Mrs Beale fairly swooped upon her and the effect of the whole hour was to show the child how much, how quite formidably indeed, after all, she was loved. This was the more the case as her stepmother, so changed — in the very manner of her mother — that she really struck her as a new acquaintance, somehow recalled more familiarity than Maisie could feel. A rich strong expressive affection in short pounced upon her in the shape of a handsomer, ampler, older Mrs. Beale. It was like making a fine friend, and they hadn’t been a minute together before she felt elated at the way she had met the choice imposed on her in the cab. There was a whole future in the combination of Mrs. Beale’s beauty and Mrs. Beale’s hug. She seemed to Maisie charming to behold, and also to have no connexion at all with anybody who had once mended underclothing and had meals in the nursery. The child knew one of her father’s wives was a woman of fashion, but she had always dimly made a distinction, not applying that epithet without reserve to the other. Mrs. Beale had since their separation acquired a conspicuous right to it, and Maisie’s first flush of response to her present delight coloured all her splendour with meanings that this time were sweet. She had told Sir Claude she was afraid of the lady in the Regent’s Park; but she had confidence enough to break on the spot, into the frankest appreciation. “Why, aren’t you beautiful? Isn’t she beautiful, Sir Claude, ISN’T she?”
“The handsomest woman in London, simply,” Sir Claude gallantly replied. “Just as sure as you’re the best little girl!”
Well, the handsomest woman in London gave herself up, with tender lustrous looks and every demonstration of fondness, to a happiness at last clutched again. There was almost as vivid a bloom in her maturity as in mamma’s, and it took her but a short time to give her little friend an impression of positive power — an impression that seemed to begin like a long bright day. This was a perception on Maisie’s part that neither mamma, nor Sir Claude, nor Mrs. Wix, with their immense and so varied respective attractions, had exactly kindled, and that made an immediate difference when the talk, as it promptly did, began to turn to her father. Oh yes, Mr. Farange was a complication, but she saw now that he wouldn’t be one for his daughter. For Mrs. Beale certainly he was an immense one — she speedily made known as much; but Mrs. Beale from this moment presented herself to Maisie as a person to whom a great gift had come. The great gift was just for handling complications. Maisie felt how little she made of them when, after she had dropped to Sir Claude some recall of a previous meeting, he made answer, with a sound of consternation and yet an air of relief, that he had denied to their companion their having, since the day he came for her, seen each other till that moment.
Mrs. Beale could but vaguely pity it. “Why did you do anything so silly?”
“To protect your reputation.”
“From Maisie?” Mrs. Beale was much amused. “My reputation with Maisie is too good to suffer.”
“But you believed me, you rascal, didn’t you?” Sir Claude asked of the child.
She looked at him; she smiled. “Her reputation did suffer. I discovered you had been here.”
He was not too chagrined to laugh. “The way, my dear, you talk of that sort of thing!”
“How should she talk,” Mrs. Beale wanted to know, “after all this wretched time with her mother?”
“It was not mamma who told me,” Maisie explained. “It was only Mrs. Wix.” She was hesitating whether to bring out before Sir Claude the source of Mrs. Wix’s information; but Mrs. Beale, addressing the young man, showed the vanity of scruples.
“Do you know that preposterous person came to see me a day or two ago? — when I told her I had seen you repeatedly.”
Sir Claude, for once in a way, was disconcerted. “The old cat! She never told me. Then you thought I had lied?” he demanded of Maisie.
She was flurried by the term with which he had qualified her gentle friend, but she took the occasion for one to which she must in every manner lend herself. “Oh I didn’t mind! But Mrs. Wix did,” she added with an intention benevolent to her governess.
Her intention was not very effective as regards Mrs. Beale. “Mrs. Wix is too idiotic!” that lady declared.
“But to you, of all people,” Sir Claude asked, “what had she to say?”
“Why that, like Mrs. Micawber — whom she must, I think, rather resemble — she will never, never, never desert Miss Farange.”
“Oh I’ll make that all right!” Sir Claude cheerfully returned.
“I’m sure I hope so, my dear man,” said Mrs. Beale, while Maisie wondered just how he would proceed. Before she had time to ask Mrs. Beale continued: “That’s not all she came to do, if you please. But you’ll never guess the rest.”
“Shall I guess it?” Maisie quavered.
Mrs. Beale was again amused. “Why you’re just the person! It must be quite the sort of thing you’ve heard at your awful mother’s. Have you never seen women there crying to her to ‘spare’ the men they love?”
Maisie, wondering, tried to remember; but Sir Claude was freshly diverted. “Oh they don’t trouble about Ida! Mrs. Wix cried to you to spare ME?”
“She regularly went down on her knees to me.”
“The darling old dear!” the young man exclaimed.
These words were a joy to Maisie — they made up for his previous description of Mrs. Wix. “And WILL you spare him?” she asked of Mrs. Beale.
Her stepmother, seizing her and kissing her again, seemed charmed with the tone of her question. “Not an inch of him! I’ll pick him to the bone!”
“You mean that he’ll really come often?” Maisie pressed.
Mrs. Beale turned lovely eyes to Sir Claude. “That’s not for me to say — its for him.”
He said nothing at once, however; with his hands in his pockets and vaguely humming a tune — even Maisie could see he was a little nervous — he only walked to the window and looked out at the Regent’s Park. “Well, he has promised,” Maisie said. “But how will papa like it?”
“His being in and out? Ah that’s a question that, to be frank with you, my dear, hardly matters. In point of fact, however, Beale greatly enjoys the idea that Sir Claude too, poor man, has been forced to quarrel with your mother.”
Sir Claude turned round and spoke gravely and kindly. “Don’t be afraid, Maisie; you won’t lose sight of me.”
“Thank you so much!” Maisie was radiant. “But what I meant — don’t you know? — was what papa would say to ME.”
“Oh I’ve been having that out with him,” said Mrs. Beale. “He’ll behave well enough. You see the great difficulty is that, though he changes every three days about everything else in the world, he has never changed about your mother. It’s a caution, the way he hates her.”
Sir Claude gave a short laugh. “It certainly can’t beat the way she still hates HIM!”
“Well,” Mrs. Beale went on obligingly, “nothing can take the place of that feeling with either of them, and the best way they can think of to show it is for each to leave you as long as possible on the hands of the other. There’s nothing, as you’ve seen for yourself, that makes either so furious. It isn’t, asking so little as you do, that you’re much of an expense or a trouble; it’s only that you make each feel so well how nasty the other wants to be. Therefore Beale goes on loathing your mother too much to have any great fury left for any one else. Besides, you know, I’ve squared him.”
“Oh Lord!” Sir Claude cried with a louder laugh and turning again to the window.
“I know how!” Maisie was prompt to proclaim. “By letting him do what he wants on condition that he lets you also do it.”
“You’re too delicious, my own pet!”— she was involved in another hug. “How in the world have I got on so long without you? I’ve not been happy, love,” said Mrs. Beale with her cheek to the child’s.
“Be happy now!”— she throbbed with shy tenderness.
“I think I shall be. You’ll save me.”
“As I’m saving Sir Claude?” the little girl asked eagerly.
Mrs. Beale, a trifle at a loss, appealed to her visitor, “Is she really?”
He showed high amusement at Maisie’s question. “It’s dear Mrs. Wix’s idea. There may be something in it.”
“He makes me his duty — he makes me his life,” Maisie set forth to her stepmother.
“Why that’s what I want to do!”— Mrs. Beale, so anticipated, turned pink with astonishment.
“Well, you can do it together. Then he’ll HAVE to come!”
Mrs. Beale by this time had her young friend fairly in her lap and she smiled up at Sir Claude. “Shall we do it together?”
His laughter had dropped, and for a moment he turned his handsome serious face not to his hostess, but to his stepdaughter. “Well, it’s rather more decent than some things. Upon my soul, the way things are going, it seems to me the only decency!” He had the air of arguing it out to Maisie, of presenting it, through an impulse of conscience, as a connexion in which they could honourably see her participate; though his plea of mere “decency” might well have appeared to fall below her rosy little vision. “If we’re not good for YOU” he exclaimed, “I’ll be hanged if I know who we shall be good for!”
Mrs. Beale showed the child an intenser light. “I dare say you WILL save us — from one thing and another.”
“Oh I know what she’ll save ME from!” Sir Claude roundly asserted. “There’ll be rows of course,” he went on.
Mrs. Beale quickly took him up. “Yes, but they’ll be nothing — for you at least — to the rows your wife makes as it is. I can bear what I suffer — I can’t bear what you go through.”
“We’re doing a good deal for you, you know, young woman,” Sir Claude went on to Maisie with the same gravity.
She coloured with a sense of obligation and the eagerness of her desire it should be remarked how little was lost on her. “Oh I know!”
“Then you must keep us all right!” This time he laughed.
“How you talk to her!” cried Mrs. Beale.
“No worse than you!” he gaily answered.
“Handsome is that handsome does!” she returned in the same spirit. “You can take off your things,” she went on, releasing Maisie.
The child, on her feet, was all emotion. “Then I’m just to stop — this way?”
“It will do as well as any other. Sir Claude, tomorrow, will have your things brought.”
“I’ll bring them myself. Upon my word I’ll see them packed!” Sir Claude promised. “Come here and unbutton.”
He had beckoned his young companion to where he sat, and he helped to disengage her from her coverings while Mrs. Beale, from a little distance, smiled at the hand he displayed. “There’s a stepfather for you! I’m bound to say, you know, that he makes up for the want of other people.”
“He makes up for the want of a nurse!” Sir Claude laughed. “Don’t you remember I told you so the very first time?”
“Remember? It was exactly what made me think so well of you!”
“Nothing would induce me,” the young man said to Maisie, “to tell you what made me think so well of HER.” Having divested the child he kissed her gently and gave her a little pat to make her stand off. The pat was accompanied with a vague sigh in which his gravity of a moment before came back. “All the same, if you hadn’t had the fatal gift of beauty —”
“Well, what?” Maisie asked, wondering why he paused. It was the first time she had heard of her beauty.
“Why, we shouldn’t all be thinking so well of each other!”
“He isn’t speaking of personal loveliness — you’ve not THAT vulgar beauty, my dear, at all,” Mrs. Beale explained. “He’s just talking of plain dull charm of character.”
“Her character’s the most extraordinary thing in all the world,” Sir Claude stated to Mrs. Beale.
“Oh I know all about that sort of thing!”— she fairly bridled with the knowledge.
It gave Maisie somehow a sudden sense of responsibility from which she sought refuge. “Well, you’ve got it too, ‘that sort of thing’— you’ve got the fatal gift: you both really have!” she broke out.
“Beauty of character? My dear boy, we haven’t a pennyworth!” Sir Claude protested.
“Speak for yourself, sir!” she leaped lightly from Mrs. Beale. “I’m good and I’m clever. What more do you want? For you, I’ll spare your blushes and not be personal — I’ll simply say that you’re as handsome as you can stick together.”
“You’re both very lovely; you can’t get out of it!”— Maisie felt the need of carrying her point. “And it’s beautiful to see you side by side.”
Sir Claude had taken his hat and stick; he stood looking at her a moment. “You’re a comfort in trouble! But I must go home and pack you.”
“And when will you come back? — tomorrow, tomorrow?”
“You see what we’re in for!” he said to Mrs. Beale.
“Well, I can bear it if you can.”
Their companion gazed from one of them to the other, thinking that though she had been happy indeed between Sir Claude and Mrs. Wix she should evidently be happier still between Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale. But it was like being perched on a prancing horse, and she made a movement to hold on to something. “Then, you know, shan’t I bid goodbye to Mrs. Wix?”
“Oh I’ll make it all right with her,” said Sir Claude.
Maisie considered. “And with mamma?”
“Ah mamma!” he sadly laughed.
Even for the child this was scarcely ambiguous; but Mrs. Beale endeavoured to contribute to its clearness. “Your mother will crow, she’ll crow —”
“Like the early bird!” said Sir Claude as she looked about for a comparison.
“She’ll need no consolation,” Mrs. Beale went on, “for having made your father grandly blaspheme.”
Maisie stared. “Will he grandly blaspheme?” It was impressive, it might have been out of the Bible, and her question produced a fresh play of caresses, in which Sir Claude also engaged. She wondered meanwhile who, if Mrs. Wix was disposed of, would represent in her life the element of geography and anecdote; and she presently surmounted the delicacy she felt about asking. “Won’t there be any one to give me lessons?”
Mrs. Beale was prepared with a reply that struck her as absolutely magnificent. “You shall have such lessons as you’ve never had in all your life. You shall go to courses.”
“Courses?” Maisie had never heard of such things.
“At institutions — on subjects.”
Maisie continued to stare. “Subjects?”
Mrs. Beale was really splendid. “All the most important ones. French literature — and sacred history. You’ll take part in classes — with awfully smart children.”
“I’m going to look thoroughly into the whole thing, you know.” And Sir Claude, with characteristic kindness, gave her a nod of assurance accompanied by a friendly wink.
But Mrs. Beale went much further. “My dear child, you shall attend lectures.”
The horizon was suddenly vast and Maisie felt herself the smaller for it. “All alone?”
“Oh no; I’ll attend them with you,” said Sir Claude. “They’ll teach me a lot I don’t know.”
“So they will me,” Mrs. Beale gravely admitted. “We’ll go with her together — it will be charming. It’s ages,” she confessed to Maisie, “since I’ve had any time for study. That’s another sweet way in which you’ll be a motive to us. Oh won’t the good she’ll do us be immense?” she broke out uncontrollably to Sir Claude.
He weighed it; then he replied: “That’s certainly our idea.”
Of this idea Maisie naturally had less of a grasp, but it inspired her with almost equal enthusiasm. If in so bright a prospect there would be nothing to long for it followed that she wouldn’t long for Mrs. Wix; but her consciousness of her assent to the absence of that fond figure caused a pair of words that had often sounded in her ears to ring in them again. It showed her in short what her father had always meant by calling her mother a “low sneak” and her mother by calling her father one. She wondered if she herself shouldn’t be a low sneak in learning to be so happy without Mrs. Wix. What would Mrs. Wix do? — where would Mrs. Wix go? Before Maisie knew it, and at the door, as Sir Claude was off, these anxieties, on her lips, grew articulate and her stepfather had stopped long enough to answer them. “Oh I’ll square her!” he cried; and with this he departed.
Face to face with Mrs. Beale, Maisie, giving a sigh of relief, looked round at what seemed to her the dawn of a higher order. “Then EVERY ONE will be squared!” she peacefully said. On which her stepmother affectionately bent over her again.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10