Sir Claude’s they opened. “Let her go!” he said to Mrs. Beale.

“Never, never, never!” cried Mrs. Beale. Maisie felt herself more compressed.

“Let her go!” Sir Claude more intensely repeated. He was looking at Mrs. Beale and there was something in his voice. Maisie knew from a loosening of arms that she had become conscious of what it was; she slowly rose from the sofa, and the child stood there again dropped and divided. “You’re free — you’re free,” Sir Claude went on; at which Maisie’s back became aware of a push that vented resentment and that placed her again in the centre of the room, the cynosure of every eye and not knowing which way to turn.

She turned with an effort to Mrs. Wix. “I didn’t refuse to give you up. I said I would if HE’D give up —”

“Give up Mrs. Beale?” burst from Mrs. Wix.

“Give up Mrs. Beale. What do you call that but exquisite?” Sir Claude demanded of all of them, the lady mentioned included; speaking with a relish as intense now as if some lovely work of art or of nature had suddenly been set down among them. He was rapidly recovering himself on this basis of fine appreciation. “She made her condition — with such a sense of what it should be! She made the only right one.”

“The only right one?”— Mrs. Beale returned to the charge. She had taken a moment before a snub from him, but she was not to be snubbed on this. “How can you talk such rubbish and how can you back her up in such impertinence? What in the world have you done to her to make her think of such stuff?” She stood there in righteous wrath; she flashed her eyes round the circle. Maisie took them full in her own, knowing that here at last was the moment she had had most to reckon with. But as regards her stepdaughter Mrs. Beale subdued herself to a question deeply mild. “HAVE you made, my own love, any such condition as that?”

Somehow, now that it was there, the great moment was not so bad. What helped the child was that she knew what she wanted. All her learning and learning had made her at last learn that; so that if she waited an instant to reply it was only from the desire to be nice. Bewilderment had simply gone or at any rate was going fast. Finally she answered. “Will you give HIM up? Will you?”

“Ah leave her alone — leave her, leave her!” Sir Claude in sudden supplication murmured to Mrs. Beale.

Mrs. Wix at the same instant found another apostrophe. “Isn’t it enough for you, madam, to have brought her to discussing your relations?”

Mrs. Beale left Sir Claude unheeded, but Mrs. Wix could make her flame. “My relations? What do you know, you hideous creature, about my relations, and what business on earth have you to speak of them? Leave the room this instant, you horrible old woman!”

“I think you had better go — you must really catch your boat,” Sir Claude said distressfully to Mrs. Wix. He was out of it now, or wanted to be; he knew the worst and had accepted it: what now concerned him was to prevent, to dissipate vulgarities. “Won’t you go — won’t you just get off quickly?”

“With the child as quickly as you like. Not without her.” Mrs. Wix was adamant.

“Then why did you lie to me, you fiend?” Mrs. Beale almost yelled. “Why did you tell me an hour ago that you had given her up?”

“Because I despaired of her — because I thought she had left me.” Mrs. Wix turned to Maisie. “You were WITH them — in their connexion. But now your eyes are open, and I take you!”

“No you don’t!” and Mrs. Beale made, with a great fierce jump, a wild snatch at her stepdaughter. She caught her by the arm and, completing an instinctive movement, whirled her round in a further leap to the door, which had been closed by Sir Claude the instant their voices had risen. She fell back against it and, even while denouncing and waving off Mrs. Wix, kept it closed in an incoherence of passion. “You don’t take her, but you bundle yourself: she stays with her own people and she’s rid of you! I never heard anything so monstrous!” Sir Claude had rescued Maisie and kept hold of her; he held her in front of him, resting his hands very lightly on her shoulders and facing the loud adversaries. Mrs. Beale’s flush had dropped; she had turned pale with a splendid wrath. She kept protesting and dismissing Mrs. Wix; she glued her back to the door to prevent Maisie’s flight; she drove out Mrs. Wix by the window or the chimney. “You’re a nice one —‘discussing relations’— with your talk of our ‘connexion’ and your insults! What in the world’s our connexion but the love of the child who’s our duty and our life and who holds us together as closely as she originally brought us?”

“I know, I know!” Maisie said with a burst of eagerness. “I did bring you.”

The strangest of laughs escaped from Sir Claude. “You did bring us — you did!” His hands went up and down gently on her shoulders.

Mrs. Wix so dominated the situation that she had something sharp for every one. “There you have it, you see!” she pregnantly remarked to her pupil.

“WILL you give him up?” Maisie persisted to Mrs. Beale.

“To YOU, you abominable little horror?” that lady indignantly enquired, “and to this raving old demon who has filled your dreadful little mind with her wickedness? Have you been a hideous little hypocrite all these years that I’ve slaved to make you love me and deludedly believed you did?”

“I love Sir Claude — I love HIM,” Maisie replied with an awkward sense that she appeared to offer it as something that would do as well. Sir Claude had continued to pat her, and it was really an answer to his pats.

“She hates you — she hates you,” he observed with the oddest quietness to Mrs. Beale.

His quietness made her blaze. “And you back her up in it and give me up to outrage?”

“No; I only insist that she’s free — she’s free.”

Mrs. Beale stared — Mrs. Beale glared. “Free to starve with this pauper lunatic?”

“I’ll do more for her than YOU ever did!” Mrs. Wix retorted. “I’ll work my fingers to the bone.”

Maisie, with Sir Claude’s hands still on her shoulders, felt, just as she felt the fine surrender in them, that over her head he looked in a certain way at Mrs. Wix. “You needn’t do that,” she heard him say. “She has means.”

“Means? — Maisie?” Mrs. Beale shrieked. “Means that her vile father has stolen!”

“I’ll get them back — I’ll get them back. I’ll look into it.” He smiled and nodded at Mrs. Wix.

This had a fearful effect on his other friend. “Haven’t I looked into it, I should like to know, and haven’t I found an abyss? It’s too inconceivable — your cruelty to me!” she wildly broke out. She had hot tears in her eyes.

He spoke to her very kindly, almost coaxingly. “We’ll look into it again; we’ll look into it together. It IS an abyss, but he CAN be made — or Ida can. Think of the money they’re getting now!” he laughed. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” he continued. “It wouldn’t do — it wouldn’t do. We CAN’T work her in. It’s perfectly true — she’s unique. We’re not good enough — oh no!” and, quite exuberantly, he laughed again.

“Not good enough, and that beast IS?” Mrs. Beale shouted.

At this for a moment there was a hush in the room, and in the midst of it Sir Claude replied to the question by moving with Maisie to Mrs. Wix. The next thing the child knew she was at that lady’s side with an arm firmly grasped. Mrs. Beale still guarded the door. “Let them pass,” said Sir Claude at last.

She remained there, however; Maisie saw the pair look at each other. Then she saw Mrs. Beale turn to her. “I’m your mother now, Maisie. And he’s your father.”

“That’s just where it is!” sighed Mrs. Wix with an effect of irony positively detached and philosophic.

Mrs. Beale continued to address her young friend, and her effort to be reasonable and tender was in its way remarkable. “We’re representative, you know, of Mr. Farange and his former wife. This person represents mere illiterate presumption. We take our stand on the law.”

“Oh the law, the law!” Mrs. Wix superbly jeered. “You had better indeed let the law have a look at you!”

“Let them pass — let them pass!” Sir Claude pressed his friend hard — he pleaded.

But she fastened herself still to Maisie. “DO you hate me, dearest?”

Maisie looked at her with new eyes, but answered as she had answered before. “Will you give him up?”

Mrs. Beale’s rejoinder hung fire, but when it came it was noble. “You shouldn’t talk to me of such things!” She was shocked, she was scandalised to tears.

For Mrs. Wix, however, it was her discrimination that was indelicate. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” she roundly cried.

Sir Claude made a supreme appeal. “Will you be so good as to allow these horrors to terminate?”

Mrs. Beale fixed her eyes on him, and again Maisie watched them. “You should do him justice,” Mrs. Wix went on to Mrs. Beale. “We’ve always been devoted to him, Maisie and I— and he has shown how much he likes us. He would like to please her; he would like even, I think, to please me. But he hasn’t given you up.”

They stood confronted, the step-parents, still under Maisie’s observation. That observation had never sunk so deep as at this particular moment. “Yes, my dear, I haven’t given you up,” Sir Claude said to Mrs. Beale at last, “and if you’d like me to treat our friends here as solemn witnesses I don’t mind giving you my word for it that I never never will. There!” he dauntlessly exclaimed.

“He can’t!” Mrs. Wix tragically commented.

Mrs. Beale, erect and alive in her defeat, jerked her handsome face about. “He can’t!” she literally mocked.

“He can’t, he can’t, he can’t!”— Sir Claude’s gay emphasis wonderfully carried it off.

Mrs. Beale took it all in, yet she held her ground; on which Maisie addressed Mrs. Wix. “Shan’t we lose the boat?”

“Yes, we shall lose the boat,” Mrs. Wix remarked to Sir Claude.

Mrs. Beale meanwhile faced full at Maisie. “I don’t know what to make of you!” she launched.

“Good-bye,” said Maisie to Sir Claude.

“Good-bye, Maisie,” Sir Claude answered.

Mrs. Beale came away from the door. “Goodbye!” she hurled at Maisie; then passed straight across the room and disappeared in the adjoining one.

Sir Claude had reached the other door and opened it. Mrs. Wix was already out. On the threshold Maisie paused; she put out her hand to her stepfather. He took it and held it a moment, and their eyes met as the eyes of those who have done for each other what they can. “Good-bye,” he repeated.

“Good-bye.” And Maisie followed Mrs. Wix.

They caught the steamer, which was just putting off, and, hustled across the gulf, found themselves on the deck so breathless and so scared that they gave up half the voyage to letting their emotion sink. It sank slowly and imperfectly; but at last, in mid-channel, surrounded by the quiet sea, Mrs. Wix had courage to revert. “I didn’t look back, did you?”

“Yes. He wasn’t there,” said Maisie.

“Not on the balcony?”

Maisie waited a moment; then “He wasn’t there” she simply said again.

Mrs. Wix also was silent a while. “He went to HER,” she finally observed.

“Oh I know!” the child replied.

Mrs. Wix gave a sidelong look. She still had room for wonder at what Maisie knew.

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http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2wh/chapter31.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38