What Maisie Knew, by Henry James

XV

It was Susan Ash who came to her with the news: “He’s downstairs, miss, and he do look beautiful.”

In the schoolroom at her father’s, which had pretty blue curtains, she had been making out at the piano a lovely little thing, as Mrs. Beale called it, a “Moonlight Berceuse” sent her through the post by Sir Claude, who considered that her musical education had been deplorably neglected and who, the last months at her mother’s, had been on the point of making arrangements for regular lessons. She knew from him familiarly that the real thing, as he said, was shockingly dear and that anything else was a waste of money, and she therefore rejoiced the more at the sacrifice represented by this composition, of which the price, five shillings, was marked on the cover and which was evidently the real thing. She was already on her feet. “Mrs. Beale has sent up for me?”

“Oh no — it’s not that,” said Susan Ash. “Mrs. Beale has been out this hour.”

“Then papa!”

“Dear no — not papa. You’ll do, miss, all but them wandering ‘airs,” Susan went on. “Your papa never came ‘ome at all,” she added.

“Home from where?” Maisie responded a little absently and very excitedly. She gave a wild manual brush to her locks.

“Oh that, miss, I should be very sorry to tell you! I’d rather tuck away that white thing behind — though I’m blest if it’s my work.”

“Do then, please. I know where papa was,” Maisie impatiently continued.

“Well, in your place I wouldn’t tell.”

“He was at the club — the Chrysanthemum. So!”

“All night long? Why the flowers shut up at night, you know!” cried Susan Ash.

“Well, I don’t care”— he child was at the door. “Sir Claude asked for me ALONE?”

“The same as if you was a duchess.”

Maisie was aware on her way downstairs that she was now quite as happy as one, and also, a moment later, as she hung round his neck, that even such a personage would scarce commit herself more grandly. There was moreover a hint of the duchess in the infinite point with which, as she felt, she exclaimed: “And this is what you call coming OFTEN?”

Sir Claude met her delightfully and in the same fine spirit. “My dear old man, don’t make me a scene — I assure you it’s what every woman I look at does. Let us have some fun — it’s a lovely day: clap on something smart and come out with me; then we’ll talk it over quietly.”

They were on their way five minutes later to Hyde Park, and nothing that even in the good days at her mother’s they had ever talked over had more of the sweetness of tranquillity than his present prompt explanations. He was at his best in such an office and with the exception of Mrs. Wix the only person she had met in her life who ever explained. With him, however, the act had an authority transcending the wisdom of woman. It all came back — the plans that always failed, all the rewards and bribes that she was perpetually paying for in advance and perpetually out of pocket by afterwards — the whole great stress to be dealt with introduced her on each occasion afresh to the question of money. Even she herself almost knew how it would have expressed the strength of his empire to say that to shuffle away her sense of being duped he had only, from under his lovely moustache, to breathe upon it. It was somehow in the nature of plans to be expensive and in the nature of the expensive to be impossible. To be “involved” was of the essence of everybody’s affairs, and also at every particular moment to be more involved than usual. This had been the case with Sir Claude’s, with papa’s, with mamma’s, with Mrs. Beale’s and with Maisie’s own at the particular moment, a moment of several weeks, that had elapsed since our young lady had been re-established at her father’s. There wasn’t “two-and-tuppence” for anything or for any one, and that was why there had been no sequel to the classes in French literature with all the smart little girls. It was devilish awkward, didn’t she see? to try, without even the limited capital mentioned, to mix her up with a remote array that glittered before her after this as the children of the rich. She was to feel henceforth as if she were flattening her nose upon the hard window-pane of the sweet-shop of knowledge. If the classes, however, that were select, and accordingly the only ones, were impossibly dear, the lectures at the institutions — at least at some of them — were directly addressed to the intelligent poor, and it therefore had to be easier still to produce on the spot the reason why she had been taken to none. This reason, Sir Claude said, was that she happened to be just going to be, though they had nothing to do with that in now directing their steps to the banks of the Serpentine. Maisie’s own park, in the north, had been nearer at hand, but they rolled westward in a hansom because at the end of the sweet June days this was the direction taken by every one that any one looked at. They cultivated for an hour, on the Row and by the Drive, this opportunity for each observer to amuse and for one of them indeed, not a little hilariously, to mystify the other, and before the hour was over Maisie had elicited, in reply to her sharpest challenge, a further account of her friend’s long absence.

“Why I’ve broken my word to you so dreadfully — promising so solemnly and then never coming? Well, my dear, that’s a question that, not seeing me day after day, you must very often have put to Mrs. Beale.”

“Oh yes,” the child replied; “again and again.”

“And what has she told you?”

“That you’re as bad as you’re beautiful.”

“Is that what she says?”

“Those very words.”

“Ah the dear old soul!” Sir Claude was much diverted, and his loud, clear laugh was all his explanation. Those were just the words Maisie had last heard him use about Mrs. Wix. She clung to his hand, which was encased in a pearl-grey glove ornamented with the thick black lines that, at her mother’s, always used to strike her as connected with the way the bestitched fists of the long ladies carried, with the elbows well out, their umbrellas upside down. The mere sense of his grasp in her own covered the ground of loss just as much as the ground of gain. His presence was like an object brought so close to her face that she couldn’t see round its edges. He himself, however, remained showman of the spectacle even after they had passed out of the Park and begun, under the charm of the spot and the season, to stroll in Kensington Gardens. What they had left behind them was, as he said, only a pretty bad circus, and, through prepossessing gates and over a bridge, they had come in a quarter of an hour, as he also remarked, a hundred miles from London. A great green glade was before them, and high old trees, and under the shade of these, in the fresh turf, the crooked course of a rural footpath. “It’s the Forest of Arden,” Sir Claude had just delightfully observed, “and I’m the banished duke, and you’re — what was the young woman called? — the artless country wench. And there,” he went on, “is the other girl — what’s her name, Rosalind? — and (don’t you know?) the fellow who was making up to her. Upon my word he IS making up to her!”

His allusion was to a couple who, side by side, at the end of the glade, were moving in the same direction as themselves. These distant figures, in their slow stroll (which kept them so close together that their heads, drooping a little forward, almost touched), presented the back of a lady who looked tall, who was evidently a very fine woman, and that of a gentleman whose left hand appeared to be passed well into her arm while his right, behind him, made jerky motions with the stick that it grasped. Maisie’s fancy responded for an instant to her friend’s idea that the sight was idyllic; then, stopping short, she brought out with all her clearness: “Why mercy — if it isn’t mamma!”

Sir Claude paused with a stare. “Mamma? But mamma’s at Brussels.”

Maisie, with her eyes on the lady, wondered. “At Brussels?”

“She’s gone to play a match.”

“At billiards? You didn’t tell me.”

“Of course I didn’t!” Sir Claude ejaculated. “There’s plenty I don’t tell you. She went on Wednesday.”

The couple had added to their distance, but Maisie’s eyes more than kept pace with them. “Then she has come back.”

Sir Claude watched the lady. “It’s much more likely she never went!”

“It’s mamma!” the child said with decision.

They had stood still, but Sir Claude had made the most of his opportunity, and it happened that just at this moment, at the end of the vista, the others halted and, still showing only their backs, seemed to stay talking. “Right you are, my duck!” he exclaimed at last. “It’s my own sweet wife!”

He had spoken with a laugh, but he had changed colour, and Maisie quickly looked away from him. “Then who is it with her?”

“Blest if I know!” said Sir Claude.

“Is it Mr. Perriam?”

“Oh dear no — Perriam’s smashed.”

“Smashed?”

“Exposed — in the City. But there are quantities of others!” Sir Claude smiled.

Maisie appeared to count them; she studied the gentleman’s back. “Then is this Lord Eric?”

For a moment her companion made no answer, and when she turned her eyes again to him he was looking at her, she thought, rather queerly. “What do you know about Lord Eric?”

She tried innocently to be odd in return. “Oh I know more than you think! Is it Lord Eric?” she repeated.

“It maybe. Blest if I care!”

Their friends had slightly separated and now, as Sir Claude spoke, suddenly faced round, showing all the splendour of her ladyship and all the mystery of her comrade. Maisie held her breath. “They’re coming!”

“Let them come.” And Sir Claude, pulling out his cigarettes, began to strike a light.

“We shall meet them!”

“No. They’ll meet US.”

Maisie stood her ground. “They see us. Just look.”

Sir Claude threw away his match. “Come straight on.” The others, in the return, evidently startled, had half-paused again, keeping well apart. “She’s horribly surprised and wants to slope,” he continued. “But it’s too late.”

Maisie advanced beside him, making out even across the interval that her ladyship was ill at ease. “Then what will she do?”

Sir Claude puffed his cigarette. “She’s quickly thinking.” He appeared to enjoy it.

Ida had wavered but an instant; her companion clearly gave her moral support. Maisie thought he somehow looked brave, and he had no likeness whatever to Mr. Perriam. His face, thin and rather sharp, was smooth, and it was not till they came nearer that she saw he had a remarkably fair little moustache. She could already see that his eyes were of the lightest blue. He was far nicer than Mr. Perriam. Mamma looked terrible from afar, but even under her guns the child’s curiosity flickered and she appealed again to Sir Claude. “Is it — IS it Lord Eric?”

Sir Claude smoked composedly enough. “I think it’s the Count.”

This was a happy solution — it fitted her idea of a count. But what idea, as she now came grandly on, did mamma fit? — unless that of an actress, in some tremendous situation, sweeping down to the footlights as if she would jump them. Maisie felt really so frightened that before she knew it she had passed her hand into Sir Claude’s arm. Her pressure caused him to stop, and at the sight of this the other couple came equally to a stand and, beyond the diminished space, remained a moment more in talk. This, however, was the matter of an instant; leaving the Count apparently to come round more circuitously — an outflanking movement, if Maisie had but known — her ladyship resumed the onset. “What WILL she do now?” her daughter asked.

Sir Claude was at present in a position to say: “Try to pretend it’s me.”

“You?”

“Why that I’m up to something.”

In another minute poor Ida had justified this prediction, erect there before them like a figure of justice in full dress. There were parts of her face that grew whiter while Maisie looked, and other parts in which this change seemed to make other colours reign with more intensity. “What are you doing with my daughter?” she demanded of her husband; in spite of the indignant tone of which Maisie had a greater sense than ever in her life before of not being personally noticed. It seemed to her Sir Claude also grew pale as an effect of the loud defiance with which Ida twice repeated this question. He put her, instead of answering it, an enquiry of his own: “Who the devil have you got hold of NOW?” and at this her ladyship turned tremendously to the child, glaring at her as at an equal plotter of sin. Maisie received in petrifaction the full force of her mother’s huge painted eyes — they were like Japanese lanterns swung under festal arches. But life came back to her from a tone suddenly and strangely softened. “Go straight to that gentleman, my dear; I’ve asked him to take you a few minutes. He’s charming — go. I’ve something to say to THIS creature.”

Maisie felt Sir Claude immediately clutch her. “No, no — thank you: that won’t do. She’s mine.”

“Yours?” It was confounding to Maisie to hear her speak quite as if she had never heard of Sir Claude before.

“Mine. You’ve given her up. You’ve not another word to say about her. I have her from her father,” said Sir Claude — a statement that startled his companion, who could also measure its lively action on her mother.

There was visibly, however, an influence that made Ida consider; she glanced at the gentleman she had left, who, having strolled with his hands in his pockets to some distance, stood there with unembarrassed vagueness. She directed to him the face that was like an illuminated garden, turnstile and all, for the frequentation of which he had his season-ticket; then she looked again at Sir Claude. “I’ve given her up to her father to KEEP— not to get rid of by sending about the town either with you or with any one else. If she’s not to mind me let HIM come and tell me so. I decline to take it from another person, and I like your pretending that with your humbug of ‘interest’ you’ve a leg to stand on. I know your game and have something now to say to you about it.”

Sir Claude gave a squeeze of the child’s arm. “Didn’t I tell you she’d have, Miss Farange?”

“You’re uncommonly afraid to hear it,” Ida went on; “but if you think she’ll protect you from it you’re mightily mistaken.” She gave him a moment. “I’ll give her the benefit as soon as look at you. Should you like her to know, my dear?” Maisie had a sense of her launching the question with effect; yet our young lady was also conscious of hoping that Sir Claude would declare that preference. We have already learned that she had come to like people’s liking her to “know.” Before he could reply at all, none the less, her mother opened a pair of arms of extraordinary elegance, and then she felt the loosening of his grasp. “My own child,” Ida murmured in a voice — a voice of sudden confused tenderness — that it seemed to her she heard for the first time. She wavered but an instant, thrilled with the first direct appeal, as distinguished from the mere maternal pull, she had ever had from lips that, even in the old vociferous years, had always been sharp. The next moment she was on her mother’s breast, where, amid a wilderness of trinkets, she felt as if she had suddenly been thrust, with a smash of glass, into a jeweller’s shop-front, but only to be as suddenly ejected with a push and the brisk injunction: “Now go to the Captain!”

Maisie glanced at the gentleman submissively, but felt the want of more introduction. “The Captain?”

Sir Claude broke into a laugh. “I told her it was the Count.”

Ida stared; she rose so superior that she was colossal. “You’re too utterly loathsome,” she then declared. “Be off!” she repeated to her daughter.

Maisie started, moved backward and, looking at Sir Claude, “Only for a moment,” she signed to him in her bewilderment. But he was too angry to heed her — too angry with his wife; as she turned away she heard his anger break out. “You damned old b ——"— she couldn’t quite hear all. It was enough, it was too much: she fled before it, rushing even to a stranger for the shock of such a change of tone.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2wh/chapter15.html

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