The greatest wonder of all was the way Mrs. Beale addressed her announcement, so far as could be judged, equally to Mrs. Wix, who, as if from sudden failur_f strength, sank into a chair while Maisie surrendered to the visitor'_mbrace. As soon as the child was liberated she met with profundity Mrs. Wix'_tupefaction and actually was able to see that while in a manner sustainin_he encounter her face yet seemed with intensity to say: "Now, for God's sake, don't crow 'I told you so!'" Maisie was somehow on the spot aware of a_bsence of disposition to crow; it had taken her but an extra minute to arriv_t such a quick survey of the objects surrounding Mrs. Beale as showed tha_mong them was no appurtenance of Sir Claude's. She knew his dressing-bag now— oh with the fondest knowledge!—and there was an instant during which its no_eing there was a stroke of the worst news. She was yet to learn what it coul_e to recognise in some lapse of a sequence the proof of an extinction, an_herefore remained unaware that this momentary pang was a foretaste of th_xperience of death. It of course yielded in a flash to Mrs. Beale'_rightness, it gasped itself away in her own instant appeal. "You've com_lone?"
"Without Sir Claude?" Strangely, Mrs. Beale looked even brighter. "Yes; in th_agerness to get at you. You abominable little villain!"—and her stepmother, laughing clear, administered to her cheek a pat that was partly a pinch. "Wha_ere you up to and what did you take me for? But I'm glad to be abroad, an_fter all it's you who have shown me the way. I mightn't, without you, hav_een able to come—to come, that is, so soon. Well, here I am at any rate an_n a moment more I should have begun to worry about you. This will do ver_ell"—she was good-natured about the place and even presently added that i_as charming. Then with a rosier glow she made again her great point: "I'_ree, I'm free!" Maisie made on her side her own: she carried back her gaze t_rs. Wix, whom amazement continued to hold; she drew afresh her old friend'_ttention to the superior way she didn't take that up. What she did take u_he next minute was the question of Sir Claude. "Where is he? Won't he come?"
Mrs. Beale's consideration of this oscillated with a smile between the tw_xpectancies with which she was flanked: it was conspicuous, it wa_xtraordinary, her unblinking acceptance of Mrs. Wix, a miracle of whic_aisie had even now begun to read a reflexion in that lady's long visage.
"He'll come, but we must MAKE him!" she gaily brought forth.
"Make him?" Maisie echoed.
"We must give him time. We must play our cards."
"But he promised us awfully," Maisie replied.
"My dear child, he has promised ME awfully; I mean lots of things, and not i_very case kept his promise to the letter." Mrs. Beale's good humour insiste_n taking for granted Mrs. Wix's, to whom her attention had suddenly grow_rodigious. "I dare say he has done the same with you, and not always come t_ime. But he makes it up in his own way—and it isn't as if we didn't kno_xactly what he is. There's one thing he is," she went on, "which make_verything else only a question, for us, of tact." They scarce had time t_onder what this was before, as they might have said, it flew straight int_heir face. "He's as free as I am!"
"Yes, I know," said Maisie; as if, however, independently weighing the valu_f that. She really weighed also the oddity of her stepmother's treating it a_ews to HER, who had been the first person literally to whom Sir Claude ha_entioned it. For a few seconds, as if with the sound of it in her ears, sh_tood with him again, in memory and in the twilight, in the hotel garden a_olkestone.
Anything Mrs. Beale overlooked was, she indeed divined, but the effect of a_xaltation of high spirits, a tendency to soar that showed even when sh_ropped—still quite impartially—almost to the confidential. "Well, then—we'v_nly to wait. He can't do without us long. I'm sure, Mrs. Wix, he can't d_ithout YOU! He's devoted to you; he has told me so much about you. The exten_ count on you, you know, count on you to help me—" was an extent that eve_ll her radiance couldn't express. What it couldn't express quite as much a_hat it could made at any rate every instant her presence and even her famou_reedom loom larger; and IT was this mighty mass that once more led he_ompanions, bewildered and disjoined, to exchange with each other as through _hickening veil confused and ineffectual signs. They clung together at leas_n the common ground of unpreparedness, and Maisie watched without relief th_avoc of wonder in Mrs. Wix. It had reduced her to perfect impotence, and, bu_hat gloom was black upon her, she sat as if fascinated by Mrs. Beale's hig_tyle. It had plunged her into a long deep hush; for what had happened was th_hing she had least allowed for and before which the particular rigour she ha_orked up could only grow limp and sick. Sir Claude was to have reappeare_ith his accomplice or without her; never, never his accomplice without HIM.
Mrs. Beale had gained apparently by this time an advantage she could pursue: she looked at the droll dumb figure with jesting reproach. "You really won'_hake hands with me? Never mind; you'll come round!" She put the matter to n_est, going on immediately and, instead of offering her hand, raising it, wit_ pretty gesture that her bent head met, to a long black pin that played _art in her back hair. "Are hats worn at luncheon? If you're as hungry as I a_e must go right down."
Mrs. Wix stuck fast, but she met the question in a voice her pupil scarc_ecognised. "I wear mine."
Mrs. Beale, swallowing at one glance her brand-new bravery, which she appeare_t once to refer to its origin and to follow in its flights, accepted this a_onclusive. "Oh but I've not such a beauty!" Then she turned rejoicingly t_aisie. "I've got a beauty for YOU my dear."
"A love of a hat—in my luggage. I remembered THAT"—she nodded at the object o_er stepdaughter's head—"and I've brought you one with a peacock's breast.
It's the most gorgeous blue!"
It was too strange, this talking with her there already not about Sir Claud_ut about peacocks—too strange for the child to have the presence of mind t_hank her. But the felicity in which she had arrived was so proof agains_verything that Maisie felt more and more the depth of the purpose that mus_nderlie it. She had a vague sense of its being abysmal, the spirit with whic_rs. Beale carried off the awkwardness, in the white and gold salon, of such _ant of breath and of welcome. Mrs. Wix was more breathless than ever; th_mbarrassment of Mrs. Beale's isolation was as nothing to the embarrassment o_er grace. The perception of this dilemma was the germ on the child's part o_ new question altogether. What if WITH this indulgence—? But the idea los_tself in something too frightened for hope and too conjectured for fear; an_hile everything went by leaps and bounds one of the waiters stood at the doo_o remind them that the table d'hote was half over.
"Had you come up to wash hands?" Mrs. Beale hereupon asked them. "Go and do i_uickly and I'll be with you: they've put my boxes in that nice room—it wa_ir Claude's. Trust him," she laughed, "to have a nice one!" The door of _eighbouring room stood open, and now from the threshold, addressing hersel_gain to Mrs. Wix, she launched a note that gave the very key of what, as sh_ould have said, she was up to. "Dear lady, please attend to my daughter."
She was up to a change of deportment so complete that it represented—oh fo_ffices still honourably subordinate if not too explicitly menial—an absolut_oercion, an interested clutch of the old woman's respectability. There wa_esponse, to Maisie's view, I may say at once, in the jump of tha_espectability to its feet: it was itself capable of one of the leaps, one o_he bounds just mentioned, and it carried its charge, with this momentum an_hile Mrs. Beale popped into Sir Claude's chamber, straight away to where, a_he end of the passage, pupil and governess were quartered. The greates_tride of all, for that matter, was that within a few seconds the pupil had, in another relation, been converted into a daughter. Maisie's eyes were stil_ollowing it when, after the rush, with the door almost slammed and no though_f soap and towels, the pair stood face to face. Mrs. Wix, in this position, was the first to gasp a sound. "Can it ever be that SHE has one?"
Maisie felt still more bewildered. "One what?"
"Why moral sense."
They spoke as if you might have two, but Mrs. Wix looked as if it were no_ltogether a happy thought, and Maisie didn't see how even an affirmative fro_er own lips would clear up what had become most of a mystery. It was to thi_arger puzzle she sprang pretty straight. "IS she my mother now?"
It was a point as to which an horrific glimpse of the responsibility of a_pinion appeared to affect Mrs. Wix like a blow in the stomach. She ha_vidently never thought of it; but she could think and rebound. "If she is, he's equally your father."
Maisie, however, thought further. "Then my father and my mother—!"
But she had already faltered and Mrs. Wix had already glared back: "Ought t_ive together? Don't begin it AGAIN!" She turned away with a groan, to reac_he washing-stand, and Maisie could by this time recognise with a certain eas_hat that way verily madness did lie. Mrs. Wix gave a great untidy splash, bu_he next instant had faced round. "She has taken a new line."
"She was nice to you," Maisie concurred.
"What SHE thinks so—'go and dress the young lady!' But it's something!" sh_anted. Then she thought out the rest. "If he won't have her, why she'll hav_OU. She'll be the one."
"The one to keep me abroad?"
"The one to give you a home." Mrs. Wix saw further; she mastered all th_ortents. "Oh she's cruelly clever! It's not a moral sense." She reached he_limax: "It's a game!"
"Not to lose him. She has sacrificed him—to her duty."
"Then won't he come?" Maisie pleaded.
Mrs. Wix made no answer; her vision absorbed her. "He has fought. But she ha_on."
"Then won't he come?" the child repeated.
Mrs. Wix made it out. "Yes, hang him!" She had never been so profane.
For all Maisie minded! "Soon—to-morrow?"
"Too soon—whenever. Indecently soon."
"But then we SHALL be together!" the child went on. It made Mrs. Wix look a_er as if in exasperation; but nothing had time to come before sh_recipitated: "Together with YOU!" The air of criticism continued, but too_oice only in her companion's bidding her wash herself and come down. Th_ilence of quick ablutions fell upon them, presently broken, however, by on_f Maisie's sudden reversions. "Mercy, isn't she handsome?"
Mrs. Wix had finished; she waited. "She'll attract attention." They wer_apid, and it would have been noticed that the shock the beauty had given the_cted, incongruously, as a positive spur to their preparations for rejoinin_er. She had none the less, when they returned to the sitting-room, alread_escended; the open door of her room showed it empty and the chambermai_xplained. Here again they were delayed by another sharp thought of Mrs.
Wix's. "But what will she live on meanwhile?"
Maisie stopped short. "Till Sir Claude comes?"
It was nothing to the violence with which her friend had been arrested.
"Who'll pay the bills?"
Maisie thought. "Can't SHE?"
"She? She hasn't a penny."
The child wondered. "But didn't papa—?"
"Leave her a fortune?" Mrs. Wix would have appeared to speak of papa as dea_ad she not immediately added: "Why he lives on other women!"
Oh yes, Maisie remembered. "Then can't he send—" She faltered again; even t_erself it sounded queer.
"Some of their money to his wife?" Mrs. Wix pave a laugh still stranger tha_he weird suggestion. "I dare say she'd take it!"
They hurried on again; yet again, on the stairs, Maisie pulled up. "Well, i_he had stopped in England—!" she threw out.
Mrs. Wix considered. "And he had come over instead?"
"Yes, as we expected." Maisie launched her speculation. "What then would sh_ave lived on?"
Mrs. Wix hung fire but an instant. "On other men!" And she marched downstairs.