What Maisie Knew, by Henry James

XII

She had not at the moment explained her ominous speech, but the light of remarkable events soon enabled her companion to read it. It may indeed be said that these days brought on a high quickening of Maisie’s direct perceptions, of her sense of freedom to make out things for herself. This was helped by an emotion intrinsically far from sweet — the increase of the alarm that had most haunted her meditations. She had no need to be told, as on the morrow of the revelation of Sir Claude’s danger she was told by Mrs. Wix, that her mother wanted more and more to know why the devil her father didn’t send for her: she had too long expected mamma’s curiosity on this point to express itself sharply. Maisie could meet such pressure so far as meeting it was to be in a position to reply, in words directly inspired, that papa would be hanged before he’d again be saddled with her. She therefore recognised the hour that in troubled glimpses she had long foreseen, the hour when — the phrase for it came back to her from Mrs. Beale — with two fathers, two mothers and two homes, six protections in all, she shouldn’t know “wherever” to go. Such apprehension as she felt on this score was not diminished by the fact that Mrs. Wix herself was suddenly white with terror: a circumstance leading Maisie to the further knowledge that this lady was still more scared on her own behalf than on that of her pupil. A governess who had only one frock was not likely to have either two fathers or two mothers: accordingly if even with these resources Maisie was to be in the streets, where in the name of all that was dreadful was poor Mrs. Wix to be? She had had, it appeared, a tremendous brush with Ida, which had begun and ended with the request that she would be pleased on the spot to “bundle.” It had come suddenly but completely, this signal of which she had gone in fear. The companions confessed to each other the dread each had hidden the worst of, but Mrs. Wix was better off than Maisie in having a plan of defence. She declined indeed to communicate it till it was quite mature; but meanwhile, she hastened to declare, her feet were firm in the schoolroom. They could only be loosened by force: she would “leave” for the police perhaps, but she wouldn’t leave for mere outrage. That would be to play her ladyship’s game, and it would take another turn of the screw to make her desert her darling. Her ladyship had come down with extraordinary violence: it had been one of many symptoms of a situation strained —“between them all,” as Mrs. Wix said, “but especially between the two”— to the point of God only knew what.

Her description of the crisis made the child blanch. “Between which two? — papa and mamma?”

“Dear no. I mean between your mother and HIM.”

Maisie, in this, recognised an opportunity to be really deep. “‘Him’? — Mr. Perriam?”

She fairly brought a blush to the scared face. “Well, my dear, I must say what you DON’T know ain’t worth mentioning. That it won’t go on for ever with Mr. Perriam — since I MUST meet you — you can suppose? But I meant dear Sir Claude.”

Maisie stood corrected rather than abashed. “I see. But it’s about Mr. Perriam he’s angry?”

Mrs. Wix waited. “He says he’s not.”

“Not angry? He has told you so?”

Mrs. Wix looked at her hard. “Not about HIM!”

“Then about some one else?”

Mrs. Wix looked at her harder. “About some one else.”

“Lord Eric?” the child promptly brought forth.

At this, of a sudden, her governess was more agitated. “Oh why, little unfortunate, should we discuss their dreadful names?”— and she threw herself for the millionth time on Maisie’s neck. It took her pupil but a moment to feel that she quivered with insecurity, and, the contact of her terror aiding, the pair in another instant were sobbing in each other’s arms. Then it was that, completely relaxed, demoralised as she had never been, Mrs. Wix suffered her wound to bleed and her resentment to gush. Her great bitterness was that Ida had called her false, denounced her hypocrisy and duplicity, reviled her spying and tattling, her lying and grovelling to Sir Claude. “Me, ME!” the poor woman wailed, “who’ve seen what I’ve seen and gone through everything only to cover her up and ease her off and smooth her down? If I’ve been an ‘ipocrite it’s the other way round: I’ve pretended, to him and to her, to myself and to you and to every one, NOT to see! It serves me right to have held my tongue before such horrors!”

What horrors they were her companion forbore too closely to enquire, showing even signs not a few of an ability to take them for granted. That put the couple more than ever, in this troubled sea, in the same boat, so that with the consciousness of ideas on the part of her fellow mariner Maisie could sit close and wait. Sir Claude on the morrow came in to tea, and then the ideas were produced. It was extraordinary how the child’s presence drew out their full strength. The principal one was startling, but Maisie appreciated the courage with which her governess handled it. It simply consisted of the proposal that whenever and wherever they should seek refuge Sir Claude should consent to share their asylum. On his protesting with all the warmth in nature against this note of secession she asked what else in the world was left to them if her ladyship should stop supplies.

“Supplies be hanged, my dear woman!” said their delightful friend. “Leave supplies to me — I’ll take care of supplies.”

Mrs. Wix rose to it. “Well, it’s exactly because I knew you’d be so glad to do so that I put the question before you. There’s a way to look after us better than any other. The way’s just to come along with us.”

It hung before Maisie, Mrs. Wix’s way, like a glittering picture, and she clasped her hands in ecstasy. “Come along, come along, come along!”

Sir Claude looked from his stepdaughter back to her governess. “Do you mean leave this house and take up my abode with you?”

“It will be the right thing — if you feel as you’ve told me you feel.” Mrs. Wix, sustained and uplifted, was now as clear as a bell.

Sir Claude had the air of trying to recall what he had told her; then the light broke that was always breaking to make his face more pleasant. “It’s your happy thought that I shall take a house for you?”

“For the wretched homeless child. Any roof — over OUR heads — will do for us; but of course for you it will have to be something really nice.”

Sir Claude’s eyes reverted to Maisie, rather hard, as she thought; and there was a shade in his very smile that seemed to show her — though she also felt it didn’t show Mrs. Wix — that the accommodation prescribed must loom to him pretty large. The next moment, however, he laughed gaily enough. “My dear lady, you exaggerate tremendously MY poor little needs.” Mrs. Wix had once mentioned to her young friend that when Sir Claude called her his dear lady he could do anything with her; and Maisie felt a certain anxiety to see what he would do now. Well, he only addressed her a remark of which the child herself was aware of feeling the force. “Your plan appeals to me immensely; but of course — don’t you see — I shall have to consider the position I put myself in by leaving my wife.”

“You’ll also have to remember,” Mrs. Wix replied, “that if you don’t look out your wife won’t give you time to consider. Her ladyship will leave YOU.”

“Ah my good friend, I do look out!” the young man returned while Maisie helped herself afresh to bread and butter. “Of course if that happens I shall have somehow to turn round; but I hope with all my heart it won’t. I beg your pardon,” he continued to his stepdaughter, “for appearing to discuss that sort of possibility under your sharp little nose. But the fact is I FORGET half the time that Ida’s your sainted mother.”

“So do I!” said Maisie, her mouth full of bread and butter and to put him the more in the right.

Her protectress, at this, was upon her again. “The little desolate precious pet!” For the rest of the conversation she was enclosed in Mrs. Wix’s arms, and as they sat there interlocked Sir Claude, before them with his tea-cup, looked down at them in deepening thought. Shrink together as they might they couldn’t help, Maisie felt, being a very large lumpish image of what Mrs. Wix required of his slim fineness. She knew moreover that this lady didn’t make it better by adding in a moment: “Of course we shouldn’t dream of a whole house. Any sort of little lodging, however humble, would be only too blest.”

“But it would have to be something that would hold us all,” said Sir Claude.

“Oh yes,” Mrs. Wix concurred; “the whole point’s our being together. While you’re waiting, before you act, for her ladyship to take some step, our position here will come to an impossible pass. You don’t know what I went through with her for you yesterday — and for our poor darling; but it’s not a thing I can promise you often to face again. She cast me out in horrible language — she has instructed the servants not to wait on me.”

“Oh the poor servants are all right!” Sir Claude eagerly cried.

“They’re certainly better than their mistress. It’s too dreadful that I should sit here and say of your wife, Sir Claude, and of Maisie’s own mother, that she’s lower than a domestic; but my being betrayed into such remarks is just a reason the more for our getting away. I shall stay till I’m taken by the shoulders, but that may happen any day. What also may perfectly happen, you must permit me to repeat, is that she’ll go off to get rid of us.”

“Oh if she’ll only do that!” Sir Claude laughed. “That would be the very making of us!”

“Don’t say it — don’t say it!” Mrs. Wix pleaded. “Don’t speak of anything so fatal. You know what I mean. We must all cling to the right. You mustn’t be bad.”

Sir Claude set down his tea-cup; he had become more grave and he pensively wiped his moustache. “Won’t all the world say I’m awful if I leave the house before — before she has bolted? They’ll say it was my doing so that made her bolt.”

Maisie could grasp the force of this reasoning, but it offered no check to Mrs. Wix. “Why need you mind that — if you’ve done it for so high a motive? Think of the beauty of it,” the good lady pressed.

“Of bolting with YOU?” Sir Claude ejaculated.

She faintly smiled — she even faintly coloured. “So far from doing you harm it will do you the highest good. Sir Claude, if you’ll listen to me, it will save you.”

“Save me from what?”

Maisie, at this question, waited with renewed suspense for an answer that would bring the thing to some finer point than their companion had brought it to before. But there was on the contrary only more mystification in Mrs. Wix’s reply. “Ah from you know what!”

“Do you mean from some other woman!”

“Yes — from a real bad one.”

Sir Claude at least, the child could see, was not mystified; so little indeed that a smile of intelligence broke afresh in his eyes. He turned them in vague discomfort to Maisie, and then something in the way she met them caused him to chuck her playfully under the chin. It was not till after this that he good-naturedly met Mrs. Wix. “You think me much worse than I am.”

“If that were true,” she returned, “I wouldn’t appeal to you. I do, Sir Claude, in the name of all that’s good in you — and oh so earnestly! We can help each other. What you’ll do for our young friend here I needn’t say. That isn’t even what I want to speak of now. What I want to speak of is what you’ll GET— don’t you see? — from such an opportunity to take hold. Take hold of US— take hold of HER. Make her your duty — make her your life: she’ll repay you a thousand-fold!”

It was to Mrs. Wix, during this appeal, that Maisie’s contemplation transferred itself: partly because, though her heart was in her throat for trepidation, her delicacy deterred her from appearing herself to press the question; partly from the coercion of seeing Mrs. Wix come out as Mrs. Wix had never come before — not even on the day of her call at Mrs. Beale’s with the news of mamma’s marriage. On that day Mrs. Beale had surpassed her in dignity, but nobody could have surpassed her now. There was in fact at this moment a fascination for her pupil in the hint she seemed to give that she had still more of that surprise behind. So the sharpened sense of spectatorship was the child’s main support, the long habit, from the first, of seeing herself in discussion and finding in the fury of it — she had had a glimpse of the game of football — a sort of compensation for the doom of a peculiar passivity. It gave her often an odd air of being present at her history in as separate a manner as if she could only get at experience by flattening her nose against a pane of glass. Such she felt to be the application of her nose while she waited for the effect of Mrs. Wix’s eloquence. Sir Claude, however, didn’t keep her long in a position so ungraceful: he sat down and opened his arms to her as he had done the day he came for her at her father’s, and while he held her there, looking at her kindly, but as if their companion had brought the blood a good deal to his face, he said:

“Dear Mrs. Wix is magnificent, but she’s rather too grand about it. I mean the situation isn’t after all quite so desperate or quite so simple. But I give you my word before her, and I give it to her before you, that I’ll never, never, forsake you. Do you hear that, old fellow, and do you take it in? I’ll stick to you through everything.”

Maisie did take it in-took it with a long tremor of all her little being; and then as, to emphasise it, he drew her closer she buried her head on his shoulder and cried without sound and without pain. While she was so engaged she became aware that his own breast was agitated, and gathered from it with rapture that his tears were as silently flowing. Presently she heard a loud sob from Mrs. Wix — Mrs. Wix was the only one who made a noise.

She was to have made, for some time, none other but this, though within a few days, in conversation with her pupil, she described her intercourse with Ida as little better than the state of being battered. There was as yet nevertheless no attempt to eject her by force, and she recognised that Sir Claude, taking such a stand as never before, had intervened with passion and with success. As Maisie remembered — and remembered wholly without disdain — that he had told her he was afraid of her ladyship, the little girl took this act of resolution as a proof of what, in the spirit of the engagement sealed by all their tears, he was really prepared to do. Mrs. Wix spoke to her of the pecuniary sacrifice by which she herself purchased the scant security she enjoyed and which, if it was a defence against the hand of violence, yet left her exposed to incredible rudeness. Didn’t her ladyship find every hour of the day some artful means to humiliate and trample upon her? There was a quarter’s salary owing her — a great name, even Maisie could suspect, for a small matter; she should never see it as long as she lived, but keeping quiet about it put her ladyship, thank heaven, a little in one’s power. Now that he was doing so much else she could never have the grossness to apply for it to Sir Claude. He had sent home for schoolroom consumption a huge frosted cake, a wonderful delectable mountain with geological strata of jam, which might, with economy, see them through many days of their siege; but it was none the less known to Mrs. Wix that his affairs were more and more involved, and her fellow partaker looked back tenderly, in the light of these involutions, at the expression of face with which he had greeted the proposal that he should set up another establishment. Maisie felt that if their maintenance should hang by a thread they must still demean themselves with the highest delicacy. What he was doing was simply acting without delay, so far as his embarrassments permitted, on the inspiration of his elder friend. There was at this season a wonderful month of May — as soft as a drop of the wind in a gale that had kept one awake — when he took out his stepdaughter with a fresh alacrity and they rambled the great town in search, as Mrs. Wix called it, of combined amusement and instruction.

They rode on the top of ‘buses; they visited outlying parks; they went to cricket-matches where Maisie fell asleep; they tried a hundred places for the best one to have tea. This was his direct way of rising to Mrs. Wix’s grand lesson — of making his little accepted charge his duty and his life. They dropped, under incontrollable impulses, into shops that they agreed were too big, to look at things that they agreed were too small, and it was during these hours that Mrs. Wix, alone at home, but a subject of regretful reference as they pulled off their gloves for refreshment, subsequently described herself as least sheltered from the blows her ladyship had achieved such ingenuity in dealing. She again and again repeated that she wouldn’t so much have minded having her “attainments” held up to scorn and her knowledge of every subject denied, hadn’t she been branded as “low” in character and tone. There was by this time no pretence on the part of any one of denying it to be fortunate that her ladyship habitually left London every Saturday and was more and more disposed to a return late in the week. It was almost equally public that she regarded as a preposterous “pose,” and indeed as a direct insult to herself, her husband’s attitude of staying behind to look after a child for whom the most elaborate provision had been made. If there was a type Ida despised, Sir Claude communicated to Maisie, it was the man who pottered about town of a Sunday; and he also mentioned how often she had declared to him that if he had a grain of spirit he would be ashamed to accept a menial position about Mr. Farange’s daughter. It was her ladyship’s contention that he was in craven fear of his predecessor — otherwise he would recognise it as an obligation of plain decency to protect his wife against the outrage of that person’s barefaced attempt to swindle her. The swindle was that Mr. Farange put upon her the whole intolerable burden; “and even when I pay for you myself,” Sir Claude averred to his young friend, “she accuses me the more of truckling and grovelling.” It was Mrs. Wix’s conviction, they both knew, arrived at on independent grounds, that Ida’s weekly excursions were feelers for a more considerable absence. If she came back later each week the week would be sure to arrive when she wouldn’t come back at all. This appearance had of course much to do with Mrs. Wix’s actual valour. Could they but hold out long enough the snug little home with Sir Claude would find itself informally established.

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