What Maisie Knew, by Henry James

XXIV

It continued to rain so hard that our young lady’s private dream of explaining the Continent to their visitor had to contain a provision for some adequate treatment of the weather. At the table d’hôte that evening she threw out a variety of lights: this was the second ceremony of the sort she had sat through, and she would have neglected her privilege and dishonoured her vocabulary — which indeed consisted mainly of the names of dishes — if she had not been proportionately ready to dazzle with interpretations. Preoccupied and overawed, Mrs. Wix was apparently dim: she accepted her pupil’s version of the mysteries of the menu in a manner that might have struck the child as the depression of a credulity conscious not so much of its needs as of its dimensions. Maisie was soon enough — though it scarce happened before bedtime — confronted again with the different sort of programme for which she reserved her criticism. They remounted together to their sitting-room while Sir Claude, who said he would join them later, remained below to smoke and to converse with the old acquaintances that he met wherever he turned. He had proposed his companions, for coffee, the enjoyment of the salon de lecture, but Mrs. Wix had replied promptly and with something of an air that it struck her their own apartments offered them every convenience. They offered the good lady herself, Maisie could immediately observe, not only that of this rather grand reference, which, already emulous, so far as it went, of her pupil, she made as if she had spent her life in salons; but that of a stiff French sofa where she could sit and stare at the faint French lamp, in default of the French clock that had stopped, as for some account of the time Sir Claude would so markedly interpose. Her demeanour accused him so directly of hovering beyond her reach that Maisie sought to divert her by a report of Susan’s quaint attitude on the matter of their conversation after lunch. Maisie had mentioned to the young woman for sympathy’s sake the plan for her relief, but her disapproval of alien ways appeared, strange to say, only to prompt her to hug her gloom; so that between Mrs. Wix’s effect of displacing her and the visible stiffening of her back the child had the sense of a double office and enlarged play for pacific powers.

These powers played to no great purpose, it was true, in keeping before Mrs. Wix the vision of Sir Claude’s perversity, which hung there in the pauses of talk and which he himself, after unmistakeable delays, finally made quite lurid by bursting in-it was near ten o’clock — with an object held up in his hand. She knew before he spoke what it was; she knew at least from the underlying sense of all that, since the hour spent after the Exhibition with her father, had not sprung up to reinstate Mr. Farange — she knew it meant a triumph for Mrs. Beale. The mere present sight of Sir Claude’s face caused her on the spot to drop straight through her last impression of Mr. Farange a plummet that reached still deeper down than the security of these days of flight. She had wrapped that impression in silence — a silence that had parted with half its veil to cover also, from the hour of Sir Claude’s advent, the image of Mr. Farange’s wife. But if the object in Sir Claude’s hand revealed itself as a letter which he held up very high, so there was something in his mere motion that laid Mrs. Beale again bare. “Here we are!” he cried almost from the door, shaking his trophy at them and looking from one to the other. Then he came straight to Mrs. Wix; he had pulled two papers out of the envelope and glanced at them again to see which was which. He thrust one out open to Mrs. Wix. “Read that.” She looked at him hard, as if in fear: it was impossible not to see he was excited. Then she took the letter, but it was not her face that Maisie watched while she read. Neither, for that matter, was it this countenance that Sir Claude scanned: he stood before the fire and, more calmly, now that he had acted, communed in silence with his stepdaughter.

The silence was in truth quickly broken; Mrs. Wix rose to her feet with the violence of the sound she emitted. The letter had dropped from her and lay upon the floor; it had made her turn ghastly white and she was speechless with the effect of it. “It’s too abominable — it’s too unspeakable!” she then cried.

“Isn’t it a charming thing?” Sir Claude asked. “It has just arrived, enclosed in a word of her own. She sends it on to me with the remark that comment’s superfluous. I really think it is. That’s all you can say.”

“She oughtn’t to pass such a horror about,” said Mrs. Wix. “She ought to put it straight in the fire.”

“My dear woman, she’s not such a fool! It’s much too precious.” He had picked the letter up and he gave it again a glance of complacency which produced a light in his face. “Such a document”— he considered, then concluded with a slight drop —“such a document is, in fine, a basis!”

“A basis for what?”

“Well — for proceedings.”

“Hers?” Mrs. Wix’s voice had become outright the voice of derision. “How can SHE proceed?”

Sir Claude turned it over. “How can she get rid of him? Well — she IS rid of him.”

“Not legally.” Mrs. Wix had never looked to her pupil so much as if she knew what she was talking about.

“I dare say,” Sir Claude laughed; “but she’s not a bit less deprived than I!”

“Of the power to get a divorce? It’s just your want of the power that makes the scandal of your connexion with her. Therefore it’s just her want of it that makes that of hers with you. That’s all I contend!” Mrs. Wix concluded with an unparalleled neigh of battle. Oh she did know what she was talking about!

Maisie had meanwhile appealed mutely to Sir Claude, who judged it easier to meet what she didn’t say than to meet what Mrs. Wix did.

“It’s a letter to Mrs. Beale from your father, my dear, written from Spa and making the rupture between them perfectly irrevocable. It lets her know, and not in pretty language, that, as we technically say, he deserts her. It puts an end for ever to their relations.” He ran his eyes over it again, then appeared to make up his mind. “In fact it concerns you, Maisie, so nearly and refers to you so particularly that I really think you ought to see the terms in which this new situation is created for you.” And he held out the letter.

Mrs. Wix, at this, pounced upon it; she had grabbed it too soon even for Maisie to become aware of being rather afraid of it. Thrusting it instantly behind her she positively glared at Sir Claude. “See it, wretched man? — the innocent child SEE such a thing? I think you must be mad, and she shall not have a glimpse of it while I’m here to prevent!”

The breadth of her action had made Sir Claude turn red — he even looked a little foolish. “You think it’s too bad, eh? But it’s precisely because it’s bad that it seemed to me it would have a lesson and a virtue for her.”

Maisie could do a quick enough justice to his motive to be able clearly to interpose. She fairly smiled at him. “I assure you I can quite believe how bad it is!” She thought of something, kept it back a moment, and then spoke. “I know what’s in it!”

He of course burst out laughing and, while Mrs. Wix groaned an “Oh heavens!” replied: “You wouldn’t say that, old boy, if you did! The point I make is,” he continued to Mrs. Wix with a blandness now re-established —“the point I make is simply that it sets Mrs. Beale free.”

She hung fire but an instant. “Free to live with YOU?”

“Free not to live, not to pretend to live, with her husband.”

“Ah they’re mighty different things!”— a truth as to which her earnestness could now with a fine inconsequent look invite the participation of the child.

Before Maisie could commit herself, however, the ground was occupied by Sir Claude, who, as he stood before their visitor with an expression half rueful, half persuasive, rubbed his hand sharply up and down the back of his head. “Then why the deuce do you grant so — do you, I may even say, rejoice so — that by the desertion of my own precious partner I’m free?”

Mrs. Wix met this challenge first with silence, then with a demonstration the most extraordinary, the most unexpected. Maisie could scarcely believe her eyes as she saw the good lady, with whom she had associated no faintest shade of any art of provocation, actually, after an upward grimace, give Sir Claude a great giggling insinuating naughty slap. “You wretch — you KNOW why!” And she turned away. The face that with this movement she left him to present to Maisie was to abide with his stepdaughter as the very image of stupefaction; but the pair lacked time to communicate either amusement or alarm before their admonisher was upon them again. She had begun in fact to show infinite variety and she flashed about with a still quicker change of tone. “Have you brought me that thing as a pretext for your going over?”

Sir Claude braced himself. “I can’t, after such news, in common decency not go over. I mean, don’t you know, in common courtesy and humanity. My dear lady, you can’t chuck a woman that way, especially taking the moment when she has been most insulted and wronged. A fellow must behave like a gentleman, damn it, dear good Mrs. Wix. We didn’t come away, we two, to hang right on, you know: it was only to try our paces and just put in a few days that might prove to every one concerned that we’re in earnest. It’s exactly because we’re in earnest that, dash it, we needn’t be so awfully particular. I mean, don’t you know, we needn’t be so awfully afraid.” He showed a vivacity, an intensity of argument, and if Maisie counted his words she was all the more ready to swallow after a single swift gasp those that, the next thing, she became conscious he paused for a reply to. “We didn’t come, old girl, did we,” he pleaded straight, “to stop right away for ever and put it all in NOW?”

Maisie had never doubted she could be heroic for him. “Oh no!” It was as if she had been shocked at the bare thought. “We’re just taking it as we find it.” She had a sudden inspiration, which she backed up with a smile. “We’re just seeing what we can afford.” She had never yet in her life made any claim for herself, but she hoped that this time, frankly, what she was doing would somehow be counted to her. Indeed she felt Sir Claude WAS counting it, though she was afraid to look at him — afraid she should show him tears. She looked at Mrs. Wix; she reached her maximum. “I don’t think I ought to be bad to Mrs. Beale.”

She heard, on this, a deep sound, something inarticulate and sweet, from Sir Claude; but tears were what Mrs. Wix didn’t scruple to show. “Do you think you ought to be bad to ME?” The question was the more disconcerting that Mrs. Wix’s emotion didn’t deprive her of the advantage of her effect. “If you see that woman again you’re lost!” she declared to their companion.

Sir Claude looked at the moony globe of the lamp; he seemed to see for an instant what seeing Mrs. Beale would consist of. It was also apparently from this vision that he drew strength to return: “Her situation, by what has happened, is completely changed; and it’s no use your trying to prove to me that I needn’t take any account of that.”

“If you see that woman you’re lost!” Mrs. Wix with greater force repeated.

“Do you think she’ll not let me come back to you? My dear lady, I leave you here, you and Maisie, as a hostage to fortune, and I promise you by all that’s sacred that I shall be with you again at the very latest on Saturday. I provide you with funds; I install you in these lovely rooms; I arrange with the people here that you be treated with every attention and supplied with every luxury. The weather, after this, will mend; it will be sure to be exquisite. You’ll both be as free as air and you can roam all over the place and have tremendous larks. You shall have a carriage to drive you; the whole house shall be at your call. You’ll have a magnificent position.” He paused, he looked from one of his companions to the other as to see the impression he had made. Whether or no he judged it adequate he subjoined after a moment: “And you’ll oblige me above all by not making a fuss.”

Maisie could only answer for the impression on herself, though indeed from the heart even of Mrs. Wix’s rigour there floated to her sense a faint fragrance of depraved concession. Maisie had her dumb word for the show such a speech could make, for the irresistible charm it could take from his dazzling sincerity; and before she could do anything but blink at excess of light she heard this very word sound on Mrs. Wix’s lips, just as if the poor lady had guessed it and wished, snatching it from her, to blight it like a crumpled flower. “You’re dreadful, you’re terrible, for you know but too well that it’s not a small thing to me that you should address me in terms that are princely!” Princely was what he stood there and looked and sounded; that was what Maisie for the occasion found herself reduced to simple worship of him for being. Yet strange to say too, as Mrs. Wix went on, an echo rang within her that matched the echo she had herself just produced. “How much you must WANT to see her to say such things as that and to be ready to do so much for the poor little likes of Maisie and me! She has a hold on you, and you know it, and you want to feel it again and — God knows, or at least I do, what’s your motive and desire — enjoy it once more and give yourself up to it! It doesn’t matter if it’s one day or three: enough is as good as a feast and the lovely time you’ll have with her is something you’re willing to pay for! I dare say you’d like me to believe that your pay is to get her to give you up; but that’s a matter on which I strongly urge you not to put down your money in advance. Give HER up first. Then pay her what you please!”

Sir Claude took this to the end, though there were things in it that made him colour, called into his face more of the apprehension than Maisie had ever perceived there of a particular sort of shock. She had an odd sense that it was the first time she had seen any one but Mrs. Wix really and truly scandalised, and this fed her inference, which grew and grew from moment to moment, that Mrs. Wix was proving more of a force to reckon with than either of them had allowed so much room for. It was true that, long before, she had obtained a “hold” of him, as she called it, different in kind from that obtained by Mrs. Beale and originally by her ladyship. But Maisie could quite feel with him now that he had really not expected this advantage to be driven so home. Oh they hadn’t at all got to where Mrs. Wix would stop, for the next minute she was driving harder than ever. It was the result of his saying with a certain dryness, though so kindly that what most affected Maisie in it was his patience: “My dear friend, it’s simply a matter in which I must judge for myself. You’ve judged FOR me, I know, a good deal, of late, in a way that I appreciate, I assure you, down to the ground. But you can’t do it always; no one can do that for another, don’t you see, in every case. There are exceptions, particular cases that turn up and that are awfully delicate. It would be too easy if I could shift it all off on you: it would be allowing you to incur an amount of responsibility that I should simply become quite ashamed of. You’ll find, I’m sure, that you’ll have quite as much as you’ll enjoy if you’ll be so good as to accept the situation as circumstances happen to make it for you and to stay here with our friend, till I rejoin you, on the footing of as much pleasantness and as much comfort — and I think I have a right to add, to both of you, of as much faith in ME— as possible.”

Oh he was princely indeed: that came out more and more with every word he said and with the particular way he said it, and Maisie could feel his monitress stiffen almost with anguish against the increase of his spell and then hurl herself as a desperate defence from it into the quite confessed poorness of violence, of iteration. “You’re afraid of her — afraid, afraid, afraid! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!” Mrs. Wix wailed it with a high quaver, then broke down into a long shudder of helplessness and woe. The next minute she had flung herself again on the lean sofa and had burst into a passion of tears.

Sir Claude stood and looked at her a moment; he shook his head slowly, altogether tenderly. “I’ve already admitted it — I’m in mortal terror; so we’ll let that settle the question. I think you had best go to bed,” he added; “you’ve had a tremendous day and you must both be tired to death. I shall not expect you to concern yourselves in the morning with my movements. There’s an early boat on; I shall have cleared out before you’re up; and I shall moreover have dealt directly and most effectively, I assure you, with the haughty but not quite hopeless Miss Ash.” He turned to his stepdaughter as if at once to take leave of her and give her a sign of how, through all tension and friction, they were still united in such a way that she at least needn’t worry. “Maisie boy!”— he opened his arms to her. With her culpable lightness she flew into them and, while he kissed her, chose the soft method of silence to satisfy him, the silence that after battles of talk was the best balm she could offer his wounds. They held each other long enough to reaffirm intensely their vows; after which they were almost forced apart by Mrs. Wix’s jumping to her feet.

Her jump, either with a quick return or with a final lapse of courage, was also to supplication almost abject. “I beseech you not to take a step so miserable and so fatal. I know her but too well, even if you jeer at me for saying it; little as I’ve seen her I know her, I know her. I know what she’ll do — I see it as I stand here. Since you’re afraid of her it’s the mercy of heaven. Don’t, for God’s sake, be afraid to show it, to profit by it and to arrive at the very safety that it gives you. I’M not afraid of her, I assure you; you must already have seen for yourself that there’s nothing I’m afraid of now. Let me go to her — I’LL settle her and I’ll take that woman back without a hair of her touched. Let me put in the two or three days — let me wind up the connexion. You stay here with Maisie, with the carriage and the larks and the luxury; then I’ll return to you and we’ll go off together — we’ll live together without a cloud. Take me, take me,” she went on and on — the tide of her eloquence was high. “Here I am; I know what I am and what I ain’t; but I say boldly to the face of you both that I’ll do better for you, far, than ever she’ll even try to. I say it to yours, Sir Claude, even though I owe you the very dress on my back and the very shoes on my feet. I owe you everything — that’s just the reason; and to pay it back, in profusion, what can that be but what I want? Here I am, here I am!”— she spread herself into an exhibition that, combined with her intensity and her decorations, appeared to suggest her for strange offices and devotions, for ridiculous replacements and substitutions. She manipulated her gown as she talked, she insisted on the items of her debt. “I have nothing of my own, I know — no money, no clothes, no appearance, no anything, nothing but my hold of this little one truth, which is all in the world I can bribe you with: that the pair of you are more to me than all besides, and that if you’ll let me help you and save you, make what you both want possible in the one way it CAN be, why, I’ll work myself to the bone in your service!”

Sir Claude wavered there without an answer to this magnificent appeal; he plainly cast about for one, and in no small agitation and pain. He addressed himself in his quest, however, only to vague quarters until he met again, as he so frequently and actively met it, the more than filial gaze of his intelligent little charge. That gave him — poor plastic and dependent male — his issue. If she was still a child she was yet of the sex that could help him out. He signified as much by a renewed invitation to an embrace. She freshly sprang to him and again they inaudibly conversed. “Be nice to her, be nice to her,” he at last distinctly articulated; “be nice to her as you’ve not even been to ME!” On which, without another look at Mrs. Wix, he somehow got out of the room, leaving Maisie under the slight oppression of these words as well as of the idea that he had unmistakeably once more dodged.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2wh/chapter24.html

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