Sir Claude was stationed at the window; he didn't so much as turn round, an_t was left to the youngest of the three to take up the remark. "Do you mea_ou went to see her yesterday?"
"She came to see ME. She knocked at my shabby door. She mounted my squali_tair. She told me she had seen you at Folkestone."
Maisie wondered. "She went back that evening?"
"No; yesterday morning. She drove to me straight from the station. It was mos_emarkable. If I had a job to get off she did nothing to make it worse—she di_ great deal to make it better." Mrs. Wix hung fire, though the flame in he_ace burned brighter; then she became capable of saying: "Her ladyship's kind!
She did what I didn't expect."
Maisie, on this, looked straight at her stepfather's back; it might well hav_een for her at that hour a monument of her ladyship's kindness. It remained, as such, monumentally still, and for a time that permitted the child to ask o_heir companion: "Did she really help you?"
"Most practically." Again Mrs. Wix paused; again she quite resounded. "Sh_ave me a ten-pound note."
At that, still looking out, Sir Claude, at the window, laughed loud. "So yo_ee, Maisie, we've not quite lost it!"
"Oh no," Maisie responded. "Isn't that too charming?" She smiled at Mrs. Wix.
"We know all about it." Then on her friend's showing such blankness as wa_ompatible with such a flush she pursued: "She does want me to have you?"
Mrs. Wix showed a final hesitation, which, however, while Sir Claude drumme_n the window-pane, she presently surmounted. It came to Maisie that in spit_f his drumming and of his not turning round he was really so much intereste_s to leave himself in a manner in her hands; which somehow suddenly seemed t_er a greater proof than he could have given by interfering. "She wants me t_ave YOU!" Mrs. Wix declared.
Maisie answered this bang at Sir Claude. "Then that's nice for all of us."
Of course it was, his continued silence sufficiently admitted while Mrs. Wi_ose from her chair and, as if to take more of a stand, placed herself, no_ithout majesty, before the fire. The incongruity of her smartness, th_ircumference of her stiff frock, presented her as really more ready for Pari_han any of them. She also gazed hard at Sir Claude's back. "Your wife wa_ifferent from anything she had ever shown me. She recognises certai_roprieties."
"Which? Do you happen to remember?" Sir Claude asked.
Mrs. Wix's reply was prompt. "The importance for Maisie of a gentlewoman, o_ome one who's not—well, so bad! She objects to a mere maid, and I don't i_he least mind telling you what she wants me to do." One thing was clear—Mrs.
Wix was now bold enough for anything. "She wants me to persuade you to get ri_f the person from Mrs. Beale's."
Maisie waited for Sir Claude to pronounce on this; then she could onl_nderstand that he on his side waited, and she felt particularly full o_ommon sense as she met her responsibility. "Oh I don't want Susan with YOU!"
she said to Mrs. Wix.
Sir Claude, always from the window, approved. "That's quite simple. I'll tak_er back."
Mrs. Wix gave a positive jump; Maisie caught her look of alarm. "'Take' her?
You don't mean to go over on purpose?"
Sir Claude said nothing for a moment; after which, "Why shouldn't I leave yo_ere?" he enquired.
Maisie, at this, sprang up. "Oh do, oh do, oh do!" The next moment she wa_nterlaced with Mrs. Wix, and the two, on the hearth-rug, their eyes in eac_ther's eyes, considered the plan with intensity. Then Maisie felt th_ifference of what they saw in it.
"She can surely go back alone: why should you put yourself out?" Mrs. Wi_emanded.
"Oh she's an idiot—she's incapable. If anything should happen to her it woul_e awkward: it was I who brought her—without her asking. If I turn her away _ught with my own hand to place her again exactly where I found her."
Mrs. Wix's face appealed to Maisie on such folly, and her manner, as directe_o their companion, had, to her pupil's surprise, an unprecedented firmness.
"Dear Sir Claude, I think you're perverse. Pay her fare and give her _overeign. She has had an experience that she never dreamed of and that wil_e an advantage to her through life. If she goes wrong on the way it will b_imply because she wants to, and, with her expenses and her remuneration—mak_t even what you like!—you'll have treated her as handsomely as you alway_reat every one."
This was a new tone—as new as Mrs. Wix's cap; and it could strike a youn_erson with a sharpened sense for latent meanings as the upshot of a relatio_hat had taken on a new character. It brought out for Maisie how much mor_ven than she had guessed her friends were fighting side by side. At the sam_ime it needed so definite a justification that as Sir Claude now at last di_ace them she at first supposed him merely resentful of excessive familiarity.
She was therefore yet more puzzled to see him show his serene beaut_ntroubled, as well as an equal interest in a matter quite distinct from an_reedom but her ladyship's. "Did my wife come alone?" He could ask even tha_ood-humouredly.
"When she called on me?" Mrs. Wix WAS red now: his good humour wouldn't kee_own her colour, which for a minute glowed there like her ugly honesty.
"No—there was some one in the cab." The only attenuation she could think o_as after a minute to add: "But they didn't come up."
Sir Claude broke into a laugh—Maisie herself could guess what it was at: whil_e now walked about, still laughing, and at the fireplace gave a gay kick to _isplaced log, she felt more vague about almost everything than about th_rollery of such a "they." She in fact could scarce have told you if it was t_eepen or to cover the joke that she bethought herself to observe: "Perhaps i_as her maid."
Mrs. Wix gave her a look that at any rate deprecated the wrong tone. "It wa_ot her maid."
"Do you mean there are this time two?" Sir Claude asked as if he hadn't heard.
"Two maids?" Maisie went on as if she might assume he had.
The reproach of the straighteners darkened; but Sir Claude cut across it wit_ sudden: "See here; what do you mean? And what do you suppose SHE meant?"
Mrs. Wix let him for a moment, in silence, understand that the answer to hi_uestion, if he didn't take care, might give him more than he wanted. It wa_s if, with this scruple, she measured and adjusted all she gave him in a_ast saying: "What she meant was to make me know that you're definitely free.
To have that straight from her was a joy I of course hadn't hoped for: it mad_he assurance, and my delight at it, a thing I could really proceed upon. Yo_lready know now certainly I'd have started even if she hadn't pressed me; yo_lready know what, so long, we've been looking for and what, as soon as sh_old me of her step taken at Folkestone, I recognised with rapture that w_AVE. It's your freedom that makes me right"—she fairly bristled with he_ogic. "But I don't mind telling you that it's her action that makes m_appy!"
"Her action?" Sir Claude echoed. "Why, my dear woman, her action is just _ideous crime. It happens to satisfy our sympathies in a way that's quit_elicious; but that doesn't in the least alter the fact that it's the mos_bominable thing ever done. She has chucked our friend here overboard not _it less than if she had shoved her shrieking and pleading, out of that windo_nd down two floors to the paving-stones."
Maisie surveyed serenely the parties to the discussion. "Oh your friend here, dear Sir Claude, doesn't plead and shriek!"
He looked at her a moment. "Never. Never. That's one, only one, but charmin_o far as it goes, of about a hundred things we love her for." Then he pursue_o Mrs. Wix: "What I can't for the life of me make out is what Ida is REALL_p to, what game she was playing in turning to you with that cursed chee_fter the beastly way she has used you. Where—to explain her at all—does sh_ancy she can presently, when we least expect it, take it out of us?"
"She doesn't fancy anything, nor want anything out of any one. Her curse_heek, as you call it, is the best thing I've ever seen in her. I don't care _ig for the beastly way she used me— I forgive it all a thousand times over!"
Mrs. Wix raised her voice as she had never raised it; she quite triumphed i_er lucidity. "I understand her, I almost admire her!" she quavered. She spok_s if this might practically suffice; yet in charity to fainter lights sh_hrew out an explanation. "As I've said, she was different; upon my word _ouldn't have known her. She had a glimmering, she had an instinct; the_rought her. It was a kind of happy thought, and if you couldn't have suppose_he would ever have had such a thing, why of course I quite agree with you.
But she did have it! There!"
Maisie could feel again how a certain rude rightness in this plea might hav_een found exasperating; but as she had often watched Sir Claude i_pprehension of displeasures that didn't come, so now, instead of saying "O_ell!" as her father used, she observed him only to take refuge in a questio_hat at the worst was abrupt.
"Who IS it this time, do you know?"
Mrs. Wix tried blind dignity. "Who is what, Sir Claude?"
"The man who stands the cabs. Who was in the one that waited at your door?"
At this challenge she faltered so long that her young friend's pityin_onscience gave her a hand. "It wasn't the Captain."
This good intention, however, only converted the excellent woman's scruple t_ more ambiguous stare; besides of course making Sir Claude go off. Mrs. Wi_airly appealed to him. "Must I really tell you?"
His amusement continued. "Did she make you promise not to?"
Mrs. Wix looked at him still harder. "I mean before Maisie."
Sir Claude laughed again. "Why SHE can't hurt him!"
Maisie felt herself, as it passed, brushed by the light humour of this. "Yes, I can't hurt him."
The straighteners again roofed her over; after which they seemed to crack wit_he explosion of their wearer's honesty. Amid the flying splinters Mrs. Wi_roduced a name. "Mr. Tischbein."
There was for an instant a silence that, under Sir Claude's influence an_hile he and Maisie looked at each other, suddenly pretended to be that o_ravity. "We don't know Mr. Tischbein, do we, dear?"
Maisie gave the point all needful thought. "No, I can't place Mr. Tischbein."
It was a passage that worked visibly on their friend. "You must pardon me, Si_laude," she said with an austerity of which the note was real, "if I than_od to your face that he has in his mercy—I mean his mercy to ou_harge—allowed me to achieve this act." She gave out a long puff of pain. "I_as time!" Then as if still more to point the moral: "I said just now _nderstood your wife. I said just now I admired her. I stand to it: I did bot_f those things when I saw how even SHE, poor thing, saw. If you want the dot_n the i's you shall have them. What she came to me for, in spite o_verything, was that I'm just"—she quavered it out—"well, just clean! What sh_aw for her daughter was that there must at last be a DECENT person!"
Maisie was quick enough to jump a little at the sound of this implication tha_uch a person was what Sir Claude was not; the next instant, however, she mor_rofoundly guessed against whom the discrimination was made. She was therefor_eft the more surprised at the complete candour with which he embraced th_orst. "If she's bent on decent persons why has she given her to ME? You don'_all me a decent person, and I'll do Ida the justice that SHE never did. _hink I'm as indecent as any one and that there's nothing in my behaviour tha_akes my wife's surrender a bit less ignoble!"
"Don't speak of your behaviour!" Mrs. Wix cried. "Don't say such horribl_hings; they're false and they're wicked and I forbid you! It's to KEEP yo_ecent that I'm here and that I've done everything I have done. It's to sav_ou—I won't say from yourself, because in yourself you're beautiful and good!
It's to save you from the worst person of all. I haven't, after all, come ove_o be afraid to speak of her! That's the person in whose place her ladyshi_ants such a person as even me; and if she thought herself, as she as good a_old me, not fit for Maisie's company, it's not, as you may well suppose, tha_he may make room for Mrs. Beale!"
Maisie watched his face as it took this outbreak, and the most she saw in i_as that it turned a little white. That indeed made him look, as Susan As_ould have said, queer; and it was perhaps a part of the queerness that h_ntensely smiled. "You're too hard on Mrs. Beale. She has great merits of he_wn."
Mrs. Wix, at this, instead of immediately replying, did what Sir Claude ha_een doing before: she moved across to the window and stared a while into th_torm. There was for a minute, to Maisie's sense, a hush that resounded wit_ind and rain. Sir Claude, in spite of these things, glanced about for hi_at; on which Maisie spied it first and, making a dash for it, held it out t_im. He took it with a gleam of a "thank-you" in his face, and then somethin_oved her still to hold the other side of the brim; so that, united by thei_rasp of this object, they stood some seconds looking many things at eac_ther. By this time Mrs. Wix had turned round. "Do you mean to tell me," sh_emanded, "that you are going back?"
"To Mrs. Beale?" Maisie surrendered his hat, and there was something tha_ouched her in the embarrassed, almost humiliated way their companion'_hallenge made him turn it round and round. She had seen people do that who, she was sure, did nothing else that Sir Claude did. "I can't just say, my dea_hing. We'll see about I—we'll talk of it to-morrow. Meantime I must get som_ir."
Mrs. Wix, with her back to the window, threw up her head to a height that, still for a moment, had the effect of detaining him. "All the air in France, Sir Claude, won't, I think, give you the courage to deny that you're simpl_fraid of her!"
Oh this time he did look queer; Maisie had no need of Susan's vocabulary t_ote it! It would have come to her of itself as, with his hand on the door, h_urned his eyes from his stepdaughter to her governess and then back again.
Resting on Maisie's, though for ever so short a time, there was something the_ave up to her and tried to explain. His lips, however, explained nothing; they only surrendered to Mrs. Wix. "Yes. I'm simply afraid of her!" He opene_he door and passed out. It brought back to Maisie his confession of fear o_er mother; it made her stepmother then the second lady about whom he faile_f the particular virtue that was supposed most to mark a gentleman. In fac_here were three of them, if she counted in Mrs. Wix, before whom he ha_ndeniably quailed. Well, his want of valour was but a deeper appeal to he_enderness. To thrill with response to it she had only to remember all th_adies she herself had, as they called it, funked.