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    Chapter 7

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    Chapter 8
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    It quite fell in with this intensity that one day, on returning from
    a walk with the housemaid, Maisie should have found her in the hall,
    seated on the stool usually occupied by the telegraph-boys who haunted
    Beale Farange's door and kicked their heels while, in his room, answers
    to their missives took form with the aid of smoke-puffs and growls. It
    had seemed to her on their parting that Mrs. Wix had reached the last
    limits of the squeeze, but she now felt those limits to be transcended
    and that the duration of her visitor's hug was a direct reply to Miss
    Overmore's veto. She understood in a flash how the visit had come to be
    possible--that Mrs. Wix, watching her chance, must have slipped in under
    protection of the fact that papa, always tormented in spite of arguments
    with the idea of a school, had, for a three days' excursion to Brighton,
    absolutely insisted on the attendance of her adversary. It was true that
    when Maisie explained their absence and their important motive Mrs. Wix
    wore an expression so peculiar that it could only have had its origin in
    surprise. This contradiction indeed peeped out only to vanish, for at
    the very moment that, in the spirit of it, she threw herself afresh upon
    her young friend a hansom crested with neat luggage rattled up to the
    door and Miss Overmore bounded out. The shock of her encounter with Mrs.
    Wix was less violent than Maisie had feared on seeing her and didn't
    at all interfere with the sociable tone in which, under her rival's
    eyes, she explained to her little charge that she had returned, for a
    particular reason, a day sooner than she first intended. She had left
    papa--in such nice lodgings--at Brighton; but he would come back to
    his dear little home on the morrow. As for Mrs. Wix, papa's companion
    supplied Maisie in later converse with the right word for the attitude
    of this personage: Mrs. Wix "stood up" to her in a manner that the child
    herself felt at the time to be astonishing. This occurred indeed after
    Miss Overmore had so far raised her interdict as to make a move to the
    dining-room, where, in the absence of any suggestion of sitting down,
    it was scarcely more than natural that even poor Mrs. Wix should stand
    up. Maisie at once enquired if at Brighton, this time, anything had
    come of the possibility of a school; to which, much to her surprise,
    Miss Overmore, who had always grandly repudiated it, replied after an
    instant, but quite as if Mrs. Wix were not there:

    "It may be, darling, that something WILL come. The objection, I must
    tell you, has been quite removed."

    At this it was still more startling to hear Mrs. Wix speak out with
    great firmness. "I don't think, if you'll allow me to say so, that
    there's any arrangement by which the objection CAN be 'removed.' What
    has brought me here to-day is that I've a message for Maisie from dear
    Mrs. Farange."

    The child's heart gave a great thump. "Oh mamma's come back?"

    "Not yet, sweet love, but she's coming," said Mrs. Wix, "and she
    has--most thoughtfully, you know--sent me on to prepare you."

    "To prepare her for what, pray?" asked Miss Overmore, whose first
    smoothness began, with this news, to be ruffled.

    Mrs. Wix quietly applied her straighteners to Miss Overmore's flushed
    beauty. "Well, miss, for a very important communication."

    "Can't dear Mrs. Farange, as you so oddly call her, make her
    communications directly? Can't she take the trouble to write to her only
    daughter?" the younger lady demanded. "Maisie herself will tell you that
    it's months and months since she has had so much as a word from her."

    "Oh but I've written to mamma!" cried the child as if this would do
    quite as well.

    "That makes her treatment of you all the greater scandal," the governess
    in possession promptly declared.

    "Mrs. Farange is too well aware," said Mrs. Wix with sustained spirit,
    "of what becomes of her letters in this house."

    Maisie's sense of fairness hereupon interposed for her visitor. "You
    know, Miss Overmore, that papa doesn't like everything of mamma's."

    "No one likes, my dear, to be made the subject of such language as your
    mother's letters contain. They were not fit for the innocent child to
    see," Miss Overmore observed to Mrs. Wix.

    "Then I don't know what you complain of, and she's better without them.
    It serves every purpose that I'm in Mrs. Farange's confidence."

    Miss Overmore gave a scornful laugh. "Then you must be mixed up with
    some extraordinary proceedings!"

    "None so extraordinary," cried Mrs. Wix, turning very pale, "as to say
    horrible things about the mother to the face of the helpless daughter!"

    "Things not a bit more horrible, I think," Miss Overmore returned, "than
    those you, madam, appear to have come here to say about the father!"

    Mrs. Wix looked for a moment hard at Maisie, and then, turning again to
    this witness, spoke with a trembling voice. "I came to say nothing about
    him, and you must excuse Mrs. Farange and me if we're not so above all
    reproach as the companion of his travels."

    The young woman thus described stared at the apparent breadth of the
    description--she needed a moment to take it in. Maisie, however, gazing
    solemnly from one of the disputants to the other, noted that her answer,
    when it came, perched upon smiling lips. "It will do quite as well,
    no doubt, if you come up to the requirements of the companion of Mrs.
    Farange's!"

    Mrs. Wix broke into a queer laugh; it sounded to Maisie an unsuccessful
    imitation of a neigh. "That's just what I'm here to make known--how
    perfectly the poor lady comes up to them herself." She held up her head
    at the child. "You must take your mamma's message, Maisie, and you must
    feel that her wishing me to come to you with it this way is a great
    proof of interest and affection. She sends you her particular love and
    announces to you that she's engaged to be married to Sir Claude."

    "Sir Claude?" Maisie wonderingly echoed. But while Mrs. Wix explained
    that this gentleman was a dear friend of Mrs. Farange's, who had been
    of great assistance to her in getting to Florence and in making herself
    comfortable there for the winter, she was not too violently shaken to
    perceive her old friend's enjoyment of the effect of this news on Miss
    Overmore. That young lady opened her eyes very wide; she immediately
    remarked that Mrs. Farange's marriage would of course put an end to any
    further pretension to take her daughter back. Mrs. Wix enquired with
    astonishment why it should do anything of the sort, and Miss Overmore
    gave as an instant reason that it was clearly but another dodge in a
    system of dodges. She wanted to get out of the bargain: why else had she
    now left Maisie on her father's hands weeks and weeks beyond the time
    about which she had originally made such a fuss? It was vain for Mrs.
    Wix to represent--as she speciously proceeded to do--that all this time
    would be made up as soon as Mrs. Farange returned: she, Miss Overmore,
    knew nothing, thank heaven, about her confederate, but was very sure
    any person capable of forming that sort of relation with the lady in
    Florence would easily agree to object to the presence in his house
    of the fruit of a union that his dignity must ignore. It was a game
    like another, and Mrs. Wix's visit was clearly the first move in it.
    Maisie found in this exchange of asperities a fresh incitement to the
    unformulated fatalism in which her sense of her own career had long
    since taken refuge; and it was the beginning for her of a deeper
    prevision that, in spite of Miss Overmore's brilliancy and Mrs. Wix's
    passion, she should live to see a change in the nature of the struggle
    she appeared to have come into the world to produce. It would still be
    essentially a struggle, but its object would now be NOT to receive her.

    Mrs. Wix, after Miss Overmore's last demonstration, addressed herself
    wholly to the little girl, and, drawing from the pocket of her dingy old
    pelisse a small flat parcel, removed its envelope and wished to know
    if THAT looked like a gentleman who wouldn't be nice to everybody--let
    alone to a person he would be so sure to find so nice. Mrs. Farange, in
    the candour of new-found happiness, had enclosed a "cabinet" photograph
    of Sir Claude, and Maisie lost herself in admiration of the fair smooth
    face, the regular features, the kind eyes, the amiable air, the general
    glossiness and smartness of her prospective stepfather--only vaguely
    puzzled to suppose herself now with two fathers at once. Her researches
    had hitherto indicated that to incur a second parent of the same sex you
    had usually to lose the first. "ISN'T he sympathetic?" asked Mrs. Wix,
    who had clearly, on the strength of his charming portrait, made up her
    mind that Sir Claude promised her a future. "You can see, I hope," she
    added with much expression, "that HE'S a perfect gentleman!" Maisie had
    never before heard the word "sympathetic" applied to anybody's face; she
    heard it with pleasure and from that moment it agreeably remained with
    her. She testified moreover to the force of her own perception in a
    small soft sigh of response to the pleasant eyes that seemed to seek
    her acquaintance, to speak to her directly. "He's quite lovely!" she
    declared to Mrs. Wix. Then eagerly, irrepressibly, as she still held the
    photograph and Sir Claude continued to fraternise, "Oh can't I keep it?"
    she broke out. No sooner had she done so than she looked up from it at
    Miss Overmore: this was with the sudden instinct of appealing to the
    authority that had long ago impressed on her that she mustn't ask for
    things. Miss Overmore, to her surprise, looked distant and rather odd,
    hesitating and giving her time to turn again to Mrs. Wix. Then Maisie
    saw that lady's long face lengthen; it was stricken and almost scared,
    as if her young friend really expected more of her than she had to give.
    The photograph was a possession that, direly denuded, she clung to,
    and there was a momentary struggle between her fond clutch of it and
    her capability of every sacrifice for her precarious pupil. With the
    acuteness of her years, however, Maisie saw that her own avidity would
    triumph, and she held out the picture to Miss Overmore as if she were
    quite proud of her mother. "Isn't he just lovely?" she demanded while
    poor Mrs. Wix hungrily wavered, her straighteners largely covering it
    and her pelisse gathered about her with an intensity that strained its
    ancient seams.

    "It was to ME, darling," the visitor said, "that your mamma so
    generously sent it; but of course if it would give you particular
    pleasure--" she faltered, only gasping her surrender.

    Miss Overmore continued extremely remote. "If the photograph's your
    property, my dear, I shall be happy to oblige you by looking at it on
    some future occasion. But you must excuse me if I decline to touch an
    object belonging to Mrs. Wix."

    That lady had by this time grown very red. "You might as well see him
    this way, miss," she retorted, "as you certainly never will, I believe,
    in any other! Keep the pretty picture, by all means, my precious," she
    went on: "Sir Claude will be happy himself, I dare say, to give me one
    with a kind inscription." The pathetic quaver of this brave boast was
    not lost on Maisie, who threw herself so gratefully on the speaker's
    neck that, when they had concluded their embrace, the public tenderness
    of which, she felt, made up for the sacrifice she imposed, their
    companion had had time to lay a quick hand on Sir Claude and, with a
    glance at him or not, whisk him effectually out of sight. Released from
    the child's arms Mrs. Wix looked about for the picture; then she fixed
    Miss Overmore with a hard dumb stare; and finally, with her eyes on
    the little girl again, achieved the grimmest of smiles. "Well, nothing
    matters, Maisie, because there's another thing your mamma wrote about.
    She has made sure of me." Even after her loyal hug Maisie felt a bit of
    a sneak as she glanced at Miss Overmore for permission to understand
    this. But Mrs. Wix left them in no doubt of what it meant. "She has
    definitely engaged me--for her return and for yours. Then you'll see
    for yourself." Maisie, on the spot, quite believed she should; but
    the prospect was suddenly thrown into confusion by an extraordinary
    demonstration from Miss Overmore.

    "Mrs. Wix," said that young lady, "has some undiscoverable reason for
    regarding your mother's hold on you as strengthened by the fact that
    she's about to marry. I wonder then--on that system--what our visitor
    will say to your father's."

    Miss Overmore's words were directed to her pupil, but her face, lighted
    with an irony that made it prettier even than ever before, was presented
    to the dingy figure that had stiffened itself for departure. The
    child's discipline had been bewildering--had ranged freely between the
    prescription that she was to answer when spoken to and the experience of
    lively penalties on obeying that prescription. This time, nevertheless,
    she felt emboldened for risks; above all as something portentous seemed
    to have leaped into her sense of the relations of things. She looked at
    Miss Overmore much as she had a way of looking at persons who treated
    her to "grown up" jokes. "Do you mean papa's hold on me--do you mean
    HE'S about to marry?"

    "Papa's not about to marry--papa IS married, my dear. Papa was married
    the day before yesterday at Brighton." Miss Overmore glittered more
    gaily; meanwhile it came over Maisie, and quite dazzlingly, that her
    "smart" governess was a bride. "He's my husband, if you please, and I'm
    his little wife. So NOW we'll see who's your little mother!" She caught
    her pupil to her bosom in a manner that was not to be outdone by the
    emissary of her predecessor, and a few moments later, when things had
    lurched back into their places, that poor lady, quite defeated of the
    last word, had soundlessly taken flight.
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    Chapter 8
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