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    Chapter 24

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    Chapter 25
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    It continued to rain so hard that our young lady's private dream of
    explaining the Continent to their visitor had to contain a provision for
    some adequate treatment of the weather. At the _table d'hôte_ that evening
    she threw out a variety of lights: this was the second ceremony of the
    sort she had sat through, and she would have neglected her privilege
    and dishonoured her vocabulary--which indeed consisted mainly of the
    names of dishes--if she had not been proportionately ready to dazzle
    with interpretations. Preoccupied and overawed, Mrs. Wix was apparently
    dim: she accepted her pupil's version of the mysteries of the menu in a
    manner that might have struck the child as the depression of a credulity
    conscious not so much of its needs as of its dimensions. Maisie was soon
    enough--though it scarce happened before bedtime--confronted again with
    the different sort of programme for which she reserved her criticism.
    They remounted together to their sitting-room while Sir Claude, who said
    he would join them later, remained below to smoke and to converse with
    the old acquaintances that he met wherever he turned. He had proposed
    his companions, for coffee, the enjoyment of the _salon de lecture_,
    but Mrs. Wix had replied promptly and with something of an air that it
    struck her their own apartments offered them every convenience. They
    offered the good lady herself, Maisie could immediately observe, not
    only that of this rather grand reference, which, already emulous, so
    far as it went, of her pupil, she made as if she had spent her life in
    salons; but that of a stiff French sofa where she could sit and stare at
    the faint French lamp, in default of the French clock that had stopped,
    as for some account of the time Sir Claude would so markedly interpose.
    Her demeanour accused him so directly of hovering beyond her reach that
    Maisie sought to divert her by a report of Susan's quaint attitude on
    the matter of their conversation after lunch. Maisie had mentioned to
    the young woman for sympathy's sake the plan for her relief, but her
    disapproval of alien ways appeared, strange to say, only to prompt her
    to hug her gloom; so that between Mrs. Wix's effect of displacing her
    and the visible stiffening of her back the child had the sense of a
    double office and enlarged play for pacific powers.

    These powers played to no great purpose, it was true, in keeping before
    Mrs. Wix the vision of Sir Claude's perversity, which hung there in the
    pauses of talk and which he himself, after unmistakeable delays, finally
    made quite lurid by bursting in--it was near ten o'clock--with an object
    held up in his hand. She knew before he spoke what it was; she knew at
    least from the underlying sense of all that, since the hour spent after
    the Exhibition with her father, had not sprung up to reinstate Mr.
    Farange--she knew it meant a triumph for Mrs. Beale. The mere present
    sight of Sir Claude's face caused her on the spot to drop straight
    through her last impression of Mr. Farange a plummet that reached still
    deeper down than the security of these days of flight. She had wrapped
    that impression in silence--a silence that had parted with half its veil
    to cover also, from the hour of Sir Claude's advent, the image of Mr.
    Farange's wife. But if the object in Sir Claude's hand revealed itself
    as a letter which he held up very high, so there was something in his
    mere motion that laid Mrs. Beale again bare. "Here we are!" he cried
    almost from the door, shaking his trophy at them and looking from one to
    the other. Then he came straight to Mrs. Wix; he had pulled two papers
    out of the envelope and glanced at them again to see which was which. He
    thrust one out open to Mrs. Wix. "Read that." She looked at him hard,
    as if in fear: it was impossible not to see he was excited. Then she
    took the letter, but it was not her face that Maisie watched while she
    read. Neither, for that matter, was it this countenance that Sir Claude
    scanned: he stood before the fire and, more calmly, now that he had
    acted, communed in silence with his stepdaughter.

    The silence was in truth quickly broken; Mrs. Wix rose to her feet with
    the violence of the sound she emitted. The letter had dropped from her
    and lay upon the floor; it had made her turn ghastly white and she was
    speechless with the effect of it. "It's too abominable--it's too
    unspeakable!" she then cried.

    "Isn't it a charming thing?" Sir Claude asked. "It has just arrived,
    enclosed in a word of her own. She sends it on to me with the remark
    that comment's superfluous. I really think it is. That's all you can
    say."

    "She oughtn't to pass such a horror about," said Mrs. Wix. "She ought
    to put it straight in the fire."

    "My dear woman, she's not such a fool! It's much too precious." He had
    picked the letter up and he gave it again a glance of complacency which
    produced a light in his face. "Such a document"--he considered, then
    concluded with a slight drop--"such a document is, in fine, a basis!"

    "A basis for what?"

    "Well--for proceedings."

    "Hers?" Mrs. Wix's voice had become outright the voice of derision. "How
    can SHE proceed?"

    Sir Claude turned it over. "How can she get rid of him? Well--she IS rid
    of him."

    "Not legally." Mrs. Wix had never looked to her pupil so much as if she
    knew what she was talking about.

    "I dare say," Sir Claude laughed; "but she's not a bit less deprived
    than I!"

    "Of the power to get a divorce? It's just your want of the power that
    makes the scandal of your connexion with her. Therefore it's just her
    want of it that makes that of hers with you. That's all I contend!" Mrs.
    Wix concluded with an unparalleled neigh of battle. Oh she did know what
    she was talking about!

    Maisie had meanwhile appealed mutely to Sir Claude, who judged it easier
    to meet what she didn't say than to meet what Mrs. Wix did.

    "It's a letter to Mrs. Beale from your father, my dear, written from
    Spa and making the rupture between them perfectly irrevocable. It lets
    her know, and not in pretty language, that, as we technically say, he
    deserts her. It puts an end for ever to their relations." He ran his
    eyes over it again, then appeared to make up his mind. "In fact it
    concerns you, Maisie, so nearly and refers to you so particularly that
    I really think you ought to see the terms in which this new situation
    is created for you." And he held out the letter.

    Mrs. Wix, at this, pounced upon it; she had grabbed it too soon even
    for Maisie to become aware of being rather afraid of it. Thrusting it
    instantly behind her she positively glared at Sir Claude. "See it,
    wretched man?--the innocent child SEE such a thing? I think you must be
    mad, and she shall not have a glimpse of it while I'm here to prevent!"

    The breadth of her action had made Sir Claude turn red--he even looked a
    little foolish. "You think it's too bad, eh? But it's precisely because
    it's bad that it seemed to me it would have a lesson and a virtue for
    her."

    Maisie could do a quick enough justice to his motive to be able clearly
    to interpose. She fairly smiled at him. "I assure you I can quite
    believe how bad it is!" She thought of something, kept it back a moment,
    and then spoke. "I know what's in it!"

    He of course burst out laughing and, while Mrs. Wix groaned an "Oh
    heavens!" replied: "You wouldn't say that, old boy, if you did! The
    point I make is," he continued to Mrs. Wix with a blandness now
    re-established--"the point I make is simply that it sets Mrs. Beale
    free."

    She hung fire but an instant. "Free to live with YOU?"

    "Free not to live, not to pretend to live, with her husband."

    "Ah they're mighty different things!"--a truth as to which her
    earnestness could now with a fine inconsequent look invite the
    participation of the child.

    Before Maisie could commit herself, however, the ground was occupied by
    Sir Claude, who, as he stood before their visitor with an expression
    half rueful, half persuasive, rubbed his hand sharply up and down the
    back of his head. "Then why the deuce do you grant so--do you, I may
    even say, rejoice so--that by the desertion of my own precious partner
    I'm free?"

    Mrs. Wix met this challenge first with silence, then with a
    demonstration the most extraordinary, the most unexpected. Maisie could
    scarcely believe her eyes as she saw the good lady, with whom she had
    associated no faintest shade of any art of provocation, actually, after
    an upward grimace, give Sir Claude a great giggling insinuating naughty
    slap. "You wretch--you KNOW why!" And she turned away. The face that
    with this movement she left him to present to Maisie was to abide with
    his stepdaughter as the very image of stupefaction; but the pair lacked
    time to communicate either amusement or alarm before their admonisher
    was upon them again. She had begun in fact to show infinite variety and
    she flashed about with a still quicker change of tone. "Have you brought
    me that thing as a pretext for your going over?"

    Sir Claude braced himself. "I can't, after such news, in common decency
    not go over. I mean, don't you know, in common courtesy and humanity.
    My dear lady, you can't chuck a woman that way, especially taking the
    moment when she has been most insulted and wronged. A fellow must behave
    like a gentleman, damn it, dear good Mrs. Wix. We didn't come away, we
    two, to hang right on, you know: it was only to try our paces and just
    put in a few days that might prove to every one concerned that we're in
    earnest. It's exactly because we're in earnest that, dash it, we needn't
    be so awfully particular. I mean, don't you know, we needn't be so
    awfully afraid." He showed a vivacity, an intensity of argument, and if
    Maisie counted his words she was all the more ready to swallow after a
    single swift gasp those that, the next thing, she became conscious he
    paused for a reply to. "We didn't come, old girl, did we," he pleaded
    straight, "to stop right away for ever and put it all in NOW?"

    Maisie had never doubted she could be heroic for him. "Oh no!" It was as
    if she had been shocked at the bare thought. "We're just taking it as
    we find it." She had a sudden inspiration, which she backed up with a
    smile. "We're just seeing what we can afford." She had never yet in her
    life made any claim for herself, but she hoped that this time, frankly,
    what she was doing would somehow be counted to her. Indeed she felt Sir
    Claude WAS counting it, though she was afraid to look at him--afraid she
    should show him tears. She looked at Mrs. Wix; she reached her maximum.
    "I don't think I ought to be bad to Mrs. Beale."

    She heard, on this, a deep sound, something inarticulate and sweet,
    from Sir Claude; but tears were what Mrs. Wix didn't scruple to show.
    "Do you think you ought to be bad to ME?" The question was the more
    disconcerting that Mrs. Wix's emotion didn't deprive her of the
    advantage of her effect. "If you see that woman again you're lost!" she
    declared to their companion.

    Sir Claude looked at the moony globe of the lamp; he seemed to see
    for an instant what seeing Mrs. Beale would consist of. It was also
    apparently from this vision that he drew strength to return: "Her
    situation, by what has happened, is completely changed; and it's no
    use your trying to prove to me that I needn't take any account of
    that."

    "If you see that woman you're lost!" Mrs. Wix with greater force
    repeated.

    "Do you think she'll not let me come back to you? My dear lady, I leave
    you here, you and Maisie, as a hostage to fortune, and I promise you by
    all that's sacred that I shall be with you again at the very latest on
    Saturday. I provide you with funds; I install you in these lovely rooms;
    I arrange with the people here that you be treated with every attention
    and supplied with every luxury. The weather, after this, will mend; it
    will be sure to be exquisite. You'll both be as free as air and you can
    roam all over the place and have tremendous larks. You shall have a
    carriage to drive you; the whole house shall be at your call. You'll
    have a magnificent position." He paused, he looked from one of his
    companions to the other as to see the impression he had made. Whether or
    no he judged it adequate he subjoined after a moment: "And you'll oblige
    me above all by not making a fuss."

    Maisie could only answer for the impression on herself, though indeed
    from the heart even of Mrs. Wix's rigour there floated to her sense a
    faint fragrance of depraved concession. Maisie had her dumb word for the
    show such a speech could make, for the irresistible charm it could take
    from his dazzling sincerity; and before she could do anything but blink
    at excess of light she heard this very word sound on Mrs. Wix's lips,
    just as if the poor lady had guessed it and wished, snatching it from
    her, to blight it like a crumpled flower. "You're dreadful, you're
    terrible, for you know but too well that it's not a small thing to me
    that you should address me in terms that are princely!" Princely was
    what he stood there and looked and sounded; that was what Maisie for the
    occasion found herself reduced to simple worship of him for being. Yet
    strange to say too, as Mrs. Wix went on, an echo rang within her that
    matched the echo she had herself just produced. "How much you must WANT
    to see her to say such things as that and to be ready to do so much for
    the poor little likes of Maisie and me! She has a hold on you, and you
    know it, and you want to feel it again and--God knows, or at least _I_
    do, what's your motive and desire--enjoy it once more and give yourself
    up to it! It doesn't matter if it's one day or three: enough is as good
    as a feast and the lovely time you'll have with her is something you're
    willing to pay for! I dare say you'd like me to believe that your pay is
    to get her to give you up; but that's a matter on which I strongly urge
    you not to put down your money in advance. Give HER up first. Then pay
    her what you please!"

    Sir Claude took this to the end, though there were things in it that
    made him colour, called into his face more of the apprehension than
    Maisie had ever perceived there of a particular sort of shock. She had
    an odd sense that it was the first time she had seen any one but Mrs.
    Wix really and truly scandalised, and this fed her inference, which grew
    and grew from moment to moment, that Mrs. Wix was proving more of a
    force to reckon with than either of them had allowed so much room for.
    It was true that, long before, she had obtained a "hold" of him, as
    she called it, different in kind from that obtained by Mrs. Beale and
    originally by her ladyship. But Maisie could quite feel with him now
    that he had really not expected this advantage to be driven so home. Oh
    they hadn't at all got to where Mrs. Wix would stop, for the next minute
    she was driving harder than ever. It was the result of his saying with a
    certain dryness, though so kindly that what most affected Maisie in it
    was his patience: "My dear friend, it's simply a matter in which I must
    judge for myself. You've judged FOR me, I know, a good deal, of late, in
    a way that I appreciate, I assure you, down to the ground. But you can't
    do it always; no one can do that for another, don't you see, in every
    case. There are exceptions, particular cases that turn up and that are
    awfully delicate. It would be too easy if I could shift it all off on
    you: it would be allowing you to incur an amount of responsibility that
    I should simply become quite ashamed of. You'll find, I'm sure, that
    you'll have quite as much as you'll enjoy if you'll be so good as to
    accept the situation as circumstances happen to make it for you and to
    stay here with our friend, till I rejoin you, on the footing of as much
    pleasantness and as much comfort--and I think I have a right to add, to
    both of you, of as much faith in ME--as possible."

    Oh he was princely indeed: that came out more and more with every word
    he said and with the particular way he said it, and Maisie could feel
    his monitress stiffen almost with anguish against the increase of his
    spell and then hurl herself as a desperate defence from it into the
    quite confessed poorness of violence, of iteration. "You're afraid
    of her--afraid, afraid, afraid! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!" Mrs. Wix
    wailed it with a high quaver, then broke down into a long shudder of
    helplessness and woe. The next minute she had flung herself again on
    the lean sofa and had burst into a passion of tears.

    Sir Claude stood and looked at her a moment; he shook his head slowly,
    altogether tenderly. "I've already admitted it--I'm in mortal terror;
    so we'll let that settle the question. I think you had best go to bed,"
    he added; "you've had a tremendous day and you must both be tired to
    death. I shall not expect you to concern yourselves in the morning
    with my movements. There's an early boat on; I shall have cleared out
    before you're up; and I shall moreover have dealt directly and most
    effectively, I assure you, with the haughty but not quite hopeless Miss
    Ash." He turned to his stepdaughter as if at once to take leave of her
    and give her a sign of how, through all tension and friction, they were
    still united in such a way that she at least needn't worry. "Maisie
    boy!"--he opened his arms to her. With her culpable lightness she flew
    into them and, while he kissed her, chose the soft method of silence to
    satisfy him, the silence that after battles of talk was the best balm
    she could offer his wounds. They held each other long enough to reaffirm
    intensely their vows; after which they were almost forced apart by Mrs.
    Wix's jumping to her feet.

    Her jump, either with a quick return or with a final lapse of courage,
    was also to supplication almost abject. "I beseech you not to take a
    step so miserable and so fatal. I know her but too well, even if you
    jeer at me for saying it; little as I've seen her I know her, I know
    her. I know what she'll do--I see it as I stand here. Since you're
    afraid of her it's the mercy of heaven. Don't, for God's sake, be afraid
    to show it, to profit by it and to arrive at the very safety that it
    gives you. I'M not afraid of her, I assure you; you must already have
    seen for yourself that there's nothing I'm afraid of now. Let me go to
    her--I'LL settle her and I'll take that woman back without a hair of
    her touched. Let me put in the two or three days--let me wind up the
    connexion. You stay here with Maisie, with the carriage and the larks
    and the luxury; then I'll return to you and we'll go off together--we'll
    live together without a cloud. Take me, take me," she went on and
    on--the tide of her eloquence was high. "Here I am; I know what I am
    and what I ain't; but I say boldly to the face of you both that I'll do
    better for you, far, than ever she'll even try to. I say it to yours,
    Sir Claude, even though I owe you the very dress on my back and the very
    shoes on my feet. I owe you everything--that's just the reason; and to
    pay it back, in profusion, what can that be but what I want? Here I am,
    here I am!"--she spread herself into an exhibition that, combined with
    her intensity and her decorations, appeared to suggest her for strange
    offices and devotions, for ridiculous replacements and substitutions.
    She manipulated her gown as she talked, she insisted on the items of
    her debt. "I have nothing of my own, I know--no money, no clothes, no
    appearance, no anything, nothing but my hold of this little one truth,
    which is all in the world I can bribe you with: that the pair of you are
    more to me than all besides, and that if you'll let me help you and save
    you, make what you both want possible in the one way it CAN be, why,
    I'll work myself to the bone in your service!"

    Sir Claude wavered there without an answer to this magnificent appeal;
    he plainly cast about for one, and in no small agitation and pain. He
    addressed himself in his quest, however, only to vague quarters until he
    met again, as he so frequently and actively met it, the more than filial
    gaze of his intelligent little charge. That gave him--poor plastic and
    dependent male--his issue. If she was still a child she was yet of
    the sex that could help him out. He signified as much by a renewed
    invitation to an embrace. She freshly sprang to him and again they
    inaudibly conversed. "Be nice to her, be nice to her," he at last
    distinctly articulated; "be nice to her as you've not even been to ME!"
    On which, without another look at Mrs. Wix, he somehow got out of the
    room, leaving Maisie under the slight oppression of these words as well
    as of the idea that he had unmistakeably once more dodged.
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    Chapter 25
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