What Maisie Knew, by Henry James

X

He was smoking a cigarette and he stood before the fire and looked at the meagre appointments of the room in a way that made her rather ashamed of them. Then before (on the subject of Mrs. Beale) he let her “draw” him — that was another of his words; it was astonishing how many she gathered in-he remarked that really mamma kept them rather low on the question of decorations. Mrs. Wix had put up a Japanese fan and two rather grim texts; she had wished they were gayer, but they were all she happened to have. Without Sir Claude’s photograph, however, the place would have been, as he said, as dull as a cold dinner. He had said as well that there were all sorts of things they ought to have; yet governess and pupil, it had to be admitted, were still divided between discussing the places where any sort of thing would look best if any sort of thing should ever come and acknowledging that mutability in the child’s career which was naturally unfavourable to accumulation. She stayed long enough only to miss things, not half long enough to deserve them. The way Sir Claude looked about the schoolroom had made her feel with humility as if it were not very different from the shabby attic in which she had visited Susan Ash. Then he had said in abrupt reference to Mrs. Beale: “Do you think she really cares for you?”

“Oh awfully!” Maisie had replied.

“But, I mean, does she love you for yourself, as they call it, don’t you know? Is she as fond of you, now, as Mrs. Wix?”

The child turned it over. “Oh I’m not every bit Mrs. Beale has!”

Sir Claude seemed much amused at this. “No; you’re not every bit she has!”

He laughed for some moments, but that was an old story to Maisie, who was not too much disconcerted to go on: “But she’ll never give me up.”

“Well, I won’t either, old boy: so that’s not so wonderful, and she’s not the only one. But if she’s so fond of you, why doesn’t she write to you?”

“Oh on account of mamma.” This was rudimentary, and she was almost surprised at the simplicity of Sir Claude’s question.

“I see — that’s quite right,” he answered. “She might get at you — there are all sorts of ways. But of course there’s Mrs. Wix.”

“There’s Mrs. Wix,” Maisie lucidly concurred. “Mrs. Wix can’t abide her.”

Sir Claude seemed interested. “Oh she can’t abide her? Then what does she say about her?”

“Nothing at all — because she knows I shouldn’t like it. Isn’t it sweet of her?” the child asked.

“Certainly; rather nice. Mrs. Beale wouldn’t hold her tongue for any such thing as that, would she?”

Maisie remembered how little she had done so; but she desired to protect Mrs. Beale too. The only protection she could think of, however, was the plea: “Oh at papa’s, you know, they don’t mind!”

At this Sir Claude only smiled. “No, I dare say not. But here we mind, don’t we? — we take care what we say. I don’t suppose it’s a matter on which I ought to prejudice you,” he went on; “but I think we must on the whole be rather nicer here than at your father’s. However, I don’t press that; for it’s the sort of question on which it’s awfully awkward for you to speak. Don’t worry, at any rate: I assure you I’ll back you up.” Then after a moment and while he smoked he reverted to Mrs. Beale and the child’s first enquiry. “I’m afraid we can’t do much for her just now. I haven’t seen her since that day — upon my word I haven’t seen her.” The next instant, with a laugh the least bit foolish, the young man slightly coloured: he must have felt this profession of innocence to be excessive as addressed to Maisie. It was inevitable to say to her, however, that of course her mother loathed the lady of the other house. He couldn’t go there again with his wife’s consent, and he wasn’t the man — he begged her to believe, falling once more, in spite of himself, into the scruple of showing the child he didn’t trip — to go there without it. He was liable in talking with her to take the tone of her being also a man of the world. He had gone to Mrs. Beale’s to fetch away Maisie, but that was altogether different. Now that she was in her mother’s house what pretext had he to give her mother for paying calls on her father’s wife? And of course Mrs. Beale couldn’t come to Ida’s — Ida would tear her limb from limb. Maisie, with this talk of pretexts, remembered how much Mrs. Beale had made of her being a good one, and how, for such a function, it was her fate to be either much depended on or much missed. Sir Claude moreover recognised on this occasion that perhaps things would take a turn later on; and he wound up by saying: “I’m sure she does sincerely care for you — how can she possibly help it? She’s very young and very pretty and very clever: I think she’s charming. But we must walk very straight. If you’ll help me, you know, I’ll help YOU,” he concluded in the pleasant fraternising, equalising, not a bit patronising way which made the child ready to go through anything for him and the beauty of which, as she dimly felt, was that it was so much less a deceitful descent to her years than a real indifference to them.

It gave her moments of secret rapture — moments of believing she might help him indeed. The only mystification in this was the imposing time of life that her elders spoke of as youth. For Sir Claude then Mrs. Beale was “young,” just as for Mrs. Wix Sir Claude was: that was one of the merits for which Mrs. Wix most commended him. What therefore was Maisie herself, and, in another relation to the matter, what therefore was mamma? It took her some time to puzzle out with the aid of an experiment or two that it wouldn’t do to talk about mamma’s youth. She even went so far one day, in the presence of that lady’s thick colour and marked lines, as to wonder if it would occur to any one but herself to do so. Yet if she wasn’t young then she was old; and this threw an odd light on her having a husband of a different generation. Mr. Farange was still older — that Maisie perfectly knew; and it brought her in due course to the perception of how much more, since Mrs. Beale was younger than Sir Claude, papa must be older than Mrs. Beale. Such discoveries were disconcerting and even a trifle confounding: these persons, it appeared, were not of the age they ought to be. This was somehow particularly the case with mamma, and the fact made her reflect with some relief on her not having gone with Mrs. Wix into the question of Sir Claude’s attachment to his wife. She was conscious that in confining their attention to the state of her ladyship’s own affections they had been controlled — Mrs. Wix perhaps in especial — by delicacy and even by embarrassment. The end of her colloquy with her stepfather in the schoolroom was her saying: “Then if we’re not to see Mrs. Beale at all it isn’t what she seemed to think when you came for me.”

He looked rather blank. “What did she seem to think?”

“Why that I’ve brought you together.”

“She thought that?” Sir Claude asked.

Maisie was surprised at his already forgetting it. “Just as I had brought papa and her. Don’t you remember she said so?”

It came back to Sir Claude in a peal of laughter. “Oh yes — she said so!”

“And YOU said so,” Maisie lucidly pursued.

He recovered, with increasing mirth, the whole occasion. “And YOU said so!” he retorted as if they were playing a game.

“Then were we all mistaken?”

He considered a little. “No, on the whole not. I dare say it’s just what you HAVE done. We ARE together — it’s really most odd. She’s thinking of us — of you and me — though we don’t meet. And I’ve no doubt you’ll find it will be all right when you go back to her.”

“Am I going back to her?” Maisie brought out with a little gasp which was like a sudden clutch of the happy present.

It appeared to make Sir Claude grave a moment; it might have made him feel the weight of the pledge his action had given. “Oh some day, I suppose! We’ve plenty of time.”

“I’ve such a tremendous lot to make up,” Maisie said with a sense of great boldness.

“Certainly, and you must make up every hour of it. Oh I’ll SEE that you do!”

This was encouraging; and to show cheerfully that she was reassured she replied: “That’s what Mrs. Wix sees too.”

“Oh yes,” said Sir Claude; “Mrs. Wix and I are shoulder to shoulder.”

Maisie took in a little this strong image; after which she exclaimed: “Then I’ve done it also to you and her — I’ve brought YOU together!”

“Blest if you haven’t!” Sir Claude laughed. “And more, upon my word, than any of the lot. Oh you’ve done for US! Now if you could — as I suggested, you know, that day — only manage me and your mother!”

The child wondered. “Bring you and HER together?”

“You see we’re not together — not a bit. But I oughtn’t to tell you such things; all the more that you won’t really do it — not you. No, old chap,” the young man continued; “there you’ll break down. But it won’t matter — we’ll rub along. The great thing is that you and I are all right.”

“WE’RE all right!” Maisie echoed devoutly. But the next moment, in the light of what he had just said, she asked: “How shall I ever leave you?” It was as if she must somehow take care of him.

His smile did justice to her anxiety. “Oh well, you needn’t! It won’t come to that.”

“Do you mean that when I do go you’ll go with me?”

Sir Claude cast about. “Not exactly ‘with’ you perhaps; but I shall never be far off.”

“But how do you know where mamma may take you?”

He laughed again. “I don’t, I confess!” Then he had an idea, though something too jocose. “That will be for you to see — that she shan’t take me too far.”

“How can I help it?” Maisie enquired in surprise. “Mamma doesn’t care for me,” she said very simply. “Not really.” Child as she was, her little long history was in the words; and it was as impossible to contradict her as if she had been venerable.

Sir Claude’s silence was an admission of this, and still more the tone in which he presently replied: “That won’t prevent her from — some time or other — leaving me with you.”

“Then we’ll live together?” she eagerly demanded.

“I’m afraid,” said Sir Claude, smiling, “that that will be Mrs. Beale’s real chance.”

Her eagerness just slightly dropped at this; she remembered Mrs. Wix’s pronouncement that it was all an extraordinary muddle. “To take me again? Well, can’t you come to see me there?”

“Oh I dare say!”

Though there were parts of childhood Maisie had lost she had all childhood’s preference for the particular promise. “Then you WILL come — you’ll come often, won’t you?” she insisted; while at the moment she spoke the door opened for the return of Mrs. Wix. Sir Claude hereupon, instead of replying, gave her a look which left her silent and embarrassed.

When he again found privacy convenient, however — which happened to be long in coming — he took up their conversation very much where it had dropped. “You see, my dear, if I shall be able to go to you at your father’s it yet isn’t at all the same thing for Mrs. Beale to come to you here.” Maisie gave a thoughtful assent to this proposition, though conscious she could scarcely herself say just where the difference would lie. She felt how much her stepfather saved her, as he said with his habitual amusement, the trouble of that. “I shall probably be able to go to Mrs. Beale’s without your mother’s knowing it.”

Maisie stared with a certain thrill at the dramatic element in this. “And she couldn’t come here without mamma’s —” She was unable to articulate the word for what mamma would do.

“My dear child, Mrs. Wix would tell of it.”

“But I thought,” Maisie objected, “that Mrs. Wix and you —”

“Are such brothers-inarms?”— Sir Claude caught her up. “Oh yes, about everything but Mrs. Beale. And if you should suggest,” he went on, “that we might somehow or other hide her peeping in from Mrs. Wix —”

“Oh, I don’t suggest THAT!” Maisie in turn cut him short.

Sir Claude looked as if he could indeed quite see why. “No; it would really be impossible.” There came to her from this glance at what they might hide the first small glimpse of something in him that she wouldn’t have expected. There had been times when she had had to make the best of the impression that she was herself deceitful; yet she had never concealed anything bigger than a thought. Of course she now concealed this thought of how strange it would be to see HIM hide; and while she was so actively engaged he continued: “Besides, you know, I’m not afraid of your father.”

“And you are of my mother?”

“Rather, old man!” Sir Claude returned.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38