When he had lighted a cigarette and begun to smoke in her face it was as if h_ad struck with the match the note of some queer clumsy ferment of ol_rofessions, old scandals, old duties, a dim perception of what he possesse_n her and what, if everything had only—damn it!—been totally different, sh_ight still be able to give him. What she was able to give him, however, a_is blinking eyes seemed to make out through the smoke, would be simply wha_e should be able to get from her. To give something, to give here on th_pot, was all her own desire. Among the old things that came back was he_ittle instinct of keeping the peace; it made her wonder more sharply wha_articular thing she could do or not do, what particular word she could spea_r not speak, what particular line she could take or not take, that might fo_very one, even for the Countess, give a better turn to the crisis. She wa_eady, in this interest, for an immense surrender, a surrender of everythin_ut Sir Claude, of everything but Mrs. Beale. The immensity didn't includ_HEM; but if he had an idea at the back of his head she had also one in _ecess as deep, and for a time, while they sat together, there was a_xtraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, hi_ision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision. What ther_as no effective record of indeed was the small strange pathos on the child'_art of an innocence so saturated with knowledge and so directed to diplomacy.
What, further, Beale finally laid hold of while he masked again with his fin_resence half the flounces of the fireplace was: "Do you know, my dear, _hall soon be off to America?" It struck his daughter both as a short cut an_s the way he wouldn't have said it to his wife. But his wife figured with _right superficial assurance in her response.
"Do you mean with Mrs. Beale?"
Her father looked at her hard. "Don't be a little ass!"
Her silence appeared to represent a concentrated effort not to be. "Then wit_he Countess?"
"With her or without her, my dear; that concerns only your poor daddy. She ha_ig interests over there, and she wants me to take a look at them."
Maisie threw herself into them. "Will that take very long?"
"Yes; they're in such a muddle—it may take months. Now what I want to hear, you know, is whether you'd like to come along?"
Planted once more before him in the middle of the room she felt hersel_urning white. "I?" she gasped, yet feeling as soon as she had spoken tha_uch a note of dismay was not altogether pretty. She felt it still more whil_er father replied, with a shake of his legs, a toss of his cigarette-ash an_ fidgety look —he was for ever taking one—all the length of his waistcoat an_rousers, that she needn't be quite so disgusted. It helped her in a fe_econds to appear more as he would like her that she saw, in the lovely ligh_f the Countess's splendour, exactly, however she appeared, the right answe_o make. "Dear papa, I'll go with you anywhere."
He turned his back to her and stood with his nose at the glass of th_himneypiece while he brushed specks of ash out of his beard. Then he abruptl_aid: "Do you know anything about your brute of a mother?"
It was just of her brute of a mother that the manner of the question in _emarkable degree reminded her: it had the free flight of one of Ida's fin_ridgings of space. With the sense of this was kindled for Maisie at the sam_ime an inspiration. "Oh yes, I know everything!" and she became so radian_hat her father, seeing it in the mirror, turned back to her and presently, o_he sofa, had her at his knee again and was again particularly affecting.
Maisie's inspiration instructed her, pressingly, that the more she should b_ble to say about mamma the less she would be called upon to speak of he_tep-parents. She kept hoping the Countess would come in before her power t_rotect them was exhausted; and it was now, in closer quarters with he_ompanion, that the idea at the back of her head shifted its place to he_ips. She told him she had met her mother in the Park with a gentleman who, while Sir Claude had strolled with her ladyship, had been kind and had sat an_alked to her; narrating the scene with a remembrance of her pledge of secrec_o the Captain quite brushed away by the joy of seeing Beale listen withou_rofane interruption. It was almost an amazement, but it was indeed all a joy, thus to be able to guess that papa was at last quite tired of his anger—of hi_nger at any rate about mamma. He was only bored with her now. That made it, however, the more imperative that his spent displeasure shouldn't be blown ou_gain. It charmed the child to see how much she could interest him; and th_harm remained even when, after asking her a dozen questions, he observe_usingly and a little obscurely: "Yes, damned if she won't!" For in this to_here was a detachment, a wise weariness that made her feel safe. She had ha_o mention Sir Claude, though she mentioned him as little as possible an_eale only appeared to look quite over his head. It pieced itself together fo_er that this was the mildness of general indifference, a source of profit s_reat for herself personally that if the Countess was the author of it she wa_repared literally to hug the Countess. She betrayed that eagerness by _estless question about her, to which her father replied: "Oh she has a hea_n her shoulders. I'll back her to get out of anything!" He looked at Maisi_uite as if he could trace the connexion between her enquiry and th_mpatience of her gratitude. "Do you mean to say you'd really come with me?"
She felt as if he were now looking at her very hard indeed, and also as if sh_ad grown ever so much older. "I'll do anything in the world you ask me, papa."
He gave again, with a laugh and with his legs apart, his proprietary glance a_is waistcoat and trousers. "That's a way, my dear, of saying 'No, thank you!'
You know you don't want to go the least little mite. You can't humbug ME!"
Beale Farange laid down. "I don't want to bully you—I never bullied you in m_ife; but I make you the offer, and it's to take or to leave. Your mother wil_ever again have any more to do with you than if you were a kitchenmaid sh_ad turned out for going wrong. Therefore of course I'm your natural protecto_nd you've a right to get everything out of me you can. Now's your chance, yo_now—you won't be half-clever if you don't. You can't say I don't put i_efore you—you can't say I ain't kind to you or that I don't play fair. Min_ou never say that, you know—it WOULD bring me down on you. I know what'_roper. I'll take you again, just as I HAVE taken you again and again. And I'_uch obliged to you for making up such a face."
She was conscious enough that her face indeed couldn't please him if it showe_ny sign—just as she hoped it didn't—of her sharp impression of what he no_eally wanted to do. Wasn't he trying to turn the tables on her, embarrass he_omehow into admitting that what would really suit her little book would be, after doing so much for good manners, to leave her wholly at liberty t_rrange for herself? She began to be nervous again: it rolled over her tha_his was their parting, their parting for ever, and that he had brought he_here for so many caresses only because it was important such an occasio_hould look better for him than any other. For her to spoil it by the note o_iscord would certainly give him ground for complaint; and the child wa_omentarily bewildered between her alternatives of agreeing with him about he_anting to get rid of him and displeasing him by pretending to stick to him.
So she found for the moment no solution but to murmur very helplessly: "O_apa—oh papa!"
"I know what you're up to—don't tell ME!" After which he came straight ove_nd, in the most inconsequent way in the world, clasped her in his arms _oment and rubbed his beard against her cheek. Then she understood as well a_f he had spoken it that what he wanted, hang it, was that she should let hi_ff with all the honours—with all the appearance of virtue and sacrifice o_is side. It was exactly as if he had broken out to her: "I say, you littl_ooby, help me to be irreproachable, to be noble, and yet to have none of th_eastly bore of it. There's only impropriety enough for one of us; so YOU mus_ake it all. REPUDIATE your dear old daddy—in the face, mind you, of hi_ender supplications. He can't be rough with you—it isn't in his nature: therefore you'll have successfully chucked him because he was too generous t_e as firm with you, poor man, as was, after all, his duty." This was what h_ommunicated in a series of tremendous pats on the back; that portion of he_erson had never been so thumped since Moddle thumped her when she choked.
After a moment he gave her the further impression of having become sure enoug_f her to be able very gracefully to say out: "You know your mother loathe_ou, loathes you simply. And I've been thinking over your precious man—th_ellow you told me about."
"Well," Maisie replied with competence, "I'm sure of HIM."
Her father was vague for an instant. "Do you mean sure of his liking you?"
"Oh no; of his liking HER!"
Beale had a return of gaiety. "There's no accounting for tastes! It's wha_hey all say, you know."
"I don't care—I'm sure of him!" Maisie repeated.
"Sure, you mean, that she'll bolt?"
Maisie knew all about bolting, but, decidedly, she WAS older, and there wa_omething in her that could wince at the way her father made the ugl_ord—ugly enough at best—sound flat and low. It prompted her to amend hi_llusion, which she did by saying: "I don't know what she'll do. But she'll b_appy."
"Let us hope so," said Beale—almost as for edification. "The more happy she i_t any rate the less she'll want you about. That's why I press you," h_greeably pursued, "to consider this handsome offer—I mean seriously, yo_now—of your sole surviving parent." Their eyes, at this, met again in a lon_nd extraordinary communion which terminated in his ejaculating: "Ah yo_ittle scoundrel!" She took it from him in the manner it seemed to her h_ould like best and with a success that encouraged him to go on: "You ARE _eep little devil!" Her silence, ticking like a watch, acknowledged even this, in confirmation of which he finally brought out: "You've settled it with th_ther pair!"
"Well, what if I have?" She sounded to herself most bold.
Her father, quite as in the old days, broke into a peal. "Why, don't you kno_hey're awful?"
She grew bolder still. "I don't care—not a bit!"
"But they're probably the worst people in the world and the very greates_riminals," Beale pleasantly urged. "I'm not the man, my dear, not to let yo_now it."
"Well, it doesn't prevent them from loving me. They love me tremendously."
Maisie turned crimson to hear herself.
Her companion fumbled; almost any one—et alone a daughter— would have seen ho_onscientious he wanted to be. "I dare say. But do you know why?" She brave_is eyes and he added: "You're a jolly good pretext."
"For what?" Maisie asked.
"Why, for their game. I needn't tell you what that is."
The child reflected. "Well then that's all the more reason."
"Reason for what, pray?"
"For their being kind to me."
"And for your keeping in with them?" Beale roared again; it was as if hi_pirits rose and rose. "Do you realise, pray, that in saying that you're _onster?"
She turned it over. "A monster?"
"They've MADE one of you. Upon my honour it's quite awful. It shows the kin_f people they are. Don't you understand," Beale pursued, "that when they'v_ade you as horrid as they can—as horrid as themselves—they'll just simpl_huck you?"
She had at this a flicker of passion. "They WON'T chuck me!"
"I beg your pardon," her father courteously insisted; "it's my duty to put i_efore you. I shouldn't forgive myself if I didn't point out to you tha_hey'll cease to require you." He spoke as if with an appeal to he_ntelligence that she must be ashamed not adequately to meet, and this gave _eal distinction to his superior delicacy.
It cleared the case as he had wished. "Cease to require me because they won'_are?" She paused with that sketch of her idea.
"OF COURSE Sir Claude won't care if his wife bolts. That's his game. It wil_uit him down to the ground."
This was a proposition Maisie could perfectly embrace, but it still left _oophole for triumph. She turned it well over. "You mean if mamma doesn't com_ack ever at all?" The composure with which her face was presented to tha_rospect would have shown a spectator the long road she had travelled. "Well, but that won't put Mrs. Beale—"
"In the same comfortable position—?" Beale took her up with relish; he ha_prung to his feet again, shaking his legs and looking at his shoes. "Righ_ou are, darling! Something more will be wanted for Mrs. Beale." He jus_aused, then he added: "But she may not have long to wait for it."
Maisie also for a minute looked at his shoes, though they were not the pai_he most admired, the laced yellow "uppers" and patent-leather complement. A_ast, with a question, she raised her eyes. "Aren't you coming back?"
Once more he hung fire; after which he gave a small laugh that in the oddes_ay in the world reminded her of the unique sounds she had heard emitted b_rs. Wix. "It may strike you as extraordinary that I should make you such a_dmission; and in point of fact you're not to understand that I do. But we'l_ut it that way to help your decision. The point is that that's the way m_ife will presently be sure to put it. You'll hear her shrieking that she'_eserted, so that she may just pile up her wrongs. She'll be as free as sh_ikes then—as free, you see, as your mother's muff of a husband. They won'_ave anything more to consider and they'll just put you into the street. Do _nderstand," Beale enquired, "that, in the face of what I press on you, yo_till prefer to take the risk of that?" It was the most wonderful appeal an_entleman had ever addressed to his daughter, and it had placed Maisie in th_iddle of the room again while her father moved slowly about her with hi_ands in his pockets and something in his step that seemed, more than anythin_lse he had done, to show the habit of the place. She turned her fevere_ittle eyes over his friend's brightnesses, as if, on her own side, to pres_or some help in a quandary unexampled. As if also the pressure reached him h_fter an instant stopped short, completing the prodigy of his attitude and th_ride of his loyalty by a supreme formulation of the general inducement.
"You've an eye, love! Yes, there's money. No end of money."
This affected her at first in the manner of some great flashing dazzle in on_f the pantomimes to which Sir Claude had taken her: she saw nothing in it bu_hat it directly conveyed. "And shall I never, never see you again—?"
"If I do go to America?" Beale brought it out like a man. "Never, never, never!"
Hereupon, with the utmost absurdity, she broke down; everything gave way, everything but the horror of hearing herself definitely utter such an uglines_s the acceptance of that. So she only stiffened herself and said: "Then _an't give you up."
She held him some seconds looking at her, showing her a strained grimace, _erfect parade of all his teeth, in which it seemed to her she could read th_isgust he didn't quite like to express at this departure from the pliabilit_he had practically promised. But before she could attenuate in any way th_rudity of her collapse he gave an impatient jerk which took him to th_indow. She heard a vehicle stop; Beale looked out; then he freshly faced her.
He still said nothing, but she knew the Countess had come back. There was _ilence again between them, but with a different shade of embarrassment fro_hat of their united arrival; and it was still without speaking that, abruptl_epeating one of the embraces of which he had already been so prodigal, h_hisked her back to the lemon sofa just before the door of the room was throw_pen. It was thus in renewed and intimate union with him that she wa_resented to a person whom she instantly recognised as the brown lady.
The brown lady looked almost as astonished, though not quite as alarmed, a_hen, at the Exhibition, she had gasped in the face of Mrs. Beale. Maisie i_ruth almost gasped in her own; this was with the fuller perception that sh_as brown indeed. She literally struck the child more as an animal than as a
"real" lady; she might have been a clever frizzled poodle in a frill or _readful human monkey in a spangled petticoat. She had a nose that was far to_ig and eyes that were far too small and a moustache that was, well, not s_appy a feature as Sir Claude's. Beale jumped up to her; while, to the child'_stonishment, though as if in a quick intensity of thought, the Countes_dvanced as gaily as if, for many a day, nothing awkward had happened for an_ne. Maisie, in spite of a large acquaintance with the phenomenon, had neve_een it so promptly established that nothing awkward was to be mentioned. Th_ext minute the Countess had kissed her and exclaimed to Beale with brigh_ender reproach: "Why, you never told me HALF! My dear child," she cried, "i_as awfully nice of you to come!"
"But she hasn't come—she won't come!" Beale answered. "I've put it to her ho_uch you'd like it, but she declines to have anything to do with us."
The Countess stood smiling, and after an instant that was mainly taken up wit_he shock of her weird aspect Maisie felt herself reminded of another smile, which was not ugly, though also interested—the kind light thrown, that day i_he Park, from the clean fair face of the Captain. Papa's Captain—yes—was th_ountess; but she wasn't nearly so nice as the other: it all came back, doubtless, to Maisie's minor appreciation of ladies. "Shouldn't you like me,"
said this one endearingly, "to take you to Spa?"
"To Spa?" The child repeated the name to gain time, not to show how th_ountess brought back to her a dim remembrance of a strange woman with _orrid face who once, years before, in an omnibus, bending to her from a_pposite seat, had suddenly produced an orange and murmured "Little dearie, won't you have it?" She had felt then, for some reason, a small silly terror, though afterwards conscious that her interlocutress, unfortunately hideous, had particularly meant to be kind. This was also what the Countess meant; ye_he few words she had uttered and the smile with which she had uttered the_mmediately cleared everything up. Oh no, she wanted to go nowhere with HER, for her presence had already, in a few seconds, dissipated the happ_mpression of the room and put an end to the pleasure briefly taken in Beale'_ommand of such elegance. There was no command of elegance in his havin_xposed her to the approach of the short fat wheedling whiskered person i_hom she had now to recognise the only figure wholly without attractio_nvolved in any of the intimate connexions her immediate circle had witnesse_he growth of. She was abashed meanwhile, however, at having appeared to weig_n the balance the place to which she had been invited; and she added a_uickly as possible: "It isn't to America then?" The Countess, at this, looke_harply at Beale, and Beale, airily enough, asked what the deuce it mattere_hen she had already given him to understand she wanted to have nothing to d_ith them. There followed between her companions a passage of which the sens_as drowned for her in the deepening inward hum of her mere desire to get off; though she was able to guess later on that her father must have put it to hi_riend that it was no use talking, that she was an obstinate little pig an_hat, besides, she was really old enough to choose for herself. It glimmere_ack to her indeed that she must have failed quite dreadfully to seem ideall_ther than rude, inasmuch as before she knew it she had visibly given th_mpression that if they didn't allow her to go home she should cry. Oh i_here had ever been a thing to cry about it was being so consciously an_awkily below the handsomest offers any one could ever have received. Th_reat pain of the thing was that she could see the Countess liked her enoug_o wish to be liked in return, and it was from the idea of a return she sough_tterly to flee. It was the idea of a return that after a confusion of lou_ords had broken out between the others brought to her lips with the tremo_receding disaster: "Can't I, please, be sent home in a cab?" Yes, th_ountess wanted her and the Countess was wounded and chilled, and she couldn'_elp it, and it was all the more dreadful because it only made the Countes_ore coaxing and more impossible. The only thing that sustained either of the_erhaps till the cab came—Maisie presently saw it would come—was its being i_he air somehow that Beale had done what he wanted. He went out to look for _onveyance; the servants, he said, had gone to bed, but she shouldn't be kep_eyond her time. The Countess left the room with him, and, alone in th_ossession of it, Maisie hoped she wouldn't come back. It was all the effec_f her face—the child simply couldn't look at it and meet its expressio_alfway. All in a moment too that queer expression had leaped into the lovel_hings—all in a moment she had had to accept her father as liking some on_hom she was sure neither her mother, nor Mrs. Beale, nor Mrs. Wix, nor Si_laude, nor the Captain, nor even Mr. Perriam and Lord Eric could possibl_ave liked. Three minutes later, downstairs, with the cab at the door, it wa_erhaps as a final confession of not having much to boast of that, on takin_eave of her, he managed to press her to his bosom without her seeing hi_ace. For herself she was so eager to go that their parting reminded her o_othing, not even of a single one of all the "nevers" that above, as th_enalty of not cleaving to him, he had attached to the question of thei_eeting again. There was something in the Countess that falsified everything, even the great interests in America and yet more the first flush of tha_uperiority to Mrs. Beale and to mamma which had been expressed in Sevres set_nd silver boxes. These were still there, but perhaps there were no grea_nterests in America. Mamma had known an American who was not a bit like thi_ne. She was not, however, of noble rank; her name was only Mrs. Tucker.
Maisie's detachment would none the less have been more complete if she had no_uddenly had to exclaim: "Oh dear, I haven't any money!"
Her father's teeth, at this, were such a picture of appetite without action a_o be a match for any plea of poverty. "Make your stepmother pay."
"Stepmothers DON'T pay!" cried the Countess. "No stepmother ever paid in he_ife!" The next moment they were in the street together, and the next th_hild was in the cab, with the Countess, on the pavement, but close to her, quickly taking money from a purse whisked out of a pocket. Her father ha_anished and there was even yet nothing in that to reawaken the pang of loss.
"Here's money," said the brown lady: "go!" The sound was commanding: the ca_attled off. Maisie sat there with her hand full of coin. All that for a cab?
As they passed a street-lamp she bent to see how much. What she saw was _luster of sovereigns. There MUST then have been great interests in America.