What Maisie Knew, by Henry James

VIII

After Mrs. Wix’s retreat Miss Overmore appeared to recognise that she was not exactly in a position to denounce Ida Farange’s second union; but she drew from a table-drawer the photograph of Sir Claude and, standing there before Maisie, studied it at some length.

“Isn’t he beautiful?” the child ingenuously asked.

Her companion hesitated. “No — he’s horrid,” she, to Maisie’s surprise, sharply returned. But she debated another minute, after which she handed back the picture. It appeared to Maisie herself to exhibit a fresh attraction, and she was troubled, having never before had occasion to differ from her lovely friend. So she only could ask what, such being the case, she should do with it: should she put it quite away — where it wouldn’t be there to offend? On this Miss Overmore again cast about; after which she said unexpectedly: “Put it on the schoolroom mantelpiece.”

Maisie felt a fear. “Won’t papa dislike to see it there?”

“Very much indeed; but that won’t matter NOW.” Miss Overmore spoke with peculiar significance and to her pupil’s mystification.

“On account of the marriage?” Maisie risked.

Miss Overmore laughed, and Maisie could see that in spite of the irritation produced by Mrs. Wix she was in high spirits. “Which marriage do you mean?”

With the question put to her it suddenly struck the child she didn’t know, so that she felt she looked foolish. So she took refuge in saying: “Shall YOU be different —” This was a full implication that the bride of Sir Claude would be.

“As your father’s wedded wife? Utterly!” Miss Overmore replied. And the difference began of course in her being addressed, even by Maisie, from that day and by her particular request, as Mrs. Beale. It was there indeed principally that it ended, for except that the child could reflect that she should presently have four parents in all, and also that at the end of three months the staircase, for a little girl hanging over banisters, sent up the deepening rustle of more elaborate advances, everything made the same impression as before. Mrs. Beale had very pretty frocks, but Miss Overmore’s had been quite as good, and if papa was much fonder of his second wife than he had been of his first Maisie had foreseen that fondness, had followed its development almost as closely as the person more directly involved. There was little indeed in the commerce of her companions that her precocious experience couldn’t explain, for if they struck her as after all rather deficient in that air of the honeymoon of which she had so often heard — in much detail, for instance, from Mrs. Wix — it was natural to judge the circumstance in the light of papa’s proved disposition to contest the empire of the matrimonial tie. His honeymoon, when he came back from Brighton — not on the morrow of Mrs. Wix’s visit, and not, oddly, till several days later — his honeymoon was perhaps perceptibly tinged with the dawn of a later stage of wedlock. There were things dislike of which, as the child knew it, wouldn’t matter to Mrs. Beale now, and their number increased so that such a trifle as his hostility to the photograph of Sir Claude quite dropped out of view. This pleasing object found a conspicuous place in the schoolroom, which in truth Mr. Farange seldom entered and in which silent admiration formed, during the time I speak of, almost the sole scholastic exercise of Mrs. Beale’s pupil.

Maisie was not long in seeing just what her stepmother had meant by the difference she should show in her new character. If she was her father’s wife she was not her own governess, and if her presence had had formerly to be made regular by the theory of a humble function she was now on a footing that dispensed with all theories and was inconsistent with all servitude. That was what she had meant by the drop of the objection to a school; her small companion was no longer required at home as — it was Mrs. Beale’s own amusing word — a little duenna. The argument against a successor to Miss Overmore remained: it was composed frankly of the fact, of which Mrs. Beale granted the full absurdity, that she was too awfully fond of her stepdaughter to bring herself to see her in vulgar and mercenary hands. The note of this particular danger emboldened Maisie to put in a word for Mrs. Wix, the modest measure of whose avidity she had taken from the first; but Mrs. Beale disposed afresh and effectually of a candidate who would be sure to act in some horrible and insidious way for Ida’s interest and who moreover was personally loathsome and as ignorant as a fish. She made also no more of a secret of the awkward fact that a good school would be hideously expensive, and of the further circumstance, which seemed to put an end to everything, that when it came to the point papa, in spite of his previous clamour, was really most nasty about paying. “Would you believe,” Mrs. Beale confidentially asked of her little charge, “that he says I’m a worse expense than ever, and that a daughter and a wife together are really more than he can afford?” It was thus that the splendid school at Brighton lost itself in the haze of larger questions, though the fear that it would provoke Ida to leap into the breach subsided with her prolonged, her quite shameless non-appearance. Her daughter and her successor were therefore left to gaze in united but helpless blankness at all Maisie was not learning.

This quantity was so great as to fill the child’s days with a sense of intermission to which even French Lisette gave no accent — with finished games and unanswered questions and dreaded tests; with the habit, above all, in her watch for a change, of hanging over banisters when the door-bell sounded. This was the great refuge of her impatience, but what she heard at such times was a clatter of gaiety downstairs; the impression of which, from her earliest childhood, had built up in her the belief that the grown-up time was the time of real amusement and above all of real intimacy. Even Lisette, even Mrs. Wix had never, she felt, in spite of hugs and tears, been so intimate with her as so many persons at present were with Mrs. Beale and as so many others of old had been with Mrs. Farange. The note of hilarity brought people together still more than the note of melancholy, which was the one exclusively sounded, for instance, by poor Mrs. Wix. Maisie in these days preferred none the less that domestic revels should be wafted to her from a distance: she felt sadly unsupported for facing the inquisition of the drawing-room. That was a reason the more for making the most of Susan Ash, who in her quality of under-housemaid moved at a very different level and who, none the less, was much depended upon out of doors. She was a guide to peregrinations that had little in common with those intensely definite airings that had left with the child a vivid memory of the regulated mind of Moddle. There had been under Moddle’s system no dawdles at shop-windows and no nudges, in Oxford Street, of “I SAY, look at ‘ER!” There had been an inexorable treatment of crossings and a serene exemption from the fear that — especially at corners, of which she was yet weakly fond — haunted the housemaid, the fear of being, as she ominously said, “spoken to.” The dangers of the town equally with its diversions added to Maisie’s sense of being untutored and unclaimed.

The situation however, had taken a twist when, on another of her returns, at Susan’s side, extremely tired, from the pursuit of exercise qualified by much hovering, she encountered another emotion. She on this occasion learnt at the door that her instant attendance was requested in the drawing-room. Crossing the threshold in a cloud of shame she discerned through the blur Mrs. Beale seated there with a gentleman who immediately drew the pain from her predicament by rising before her as the original of the photograph of Sir Claude. She felt the moment she looked at him that he was by far the most shining presence that had ever made her gape, and her pleasure in seeing him, in knowing that he took hold of her and kissed her, as quickly throbbed into a strange shy pride in him, a perception of his making up for her fallen state, for Susan’s public nudges, which quite bruised her, and for all the lessons that, in the dead schoolroom, where at times she was almost afraid to stay alone, she was bored with not having. It was as if he had told her on the spot that he belonged to her, so that she could already show him off and see the effect he produced. No, nothing else that was most beautiful ever belonging to her could kindle that particular joy — not Mrs. Beale at that very moment, not papa when he was gay, nor mamma when she was dressed, nor Lisette when she was new. The joy almost overflowed in tears when he laid his hand on her and drew her to him, telling her, with a smile of which the promise was as bright as that of a Christmas-tree, that he knew her ever so well by her mother, but had come to see her now so that he might know her for himself. She could see that his view of this kind of knowledge was to make her come away with him, and, further, that it was just what he was there for and had already been some time: arranging it with Mrs. Beale and getting on with that lady in a manner evidently not at all affected by her having on the arrival of his portrait thought of him so ill. They had grown almost intimate — or had the air of it — over their discussion; and it was still further conveyed to Maisie that Mrs. Beale had made no secret, and would make yet less of one, of all that it cost to let her go. “You seem so tremendously eager,” she said to the child, “that I hope you’re at least clear about Sir Claude’s relation to you. It doesn’t appear to occur to him to give you the necessary reassurance.”

Maisie, a trifle mystified, turned quickly to her new friend. “Why it’s of course that you’re MARRIED to her, isn’t it?”

Her anxious emphasis started them off, as she had learned to call it; this was the echo she infallibly and now quite resignedly produced; moreover Sir Claude’s laughter was an indistinguishable part of the sweetness of his being there. “We’ve been married, my dear child, three months, and my interest in you is a consequence, don’t you know? of my great affection for your mother. In coming here it’s of course for your mother I’m acting.”

“Oh I know,” Maisie said with all the candour of her competence. “She can’t come herself — except just to the door.” Then as she thought afresh: “Can’t she come even to the door now?”

“There you are!” Mrs. Beale exclaimed to Sir Claude. She spoke as if his dilemma were ludicrous.

His kind face, in a hesitation, seemed to recognise it; but he answered the child with a frank smile. “No — not very well.”

“Because she has married you?”

He promptly accepted this reason. “Well, that has a good deal to do with it.”

He was so delightful to talk to that Maisie pursued the subject. “But papa — HE has married Miss Overmore.”

“Ah you’ll see that he won’t come for you at your mother’s,” that lady interposed.

“Yes, but that won’t be for a long time,” Maisie hastened to respond.

“We won’t talk about it now — you’ve months and months to put in first.” And Sir Claude drew her closer.

“Oh that’s what makes it so hard to give her up!” Mrs. Beale made this point with her arms out to her stepdaughter. Maisie, quitting Sir Claude, went over to them and, clasped in a still tenderer embrace, felt entrancingly the extension of the field of happiness. “I’LL come for you,” said her stepmother, “if Sir Claude keeps you too long: we must make him quite understand that! Don’t talk to me about her ladyship!” she went on to their visitor so familiarly that it was almost as if they must have met before. “I know her ladyship as if I had made her. They’re a pretty pair of parents!” cried Mrs. Beale.

Maisie had so often heard them called so that the remark diverted her but an instant from the agreeable wonder of this grand new form of allusion to her mother; and that, in its turn, presently left her free to catch at the pleasant possibility, in connexion with herself, of a relation much happier as between Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude than as between mamma and papa. Still the next thing that happened was that her interest in such a relation brought to her lips a fresh question.

“Have you seen papa?” she asked of Sir Claude.

It was the signal for their going off again, as her small stoicism had perfectly taken for granted that it would be. All that Mrs. Beale had nevertheless to add was the vague apparent sarcasm: “Oh papa!”

“I’m assured he’s not at home,” Sir Claude replied to the child; “but if he had been I should have hoped for the pleasure of seeing him.”

“Won’t he mind your coming?” Maisie asked as with need of the knowledge.

“Oh you bad little girl!” Mrs. Beale humorously protested.

The child could see that at this Sir Claude, though still moved to mirth, coloured a little; but he spoke to her very kindly. “That’s just what I came to see, you know — whether your father WOULD mind. But Mrs. Beale appears strongly of the opinion that he won’t.”

This lady promptly justified that view to her stepdaughter. “It will be very interesting, my dear, you know, to find out what it is today that your father does mind. I’m sure I don’t know!”— and she seemed to repeat, though with perceptible resignation, her plaint of a moment before. “Your father, darling, is a very odd person indeed.” She turned with this, smiling, to Sir Claude. “But perhaps it’s hardly civil for me to say that of his not objecting to have YOU in the house. If you knew some of the people he does have!”

Maisie knew them all, and none indeed were to be compared to Sir Claude. He laughed back at Mrs. Beale; he looked at such moments quite as Mrs. Wix, in the long stories she told her pupil, always described the lovers of her distressed beauties —“the perfect gentleman and strikingly handsome.” He got up, to the child’s regret, as if he were going. “Oh I dare say we should be all right!”

Mrs. Beale once more gathered in her little charge, holding her close and looking thoughtfully over her head at their visitor. “It’s so charming — for a man of your type — to have wanted her so much!”

“What do you know about my type?” Sir Claude laughed. “Whatever it may be I dare say it deceives you. The truth about me is simply that I’m the most unappreciated of — what do you call the fellows? —‘family-men.’ Yes, I’m a family-man; upon my honour I am!”

“Then why on earth,” cried Mrs. Beale, “didn’t you marry a family-woman?”

Sir Claude looked at her hard. “YOU know who one marries, I think. Besides, there ARE no family-women — hanged if there are! None of them want any children — hanged if they do!”

His account of the matter was most interesting, and Maisie, as if it were of bad omen for her, stared at the picture in some dismay. At the same time she felt, through encircling arms, her protectress hesitate. “You do come out with things! But you mean her ladyship doesn’t want any — really?”

“Won’t hear of them — simply. But she can’t help the one she HAS got.” And with this Sir Claude’s eyes rested on the little girl in a way that seemed to her to mask her mother’s attitude with the consciousness of his own. “She must make the best of her, don’t you see? If only for the look of the thing, don’t you know? one wants one’s wife to take the proper line about her child.”

“Oh I know what one wants!” Mrs. Beale cried with a competence that evidently impressed her interlocutor.

“Well, if you keep HIM up — and I dare say you’ve had worry enough — why shouldn’t I keep Ida? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander — or the other way round, don’t you know? I mean to see the thing through.”

Mrs. Beale, for a minute, still with her eyes on him as he leaned upon the chimneypiece, appeared to turn this over. “You’re just a wonder of kindness — that’s what you are!” she said at last. “A lady’s expected to have natural feelings. But YOUR horrible sex —! Isn’t it a horrible sex, little love?” she demanded with her cheek upon her stepdaughter’s.

“Oh I like gentlemen best,” Maisie lucidly replied.

The words were taken up merrily. “That’s a good one for YOU!” Sir Claude exclaimed to Mrs. Beale.

“No,” said that lady: “I’ve only to remember the women she sees at her mother’s.”

“Ah they’re very nice now,” Sir Claude returned.

“What do you call ‘nice’?”

“Well, they’re all right.”

“That doesn’t answer me,” said Mrs. Beale; “but I dare say you do take care of them. That makes you more of an angel to want this job too.” And she playfully whacked her smaller companion.

“I’m not an angel — I’m an old grandmother,” Sir Claude declared. “I like babies — I always did. If we go to smash I shall look for a place as responsible nurse.”

Maisie, in her charmed mood, drank in an imputation on her years which at another moment might have been bitter; but the charm was sensibly interrupted by Mrs. Beale’s screwing her round and gazing fondly into her eyes, “You’re willing to leave me, you wretch?”

The little girl deliberated; even this consecrated tie had become as a cord she must suddenly snap. But she snapped it very gently. “Isn’t it my turn for mamma?”

“You’re a horrible little hypocrite! The less, I think, now said about ‘turns’ the better,” Mrs. Beale made answer. “I know whose turn it is. You’ve not such a passion for your mother!”

“I say, I say: DO look out!” Sir Claude quite amiably protested.

“There’s nothing she hasn’t heard. But it doesn’t matter — it hasn’t spoiled her. If you knew what it costs me to part with you!” she pursued to Maisie.

Sir Claude watched her as she charmingly clung to the child. “I’m so glad you really care for her. That’s so much to the good.”

Mrs. Beale slowly got up, still with her hands on Maisie, but emitting a soft exhalation. “Well, if you’re glad, that may help us; for I assure you that I shall never give up any rights in her that I may consider I’ve acquired by my own sacrifices. I shall hold very fast to my interest in her. What seems to have happened is that she has brought you and me together.”

“She has brought you and me together,” said Sir Claude.

His cheerful echo prolonged the happy truth, and Maisie broke out almost with enthusiasm: “I’ve brought you and her together!”

Her companions of course laughed anew and Mrs. Beale gave her an affectionate shake. “You little monster — take care what you do! But that’s what she does do,” she continued to Sir Claude. “She did it to me and Beale.”

“Well then,” he said to Maisie, “you must try the trick at OUR place.” He held out his hand to her again. “Will you come now?”

“Now — just as I am?” She turned with an immense appeal to her stepmother, taking a leap over the mountain of “mending,” the abyss of packing that had loomed and yawned before her. “Oh MAY I?”

Mrs. Beale addressed her assent to Sir Claude. “As well so as any other way. I’ll send on her things tomorrow.” Then she gave a tug to the child’s coat, glancing at her up and down with some ruefulness.

“She’s not turned out as I should like — her mother will pull her to pieces. But what’s one to do — with nothing to do it on? And she’s better than when she came — you can tell her mother that. I’m sorry to have to say it to you — but the poor child was a sight.”

“Oh I’ll turn her out myself!” the visitor cordially said.

“I shall like to see how!”— Mrs. Beale appeared much amused. “You must bring her to show me — we can manage that. Good-bye, little fright!” And her last word to Sir Claude was that she would keep him up to the mark.

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