What Maisie Knew, by Henry James

XVIII

The child, however, was not destined to enjoy much of Sir Claude at the “thingumbob,” which took for them a very different turn indeed. On the spot Mrs. Beale, with hilarity, had urged her to the course proposed; but later, at the Exhibition, she withdrew this allowance, mentioning as a result of second thoughts that when a man was so sensitive anything at all frisky usually made him worse. It would have been hard indeed for Sir Claude to be “worse,” Maisie felt, as, in the gardens and the crowd, when the first dazzle had dropped, she looked for him in vain up and down. They had all their time, the couple, for frugal wistful wandering: they had partaken together at home of the light vague meal — Maisie’s name for it was a “jam-supper”— to which they were reduced when Mr. Farange sought his pleasure abroad. It was abroad now entirely that Mr. Farange pursued this ideal, and it was the actual impression of his daughter, derived from his wife, that he had three days before joined a friend’s yacht at Cowes.

The place was full of side-shows, to which Mrs. Beale could introduce the little girl only, alas, by revealing to her so attractive, so enthralling a name: the side-shows, each time, were sixpence apiece, and the fond allegiance enjoyed by the elder of our pair had been established from the earliest time in spite of a paucity of sixpences. Small coin dropped from her as half-heartedly as answers from bad children to lessons that had not been looked at. Maisie passed more slowly the great painted posters, pressing with a linked arm closer to her friend’s pocket, where she hoped for the audible chink of a shilling. But the upshot of this was but to deepen her yearning: if Sir Claude would only at last come the shillings would begin to ring. The companions paused, for want of one, before the Flowers of the Forest, a large presentment of bright brown ladies — they were brown all over — in a medium suggestive of tropical luxuriance, and there Maisie dolorously expressed her belief that he would never come at all. Mrs. Beale hereupon, though discernibly disappointed, reminded her that he had not been promised as a certainty — a remark that caused the child to gaze at the Flowers through a blur in which they became more magnificent, yet oddly more confused, and by which moreover confusion was imparted to the aspect of a gentleman who at that moment, in the company of a lady, came out of the brilliant booth. The lady was so brown that Maisie at first took her for one of the Flowers; but during the few seconds that this required — a few seconds in which she had also desolately given up Sir Claude — she heard Mrs. Beale’s voice, behind her, gather both wonder and pain into a single sharp little cry.

“Of all the wickedness — BEALE!”

He had already, without distinguishing them in the mass of strollers, turned another way — it seemed at the brown lady’s suggestion. Her course was marked, over heads and shoulders, by an upright scarlet plume, as to the ownership of which Maisie was instantly eager. “Who is she — who is she?”

But Mrs. Beale for a moment only looked after them. “The liar — the liar!”

Maisie considered. “Because he’s not — where one thought?” That was also, a month ago in Kensington Gardens, where her mother had not been. “Perhaps he has come back,” she was quick to contribute.

“He never went — the hound!”

That, according to Sir Claude, had been also what her mother had not done, and Maisie could only have a sense of something that in a maturer mind would be called the way history repeats itself.

“Who IS she?” she asked again.

Mrs. Beale, fixed to the spot, seemed lost in the vision of an opportunity missed. “If he had only seen me!”— it came from between her teeth. “She’s a brand-new one. But he must have been with her since Tuesday.”

Maisie took it in. “She’s almost black,” she then reported.

“They’re always hideous,” said Mrs. Beale.

This was a remark on which the child had again to reflect. “Oh not his WIVES!” she remonstrantly exclaimed. The words at another moment would probably have set her friend “off,” but Mrs. Beale was now, in her instant vigilance, too immensely “on.” “Did you ever in your life see such a feather?” Maisie presently continued.

This decoration appeared to have paused at some distance, and in spite of intervening groups they could both look at it. “Oh that’s the way they dress — the vulgarest of the vulgar!”

“They’re coming back — they’ll see us!” Maisie the next moment cried; and while her companion answered that this was exactly what she wanted and the child returned “Here they are — here they are!” the unconscious subjects of so much attention, with a change of mind about their direction, quickly retraced their steps and precipitated themselves upon their critics. Their unconsciousness gave Mrs. Beale time to leap, under her breath, to a recognition which Maisie caught.

“It must be Mrs. Cuddon!”

Maisie looked at Mrs. Cuddon hard — her lips even echoed the name. What followed was extraordinarily rapid — a minute of livelier battle than had ever yet, in so short a span at least, been waged round our heroine. The muffled shock — lest people should notice — was violent, and it was only for her later thought that the steps fell into their order, the steps through which, in a bewilderment not so much of sound as of silence, she had come to find herself, too soon for comprehension and too strangely for fear, at the door of the Exhibition with her father. He thrust her into a hansom and got in after her, and then it was — as she drove along with him — that she recovered a little what had happened. Face to face with them in the gardens he had seen them, and there had been a moment of checked concussion during which, in a glare of black eyes and a toss of red plumage, Mrs. Cuddon had recognised them, ejaculated and vanished. There had been another moment at which she became aware of Sir Claude, also poised there in surprise, but out of her father’s view, as if he had been warned off at the very moment of reaching them. It fell into its place with all the rest that she had heard Mrs. Beale say to her father, but whether low or loud was now lost to her, something about his having this time a new one; on which he had growled something indistinct but apparently in the tone and of the sort that the child, from her earliest years, had associated with hearing somebody retort to somebody that somebody was “another.” “Oh I stick to the old!” Mrs. Beale had then quite loudly pronounced; and her accent, even as the cab got away, was still in the air, Maisie’s effective companion having spoken no other word from the moment of whisking her off — none at least save the indistinguishable address which, over the top of the hansom and poised on the step, he had given the driver. Reconstructing these things later Maisie theorised that she at this point would have put a question to him had not the silence into which he charmed her or scared her — she could scarcely tell which — come from his suddenly making her feel his arm about her, feel, as he drew her close, that he was agitated in a way he had never yet shown her. It struck her he trembled, trembled too much to speak, and this had the effect of making her, with an emotion which, though it had begun to throb in an instant, was by no means all dread, conform to his portentous hush. The act of possession that his pressure in a manner advertised came back to her after the longest of the long intermissions that had ever let anything come back. They drove and drove, and he kept her close; she stared straight before her, holding her breath, watching one dark street succeed another and strangely conscious that what it all meant was somehow that papa was less to be left out of everything than she had supposed. It took her but a minute to surrender to this discovery, which, in the form of his present embrace, suggested a purpose in him prodigiously reaffirmed and with that a confused confidence. She neither knew exactly what he had done nor what he was doing; she could only, altogether impressed and rather proud, vibrate with the sense that he had jumped up to do something and that she had as quickly become a part of it. It was a part of it too that here they were at a house that seemed not large, but in the fresh white front of which the street-lamp showed a smartness of flower-boxes. The child had been in thousands of stories — all Mrs. Wix’s and her own, to say nothing of the richest romances of French Elise — but she had never been in such a story as this. By the time he had helped her out of the cab, which drove away, and she heard in the door of the house the prompt little click of his key, the Arabian Nights had quite closed round her.

From this minute that pitch of the wondrous was in everything, particularly in such an instant “Open Sesame” and in the departure of the cab, a rattling void filled with relinquished step-parents; it was, with the vividness, the almost blinding whiteness of the light that sprang responsive to papa’s quick touch of a little brass knob on the wall, in a place that, at the top of a short soft staircase, struck her as the most beautiful she had ever seen in her life. The next thing she perceived it to be was the drawing-room of a lady — of a lady, she could see in a moment, and not of a gentleman, not even of one like papa himself or even like Sir Claude — whose things were as much prettier than mamma’s as it had always had to be confessed that mamma’s were prettier than Mrs. Beale’s. In the middle of the small bright room and the presence of more curtains and cushions, more pictures and mirrors, more palm-trees drooping over brocaded and gilded nooks, more little silver boxes scattered over little crooked tables and little oval miniatures hooked upon velvet screens than Mrs. Beale and her ladyship together could, in an unnatural alliance, have dreamed of mustering, the child became aware, with a sharp foretaste of compassion, of something that was strangely like a relegation to obscurity of each of those women of taste. It was a stranger operation still that her father should on the spot be presented to her as quite advantageously and even grandly at home in the dazzling scene and himself by so much the more separated from scenes inferior to it. She spent with him in it, while explanations continued to hang back, twenty minutes that, in their sudden drop of danger, affected her, though there were neither buns nor ginger-beer, like an extemporised expensive treat.

“Is she very rich?” He had begun to strike her as almost embarrassed, so shy that he might have found himself with a young lady with whom he had little in common. She was literally moved by this apprehension to offer him some tactful relief.

Beale Farange stood and smiled at his young lady, his back to the fanciful fireplace, his light overcoat — the very lightest in London — wide open, and his wonderful lustrous beard completely concealing the expanse of his shirt-front. It pleased her more than ever to think that papa was handsome and, though as high aloft as mamma and almost, in his specially florid evening-dress, as splendid, of a beauty somehow less belligerent, less terrible.

“The Countess? Why do you ask me that?”

Maisie’s eyes opened wider. “Is she a Countess?”

He seemed to treat her wonder as a positive tribute. “Oh yes, my dear, but it isn’t an English title.”

Her manner appreciated this. “Is it a French one?”

“No, nor French either. It’s American.”

She conversed agreeably. “Ah then of course she must be rich.” She took in such a combination of nationality and rank. “I never saw anything so lovely.”

“Did you have a sight of her?” Beale asked.

“At the Exhibition?” Maisie smiled. “She was gone too quick.”

Her father laughed. “She did slope!” She had feared he would say something about Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude, yet the way he spared them made her rather uneasy too. All he risked was, the next minute, “She has a horror of vulgar scenes.”

This was something she needn’t take up; she could still continue bland. “But where do you suppose she went?”

“Oh I thought she’d have taken a cab and have been here by this time. But she’ll turn up all right.”

“I’m sure I HOPE she will,” Maisie said; she spoke with an earnestness begotten of the impression of all the beauty about them, to which, in person, the Countess might make further contribution. “We came awfully fast,” she added.

Her father again laughed loud. “Yes, my dear, I made you step out!” He waited an instant, then pursued: “I want her to see you.”

Maisie, at this, rejoiced in the attention that, for their evening out, Mrs. Beale, even to the extent of personally “doing up” her old hat, had given her appearance. Meanwhile her father went on: “You’ll like her awfully.”

“Oh I’m sure I shall!” After which, either from the effect of having said so much or from that of a sudden glimpse of the impossibility of saying more, she felt an embarrassment and sought refuge in a minor branch of the subject. “I thought she was Mrs. Cuddon.”

Beale’s gaiety rather increased than diminished. “You mean my wife did? My dear child, my wife’s a damned fool!” He had the oddest air of speaking of his wife as of a person whom she might scarcely have known, so that the refuge of her scruple didn’t prove particularly happy. Beale on the other hand appeared after an instant himself to feel a scruple. “What I mean is, to speak seriously, that she doesn’t really know anything about anything.” He paused, following the child’s charmed eyes and tentative step or two as they brought her nearer to the pretty things on one of the tables. “She thinks she has good things, don’t you know!” He quite jeered at Mrs. Beale’s delusion.

Maisie felt she must confess that it WAS one; everything she had missed at the side-shows was made up to her by the Countess’s luxuries. “Yes,” she considered; “she does think that.”

There was again a dryness in the way Beale replied that it didn’t matter what she thought; but there was an increasing sweetness for his daughter in being with him so long without his doing anything worse. The whole hour of course was to remain with her, for days and weeks, ineffaceably illumined and confirmed; by the end of which she was able to read into it a hundred things that had been at the moment mere miraculous pleasantness. What they at the moment came to was simply that her companion was still in a good deal of a flutter, yet wished not to show it, and that just in proportion as he succeeded in this attempt he was able to encourage her to regard him as kind. He moved about the room after a little, showed her things, spoke to her as a person of taste, told her the name, which she remembered, of the famous French lady represented in one of the miniatures, and remarked, as if he had caught her wistful over a trinket or a trailing stuff, that he made no doubt the Countess, on coming in, would give her something jolly. He spied a pink satin box with a looking-glass let into the cover, which he raised, with a quick facetious flourish, to offer her the privilege of six rows of chocolate bonbons, cutting out thereby Sir Claude, who had never gone beyond four rows. “I can do what I like with these,” he said, “for I don’t mind telling you I gave ’em to her myself.” The Countess had evidently appreciated the gift; there were numerous gaps, a ravage now quite unchecked, in the array. Even while they waited together Maisie had her sense, which was the mark of what their separation had become, of her having grown for him, since the last time he had, as it were, noticed her, and by increase of years and of inches if by nothing else, much more of a little person to reckon with. Yes, this was a part of the positive awkwardness that he carried off by being almost foolishly tender. There was a passage during which, on a yellow silk sofa under one of the palms, he had her on his knee, stroking her hair, playfully holding her off while he showed his shining fangs and let her, with a vague affectionate helpless pointless “Dear old girl, dear little daughter,” inhale the fragrance of his cherished beard. She must have been sorry for him, she afterwards knew, so well could she privately follow his difficulty in being specific to her about anything. She had such possibilities of vibration, of response, that it needed nothing more than this to make up to her in fact for omissions. The tears came into her eyes again as they had done when in the Park that day the Captain told her so “splendidly” that her mother was good. What was this but splendid too — this still directer goodness of her father and this unexampled shining solitude with him, out of which everything had dropped but that he was papa and that he was magnificent? It didn’t spoil it that she finally felt he must have, as he became restless, some purpose he didn’t quite see his way to bring out, for in the freshness of their recovered fellowship she would have lent herself gleefully to his suggesting, or even to his pretending, that their relations were easy and graceful. There was something in him that seemed, and quite touchingly, to ask her to help him to pretend — pretend he knew enough about her life and her education, her means of subsistence and her view of himself, to give the questions he couldn’t put her a natural domestic tone. She would have pretended with ecstasy if he could only have given her the cue. She waited for it while, between his big teeth, he breathed the sighs she didn’t know to be stupid. And as if, though he was so stupid all through, he had let the friendly suffusion of her eyes yet tell him she was ready for anything, he floundered about, wondering what the devil he could lay hold of.

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