What Maisie Knew, by Henry James

XXIII

Sir Claude was stationed at the window; he didn’t so much as turn round, and it was left to the youngest of the three to take up the remark. “Do you mean you went to see her yesterday?”

“She came to see ME. She knocked at my shabby door. She mounted my squalid stair. She told me she had seen you at Folkestone.”

Maisie wondered. “She went back that evening?”

“No; yesterday morning. She drove to me straight from the station. It was most remarkable. If I had a job to get off she did nothing to make it worse — she did a great deal to make it better.” Mrs. Wix hung fire, though the flame in her face burned brighter; then she became capable of saying: “Her ladyship’s kind! She did what I didn’t expect.”

Maisie, on this, looked straight at her stepfather’s back; it might well have been for her at that hour a monument of her ladyship’s kindness. It remained, as such, monumentally still, and for a time that permitted the child to ask of their companion: “Did she really help you?”

“Most practically.” Again Mrs. Wix paused; again she quite resounded. “She gave me a ten-pound note.”

At that, still looking out, Sir Claude, at the window, laughed loud. “So you see, Maisie, we’ve not quite lost it!”

“Oh no,” Maisie responded. “Isn’t that too charming?” She smiled at Mrs. Wix. “We know all about it.” Then on her friend’s showing such blankness as was compatible with such a flush she pursued: “She does want me to have you?”

Mrs. Wix showed a final hesitation, which, however, while Sir Claude drummed on the window-pane, she presently surmounted. It came to Maisie that in spite of his drumming and of his not turning round he was really so much interested as to leave himself in a manner in her hands; which somehow suddenly seemed to her a greater proof than he could have given by interfering. “She wants me to have YOU!” Mrs. Wix declared.

Maisie answered this bang at Sir Claude. “Then that’s nice for all of us.”

Of course it was, his continued silence sufficiently admitted while Mrs. Wix rose from her chair and, as if to take more of a stand, placed herself, not without majesty, before the fire. The incongruity of her smartness, the circumference of her stiff frock, presented her as really more ready for Paris than any of them. She also gazed hard at Sir Claude’s back. “Your wife was different from anything she had ever shown me. She recognises certain proprieties.”

“Which? Do you happen to remember?” Sir Claude asked.

Mrs. Wix’s reply was prompt. “The importance for Maisie of a gentlewoman, of some one who’s not — well, so bad! She objects to a mere maid, and I don’t in the least mind telling you what she wants me to do.” One thing was clear — Mrs. Wix was now bold enough for anything. “She wants me to persuade you to get rid of the person from Mrs. Beale’s.”

Maisie waited for Sir Claude to pronounce on this; then she could only understand that he on his side waited, and she felt particularly full of common sense as she met her responsibility. “Oh I don’t want Susan with YOU!” she said to Mrs. Wix.

Sir Claude, always from the window, approved. “That’s quite simple. I’ll take her back.”

Mrs. Wix gave a positive jump; Maisie caught her look of alarm. “‘Take’ her? You don’t mean to go over on purpose?”

Sir Claude said nothing for a moment; after which, “Why shouldn’t I leave you here?” he enquired.

Maisie, at this, sprang up. “Oh do, oh do, oh do!” The next moment she was interlaced with Mrs. Wix, and the two, on the hearth-rug, their eyes in each other’s eyes, considered the plan with intensity. Then Maisie felt the difference of what they saw in it.

“She can surely go back alone: why should you put yourself out?” Mrs. Wix demanded.

“Oh she’s an idiot — she’s incapable. If anything should happen to her it would be awkward: it was I who brought her — without her asking. If I turn her away I ought with my own hand to place her again exactly where I found her.”

Mrs. Wix’s face appealed to Maisie on such folly, and her manner, as directed to their companion, had, to her pupil’s surprise, an unprecedented firmness. “Dear Sir Claude, I think you’re perverse. Pay her fare and give her a sovereign. She has had an experience that she never dreamed of and that will be an advantage to her through life. If she goes wrong on the way it will be simply because she wants to, and, with her expenses and her remuneration — make it even what you like! — you’ll have treated her as handsomely as you always treat every one.”

This was a new tone — as new as Mrs. Wix’s cap; and it could strike a young person with a sharpened sense for latent meanings as the upshot of a relation that had taken on a new character. It brought out for Maisie how much more even than she had guessed her friends were fighting side by side. At the same time it needed so definite a justification that as Sir Claude now at last did face them she at first supposed him merely resentful of excessive familiarity. She was therefore yet more puzzled to see him show his serene beauty untroubled, as well as an equal interest in a matter quite distinct from any freedom but her ladyship’s. “Did my wife come alone?” He could ask even that good-humouredly.

“When she called on me?” Mrs. Wix WAS red now: his good humour wouldn’t keep down her colour, which for a minute glowed there like her ugly honesty. “No — there was some one in the cab.” The only attenuation she could think of was after a minute to add: “But they didn’t come up.”

Sir Claude broke into a laugh — Maisie herself could guess what it was at: while he now walked about, still laughing, and at the fireplace gave a gay kick to a displaced log, she felt more vague about almost everything than about the drollery of such a “they.” She in fact could scarce have told you if it was to deepen or to cover the joke that she bethought herself to observe: “Perhaps it was her maid.”

Mrs. Wix gave her a look that at any rate deprecated the wrong tone. “It was not her maid.”

“Do you mean there are this time two?” Sir Claude asked as if he hadn’t heard.

“Two maids?” Maisie went on as if she might assume he had.

The reproach of the straighteners darkened; but Sir Claude cut across it with a sudden: “See here; what do you mean? And what do you suppose SHE meant?”

Mrs. Wix let him for a moment, in silence, understand that the answer to his question, if he didn’t take care, might give him more than he wanted. It was as if, with this scruple, she measured and adjusted all she gave him in at last saying: “What she meant was to make me know that you’re definitely free. To have that straight from her was a joy I of course hadn’t hoped for: it made the assurance, and my delight at it, a thing I could really proceed upon. You already know now certainly I’d have started even if she hadn’t pressed me; you already know what, so long, we’ve been looking for and what, as soon as she told me of her step taken at Folkestone, I recognised with rapture that we HAVE. It’s your freedom that makes me right”— she fairly bristled with her logic. “But I don’t mind telling you that it’s her action that makes me happy!”

“Her action?” Sir Claude echoed. “Why, my dear woman, her action is just a hideous crime. It happens to satisfy our sympathies in a way that’s quite delicious; but that doesn’t in the least alter the fact that it’s the most abominable thing ever done. She has chucked our friend here overboard not a bit less than if she had shoved her shrieking and pleading, out of that window and down two floors to the paving-stones.”

Maisie surveyed serenely the parties to the discussion. “Oh your friend here, dear Sir Claude, doesn’t plead and shriek!”

He looked at her a moment. “Never. Never. That’s one, only one, but charming so far as it goes, of about a hundred things we love her for.” Then he pursued to Mrs. Wix: “What I can’t for the life of me make out is what Ida is REALLY up to, what game she was playing in turning to you with that cursed cheek after the beastly way she has used you. Where — to explain her at all — does she fancy she can presently, when we least expect it, take it out of us?”

“She doesn’t fancy anything, nor want anything out of any one. Her cursed cheek, as you call it, is the best thing I’ve ever seen in her. I don’t care a fig for the beastly way she used me — I forgive it all a thousand times over!” Mrs. Wix raised her voice as she had never raised it; she quite triumphed in her lucidity. “I understand her, I almost admire her!” she quavered. She spoke as if this might practically suffice; yet in charity to fainter lights she threw out an explanation. “As I’ve said, she was different; upon my word I wouldn’t have known her. She had a glimmering, she had an instinct; they brought her. It was a kind of happy thought, and if you couldn’t have supposed she would ever have had such a thing, why of course I quite agree with you. But she did have it! There!”

Maisie could feel again how a certain rude rightness in this plea might have been found exasperating; but as she had often watched Sir Claude in apprehension of displeasures that didn’t come, so now, instead of saying “Oh hell!” as her father used, she observed him only to take refuge in a question that at the worst was abrupt.

“Who IS it this time, do you know?”

Mrs. Wix tried blind dignity. “Who is what, Sir Claude?”

“The man who stands the cabs. Who was in the one that waited at your door?”

At this challenge she faltered so long that her young friend’s pitying conscience gave her a hand. “It wasn’t the Captain.”

This good intention, however, only converted the excellent woman’s scruple to a more ambiguous stare; besides of course making Sir Claude go off. Mrs. Wix fairly appealed to him. “Must I really tell you?”

His amusement continued. “Did she make you promise not to?”

Mrs. Wix looked at him still harder. “I mean before Maisie.”

Sir Claude laughed again. “Why SHE can’t hurt him!”

Maisie felt herself, as it passed, brushed by the light humour of this. “Yes, I can’t hurt him.”

The straighteners again roofed her over; after which they seemed to crack with the explosion of their wearer’s honesty. Amid the flying splinters Mrs. Wix produced a name. “Mr. Tischbein.”

There was for an instant a silence that, under Sir Claude’s influence and while he and Maisie looked at each other, suddenly pretended to be that of gravity. “We don’t know Mr. Tischbein, do we, dear?”

Maisie gave the point all needful thought. “No, I can’t place Mr. Tischbein.”

It was a passage that worked visibly on their friend. “You must pardon me, Sir Claude,” she said with an austerity of which the note was real, “if I thank God to your face that he has in his mercy — I mean his mercy to our charge — allowed me to achieve this act.” She gave out a long puff of pain. “It was time!” Then as if still more to point the moral: “I said just now I understood your wife. I said just now I admired her. I stand to it: I did both of those things when I saw how even SHE, poor thing, saw. If you want the dots on the i’s you shall have them. What she came to me for, in spite of everything, was that I’m just”— she quavered it out —“well, just clean! What she saw for her daughter was that there must at last be a DECENT person!”

Maisie was quick enough to jump a little at the sound of this implication that such a person was what Sir Claude was not; the next instant, however, she more profoundly guessed against whom the discrimination was made. She was therefore left the more surprised at the complete candour with which he embraced the worst. “If she’s bent on decent persons why has she given her to ME? You don’t call me a decent person, and I’ll do Ida the justice that SHE never did. I think I’m as indecent as any one and that there’s nothing in my behaviour that makes my wife’s surrender a bit less ignoble!”

“Don’t speak of your behaviour!” Mrs. Wix cried. “Don’t say such horrible things; they’re false and they’re wicked and I forbid you! It’s to KEEP you decent that I’m here and that I’ve done everything I have done. It’s to save you — I won’t say from yourself, because in yourself you’re beautiful and good! It’s to save you from the worst person of all. I haven’t, after all, come over to be afraid to speak of her! That’s the person in whose place her ladyship wants such a person as even me; and if she thought herself, as she as good as told me, not fit for Maisie’s company, it’s not, as you may well suppose, that she may make room for Mrs. Beale!”

Maisie watched his face as it took this outbreak, and the most she saw in it was that it turned a little white. That indeed made him look, as Susan Ash would have said, queer; and it was perhaps a part of the queerness that he intensely smiled. “You’re too hard on Mrs. Beale. She has great merits of her own.”

Mrs. Wix, at this, instead of immediately replying, did what Sir Claude had been doing before: she moved across to the window and stared a while into the storm. There was for a minute, to Maisie’s sense, a hush that resounded with wind and rain. Sir Claude, in spite of these things, glanced about for his hat; on which Maisie spied it first and, making a dash for it, held it out to him. He took it with a gleam of a “thank-you” in his face, and then something moved her still to hold the other side of the brim; so that, united by their grasp of this object, they stood some seconds looking many things at each other. By this time Mrs. Wix had turned round. “Do you mean to tell me,” she demanded, “that you are going back?”

“To Mrs. Beale?” Maisie surrendered his hat, and there was something that touched her in the embarrassed, almost humiliated way their companion’s challenge made him turn it round and round. She had seen people do that who, she was sure, did nothing else that Sir Claude did. “I can’t just say, my dear thing. We’ll see about I— we’ll talk of it tomorrow. Meantime I must get some air.”

Mrs. Wix, with her back to the window, threw up her head to a height that, still for a moment, had the effect of detaining him. “All the air in France, Sir Claude, won’t, I think, give you the courage to deny that you’re simply afraid of her!”

Oh this time he did look queer; Maisie had no need of Susan’s vocabulary to note it! It would have come to her of itself as, with his hand on the door, he turned his eyes from his stepdaughter to her governess and then back again. Resting on Maisie’s, though for ever so short a time, there was something they gave up to her and tried to explain. His lips, however, explained nothing; they only surrendered to Mrs. Wix. “Yes. I’m simply afraid of her!” He opened the door and passed out. It brought back to Maisie his confession of fear of her mother; it made her stepmother then the second lady about whom he failed of the particular virtue that was supposed most to mark a gentleman. In fact there were three of them, if she counted in Mrs. Wix, before whom he had undeniably quailed. Well, his want of valour was but a deeper appeal to her tenderness. To thrill with response to it she had only to remember all the ladies she herself had, as they called it, funked.

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