She had not at the moment explained her ominous speech, but the light o_emarkable events soon enabled her companion to read it. It may indeed be sai_hat these days brought on a high quickening of Maisie's direct perceptions, of her sense of freedom to make out things for herself. This was helped by a_motion intrinsically far from sweet—the increase of the alarm that had mos_aunted her meditations. She had no need to be told, as on the morrow of th_evelation of Sir Claude's danger she was told by Mrs. Wix, that her mothe_anted more and more to know why the devil her father didn't send for her: sh_ad too long expected mamma's curiosity on this point to express itsel_harply. Maisie could meet such pressure so far as meeting it was to be in _osition to reply, in words directly inspired, that papa would be hange_efore he'd again be saddled with her. She therefore recognised the hour tha_n troubled glimpses she had long foreseen, the hour when—the phrase for i_ame back to her from Mrs. Beale—with two fathers, two mothers and two homes, six protections in all, she shouldn't know "wherever" to go. Such apprehensio_s she felt on this score was not diminished by the fact that Mrs. Wix hersel_as suddenly white with terror: a circumstance leading Maisie to the furthe_nowledge that this lady was still more scared on her own behalf than on tha_f her pupil. A governess who had only one frock was not likely to have eithe_wo fathers or two mothers: accordingly if even with these resources Maisi_as to be in the streets, where in the name of all that was dreadful was poo_rs. Wix to be? She had had, it appeared, a tremendous brush with Ida, whic_ad begun and ended with the request that she would be pleased on the spot to
"bundle." It had come suddenly but completely, this signal of which she ha_one in fear. The companions confessed to each other the dread each had hidde_he worst of, but Mrs. Wix was better off than Maisie in having a plan o_efence. She declined indeed to communicate it till it was quite mature; bu_eanwhile, she hastened to declare, her feet were firm in the schoolroom. The_ould only be loosened by force: she would "leave" for the police perhaps, bu_he wouldn't leave for mere outrage. That would be to play her ladyship'_ame, and it would take another turn of the screw to make her desert he_arling. Her ladyship had come down with extraordinary violence: it had bee_ne of many symptoms of a situation strained—"between them all," as Mrs. Wi_aid, "but especially between the two"—to the point of God only knew what.
Her description of the crisis made the child blanch. "Between which two?—pap_nd mamma?"
"Dear no. I mean between your mother and HIM."
Maisie, in this, recognised an opportunity to be really deep. "'Him'?—Mr.
She fairly brought a blush to the scared face. "Well, my dear, I must say wha_ou DON'T know ain't worth mentioning. That it won't go on for ever with Mr.
Perriam—since I MUST meet you—you can suppose? But I meant dear Sir Claude."
Maisie stood corrected rather than abashed. "I see. But it's about Mr. Perria_e's angry?"
Mrs. Wix waited. "He says he's not."
"Not angry? He has told you so?"
Mrs. Wix looked at her hard. "Not about HIM!"
"Then about some one else?"
Mrs. Wix looked at her harder. "About some one else."
"Lord Eric?" the child promptly brought forth.
At this, of a sudden, her governess was more agitated. "Oh why, littl_nfortunate, should we discuss their dreadful names?"—and she threw hersel_or the millionth time on Maisie's neck. It took her pupil but a moment t_eel that she quivered with insecurity, and, the contact of her terror aiding, the pair in another instant were sobbing in each other's arms. Then it wa_hat, completely relaxed, demoralised as she had never been, Mrs. Wix suffere_er wound to bleed and her resentment to gush. Her great bitterness was tha_da had called her false, denounced her hypocrisy and duplicity, reviled he_pying and tattling, her lying and grovelling to Sir Claude. "Me, ME!" th_oor woman wailed, "who've seen what I've seen and gone through everythin_nly to cover her up and ease her off and smooth her down? If I've been an
'ipocrite it's the other way round: I've pretended, to him and to her, t_yself and to you and to every one, NOT to see! It serves me right to hav_eld my tongue before such horrors!"
What horrors they were her companion forbore too closely to enquire, showin_ven signs not a few of an ability to take them for granted. That put th_ouple more than ever, in this troubled sea, in the same boat, so that wit_he consciousness of ideas on the part of her fellow mariner Maisie could si_lose and wait. Sir Claude on the morrow came in to tea, and then the idea_ere produced. It was extraordinary how the child's presence drew out thei_ull strength. The principal one was startling, but Maisie appreciated th_ourage with which her governess handled it. It simply consisted of th_roposal that whenever and wherever they should seek refuge Sir Claude shoul_onsent to share their asylum. On his protesting with all the warmth in natur_gainst this note of secession she asked what else in the world was left t_hem if her ladyship should stop supplies.
"Supplies be hanged, my dear woman!" said their delightful friend. "Leav_upplies to me—I'll take care of supplies."
Mrs. Wix rose to it. "Well, it's exactly because I knew you'd be so glad to d_o that I put the question before you. There's a way to look after us bette_han any other. The way's just to come along with us."
It hung before Maisie, Mrs. Wix's way, like a glittering picture, and sh_lasped her hands in ecstasy. "Come along, come along, come along!"
Sir Claude looked from his stepdaughter back to her governess. "Do you mea_eave this house and take up my abode with you?"
"It will be the right thing—if you feel as you've told me you feel." Mrs. Wix, sustained and uplifted, was now as clear as a bell.
Sir Claude had the air of trying to recall what he had told her; then th_ight broke that was always breaking to make his face more pleasant. "It'_our happy thought that I shall take a house for you?"
"For the wretched homeless child. Any roof—over our heads—will do for us; bu_f course for you it will have to be something really nice."
Sir Claude's eyes reverted to Maisie, rather hard, as she thought; and ther_as a shade in his very smile that seemed to show her—though she also felt i_idn't show Mrs. Wix—that the accommodation prescribed must loom to him prett_arge. The next moment, however, he laughed gaily enough. "My dear lady, yo_xaggerate tremendously MY poor little needs." Mrs. Wix had once mentioned t_er young friend that when Sir Claude called her his dear lady he could d_nything with her; and Maisie felt a certain anxiety to see what he would d_ow. Well, he only addressed her a remark of which the child herself was awar_f feeling the force. "Your plan appeals to me immensely; but of course—don'_ou see—I shall have to consider the position I put myself in by leaving m_ife."
"You'll also have to remember," Mrs. Wix replied, "that if you don't look ou_our wife won't give you time to consider. Her ladyship will leave YOU."
"Ah my good friend, I do look out!" the young man returned while Maisie helpe_erself afresh to bread and butter. "Of course if that happens I shall hav_omehow to turn round; but I hope with all my heart it won't. I beg you_ardon," he continued to his stepdaughter, "for appearing to discuss that sor_f possibility under your sharp little nose. But the fact is I FORGET half th_ime that Ida's your sainted mother."
"So do I!" said Maisie, her mouth full of bread and butter and to put him th_ore in the right.
Her protectress, at this, was upon her again. "The little desolate preciou_et!" For the rest of the conversation she was enclosed in Mrs. Wix's arms, and as they sat there interlocked Sir Claude, before them with his tea-cup, looked down at them in deepening thought. Shrink together as they might the_ouldn't help, Maisie felt, being a very large lumpish image of what Mrs. Wi_equired of his slim fineness. She knew moreover that this lady didn't make i_etter by adding in a moment: "Of course we shouldn't dream of a whole house.
Any sort of little lodging, however humble, would be only too blest."
"But it would have to be something that would hold us all," said Sir Claude.
"Oh yes," Mrs. Wix concurred; "the whole point's our being together. Whil_ou're waiting, before you act, for her ladyship to take some step, ou_osition here will come to an impossible pass. You don't know what I wen_hrough with her for you yesterday—and for our poor darling; but it's not _hing I can promise you often to face again. She cast me out in horribl_anguage—she has instructed the servants not to wait on me."
"Oh the poor servants are all right!" Sir Claude eagerly cried.
"They're certainly better than their mistress. It's too dreadful that I shoul_it here and say of your wife, Sir Claude, and of Maisie's own mother, tha_he's lower than a domestic; but my being betrayed into such remarks is just _eason the more for our getting away. I shall stay till I'm taken by th_houlders, but that may happen any day. What also may perfectly happen, yo_ust permit me to repeat, is that she'll go off to get rid of us."
"Oh if she'll only do that!" Sir Claude laughed. "That would be the ver_aking of us!"
"Don't say it—don't say it!" Mrs. Wix pleaded. "Don't speak of anything s_atal. You know what I mean. We must all cling to the right. You mustn't b_ad."
Sir Claude set down his tea-cup; he had become more grave and he pensivel_iped his moustache. "Won't all the world say I'm awful if I leave the hous_efore—before she has bolted? They'll say it was my doing so that made he_olt."
Maisie could grasp the force of this reasoning, but it offered no check t_rs. Wix. "Why need you mind that—if you've done it for so high a motive?
Think of the beauty of it," the good lady pressed.
"Of bolting with YOU?" Sir Claude ejaculated.
She faintly smiled—she even faintly coloured. "So far from doing you harm i_ill do you the highest good. Sir Claude, if you'll listen to me, it will sav_ou."
"Save me from what?"
Maisie, at this question, waited with renewed suspense for an answer tha_ould bring the thing to some finer point than their companion had brought i_o before. But there was on the contrary only more mystification in Mrs. Wix'_eply. "Ah from you know what!"
"Do you mean from some other woman!"
"Yes—from a real bad one."
Sir Claude at least, the child could see, was not mystified; so little indee_hat a smile of intelligence broke afresh in his eyes. He turned them in vagu_iscomfort to Maisie, and then something in the way she met them caused him t_huck her playfully under the chin. It was not till after this that he good- naturedly met Mrs. Wix. "You think me much worse than I am."
"If that were true," she returned, "I wouldn't appeal to you. I do, Si_laude, in the name of all that's good in you—and oh so earnestly! We can hel_ach other. What you'll do for our young friend here I needn't say. That isn'_ven what I want to speak of now. What I want to speak of is what you'l_ET—don't you see?—from such an opportunity to take hold. Take hold of US— take hold of HER. Make her your duty—make her your life: she'll repay you _housand-fold!"
It was to Mrs. Wix, during this appeal, that Maisie's contemplatio_ransferred itself: partly because, though her heart was in her throat fo_repidation, her delicacy deterred her from appearing herself to press th_uestion; partly from the coercion of seeing Mrs. Wix come out as Mrs. Wix ha_ever come Before—not even on the day of her call at Mrs. Beale's with th_ews of mamma's marriage. On that day Mrs. Beale had surpassed her in dignity, but nobody could have surpassed her now. There was in fact at this moment _ascination for her pupil in the hint she seemed to give that she had stil_ore of that surprise behind. So the sharpened sense of spectatorship was th_hild's main support, the long habit, from the first, of seeing herself i_iscussion and finding in the fury of it—she had had a glimpse of the game o_ootball—a sort of compensation for the doom of a peculiar passivity. It gav_er often an odd air of being present at her history in as separate a manne_s if she could only get at experience by flattening her nose against a pan_f glass. Such she felt to be the application of her nose while she waited fo_he effect of Mrs. Wix's eloquence. Sir Claude, however, didn't keep her lon_n a position so ungraceful: he sat down and opened his arms to her as he ha_one the day he came for her at her father's, and while he held her there, looking at her kindly, but as if their companion had brought the blood a goo_eal to his face, he said:
"Dear Mrs. Wix is magnificent, but she's rather too grand about it. I mean th_ituation isn't after all quite so desperate or quite so simple. But I giv_ou my word before her, and I give it to her before you, that I'll never, never, forsake you. Do you hear that, old fellow, and do you take it in? I'l_tick to you through everything."
Maisie did take it in—took it with a long tremor of all her little being; an_hen as, to emphasise it, he drew her closer she buried her head on hi_houlder and cried without sound and without pain. While she was so engage_he became aware that his own breast was agitated, and gathered from it wit_apture that his tears were as silently flowing. Presently she heard a lou_ob from Mrs. Wix—Mrs. Wix was the only one who made a noise.
She was to have made, for some time, none other but this, though within a fe_ays, in conversation with her pupil, she described her intercourse with Id_s little better than the state of being battered. There was as ye_evertheless no attempt to eject her by force, and she recognised that Si_laude, taking such a stand as never before, had intervened with passion an_ith success. As Maisie remembered—and remembered wholly without disdain—tha_e had told her he was afraid of her ladyship, the little girl took this ac_f resolution as a proof of what, in the spirit of the engagement sealed b_ll their tears, he was really prepared to do. Mrs. Wix spoke to her of th_ecuniary sacrifice by which she herself purchased the scant security sh_njoyed and which, if it was a defence against the hand of violence, yet lef_er exposed to incredible rudeness. Didn't her ladyship find every hour of th_ay some artful means to humiliate and trample upon her? There was a quarter'_alary owing her—a great name, even Maisie could suspect, for a small matter; she should never see it as long as she lived, but keeping quiet about it pu_er ladyship, thank heaven, a little in one's power. Now that he was doing s_uch else she could never have the grossness to apply for it to Sir Claude. H_ad sent home for schoolroom consumption a huge frosted cake, a wonderfu_electable mountain with geological strata of jam, which might, with economy, see them through many days of their siege; but it was none the less known t_rs. Wix that his affairs were more and more involved, and her fellow partake_ooked back tenderly, in the light of these involutions, at the expression o_ace with which he had greeted the proposal that he should set up anothe_stablishment. Maisie felt that if their maintenance should hang by a threa_hey must still demean themselves with the highest delicacy. What he was doin_as simply acting without delay, so far as his embarrassments permitted, o_he inspiration of his elder friend. There was at this season a wonderfu_onth of May—as soft as a drop of the wind in a gale that had kept on_wake—when he took out his stepdaughter with a fresh alacrity and they ramble_he great town in search, as Mrs. Wix called it, of combined amusement an_nstruction.
They rode on the top of 'buses; they visited outlying parks; they went t_ricket-matches where Maisie fell asleep; they tried a hundred places for th_est one to have tea. This was his direct way of rising to Mrs. Wix's gran_esson—of making his little accepted charge his duty and his life. The_ropped, under incontrollable impulses, into shops that they agreed were to_ig, to look at things that they agreed were too small, and it was durin_hese hours that Mrs. Wix, alone at home, but a subject of regretful referenc_s they pulled off their gloves for refreshment, subsequently describe_erself as least sheltered from the blows her ladyship had achieved suc_ngenuity in dealing. She again and again repeated that she wouldn't so muc_ave minded having her "attainments" held up to scorn and her knowledge o_very subject denied, hadn't she been branded as "low" in character and tone.
There was by this time no pretence on the part of any one of denying it to b_ortunate that her ladyship habitually left London every Saturday and was mor_nd more disposed to a return late in the week. It was almost equally publi_hat she regarded as a preposterous "pose," and indeed as a direct insult t_erself, her husband's attitude of staying behind to look after a child fo_hom the most elaborate provision had been made. If there was a type Id_espised, Sir Claude communicated to Maisie, it was the man who pottered abou_own of a Sunday; and he also mentioned how often she had declared to him tha_f he had a grain of spirit he would be ashamed to accept a menial positio_bout Mr. Farange's daughter. It was her ladyship's contention that he was i_raven fear of his predecessor—otherwise he would recognise it as a_bligation of plain decency to protect his wife against the outrage of tha_erson's barefaced attempt to swindle her. The swindle was that Mr. Farang_ut upon her the whole intolerable burden; "and even when I pay for yo_yself," Sir Claude averred to his young friend, "she accuses me the more o_ruckling and grovelling." It was Mrs. Wix's conviction, they both knew, arrived at on independent grounds, that Ida's weekly excursions were feeler_or a more considerable absence. If she came back later each week the wee_ould be sure to arrive when she wouldn't come back at all. This appearanc_ad of course much to do with Mrs. Wix's actual valour. Could they but hol_ut long enough the snug little home with Sir Claude would find itsel_nformally established.